Shadow of the Silk Road
by Colin Thubron
HarperCollins, 363 pp., $25.95
I could tell you a lot of potentially useful things about Colin Thubron’s latest travel memoir—for example, that he’s a gifted linguist, a dogged reporter, and an elegant writer. For a start, though, perhaps it’s enough to point out that his shoes fell apart in the course of his trip from China to Turkey. And no wonder. The journey covered a total of more than seven thousand miles and took eight months to make (briefly interrupted by a spate of fighting in Afghanistan). The book needs three overlapping maps to do the route justice. No trains, planes, or business-class hotels: for transportation Thubron relies strictly on crowded public buses, the occasional hired taxi, and, of course, his own feet, clothed in “ancient trainers” that have had it by the end of the road. As for me, I am thrilled to be his traveling companion, if only through the medium of text.
Once you consider these details you could hardly be blamed for asking why anyone would go to the trouble. One explanation might be that Thubron (who writes novels as well as accounts of his travels) is not very talented at sitting still. He has taken us on some amazing trips over the past forty years. In Mirror to Damascus he explored the maze of memory in a city still clinging to its erstwhile status as a capital of Islamic empire. In Among the Russians he roamed the Soviet Union with a gaze bracingly free of ideology or prejudice. In subsequent memoirs he escorted us through Jerusalem, over the hills of Cyprus, and along the Great Wall of China. In the 1990s he seized upon the improved access afforded by the collapse of communism to investigate the republics of formerly Soviet Central Asia (The Lost Heart of Asia) and the disillusioned Russian hinterland (In Siberia).
That’s a lot of wandering. Yet now, in hindsight, it turns out that all these chronicles have a unifying theme. Together they map out a picture of Eurasia as a single continent, home to diverse yet ultimately connected civilizations. Thubron has never really wandered from the track of his primary interest: no side trips to Africa or Latin America, Australia or the Arctic. Throughout his nonfiction he has persisted in exploring the same world island, exercising his Arabic, Russian, and Mandarin Chinese along the way.
His new book is the logical culmination of this effort. 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 and became, for millennia, the major artery for the exchange of goods and ideas between East and West. I can think of few other writers who would be in a position to write about the subject so well, and Thubron, moreover, had the good fortune to make his trip at a time when the story of the …