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VINE VOICEon 15 March 2009
This is the kind of literature of place you might believe had disappeared long ago. Out of Steppe relates a fscinating journey from Tehran to the Highlands of the Pakistani Frontier, by way of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. He is looking to preserve something in print of some of the peoples of those regions who may not survive much longer, either through emigration (the Kazakh Germans and Buhkhara Jews), eviction (the Sogdians of Takikistan) or religious assimilation - the Kalash of the North West Frontier. All well and good, and a very great cut above sailing across the Sahara with an elephant, or whatever supposedly hilarious trips we see so often presented as travel wrting.

What really sets Metcalfe apart is his learning,which, unlike some recent bestselling travel writers in the region (Rory Stewart, you know who I am talking about) he wears lightly and deploys very effectively. He is old school, but with a decidedly contemporary turn of phrase. There are not many Brits who speak Persian to the extent they can pass for Iranians. Those who can are unlikely to be able to speak Russian as well. We see these peoples unfiltered through translators or guides. What a poignant picture he paints. Are the Jews of Bukhara really on their last legs? The bucolic valleys of the austere Yagnobi may contain the very few last descendants of Alexanders old enemies the Sogdians. He paints a brief but very satisfying picture of the Hazara of Afghanistan, the custodians of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Perhaps saddest of all is the fate that may await the marvellous Kalash, the last of the pagans of Central Asia, already under threat from a somewhat aggressive Islam.

The one other complaint, certainly double edged, I have is that it left me wanting for more. Metcalfe conveys a sense of place better than any other young writer; with his clever deployment of history, literature and very occasionally his own personality he is strongly redolent of Thubron in his heyday.

It is highly questionable, with the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan growing daily, whether at least some of his journey could be done now. As things stand he has given the armchair traveller real hope that we have a new real travel writer on the scene.
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on 3 June 2009
As a keen traveller I often find travel writing irritating - who wants to read about someone else's smug adventures when you could experience it yourself? Out of Steppe is different - most of the places Metcalfe travels are too remote, too dangerous or frankly sound too bleak and miserable to be places you want to travel yourself. And yet... every page evokes the the magic and wonder (and sometimes mundane reality) of travel - the fascinating history you learn, the bizarre random encounters, the long bumpy journeys, the inevitable stomach problems... I strongly encourage you to read this book and dive into Central Asia... but be warned you may have packed your back-pack and bought a flight before you reach the end.
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on 25 May 2010
It's good to know Farsi and travel around Central Asia. People in a large belt of countries extending all the way to Afghanistan speak variants of the language, and if one can't get by with Farsi, why, Russian always helps. Our man Daniel Metcalfe is a traveller with a purpose and with the requisite skills, and it's no wonder that this book has the makings of an excellent account in little-known people.

Little-known to the West, of course. The people in these lands are all quite aware of each other, having traded and intermarried amongst themselves for centuries. They share not only language but also culture. But the six nations that Metcalfe wants to seek out are islands of separateness in this world. All of them find life a struggle in every way.

Metcalfe meets the Karakalpaks who live near the decimated Aral Sea. Once famous fishermen, they have been reduced to diseased subsistence by the utter environmental disaster that has befallen their land. They see no future for themselves. The Germans of Kazakhstan, forcibly settled there by Stalin, are the remnants of a proud people who had settled in Russia under the favour of Catherine the Great. They now find themselves isolated amongst the drug and alcohol-riven communities that surround them, neither fish nor fowl, neither true Germans nor yet Russians. Bukharan Jews are next on Metcalfe's agenda. Here another sort of disaster is going on - as the Jews die out, the diaspora comes in touristily, and find that all the gems of Jewish architecture are slowly rotting away, and the Uzbeks who own the properties now are more interested in presenting a Disneyfied concoction to the visitors, thereby adding to the cultural vandalism. The remaining Jews are insular, and it's only by pretending to be Jewish himself that he manages to insinuate himself into their lives.

The remaining three cultures are somewhat of an afterthought, I felt. The Sogdians of Turkmenistan and the Hazaras of Bamiyan are dealt with in pedestrian fashion, and the Kalashas of the Hindu Kush are probably treated better in other books (such as Alice Albinia's Empires of the Indus). Metcalfe can be commended for his zeal here, but the early parts of the book are much better than these.

Overall, an uneven tome with both high and low points.
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on 16 March 2009
What a tale - Metcalfe journeys through a land foreign to the west and brings to life the people of central asia with a vitality lost to most latter day travel writers. I couldn't recommend it more. Outstanding
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on 8 February 2013
Very well written. First thing that came across my mind, after finishing the last page, was to ask a quote from a travel agency.
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on 6 January 2016
This is the second copy, as the first became very well read.
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on 4 August 2009
and very good that he is. The travel writing niche is inundated with books every year and it is the style at the end which will win the readers and such is the case with Metcalfe's book. The idea of choosing the endangered peoples of Central Asia is an interesting move, though I would have appreciated a bit more on how it all came about. The very last endangered species he speaks about, in the person of the English school master in Pakistan, seems to suggest that the endangered specie par excellence are the old style English colonials that are wearing thin on the ground, and this, I suspect, is the germ of the whole idea.
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