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204 of 211 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ancient Glories, Modern Woes
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),...
Published on December 14, 2006 by R. Hardy

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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, but not great
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...
Published on January 25, 2008 by TWP


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204 of 211 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ancient Glories, Modern Woes, 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."
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89 of 102 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nostalgic and awesomely accurate, 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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67 of 79 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Elegant prose recounts modern journey along ancient silk road, August 10, 2007
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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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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, but not great, 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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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Woven Wind, August 29, 2007
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Christian Schlect (Yakima, Washington/USA) - See all my reviews
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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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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Colin Thubron is delusional, or a liar, 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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33 of 42 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Slogging along in the Shadows of the Silk Road, 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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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Blood Stained Road, December 31, 2007
By 
Tony Theil (Philadelphia, PA United States) - See all my reviews
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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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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thubron - a master of the travel essayist's craft, October 8, 2009
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"I feel like a stray animal. The face in the mirror belongs somewhere else. For a sad instant I mistake it for my father's. But it seems startlingly solid now: not the refinement of eyes and ears I had imagined on my journey. I see features harsher than mine, or his. A wind-tan has darkened them since China. The eyes are hung with tired crescents. One tooth is chipped, so that smiling is a qualified event. And my fingernails are still jagged from climbing Maimundiz. As I fall asleep between white sheets, I feel surprised that anyone ever talked to me, belatedly grateful." - Author Colin Thubron at the western terminus of the Silk Road

For the imaginative and adventurous mired in the daily drudge, travel essays can provide escape. They've always been my great diversion, leading me to places I shall never see. And travel essays range from the moronically superficial (The Ridiculous Race by Steve Hely and Vali Chandrasekaran) to the humorously informative (anything by Iowa's treasure, Bill Bryson, e.g. Notes from a Small Island) to the cleverly unusual (Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast (Radio 4 Book of the Week) by Charlie Connelly) to the classic. SHADOW OF THE SILK ROAD certainly qualifies in the last category.

Here, Thubron retraces the ancient trading route, the Silk Road, roughly 7,000 miles from Xian in central China west across that country's vastness on a path between the mountains of Tibet and the deserts to the north to Kyrgyzstan, then through Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey, finishing at the ancient, ruined port of Seleucia Pierea on the Mediterranean.

Thubron has traveled this road before in The Silk Road: Beyond the Celestial Kingdom and The Lost Heart of Asia (P.S.). Colin takes this latest journey in the years 2003-2004. His love for the lands he traverses - more specifically, an affection for their histories, perhaps - shows in the tenor of his narrative, which approaches journalistic reporting and which, while never humorous, at times is almost lyrical.

"Outside (his hotel room in vaguely menacing Maimana, Afghanistan) there was no sound but the scraping of the pine trees in the wind. Danger was cumulative, of course, it crept up step by step half-noticed as your journey took you deeper, farther. Until you woke up at night in a place beyond help."

SHADOW OF THE SILK ROAD includes 4 useful maps depicting Colin's route. A photo section would have been most welcome, but it's the infrequent travel essay that includes such so I've ceased expecting one. Indeed, the absence of a camera in the author's possession eased his way through at least one tense border crossing.

Periodically in the text, Thubron engages in a mental conversation with an imaginary Sogdian trader of old. Drifting towards sleep in his Antioch hotel room near the last stop of his journey, Colin's fantasy travel companion gives voice to an inner truth which perhaps had relevance when the author wrote the book, at which time he was in his mid-60s:

"At first, when you're young, each place you come to is poorer than the place ahead, which you do not yet know. The other is extraordinary, beautiful. So you go on, perhaps for many years. You go on until you realize that the trading was also good, with certain shortcomings, in the city you left behind. Soon younger men say you have lost ambition; older, that you have grown wiser. Then, as you settle, there is comfort, and a kind of sadness."

Thubron turned seventy in June of this year. I wonder if he has found comfort. In any case, to the author honor is due for the expeditions of discovery on which he has served as our consummate guide.

Note: This review is of the Vintage paperback edition (2007).
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful, magical travel story, September 2, 2007
I didn't want to put this down. Places that I've wanted to see if I had the opportunity and courage come alive in the book. Thubron describes legends and historical events over millennia, but they all fit together along with the people he meets and the landscapes he travels through. He describes with sensitivity and humanity what has been lost with time but also what is there now, often the generosity of the people he meets and their way of life. Wonderful!
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Shadow of the Silk Road (P.S.)
Shadow of the Silk Road (P.S.) by Colin Thubron (Paperback - July 1, 2008)
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