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Shadow of the Silk Roadby Colin Thubron
Colin Thubron's Shadow of the Silk Road is a beautiful, important book; part travel writing, part sociology, part history, and part politics, it is hard to pin down to any one genre. But the book's warmth and genuine love for humanity and our civilizations, and ThubronÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s effusive, stellar prose make it a moving, intelligent work which is also very difficult to put down.
"It's impossible to cover the terrain that Thubron has without at some point confronting the legacy of the Silk Road, the network of ancient trade routes that linked the Greco-Roman world with Central Asia and China....I can think of few other writers who would be in a position to write about the subject so well..." Christian Caryl, The New York Review of Books (read the entire New York Review of Books review)
Synopses & Reviews
Shadow of the Silk Road records a journey along the greatest land route on earth. Out of the heart of China into the mountains of Central Asia, across northern Afghanistan and the plains of Iran and into Kurdish Turkey, Colin Thubron covers some seven thousand miles in eight months. Making his way by local bus, truck, car, donkey cart and camel, he travels from the tomb of the Yellow Emperor, the mythic progenitor of the Chinese people, to the ancient port of Antioch—in perhaps the most difficult and ambitious journey he has undertaken in forty years of travel.
The Silk Road is a huge network of arteries splitting and converging across the breadth of Asia. To travel it is to trace the passage not only of trade and armies but also of ideas, religions and inventions. But alongside this rich and astonishing past, Shadow of the Silk Road is also about Asia today: a continent of upheaval.
One of the trademarks of Colin Thubron's travel writing is the beauty of his prose; another is his gift for talking to people and getting them to talk to him. Shadow of the Silk Road encounters Islamic countries in many forms. It is about changes in China, transformed since the Cultural Revolution. It is about false nationalisms and the world's discontented margins, where the true boundaries are not political borders but the frontiers of tribe, ethnicity, language and religion. It is a magnificent and important account of an ancient world in modern ferment.
"In his latest absorbing travel epic, Thubron (In Siberia; Mirror to Damascus) follows the course — or at least the general drift — of the ancient network of trade routes that connected central China with the Mediterranean Coast, traversing along the way several former Soviet republics, war-torn Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. The author travels third-class all the way, in crowded, stifling railroad cars and rattle-trap buses and cars, staying at crummy inns or farmers' houses, subject to shakedowns by border guards and constant harassment — even quarantine — by health officials hunting the SARS virus. Physically, these often monotonously arid, hilly regions of Central Asia tend to go by in a swirl of dun-colored landscapes studded with Buddha shrines in varying states of repair or ruin, but Thubron's poetic eye still teases out gorgeous subtleties in the panorama. Certain themes also color his offbeat encounters with locals — most of them want to get the hell out of Central Asia — but again he susses out the infinite variety of ordinary misery. The conduit by which an entire continent exchanged its commodities, cultures and peoples — Thubron finds traces of Roman legionaries and mummies of Celtic tribesmen in western China — the Silk Road becomes for him an evocative metaphor for the mingling of experiences and influences that is the essence of travel. (July 3)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Between the fall of 2002 and the summer of the following year, much of Asia was in a state bordering on panic because of the rapid spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), also known as yellow pneumonia. Especially in China, where the incidence was highest, medical authorities clamped down on travel and otherwise sought to isolate the disease. It was, all in all, an excellent time to stay... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) at home — excellent, that is, for just about everyone except Colin Thubron, the intrepid, resourceful and immensely talented writer who has made a career out of going to out of the way places and then writing brilliantly about them. So of course Thubron went to China just as the SARS scare was peaking. 'The SARS virus had frozen travel,' but it hadn't frozen Thubron. He had it in mind to travel the ancient Silk Road, from Xian in central China to Antioch on the shore of the Mediterranean, and no marauding virus was about to stop him. Neither, for that matter, was advancing age. At the time, Thubron was well into his 60s, but apparently he was fit as the proverbial fiddle, since in the course of his adventure he met various physical challenges that I, a mere three months his junior and in not half-bad shape, can scarcely contemplate, much less undertake. Good for him. Obviously, he had an uncommonly interesting and rewarding time, and he has now written an uncommonly interesting and rewarding book about it. Though I can recall no mention of the vogue word 'globalization' in the course of this narrative, 'Shadow of the Silk Road' arrives just as the reality of a shrunken globe has become inescapable. It provides timely evidence of the pressures this phenomenon exerts and the instinct of human beings — especially those in remote places that only now are being touched by the modern world — to resist it, to hold on to their old ways. If on the one hand Thubron's journey was undertaken to see the legendary Silk Road and discover how much of it has survived over the many centuries, on the other hand he ended up writing a book that is largely about change. The Silk Road isn't really a road, but a chain of roads, paths and other means of passage that converge at some places, diverge at others, 'a shifting fretwork of arteries and veins, laid (from Xian) to the Mediterranean.' Depending on how you measure it, it is about 7,000 miles in overall length, though 'length' is an ambiguous term for something that meanders as unpredictably as this does, and it may well be 10,000 years old, though its origins are exceedingly difficult to pin down. People didn't set out from Rome with the purpose of venturing to Xian (or vice versa), because that wasn't the way the Silk Road worked: 'In eras of stability, when the great Han imperium reached across central Asia towards ancient Rome, or the Mongol empire laid down its unexpected peace, the Silk Road flourished. But even in these times the same caravans never completed the whole route. No Romans strolled along the boulevards of Changan; no Chinese trader astonished the Palatine. Rather their goods interchanged in an endless, complicated relay race, growing ever costlier as they acquired the patina of rarity and farness.' Why did Thubron decide to travel this strange, exotic, elusive passage? Well, he is by nature and occupation a traveler: 'You go to touch on human identities, to people an empty map. You have a notion that this is the world's heart. You go to encounter the protean shapes of faith. You go because you are still young and crave excitement, the crunch of your boots in the dust; you go because you are old and need to understand something before it's too late. You go to see what will happen.' In this specific case, Thubron went 'to follow a ghost,' a road that 'has officially vanished,' 'not a single way, but many: a web of choices. Mine stretches more than seven thousand miles, and is occasionally dangerous.' Thubron's trek began in Xian, went past the westernmost vestiges of the Great Wall, continued westward through mountains and deserts, then through (or skirting) Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Iran before ending in the famous old Turkish city of Antioch. It is not a journey that can be easily summarized in a brief review, but among the many themes that reverberate throughout, two are especially prominent: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of modern China. Readers who assume that the evils of Stalinism were known and feared in all corners of the communist empire may be astonished to learn that many of the people whom Thubron met in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, for example, miss and mourn that known world. A 'genial driver' complained to Thubron that 'in Soviet years (his) town had been wonderful, he remembered — the past growing rosier all the time — when people went to the cinema and theatre on full stomachs. But now the future had stopped, and the national barriers were up.' In another place, an old woman clung stubbornly to her Order of Lenin and read, for pleasure, 'Zhukov's war memoirs.' But nostalgia for the lost Russian past is dwarfed by the complex emotions aroused by the rising giant, China. Thubron found as much apprehension in China itself as in the smaller nations coming under its influence. An old friend, a university teacher of English, complained to him that English — the language of globalized commerce — was sweeping away China itself: 'He was staring out of his office window. "Already China's one big reconstruction site!" All along the river the white buildings were going up, each one topped by a crane. "The trouble is this," he said. "You can't relate Chinese life in English language. Because nothing really translates. Not culture, politics or even the everyday. The words don't fit. The concepts aren't there." He was writing a hefty article on this — it would make him enemies — in the university magazine called Silk Road. "The foundation of language is thought. How can we think in English?"' The 'sea-change that was transforming China,' in Thubron's view, was that 'all at once the future had grown more potent than the past. Change was rendering things obsolete. You could see this where high-rise apartment blocks barged into the old suburbs, bulldozing the clustered generations of the communal courtyard and banking up tiers of nuclear families in their place.' A man spoke to him about missing 'those old hutong courtyards,' but in the big cities those charming, neighborly places, if they remain at all, remain as tourist attractions that can be visited for a fee, places overshadowed by looming, ugly skyscrapers. The farther west Thubron traveled, the farther away China and its cities seemed — at times in the countries of central Asia he was in the Middle Ages, if not the Stone Age — but everywhere China's presence was known: sometimes welcomed, sometimes feared, an 800-pound gorilla that had shed its Mao suit and put on blue jeans but remained aggressive and domineering. To be sure, by the time he reached Afghanistan and Iran other problems commandeered center stage, but China remained what it had always been: the last stop for caravans headed east, the ultimate destination, now one of the strongest economic forces and political powers in the world. Thubron is British and very much in the rich tradition of British travel writers, from Sir Richard Burton to Bruce Chatwin with innumerable stops in between. He admits to fear, but almost nothing fazes him, though he did skip Afghanistan the first time around because an unpleasant war was in progress (he returned the following year to wrap up his journey). No challenge defeats him: He gets into sacred Muslim places closed to foreigners, scales improbable heights with nothing more than his own hands and feet, et cetera, et cetera. In addition, he is a scholar as well as a traveler and writer, with the result that 'Shadow of the Silk Road' is as much a history lesson as a contemporary adventure. All in all, a splendid book. Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj(at symbol)washpost.com." Reviewed by Elizabeth StroutKevin O'DonnellJabari AsimRon CharlesSarah L. CourteauJoel AgeeChrissie DickinsonRobert PinskyGary KristWendy GimbelJonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"An illuminating account of a breathtaking journey." George Cohen, Booklist
"[Thubron] understands the region well, and his writings are an important contribution to a West that hardly even knows the basic geography, let alone these cultures and sources of conflict." Library Journal
"Thubron has done it all, with sparkling grace." San Francisco Chronicle
"Thubron...overloads the reader's neurons and synapses with page after page of historical references...yet he has a cleric's knack for engaging the locals and extracting from them their true confessions — primary source information that is the hallmark of all great travel writing." Christian Science Monitor
"Shadow of the Silk Road is moving in a way that's rare in travel literature, sidestepping nostalgia even as it notes its pull." New York Times
"Thubron is a patient traveler, invariably finding someone with whom to converse, learning life stories and local legends. His accounts are brief but vivid." Boston Globe
Book News Annotation:
Thubron, a gifted writer with over a dozen books to his name, has written a vivid account of his journey, often under intimidatingly iffy circumstances, across the full length of the ancient Silk Road, from China to the Mediterranean. Rich in history, readers will be transported by stories of ancient empires and sobered by their present realities as witnessed by the indefatigable author. Annotation ©2007 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
To be traveling the Silk Road is to be traveling the history of the world: tracing the passage not just of trade and armies, but also of ideas, religions, and inventions. Thubrons chosen route passes through China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey.
About the Author
Colin Thubron was born in London in 1939. He left publishing to travel — mainly in Asia and North Africa, where he made documentary films which were shown on BBC and world television. Afterwards, he returned to the Middle East, and wrote five books on the Area. In 1984, the Book Marketing Council nominated him one of the twenty best contemporary writers on travel.
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