For those who like in-depth accounts of epic journeys, this book is perfect. No Bryson of Palin-style humour here, rather a serious traveller of the old-school, who does it the hard way, pushing into remote, forbidding regions, taking risks in a way which suggests he has given up on life itself, Colin Thubron provides us with adventure by proxy, and draws us into his travels, making us feel we are catching glimpses of places no Westerner has visited before. It goes without saying that Thurbron writes well. This is literate travel writing which does not attempt to woo the reader with humour or pointless anecdotes. Every word is there for a purpose, and this is a book to be read slowly and savoured.
The journey is fascinating. Through northern China, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, then through Iran and into Turkey, we visit places which are definitely off the tourist trail. Thubron had to work hard to get past border posts and pushed his luck with renegade officials to a startling degree, in order to get into the heart of tribal lands, where the reader feels he will find it hard to leave in one piece. His descriptions of landscape are magnificent - we can feel the desolation of the Gobi desert, and he uses more adjectives to describe mountain ranges than I would have thought possible. We read of the time of change which has come to these lands, but frankly, this is nothing new for them, for Thubron tells us of their troubled pasts, with marauding armies constantly laying waste and altering boundaries until the rise of the next dispensation. The people he describes seem to have survived constant massacre and genocide, and yet retained their culture, their language and their physical characteristics.
I wondererd about the lack of photographs in the book, and then towards the end, when crossing a border, Thubron lets slip that it was easier because he did not carry a camera. While accepting that in some of the regions he visited, a camera would have resulted in his entry being blocked, I do feel that some photographs would have hepled fill in some of the inevitable gaps in the word pictures Thubron paints so readily. This is a small criticism however of what is an extremely high quality piece of travel writing, and which is definitely one I will not be recycling.