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5.0 out of 5 stars Shadow of the Silk Road, 3 Oct 2006
This review is from: Shadow of the Silk Road (Hardcover)
Esoteric history and contemporary hardship merge as the grandmaster of travel literature mesmerises with this wondrous account of his 7,000 mile journey along the route of the 'Silk Road', through China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey.

With the likes of affable everyman Michael Palin, undemanding bestseller Bill Bryson and promising first-time writers such as Daniel Kalder adding these days to the swelling ranks of travel literature, it is always a joy to be reminded of the unrivalled proficiency demonstrated by the old-school masters of the genre. Wilfred Thesiger and Bruce Chatwin are no longer with us, Paul Theroux seems now to have turned his hand to novels; the aging Eric Newby, I daresay, has had his day. But there remains an author who is still very much at the top of his game yet avoids the mediocrity of the mainstream.

In alternating every few years between a travel book and a novel, Colin Thubron, in his relative longevity, riveting choice of destination and theme, has proven himself to be not merely a superior travel writer, but perhaps the very best still left. Using the established device of fact-based present to frame and extrapolate historical and scholarly past, in Shadow of the Silk Road, his first travel book since 1999's In Siberia, Thubron has produced a magnificently multilayered and consistently fascinating piece of work.

History, archaeology and mythology are interspersed with accounts of encounter, simple meals, poverty and peasant life; off-the-cuff, revelatory chats with old friends, farmers and daydreamers, as Thubron wends his way from China to Turkey, posing as journalist, then historian, in explaining his presence to suspicious bureaucrats and wary locals. As borders merge and Thubron proffers his passport, thick with visas, to the drab officials, he ponders ideas, religion, movement of merchandise and conflict which all informed and ultimately disrupted the series of ancient trading routes through southern Asia, the Silk Road.

It is not an easy journey. On his way from Jiayuguan in North-West China he is quarantined in a SARS detention centre where he meets Dolkon, a village youth aware of the hard life he has inherited but who harbours dreams of university and women. Then in Kazakhstan, there is Nazira who offers the shelter of a yurt and more food for thought in her heartfelt brooding about life on the steppe. A lamb is loudly and bloodily slaughtered for the author as he makes his way through Uzbekistan; he enjoys the vodka-based hospitality of farmers and truck drivers lodging in a dilapidated steel container; drops into forgotten, dust-entombed museums, crooked side streets, darkening bazaars. He recalls Omar Khayyam, the Rubaiyat, as he gazes at his tomb in Nishapur, Iran.

From the tomb of the Yellow Emperor near Huangling, China, and Tamarlane's resting place in Samarkand, via a make-shift school in Harat, a rock-concert in Tehran to the decimated minarets of the Gawhar Shad mosque and the heights of Mount Sipylus in Turkey, Thubron explores a broad selection of nooks and crannies along his planned route, musing and probing as he goes.

This is no otiose exercise. Travel for Thubron is never initiated just for the sake of it; no ego is involved. He has a job to do, a responsibility to the reader. His journeys have an educational, irresistibly informative value; factual but also poignant and always surprising. One of the first stops on his trip is the Chinese city of Xian, which over the past 18 years has "suffered a hallucinatory change" in a similar way to many Russian cities since the fall of the Soviet Union. "The nine-mile circuit of its walls, which once seemed to enclose nothing, was bursting with reborn vigour, the massive gates funnelling in traffic which clogged the boulevard for miles," he comments as he walks around attempting to recall the place he once knew. "All that China wants to be Xian is becoming," his conclusion.

Opulent depiction and references en passant to long-dead poets and historians in the evocation of past and present is one of Thubron's assets as a travel writer. His precise diction and pellucid style never overburden idea or drive. Shimmering botanical expression and imaginative metaphor in which hills undulate like "frozen sand", mountains are "severed by stormcloud", cliffs "torn with symmetrical scars", all coalesce to form an integral whole of exploration and explication as the past is traced, present-day individual lifestyles elucidated.

A vein of melancholia runs through the book. In snatched chats with the author, the indigenous people dwell upon displaced lives, livelihoods and remember the days of the Soviet Union or of peace prior to conflict. Transition is always a motif in this part of the world and Thubron presents a balanced range: the old and confused who hark back to the stability of the Soviet or pre-Taliban period, then the younger, more entrepreneurial individuals who have seized fresh opportunities and are optimistically progressing with life.

Such encounters are handled with a rare sensitivity and patience as myriad attitudes and clashing lifestyles come together to form a tapestry as intriguing and colourful as the merchandise, the mishmash of cultures that would have been vital to the Silk Road thousands of years ago.

Sombre and serious as it may be, Shadow of the Silk Road is not without humour. The author "unsportingly" disconnects the phone in one hotel room to avoid persistent calls from prostitutes; the chart which lists costs of damaging fittings turns "vandalism into recreation". In China he is treated to a violent foot massage; during the pummelling he expresses surprise at how many toes he actually has.

Thubron himself, as in all his travel books, comes across as immensely likable; a sort of anonymous yet hardy and approachable observer - in many ways the ultimate traveller, celebrating in the pure, irrepressible excitement of discovery and revelation. He blends into the background as he gingerly makes his way along shaky causeways to concealed temples, slogs along vertiginous mountain paths, rides horses in Kazakhstan, sips tea chatting by yurts and sits uncomfortably in ramshackle buses, sometimes hoping that his pale if weathered skin will go unnoticed.

His is a modest, principled presence, down-to-earth and approachable, refreshingly free of vanity and seemingly unattached to the trappings of the modern world. He is never anything other than cordial and unassuming, only occasionally displaying anger when confronted with corrupt Kazakh officials. And this charisma lifts the book. Shadow of the Silk Road is not about Colin Thubron but still we are left wanting to know more.

We learn that he hides his hard currency in a used container of mosquito repellent - which remains undetected through innumerable border guard searches - and that despite his lack of a camera he does carry a satellite phone. But the focus here - and rightly so - remains on the richness and wonder of the journey itself.

Articulated in his mellifluous prose, Thubron's eye for detail and command of scope makes for an absorbing, complex read. Shadow of the Silk Road cannot be rushed; the beauty of the idiom should be savoured. Indeed, upon completing the book, I felt that I had done it little justice.

There is so much to relish here: from the engaging, diverse characters to the encapsulation of the vast, distended landscapes, the sand, the smog and the fog; the sense of unbridled history, complete and in the making. The pace never falters and for a challenging, lyrical and emotionally-charged model of travel literature - which in Thubron's hands manages to achieve much more - this is outstanding.

Highly, highly recommended.
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Initial post: 24 Feb 2011 10:26:08 GMT
Ex Grex says:
Wow, what a brilliant review!
Thanks Samogon for your input here. You are obviously a writer yourself, - and a skilled one at that. This is undoubtedly the best review I've ever read on Amazon, and I have read many hundreds to date. As one who enjoys good writing, not only will I buy a copy of this book now, I'll maybe look out for anything you yourself have written.
~ Glowing praise yes, but deservedly so!
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