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:
His face is pale and fiercely aquiline. Long, reddish-brown hair tumbles about it, with a short beard, and sunbursts of yellow ochre cover his temples and Roman nose in an enigmatic half-mask. He stood almost six foot tall, and was buried with ten hats—including a beret and a cap with white felt horns—and the matted wool of his leggings has burst through his deerskin boots in dashing layers of scarlet and eggshell blue. At any moment, it seems, he may lurch up and give orders.
These are the Tocharians, a people whose origins have yet to be conclusively explained, but who probably emerged from Indo-European migrations out of the Siberian steppes sometime in the third millennium BC. Many of the mummies are clothed in “Celtic-looking tartans, others in witches’ hats.” Thubron writes that the local Uighurs, some of whom are engaged in a struggle to shield their own culture and language from encroachment by the Han Chinese who now rule them, have seized upon the light-haired mummies as ancestors, declaring one of them (naturally the most beautiful of the group) the “mother of the nation.” Thubron writes that, for the Uighurs, “the Tocharians seem to lend them an ancient right of possession.” The Chinese have their own investment in this peculiar past. The authorities in Beijing, mindful of the Uighurs’ subversive sentiments, have at times attempted to prevent closer scientific examination of the mummies out of the fear that genetic testing would confirm their Indo-European origins. In short, as Thubron points out,
The corpses are not at rest. Their outlandish preservation lifts them out of prehistory into the political present, more potent than a skeleton or a fragment of DNA. They wait like a solemn family. There seems something conditional about their postures—their knees tilted askew, their tentatively furled hands—as if one day they will get up and take their baby into the streets.
Thubron is not interested in celebrating the Tocharians as a basis for either side’s ethnic or historical claims. What intrigues him, to the contrary, is precisely the way these mysterious people’s autonomy resists the pretensions of the present. His imagery offers an added element—those mummies poised to stand up and quit the arena of the present day’s competing interests.
Politics is not the only way that we try to reorder history to fit our own priorities. Thubron is well aware that it is easy to idealize the past precisely because it usually can’t defend itself against the notions we hope to impose upon it. So, in a nice flourish, he conjures up an imaginary conversation partner who rises at choice moments to puncture his own poetic excesses. This interlocutor is a Sogdian, a representative of a now vanished people who once inhabited a Central Asian empire that profited mightily from its position as a prime intermediary along the route. That gives him a suitably unsentimental perspective. The Sogdian merchant asks:
So what is this fascination with foreign religions? Is it because you’ve lost your own?
At first I find no answer. It is about time passing. When you’re young, you don’t care. This is hard to think about. But now there are too many dead. Those you love take away a part of you, the self you were with them. So the Pure Land seems beautiful in its way, as if it were a place we once had, but was lost. You know this is foolish, but you imagine it with nostalgia, like something remembered….
He: Nostalgia for lies! The Pure Land is a lie.
It’s a useful conceit, this dialogue with lost time. There are, after all, plenty of occasions to become disillusioned with the tawdry realities of the present. These days, Thubron informs us, the starting point of the old Silk Road in Xian is occupied by a supermarket, “splashed with advertisements for credit cards,” and a few statues of camels on a nearby traffic island. The former British consulate in Kashgar, a legendary spot that once served as a listening post during the so-called “Great Game” between the British and Russian empires, has yielded to sleazy commercialism:
Now the old residence had been swamped by a thunderous new hotel, where Pakistani traders—come up on the Karakoram Highway to buy televisions or trade in tea—went back and forth in dazzling white, on holiday from puritanism, and drank alcohol and pursued the local girls.
Yet is any of this really so different from what was going on in the same place thousands of years ago? Traffic along the Silk Road was arguably the most powerful pre-modern forerunner of what we now clumsily call “globalization”—the collapse of distance thanks to the intensification of global communications and trade. Throughout the Chinese leg of his trip, for example, Thubron must contend with government officials who are struggling to contain the SARS epidemic, which broke out a few months earlier. Though he does not remark upon the parallel, this would not be the first time that a wide-ranging contagion has exploded into the world from the same environs. The bubonic plague, the famous Black Death of the Middle Ages, traveled from China to Europe via Silk Road caravans—except that its progress back then took centuries, rather than months, since the rats that transmitted the illness were moving at the speed of horses rather than cars and planes.3
Some of Thubron’s most intriguing encounters take place in Iran, where he repeatedly runs up against the ambiguities of the post-euphoric phase of the Islamic Revolution. The Iranians he meets are consistently of two minds about their place in the world, asserting their cultural uniqueness and their religious passion even as they express discontent, frustration, and outright rage with the ideological exhaustion of their government. They are at once fascinated by the non-Muslim world and repelled by it. One of Thubron’s most memorable acquaintances is nineteen-year-old Hamed:
His litany was familiar now: how the West was sucking away the purity of his country. How half the girls at his university were sleeping with men. Like the teacher in Tabriz, he was obsessed by women’s chastity. But this obsession, I began to realise, discoloured everything around him. When police passed us, he muttered: “They’re looking for boys and girls walking together. If they’re not brother and sister, they’ll take them away….”
Hamed was starting to fascinate me. He hated the West, but revelled in its trivia. His jargon betrayed a fixation with movies, and occasionally he broke into half-learnt pop songs. “Britney Spears is my favourite. You go to her website and you get everything. And Jennifer Lopez. Did you know she’s just insured her bum for two million dollars?
“‘How do I stay one night without you?
“‘What kind of life would that be?
“‘I need you in my arms….'”
Thubron’s book is too generous to have an identifiable moral, but it persistently sounds a note of profound skepticism toward any notions of culture or identity as fixed, reducible to an unchanging essence. As many of Thubron’s encounters along his route suggest, human beings seem to have an innate need for exchange—the urge to converse, to share experience, is rivaled only by the desire to swap goods. If you’re really paying attention as you travel the old trade routes today, you can’t help but notice that there’s little that’s really novel about what you’re seeing:
Then, alongside my disquiet, an excitement rises: it is the stir of things transforming, of peoples intermingling and transmuting one another. This, I recognise, is the merchant’s reality: everything convertible, kaleidoscopic. The purity of cultures, even the Chinese, becomes an illusion.
Farther down the trail we find him contemplating the caves of Dunhuang near Mongolia in China, the place where, in 1900, Aurel Stein uncovered a treasure trove of ancient manuscripts ranging from Buddhist religious tracts to legal documents to chance scribblings. The languages of these texts are Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Uighur, Sogdian, Khotanese, Turki, all written
in a melange of scripts: a letter in Judeao-Persian, a Parthian fragment in Manichean script, a Turkic tantric tract in the Uighur alphabet, even copies of the scriptures which the Nestorian priest Aloban brought to Changan.
The chamber where this wealth was once stored is empty today; Stein and other foreign archaeologists spirited away many of the manuscripts, to the enduring anger of their Chinese colleagues. Still, Thubron concludes, when you consider this legacy, “language and identity become as shifting as the sands.”
Having read several of Thubron’s previous travel memoirs, I was bemused to see that his modus operandi has remained surprisingly consistent. To say that he travels light is putting it very mildly indeed. He lugs his few tattered shirts in one weathered backpack (the same one, I suspect, that has gone along on all of his travels). He carries no camera. He doesn’t seem to have heard of credit cards, always relying on a hidden reservoir of good old-fashioned paper money; on this trip he keeps his stash “in a gutted bottle of mosquito repellent.” The only concession this time around is a satellite telephone, purchased (or more likely grudgingly borrowed) for the primary purpose of keeping in touch with someone back home.
Thubron may be a minimalist when it comes to logistics, but linguistically he is all zeal. His prose is at once plastic and precise, deftly conjuring an almost Elizabethan surfeit of effect: “Outside, feathers of snow were still falling. In the whitened sky the mountains left only the tracery of their stone, like stencils hung in nothing.” Or this, on the city of Antioch, the endpoint of his journey:
The jetty had sunk to smothered stones. I tried to imagine the traffic floating here: the luxuries grown magic with distance, the wheat and hides of the unrecorded poor, the whole intricate caravan of the world. The goods were myth-bearers. They carried their own stories, their own ironies. There was a rumoured trade in unicorns. The silted harbour was noiseless under my feet.
For all its lushness, though, this writing never lapses into self-indulgence. Thubron’s stinginess about material things also applies to his own authorial presence; this is not travel writing in the style of, say, Bruce Chatwin, always so eager to thrust himself into the forefront of the narrative. Thubron is endearingly willing to question his own motives, to rein himself in, to let even his most irritating interlocutors have their say. “With an outsider’s boorishness, I found myself probing his allegiances, as if identity were not a slippery, partial thing, but something whole and graspable.” Some writers are all too eager to smooth out the wrinkles in what people tell them. Thubron, instead, exults in the varying sediments of stories that have evolved through time, or in the baroque mistranslations that ensue whenever alien cultures interact.4
This sense of restraint derives in part from simple respect for the people he meets; but it also has its source in the palpable sense of resignation that lingers among Thubron’s celebrations of human inventiveness. Fascinated by the dreams of redemption embodied by the great religions, Thubron wistfully acknowledges his own faithlessness. His surprisingly ardent search for magical jade ends in wry failure: “There would be no flying, no immortality.” And just as the growing closeness of the world’s competing cultures sometimes melts away diversity, so too the forces of passing time, abetting the human capacity to forget, ceaselessly erode the achievements of the past. Thubron is aware that sometimes this leveling process is intentionally promoted by the powers-that-be, as when he spots a group of forced laborers under the supervision of Chinese guards:
When I approach, a soldier raises his arm and waves me away. It is the gesture of somebody wiping a pane of glass. It washes the air clear of anything I have witnessed. This does not exist, it says, this you will not remember.
Even with the best of wills there’s only so much you can do to stop the progress of oblivion: “Every few years, it seemed, the sand sucked down all surface things, and they were replaced by ever more faded wood and memory.” The investigation of another ancient place yields a particularly unnerving realization:
Suddenly I came on a heap of skeletons. Their skulls gleamed among scattered shin-bones and rib-cages. Bamboo was growing through their eye-sockets. Soon I was labouring up over a blackened litter of legs and arms and pates. My feet sent up spurts of anonymous dust. The entire slope, I realised, was man-made: I was ascending a hill of compacted corpses. At its summit a tower of baked brick had worn smooth and hollow. The hard grasses pierced its floor.
…So the place opened in my journey like a dark space, awaiting explanation, which never came.
Similar blanks abound along the route. At another site, so remote that it has been largely neglected by tourists and explorers, a local guide predicts that it will soon be lost forever: “‘The sand is coming in. Always. So you will be the last to see it. It will be gone.'” It would be hard to imagine the human condition without loss. But we can be thankful to Thubron’s artful telling for giving new life and relevance to the few precious shards we’ve managed to save.
December 20, 2007
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. ↩
Yale’s Nayan Chanda, who has written one of the most readable recent books about the history of globalization (including quite a lot about the Silk Road), points out that World Health Organization officials managed to contain the SARS outbreak in the space of a few months—compared to the century or so that it took to outrun the Black Death. So at least some things, he argues, must be changing for the better. See Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers, and Warriors Shaped Globalization (Yale University Press, 2007). ↩
“Just as the Romans, familiar with cotton, imagined that silk grew on trees, so the Chinese, deducing from the silkworm, imagined that cotton must emanate from an animal. So they dreamt up the ‘Vegetable Lamb,’ a creature which sprouted from the soil where it grazed secretly at night, and produced cotton-bearing young.” ↩