Traveler From an Antique Land

Shadow of the Silk Roadby By Colin ThubronHarperCollins. 363p $25.95
Imagine a trek across many lands--from Xian in central China through Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and finally Antakya (Antioch) on the Medite-rraneanby rattletrap buses, primitive trains, taxis, hired cars and trucks, one brief plane ride and endless hikes from scores of stopping points along the Silk Road, or whats left of it. For the travel writer Colin Thubron, the journeyrecounted in Shadow of the Silk Roadtook about eight months. He started in 2003, broke the trip during the fighting in northern Afghanistan (as we gather from references to the SARS pandemic and the future election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), then resumed a year later from the same spot.

But Thubron is elusive: Shadow of the Silk Road cites no dates except ancient ones; and we learn next to nothing about the authors private life or personal history (except that he owns a flat in London and makes one cellphone call in the entire trip to an unnamed female partner). He offers reams of references, some of them arcane, to history, archaeology, exotic literature and religion, but he never cites a source. He carries no camera and provides no pictures, though he (or his editor) does, thank heaven, supply four helpful maps to retrace his route.

Now in his 60s (he hints), Thubron is a gifted travel writer in the classic tradition of Charles Doughty, Sir Richard Burton, T. E. Lawrence and Robert Byron. He speaks passable Mandarin and better Russian (see his In Siberia); and he has done many years of legwork (having visited a number of the sites long before) and homework for this climactic traverse of over 7,000 miles. His book combines somber meditations over the cradles and graves of civilization, tales of chance encounters with an astonishingly varied, though not necessarily colorful, collection of strangers and postcards from places one can scarcely imagine. And all this in a style that is dense, allusive, painterly, rich and exquisitealas, often too rich and exquisite by half. This travel account is at once unforgettable and a bit irritating.

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The term Silk Road is, first of all, a phrase coined by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877 (Thubron carelessly calls him Friedrich and places him in the 19th century). It is not a single route, but a vast network that once bore traders, warriors, missionaries (Buddhist, Christian and Muslim) and explorers from west to east and back again. Its beginnings are unknownChinese silk dating back to 1500 B.C. has been found in tombs in Afghanistanand its gradual dissolution came in the 15th century with the breakup of the Mongol Empire. In its glory days (ca. 1250-1350) it was fancifully said that a virgin carrying a golden dish could walk undisturbed from China to Turkey.

This is a great subject, and Thubron does it justice. As if to disprove Paul Fussells melancholy dictum in Abroad (1980) that we dont have travel anymore, just tourism, Thubron describes what can only be called a series of excellent adventures, spending nights, for example, in monastery guest houses, Uighur hotels, caravanserais, Kyrgyz cabins and village houses or huts in the back of beyond (did he even once use a credit card?), climbing mountains, dodging crooked officials, following in the footsteps of a host of heroic travelers, from Alexander the Great to Marco Polo to Freya Stark, while hiding his dollars in an empty insect repellent bottle.

As a fair-skinned foreigner, Thubron naturally drew much attention and wound up having all kinds of bizarre, affecting conversations, which are the best thing in the book. Muslims try to convert him. Downtrodden women air their grief. Uighurs want to complain about persecution, cultural and otherwise, by the Chinese (a Chinese revisionist historian startlingly tells him, You know, in China we have no tradition of respect for human life. Its simply not in our past). Iranians rail against wretched misrule by the mullahs (though one man cheers the public execution of homosexuals). Azeris blast the Iranians. Thubron hears nothing about the Iraq war except curses on America and Englanduntil he runs into some Kurds. Only in Bukhara does he meet with some old acquaintances, an eccentric painter and his English-teacher wifethe closest thing to an intimate moment in the whole trip.

By and large, Thubron is more interested in the dead, or rather their tombs: the legendary Yellow Emperor in Huangling; Tamerlane the Great in Samarkand; Ismail, founder of the Assassins, in Mazinan, Iran (maybe); the Imam Reza in Meshed (where Thurbon sneaks into the sacred precincts); Omar Khayyam in Nishapur; even the Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran. The poetic possibilities of such monuments, as Percy B. Shelley showed in his poem Ozymandias, are limitless; and since so many of the graves belong to kings and other agents of cruel vanished empires, they serve both as a launching pad for snows-of-yesteryear laments and as a link to the presence of brutal contemporary empires spreading misery all over Asia.

Thubron is an absolute master of the plangent, wistful cadence (slowly the fields thinned and the hills turned to unclothed dust, as the wind sifted the dunes around the martyrs grave. Sometimes young women murmur here the tangle of their own hearts.) This is all fine, as far as it goes; but most readers will prefer Thubrons far fewer moments of grim emergencies (a four-hour anesthesia-free root-canal in Maragheh, Iran), or his comic fantasy on a warning sign at a hotel in Lanzhou, China:

This meticulous list turned vandalism into recreation. Wall-paper stains could cost you $5 per square foot, and carpet stains $10 (cleanable) $50 (serious). I could not help imagining some peasant bull in this flimsy china shop, pocketing a basin plug ($5) and defacing some pictures (I sympathised, $3-$8), then losing control and hanging on the luggage rack ($80), and breaking down the door ($120) before smashing the lavatory ($250) and surrendering to the police in the lobby.

Oh well. Armchair travelers are at the mercy of their guide; and, despite his purple passages and brooding obsession with ruins, Thubron is a more than capable one. Shadow of the Silk Road serves up lavish feasts of information (on the spectacular history of silk, for instance), casual insights (about the Chinese laughing Buddha versus the more austere and politically explosive Tibetan version) and sweeping historical vistas (how the DNA from Crassus defeated Roman legions lives on today in Chinese hamlets). Its a heady brewperhaps best consumed in tandem with Rory Stewarts The Places In Between(2006), a gritty, stripped-to-the-skin account of a hair-raising trek through Afghanistan. These Brits really know the territory.

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