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,1 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 present—he started in 2003—offered an intriguing foil to the past. Twenty years ago his adventure would have been unthinkable. Back then the Soviet and Chinese portions of the route were closed, while Afghanistan would have been off limits because of the jihad against the Soviet invaders. Now, marred only by the Taliban’s continuing guerrilla war, all the peoples along the path are opening up, with various degrees of eagerness, to each other and to the outside world.
So one reason for daring to tackle the Silk Road is simply that of opportunity: it’s open for business once again. The more persuasive rationale, of course, is that the history of the route—which, as the author rightly notes, is actually a “skein” of several alternate paths—remains seductive, mysterious, and in many respects drastically underappreciated. So we should be thankful for a fresh look at the remnants of an intricate economy that once knitted together a large chunk of the world—even when its farthest-flung parts had little direct knowledge of one another. (As he notes, even during the golden age of the caravans none of them ever completed the whole route: “No Romans strolled along the boulevards of Changan; no Chinese trader astonished the Palatine.”) The innovation of monotheism (Zoroastrianism and Christianity) migrated eastward, while paper, gunpowder, printing, and silk spread in the opposite direction. Especially silk. It was that luxury good, manufactured according to technologies long kept secret by the Chinese, that inflamed the imaginations of faraway customers who were willing to offer any number of pricey goods in return:
Silk did not go alone. The caravans that lumbered out of Changan—sometimes a thousand camels strong—went laden with iron and bronze, lacquer work and ceramics, and those returning from the west carried artefacts in glass, gold and silver, Indian spices and gems, woollen and linen fabrics, sometimes slaves, and the startling invention of chairs. A humble but momentous exchange began in fruits and flowers. From China westward went the orange and the apricot, mulberry, peach and rhubarb, with the first roses, camellias, peonies, azaleas, chrysanthemums. Out of Persia and Central Asia, travelling the other way, the vine and the fig tree took root in China, with flax, pomegranates, jasmine, dates, olives and a horde of vegetables and herbs.
Note especially that lovely notion of the “startling invention of chairs.” Trade, of course, is never just trade. Along with the goods went dreams, fashions, and philosophies. The resulting cultural collisions and meldings continue to amaze. In the Chinese city of Xian, at the start of his journey, Thubron encounters a mosque where Arabic inscriptions mingle with Mandarin. Near the tomb of the Yellow Emperor, a semimythological figure whose wife is said to have been the inventor of silk, he discovers a Syriac carving that documents “the Transmission of the Western Religion of Pure Light Through China,” topped by a cross.
On the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert, in the far western Chinese province of Xinjiang, he steps into caves filled with Buddhist wall paintings that incorporate Hindu angels and Taoist deities. In Iran, near the end of his journey, he discovers a place reputed to be the burial site of the Three Magi, who are said to have returned to the spot “under the protection of a Chinese princess” after welcoming the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. And when Thubron arrives in the ruins of Balkh, a city in present-day Afghanistan that once figured as a Silk Road metropolis, he can’t help but sum up the archaeologists’ finds:
A single trove unearthed near [the Kushan kings’] lost summer palace yielded Chinese lacquers, Egyptian bronzes and erotic Indian ivories, with a Parthian sphinx and a shoal of glass dolphins, a statue of Hercules and a bust of Mars. It was the rich and pliant Buddhism of the Kushans which travelled east along the Silk Road to China, and at last to Japan. Still bearing the Hellenistic print of Alexander, their artefacts were to astonish future archaeologists with Grecian Buddhas pulled from the Afghan earth, and acanthus leaves carved in a Chinese desert where none were known.
This diversity is not confined to artifacts. Pausing for a meal in an oasis town amid the Uighurs of Central Asia, Thubron reflects that the beliefs of these Turkic-speakers have moved, in the course of time, from nomadic paganism to “eclectic Manichean religion” to Buddhism and ultimately Islam. “Now they had become a living palimpsest of the Silk Road.” In the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, not far from a village still called Lenin, he hunts down a local mazar, one of the ostensibly Islamic Central Asian shrines that sometimes fail to conceal their indebtedness to shamanistic folk religion or Sufi heterodoxy. He meets a sixteen-year-old girl whose family has brought her there to pray for her cure from mental illness, and tours the site with an imam who extols the virtues of its magical plants and rocks. “‘You’re a Christian?’ The imam opened his palms. ‘They come here too. Everybody comes.’”
Along with wonderful encounters, there are plenty of potential traps here, too. There is an inherent exoticism to the gloriously jumbled heredity of these vanished cities and hybrid trouvailles, and ever since a German ethnographer coined the notion of the Seidenstrasse, or silk road, in the nineteenth century there has been an understandable tendency to seize upon these suggestive hints of tolerance, to transform the chaotic mingling of civilizations into a soothing parable of multiculturalism. The words “Silk Road” have become a sort of New Age shorthand, its brand cachet permeating everything from World Music concerts to vegetarian cookbooks. In some Western minds the notion of the old trade routes seems to have become conflated with the Hippie Trail of the 1960s and 1970s, when relative stability in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan still allowed minibuses filled with adventurers to ply the route from Istanbul to Nepal.
Our imagery of the Silk Road may be informed most powerfully, though, by entrepreneurial explorers like Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin, who rediscovered the area’s treasures in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, inspiring along the way a cartoonish narrative of gun-toting archaeologists lovingly exploited by, among others, Steven Spielberg in the “Indiana Jones” movies.2 Even today many of the key sites are so inaccessible that it’s easy to see how the effort of getting to them could shade into facile adventurism.
If you want to travel the modern-day Silk Road and live to tell the tale, then, it’s a good idea to be on your guard against certain temptations. You’ll need the gift of illuminating the achievements of the route’s ancient civilizations even while deflating the myths they so easily encourage. You’ll have to digest a huge, intimidating layer cake of history and cultural knowledge that encompasses the religion, economics, and art of long-dead societies as well as the subtleties and quirks of existing ones. You should succumb to the mystique of the artistic and historical fragments that remain while refusing to idealize the world from which they come. If you want to travel the whole way, moreover, you’ll need a certain toughness, a bracing insistence on getting the story no matter how adverse the conditions. Command of several of the relevant languages certainly won’t hurt. Be sure to stay on your guard, always ready to hold your own against curious customs officials or greedy cops. And above all, resist the urge to dismiss a messy present in favor of the traces of the past.
It is fortunate that Thubron’s itinerary leaves him plenty of room for arcane detours. One of his outings deep in the deserts of Xinjiang brings him to a site where the “dessicating sands and salts have yielded an astonishing people.” Looking down into dusty pits, he finds himself contemplating ranks of mummies, entire families perfectly preserved by the dry air for two millennia. Intriguingly, as he writes, “these corpses are not Mongoloid, but Western giants with blond and reddish hair, high-bridged noses and heavy beards.” In a museum in the nearby city of Kashgar he gets a closer look:
Except to hop over a turbulent part of Afghanistan.↩
Perhaps the best account of this period is Peter Hopkirk's Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia (University of Massachusetts Press, 1980). Its scope, unfortunately, does not encompass the illustrious Russians (like Pyotr Semyonov-Tienshansky) who participated in the undertaking as well—lovingly parodied by Vladimir Nabokov in his brilliant and underappreciated novel The Gift, which includes a luminous account of an imagined Central Asian expedition.↩
Except to hop over a turbulent part of Afghanistan.↩
Perhaps the best account of this period is Peter Hopkirk’s Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia (University of Massachusetts Press, 1980). Its scope, unfortunately, does not encompass the illustrious Russians (like Pyotr Semyonov-Tienshansky) who participated in the undertaking as well—lovingly parodied by Vladimir Nabokov in his brilliant and underappreciated novel The Gift, which includes a luminous account of an imagined Central Asian expedition.↩