FOLLOWING MARCO POLO'S SILK ROAD by Brian Lawrenson is a fast-paced travel essay recounting several trips by the author and his wife Jill to the areas of the Middle and Far East described by the 13th century Venetian merchant, Marco Polo, who himself spent 24 years on the road before writing-up his travelogue, Il Milione, with co-author Rustichello da Pisa.
Lawrenson's companionable account is discontinuous in both time and space. The first two-thirds records the 1986 passage the couple made going west to east from Venice to Lukla, Nepal via Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Iran, Pakistan, India and Tibet with a sidebar solo re-visit of Syria and Jordan by Brian in 2007. The last third begins with the pair arriving in Beijing in 2007, and from there traversing China's far western reaches, then south to Islamabad, Pakistan, with another sidebar, the couple's 2005 exploration of Uzbekistan.
The word "following" in the volume's title is perhaps benignly disingenuous. At best, what is presumed to have been Marco Polo's course is intersected by the Lawrensons' path at several points but not strictly followed. However, no matter. The author's descriptive powers serve the reader well and more than make up for any elastic subjectivity regarding the route.
Brian occasionally refers to the keeping of a daily diary, which apparently served as the basis for the narrative reconstruction; the book has that pace, i.e. a testimony of sequential arrivals and departures with local sights briefly touched upon in between. FOLLOWING MARCO POLO'S SILK ROAD is perhaps at its best when the author takes the time to slow down and smell the flowers, so to speak, such as when sharing the wonders of the Terracotta Warriors at Xian, or the difficulties flying out of the Lukla airport, or the camel ride out of Wadi Rum. Sporadically, I was slightly irritated that Lawrenson didn't display more of a journalistic approach to his experiences, such as when he writes (in Kashgar):
"We had a lazy day on Saturday and took a taxi over to John's Café for a late lunch. This chain of four cafes is found along the Silk Road. The restaurant was quiet and this gave us the opportunity to meet and talk to the founder, Mr. John. His first café was opened in 1986 and they offer not only food but a range of tourist services including cycle hire. Mr. John is quite a legend with the backpacker community."
Now, I'm fairly certain there's an interesting back story about Mr. John and his café chain if someone would take the time to tell it.
The Lawrensons are apparently avid travel photographers, as frequent mention is made in the text of taking snaps. Indeed, the five color photographs on the back of the book's cover are visually arresting. Most unfortunately, the volume contains no others. In fairness, the author does state that all film exposed during their 1986 trek was lost enroute. But, how about 2005 and 2007 in the digital age? However, it would be unfair to deduct too much when the norm of most travel memoirs is to preclude any photo section whatsoever. I suspect is has something to do with publishing costs.
FOLLOWING MARCO POLO'S SILK ROAD does include twelve adequately useful but very small-scale maps.
One conclusion I reached with certainty is that Brian is a very lucky man to have his wife Jill as his traveling companion. Some couples start squabbling on a 3-day weekend out of town, but the Lawrensons have managed to congenially travel the globe for decades, apparently. The two could probably write an entire book on the subject of getting along while under stress in faraway places. (One of the pair is probably a saint to put up with the other's foibles.) I wish Jill had been given more exposure in the narrative here.
For me, the ultimately successful travel essay causes me to want to sell all my possessions in order to wander to someplace I've never been, or, conversely, to make me determined to avoid a place at all costs. I can't truthfully say that FOLLOWING MARCO POLO'S SILK ROAD inspired me to either. Rather, the author's experiences acquired over so long a distance and shared in so relatively short a book left me thankful that I was able to grasp a corner of Brian's swiftly flying carpet and take at face value what he offered, which was, more oft than not, very good armchair entertainment.