on 13 June 2007
If your experience of travel writing is mainly the likes of Bill Bryson, Tony Hawks and Michael Palin, this is something totally different. Colin Thubron is almost intimidatingly intelligent and perceptive. He does not patronise the reader but assumes you are as intelligent as he is, and he wants to share what he is seeing and hearing. As he speaks many languages and seems to have the gift of picking up a little of each new language as he hears it, he has a lot to report, and he does so clearly and accurately (so far as I can tell). There are few, if any, of the "humourously colourful locals" found in other travel books, partly because I think Thubron respects people's dignity too much to laugh at them in this way. He is, perhaps, part of a previous generation of travel writers, which I do not consider a bad thing.
Like the best travel books you will learn about the geography and topography of the areas Thubron travels through, you will learn something about the locals he meets on his travels, and about the history of each place he visits as he passes through. One revelation for me (perhaps others were already aware) was that the silk route was seldom travelled from end to end; most merchants traded with the next towns in each direction. It was through a relay that goods passed from merchant to merchant, from Antioch to Beijing, and beyond in each case. Thus the Romans in the West had no idea of China, while the Chinese had no idea of the Roman empire. By the end of the book the reader will have some idea of both cultures, and those between. You will also have some idea of the people on the silk road today; they may not be what you expect from those countries.
A journey with Thubron through the medium of this book is a delight, but you will need to think at times. A journey at his side in reality might be stressfull because I would worry about falling short of his expectations of me. I would still sign up tomorrow.
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.
on 3 October 2006
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.
on 2 December 2007
At the time of this review, I am about 70% through the book, which may mean that my views are unimportant compared with the three people reporting before me. However, I think that anyone who reads this book is likely to experience the feelings that I express here. Firstly an immense admiration for the stamina and bravery of Colin Thubron for undertaking such a demanding journey, at a time of life when most people are taking care to not over-extend themselves. Secondly, a feeling of inadequacy, faced with Thubron's immense command of the history of the regions he visits; the upside of this, on the other hand, is my own vastly increased knowledge by following up the information in the book - for example the life and times of Tamerlane. Finally, and slightly critically, I feel that Thubron's much admired writing does suffer from "simile overload" when describing the environment. Overall though it is a pleasure to read a travel book which concentrates on revealing the peoples and countries through which the author passes rather than revealing himself.
This is an interesting account of Colin Thubron's overland journey from China to Turkey following the route of the ancient silk road, in which the author recounts his encounters with a wide variety of people who he met along the way as well as numerous historic sites, burial sites and places of worship. This is primarily a traveller's tale, which includes brief histories of the various peoples of the regions he travelled through.
This is very literary travel writing. The narrative is often quite dream like, indeed their are accounts of dreams as well as conversations with an imaginary, ancient other and there are no illustrations whatsoever to help the reader picture the scenes described. However, the overall impression is fairly compelling, and has prompted me to read more about the places described, and even, who knows, to visit some of them myself one day. I found the accounts of modern life in Iran to be particularly interesting and rather different to the image generated by our media. Thubron is clearly a brave man - he places himself in danger more than once in his determination to see things for himself, and the result is a book well worth reading
Colin Thubron's journey along the Silk Road (in 2003 and 2004) originated in Xian, at the tomb of the Yellow Emperor, passed through the mountains of Central Asia, across northern Afghanistan and the plains of Iran and ended at the ancient port of Antioch. His seven thousand mile journey involved eight months of travel, with travel in northern Afghanistan broken by fighting. That section of travel was under taken a year later, in the same season.
The Silk Road was the 19th century name given by the German geographer baron von Richthofen to an extensive network of routes which converge and diverge as they cross the breadth of Asia. Travelling the route traces the past (the journeys of armies, trade, ideas, inventions and religions), and gives an eyewitness account of the present (through the lives and times of some of those who currently inhabit these regions).
Colin Thubron writes that: `Yet to follow the Silk Road is to follow a ghost. It flows through the heart of Asia, but it has officially vanished, leaving behind it the pattern of its restlessness: counterfeit borders, unmapped peoples. The road forks and wanders wherever you are. It is not a single way, but many: a web of choices.'
Three things in particular make this book stand out for me: the beautiful prose makes it a pleasure to read; the interactions with locals make these remote and sometimes turbulent regions come to life, and the absence of photographs means that the reader has to create his or her own images from the words. A picture may well be worth a thousand words usually, but not in this case. The maps provide outline, the words provide context and content.
`In the dawn the land is empty.'
Following the Silk Road takes Colin Thubron (and the reader) through a China, changed markedly in the six thousand years since silk cultivation began and particularly rapidly transforming since 1949. Starting from the tomb of the Yellow Emperor, the legendary ancestor of the Chinese nation, we are reminded of the Chinese innovations that travelled westward, including silk, paper, stirrups, spinning wheels and gunpowder.
Three things, according to the 17th century English philosopher Francis Bacon, created Renaissance Europe. Those three things were printing, gunpowder and the magnetic compass. Each of these were invented in China and reached Europe along the Silk Road. But the travel was not one way: chariots, glassware, amber, chairs and Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity and Islam are some of the items and beliefs that travelled eastward.
Travel through the region of the Silk Road is a reminder that political borders can dissect tribal, ethnic, cultural, religious, and language ties and create contentious national boundaries. It's a fascinating journey: Colin Thubron is able to use his language skills (in English, Mandarin and Russian) to communicate with many of those he meets as he travels: some old friends and some new acquaintances.
The book provides a well-presented combination of the past and the present. The land he passes through is a contrast between spectacular beauty and ravaged desolation; many of the people he meets have their own thoughts about their heritage and origins, and about the future.
`Light dawned over another land.'
on 20 February 2016
As an aside, this book is useful for playing certain medieval games, actually. Who doesn't adore the long fascinating history of Samarqand or Marv or Khiva or any one of many cities and regions so steeped in customs with roots set in the old Tengri and Zoroastrian epochs and the spiderwb network of trade hubs and big goofy fat camels?
I surely do. I love immersion in my gaming and this one dealt it out in spades.
on 6 March 2016
This is an absorbing book written in a languid prose style. Thubron mixes extensive historical knowledge, travelogue and poetic description, seamlessly moving from one to another. This can be somewhat irritating at times but most frustrating of all was that, although first published in 2006, we nowhere find when this fantastic journey took place. We are told it was undertaken in two phases and probably sometime shortly before 2006 but not exactly when. Nevertheless, a most instructive and enjoyable read.
on 21 May 2016
From Xian to the Mediterranean in the company of a perceptive and informed guide.
Samarkand and all the rest.
A welcome alternative to the usual view of history bequeathed to us by the all too recent western European hegemony.
My favourite part was his exploration of a ruined assassin castle still blackened by the flames of Genghis Khan's army.
on 18 March 2009
This is an excellent book. All Colin Thubron's books are excellent. However, I found his obsession with finding obscure burial grounds and areas of former worship a little wearing after a while.
Having travelled some of the Silk Road, I was a little surprised to find that there were not more descriptions of some of the towns and cities, and their inhabitants, along the route.
Still, this is a personal - and therefore - subjective opinion, and overall the book is a very good read.