An Evocative Journey Through
One of Humankind’s Most Storied Routes
John R. Guthrie
British travel writer Colin Thubron traveled a route that approximated the old Silk Road, that ancient network of commerce and culture from Xian in Central China following the sun to the west, traversing Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, across the shifting banks of the historic Oxus River into Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and on to Antioch, Greece.
It’s difficult to imagine a travel writer possessed of lovelier prose than that of Colin Thubron. In justifying his long and formidable journey, the 65-year-old Thubron writes:
"A hundred reasons clamour for your going. You go to touch on human identities, to people an empty map. You have a notion that this is the world’s heart. You go to encounter protean shapes of faith. You go because you are still young and crave excitement, the crunch of your boots in the dust; you go because you are old and need to understand something before it is too late. You go to see what will happen [2-3]."
During his journey Thubron used commonplace lodging and conveyance; decrepit inns, hot and noisy passenger trains as well as dilapidated autos and buses, the sort of accommodations that would be used by ordinary people in the long list of challenging and sometimes dangerous locales. (The trip was interrupted by the war in Afghanistan).
He derives his travel by rail to Samarkand, one of the Earth's most ancient cities as, “like a refugee camp on the move. Stacked on our bare bunks above aisles of cigarette-ash and sunflower seeds, our picnics stanching the air with mutton fat and onions, we edged west for sixteen hours across the constricted valley .”
In addition to external dangers, health issues can be of great concern for such a traveler. Thubron stumbled onto the platform of the Iranian town of Maragheh, ill from a dental abscess. He found a dentist and endured a four hour root canal procedure without anesthesia. Early on in this trip and outbreak of SARS forced him into a brief period of quarantine in China.
As well as being a hardy soul, Thubron brings a unique knowledge of the history and traditions of the places and people he visited, telling of custom and traditions and those:
“Chinese inventions which percolated along the ancient road—printing and gunpowder, lock-gates and drive-belts, the mechanical clock, the spinning-wheel and equine harness that transformed agriculture – flourished behind the Great Wall for centuries before emerging phoenix-like in the West. And the knowledge of other prodigies – iron-chain suspension bridges, deep drilling techniques (the Chinese were boring for brine and gas at two thousand feet in the second century BC) – took over a thousand years to travel .
He traversed Northern China’s Taklamakan Desert in Northwest China), (the name translates to “If you go in you won’t come out.”). This great and restless sea of sand is crossed at its northern and southern edges by branches of the Silk Road. It is characterized as “the most dangerous dessert on earth .” such that “…black hurricanes, the kara-buran could lift up whole sand dunes and had buried caravans without trace .”
Thubron reveals such phenomena as the intricacies of sericulture involving the curious symbiosis of Bombyx mori, the silk worm, white mulberry (Morus alba), and a variety of Homo sapiens, who make their living by silk production. He writes of remnants of Roman legionaries in Western China and of mummies of Celtic tribesmen as well.
While Thubron’s erudition is impressive and informative, perhaps more importantly, he displays the ability to reveal the human qualities in people from profoundly differing cultures, and to strike up a conversation with perfect strangers. In Iran he encounters a grocer in his small shop. The man tells of how he was an Iranian Air Force officer under the Shah Pahlavi. “Life was good then .” Then, deposed from the air force for political reasons, his life became much harder. But whatever difficulties he faces, he finds consolation in the presence of his wife, noting, endearingly enough, “She is my dear friend. When I go home tonight, I know she will be there. That is a wonderful thing, to have a friend .”
In walking the streets of Afghanistan’s Herat, Thubron falls into conversation with a resident who explains how “…the Taliban did good things, they kept things clean. Nobody loved them here because they were stupid and illiterate. They left us with no pleasures. But they dealt with the adulterers and homosexuals and thieves .” They dealt with them, of course, by killing them in brutal and agonizing ways, the exception being the thief whose hand was cut off. In the case of two homosexuals, they were bought in, hands bound, and laid beside a wall built for the purpose, The wall was then toppled over onto them as “People clapped and shouted,” the local resident said. “Yes, kill them! Kill them! Allah akbar! .” The conversation includes the observation that if a married woman were seen sitting and speaking with a male not her husband, “then they’d be stoned to death .” “The Taliban,” Thubron explains, “were raised in the Deobandi Madrasahs of Pakistan, and separated as boys from all women, grew up to despise and fear them .”
Thubron began his journey in the year that the United States invaded Iraq. Still, however, he continued his journey and was treated with courtesy and generosity even by those who took exception to our war in Iraq.
A book this well written could benefit from higher quality maps than the four black and white line drawing charts that are included. The book could also benefit from a glossary for terms such as, “Sogdian” which are likely to be unfamiliar to many readers.
The Silk Road provides much more than a mere travelogue. It is a brilliantly produced metaphor for the ebb and flow of human industry and culture between much of Asia and Europe.
Colin Thubron has authored eight previous nonfiction books and seven works of fiction.
Shadow of the Silk Road
by Colin Thubron
New York: HarperCollins, 2007.
This review refers to the hardcover edition.
Dr. John R. Guthrie practiced family medicine in the Smokey Mountain foothills of Appalachia for years. As an adolescent he was a U.S. Marine infantry rifleman and later served as a physician in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He lives in Southern California and is a writer and social activist.
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