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The Silk Road was the 2,000-year-old route used for trade between vastly different cultures of ancient China and ancient Rome and all points in between. It was never one simple road, more a knot of roads, with the traders taking side routes based on the markets or on the weather. Of course, it does not exist now, but in _Shadow of the Silk Road_ (Chatto and Windus), British author Colin Thubron relates his trace of the route. Thubron has written many books before of his wanderings in Russia, Siberia, and China, and this one is beautifully written, with descriptions of sites that few other tourists are going ever to see and encounters with people like Hunan traders, Uzbek prostitutes, or Buddhist monks. The significance of the Silk Road is merely historical, but many of the regions through which Thubron travels, despite their generally blighted aspects, are important within today's headlines. Thubron started his 7,000-mile travels in 2003, the year that America and Britain invaded Iraq, and indeed he had to take a break because of fighting in Afghanistan. He had to resume his journey the next year. It is impossible to say how representative his "man-on-the-street" conversations are, taking individuals from once-great societies who have been subject to wrenching change especially in the last few decades, but he is generally treated genially, often generously, even by those who object to his nation's endeavors in Iraq.

The Silk Road gets its name from the most frequent and exotic of goods traded on it east-to-west, though the term comes from historians looking at the trade from the vantage of the nineteenth century. The history of the route is enticing and glamorous, perhaps more so for our viewing it from such a distant time. The route now goes among peoples who have changed completely, many of them losing heritage and status. An outbreak of SARS, which complicated Thubron's journey and even wound him up in a mockery of quarantine, makes a threatening shadow over the initial parts of the book set in China. The feeling of abandonment runs throughout the lands here. In Afghanistan, he hears among the complaints from the Hazara people, "Now we have no school, no road, no clinic... The government does nothing. We fought in the jihad against the Russians, but..." or "The Taliban killed my cows!" Thubron remarks, "They were not pleading, but angry: angry at their exclusion, as if the Taliban's branding of them as separate and inferior were being reiterated in calmer times. 'Write about us,' they said." There are conversations with a hermit-like shepherdess, an escapee from Iranian military service, an over-affectionate drunk, and more.

Marco Polo brought back tales from these regions for his time, and Thubron has done so for ours. He is patient in trying to understand individuals or cultures. He is irreverent when the culture has gone amiss, but properly reverent as he visits archeological sites, mosques, or the tomb of Omar Khayyám in Nishapur (where he shows just how much Edward Fitzgerald put into his translation of _The Rubáiyát_, the "Moving Finger Writes" passage). He has plenty of erudition and knowledge of history, but also an appealing humility and self-doubt when confronting those of a foreign culture. He is as good at describing minor horrors, like the replacement of gold and silk bazaars in Samarkand by booths that sell DVDs, as he is at optimistic displays like the rock concert of young people in Teheran who are bored by the ayatollahs. It is amazing that in his sixties he made such a trip, but he obviously loves the endeavor. Near the beginning of the book, he tells why, and it is an example of his poetic and clear writing: "A hundred reasons clamour for your going... 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 is too late. You go to see what will happen."
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on July 13, 2007
I traveled the same roads, and shared many of the same experiences, but I was there in search of specific historical events. The sights, sounds, smells were pushed aside and not allowed to register and interfere with my 'priorities'. I missed so much and this is why I wanted to read this book and see the journey through the eyes of another traveler.

I could not speak much about personal memories. I wanted to but I have never known how I would describe a Tibetan waif in Katmandu or shepherds along the KKH (Karokarum Highway). And if I could, I could not have done so as eloquently as Colin Thubron. I had to read this book to see through his eyes what I may have missed, and he made me realize that I missed a lot. Or is it simply that he is such a masterful writer?

Seeing it all again through his eyes has been a deeply beautiful experience for me, full of nostalgia. I found myself gazing wistfully off the pages and back to yesterday's horizons with an undescribable longing.
He captured it all beautifully and probably just in time because it is changing at lightning speed.

Kudos, my fellow traveler, kudos for the joy and understanding your picture words bring to us all.

Suzanne Olsson
New York
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on January 25, 2008
I bought this book hoping to get a good idea of what the people and places are like along The Silk Road. This book has some very interesting interviews with people along the way, but after a while, it these become less frequent and the book is more about "I came here and saw this. It looked like this. It made me feel like this, then I left and went here." I could have bought another book with pictures of the Silk Road and been better off in this regard. To me, the best part of the book was what he learned talking to people. Unfortunately, that makes up only a small part of his journey.
Not a bad book, and I don't have regrets buying it, but I did start to look forward to finishing it so I could move on to the next one.
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VINE VOICEon August 10, 2007
Colin Thubron's beautiful prose details his journey through modern Asia along the ancient Silk Road from China to the Mediterranean. He passes through China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey and describes the history, cultures and people along the way.

Thubron is, in my opinion, the most elegant living travel writer in the English language. His previous books include several like (The Lost Heart of Asia), that overlap this same area recounting travels in this area over the last 30 years.

The Silk Road is the trading corridor that went from China to the Mediterranean. Silk was one of the main products traded and gave its name to this road system. Other accounts include Marco Polo (highly recommended before reading this book), the Muslim traveller Ibn BattutaThe Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century, Robert Byron's travels The Road to Oxiana and several others whose accounts I found less penetrating.

Importantly, Thubron travels alone - a necessity for good travel writing because those who travel in groups inevitably turn to commentary on their pathetic companions rather than the country through which they are travelling. These accounts like "A Walk in the Woods" A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (Official Guides to the Appalachian Trail) can be entertaining but they usually aren't very insightful. So if you're looking for humor, this book is not what you are looking for.

Thubron speaks some Chinese and Russian and must have an encyclopedic knowledge of the ancient and modern history of Central Asia. One of the great strengths of the book is that the author has studied and travelled in this region for decades.

He starts with Western China. The Chinese people that Thubron meets with would rather forget the recent past dominated by the world's greatest mass murderer, Mao. However, Mao's legacy lives on in the strict military control of the country. China is the poster-child for environmental pillage by third world countries seeking industrialization. You can't help but be depressed. The ruined civilizations buried by desert in Western China should give sufficient pause to the Communist Chinese but there is no sign of moderation. Thubron brushes by the northern reaches of Tibet enough to note that Tibet is in its dying stages as Communist suppression and Chinese immigration wipe out the cultural remnants.

Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are more fascinating to me because the government is less oppressive and the area is less well-known to me. The history of these countries goes back thousands of years rather than hundreds. The ruined cities still have life near them in modern slap-dash cities that have sprung up since the ancient cities were destroyed by various conquerors - mostly Mongols.

Afghanistan seems to be one of the most hopeful areas of the journey even though Thubron is there soon after the Taliban is defeated. Iran reminds me of China in that the populace is not really interested in politics and would rather not be subject to ego-maniacal dictators. The last few countries like Iran, Syria and Turkey are not covered in the same depth probably because the author isn't as fluent in Turkish, Arabic and Farsi.

One underlying theme is the distrust of the West seen throughout his journey. Western culture has triumphed completely, but unfortunately all the culture is the worst culture. Pop culture, pornography, sexual license, drugs and materialism are rampant but the more important political foundations of the West - liberty, individualism, Christianity, and constitutional government - are nowhere to be found. If you have ever spent time in a 3rd world country listening to the myths and nonsense that is fervently believed by the native population, you won't be surprised to find that Thubron finds the same. Depressingly, there seems to be very little chance of East understanding West in the near future if the comments of the people Thubron visits are representative.

The only 2 quibbles I have with the book is that the maps could have been clearer and a bibliography would have been helpful.

So 4 stars for the best travel book I've read this year.
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on February 17, 2013
Colin Thubron paints a colorful picture of his travels, but I can't escape the thought that his reported conversations in China are largely fabricated. He says he traveled alone, without a translator. Thubron describes his Mandarin as "half-forgotten" (p. 158). From reading Thubron's "Behind the Wall" book, I remember him saying that he studied Mandarin for a year in Taiwan. Also, the Uyghurs of NW China are a Turkic minority people who have their own Turkic language, and Thubron gives no indication that he's ever studied it.
Yet, his limited language ability does not stand in the way of him having deep conversations with countryside Uyghurs (e.g., a middle-aged, female camel-driver and an old taxi-driver) on a host of topics. Neither Chinese nor Uyghurs freely jump into sensitive conversation topics with strangers. Yet, they freely open up to this Brit about the Chinese Communist party, ethnic tensions, the state of Islam among the Uyghurs, SARS, prostitution and their own personal secrets (like the female camel-driver's breast cancer). This just does not happen. People don't open up to strangers about topics like these (especially to strangers who don't speak their languages well). Even if they had, he wouldn't have been able to understand them unless he himself had good language skills. And don't tell me he ran into English-speakers in these remote places.
I reached the same conclusion reading Thubron's "Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China", where every time he turns around, Chinese people want to share a story with him about their own experiences in the Cultural Revolution. In my 10+ years of living in China, I had perhaps 2 conversations about this dark period in China's history. People just don't want to talk about it. But, they were dying to open up to Colin, after his one year of Mandarin study in Taiwan. It would never happen.
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on March 8, 2008
Barren landscapes, indigenous people desperate to leave; temples and monuments crumbling in ruin and the author covers it all in three hundred and forty four pages of barren text leaving the reader desperate to leave the book. Traveling the Silk Road could have been a fascinating adventure but this book offers no insight, portrays no curiousity as to why things are they way they are and if you can make it to the end of the journey you have endured!There are numerous better sources of first hand accounts of adventure travel in these regions. It is simply too hard to find kind words, a compliment, or a recommendation for this book.
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on April 28, 2013
Colin Thubron is one of my all time favourite travel writers. I simply devoured his previous books, notably "In Siberia" and "The Lost Heart of Asia". So I have been reflecting on why I struggled so much with this one. The main reason it seems to me is that Thubron tried to cover too much and his editors didn't give him enough space to fill in the details. The result seems rushed, leaving the reader struggling to absorb the significance of each encounter and anecdote. In trying to make sense of the bewildering geopolitical landscape he traverses, it was my decade old memory of his earlier writings that helped me understand some of the context. Finally, much of what he focused on was pretty arcane such as trying to identify descendants of former Roman colonists or early Christian sects. This book seems better suited to the lucky individual who has been and seen the Silk Road, rather than the armchair traveller.
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on December 31, 2007
Once again, I travel the Silk Road but this time as an armchair traveler. Thubron has created a literary landscape that makes my sedentary journey as colorful and captivating as my travels in 1993.

Thubron's account of the Silk Road is a literary treasure. Throughout his narrative I found myself caught somewhere between being captivated by his perceptive observations, which were seldom judgemental yet always intensely personal and enthralled by his pictorial prose, laden with metaphor and similie.

What makes Thubron's book different from other travel writings is the mystery that is conveyed. Other writers describe what can be seen, Thubron gives us a picture of what no longer exists; the unseen. So much of the Silk Road lays in ruins or lies buried. So many obscure civilizations were brutally leveled with few, if any remnants remaining. Thubron resurrects the conquerers who obliterated the once bustling metropolises: Qin Shi, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, and Hasan-i-Sabah. He makes them accountable, not for what remains but what they destroyed and took away. Then he explores what might have been with the rationale of an historian and geographer. The Silk Road transcends from a geographical route and is vividly portrayed as a sequence of historical occurrences that stretch for centuries across a continent.

The weakness of the book is the maps. They are not always accurate: ie. Pakistan's border with China has been replaced with Afghanistan.
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VINE VOICEon August 29, 2007
Will be liked by those who enjoy reading about hard-travel experiences. Colin Thubron has a keen ear for dialogue and an expressive pen. Informative on a number of issues from the art of silk making to China's on-going eastern movements.

I do think the author's writing sometimes strays into overly ornate descriptions of the scenery on his lengthy journey across China to Antioch. An example: "Where the Jumgal valley met the massif of Sussmayer, a painted wall of mountain rose. The cliffs were torn with symmetrical scars, as if by some monstrous animal, and fell to the track in violent slabs of black and apricot. Sometimes its scree was pure coal." Also, the author has an odd writer's tic, in that he uses the word "mist" in some form at least fifteen times (...the villages were misted in pear blossom/...the horizon leveled to a dove-grey mist, etc.)

A person of the rational Enlightenment will find depressing the darkness of mind still prevalent in much of the Arab/Persian part of the ancient Silk Road, where living in the far past seems to be the unfortunate standard.
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on July 2, 2008
Thubron undertakes a spiritual and physical quest along the once commercial highway of the Silk Road that ran from China across Central Asia to Iran and Turkey. Along the three-part journey, he plunges with the reader into the territory's history, archeology, mythology, religions, and introduces the reader to the genetically blended peoples whose physical and genetic characteristics defy labels and boundaries. We uncover artifacts like beautifully glinting faience or tile on the quest to seek out clues to what has gone before. In this trip of discovery, Thubron determinedly scales sheer cliffs with his fingernails, treads through villages and across rivulets to recover evidence of past civilizations in murals, tiles, minarets, chiseled-out caves, and more. He risks life and limb brushing against the SARS epidemic in China and passing through the territory ruled by thieves and unscrupulous guards in Afghanistan and in the Oxus. His good fortune is bolstered by his experience with local languages and with the region from a trip made twelve years ago during Soviet control and by his historical, political, religious, and mythological knowledge. The reader is given many facts and surprises, such as the longest epic's being the MANAS rather than the ODYSSEY. As he traverses the road, he tells the reader about the cities then and now and about conversations with their residents. An interesting story is his visit to a Moslem shrine during a crowded holiday. Such a proscribed visit by a non-Moslem requires escaping detection as the crowds press him forward; unexpectedly he is tugged gently along as a guest (pp 264-67, 270-72). Another good story is set in Tehran where he interviews an artsy youth with a film (pp. 284-93). Another is in Maragheh, where the draining of an inflamed abscess is a four-hour doubtful ordeal with dentists who do not speak his languages. Not least is the story of his surpise visit to an English language college in Tabriz where its female students ask questions of him and practice English. Not only does the author bring the Silk Road to light for the reader, a busy network bearing silk, printing, goods and ideas between the Pacific and the Mediterranean, he is also relating life along the Silk Road today, as these places might not receive many tourists. So, this travel memoir is both memorable and necessary.
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