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Ancient Glories, Modern Woes
on December 14, 2006
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."