Thursday, November 6, 2008

Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron

Shadow of the Silk Road traces Colin Thubron’s journey along the ancient trade route from China, across the mountains of Central Asia, northern Afghanistan, Iran and southern Turkey.

By taxi, bus and camel Thubron records his solo expedition covering 7,000 miles in eight months.

This book encourages readers to think about why they travel and how they decide on a travel destination. Listen to London-based travel writer, Colin Thubron, share his thoughts:

“Sometimes a journey arises out of hope and instinct, the heady conviction, as your fingers travel along the map: Yes, here and here…and here. These are the nerve-ends of the world…”

“A hundred reasons clamour for your going. You go to touch on human identities, to people an empty map. You have a notion that this is the world’s heart. You go to encounter the protean shapes of faith. 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’s too late. You go to see what will happen.” (p2-3)

Through his travel descriptions and thoughts Thubron highlights the things that are valuable about travel. For instance, his observation of ‘The Silk Road’ (a nineteenth century term) he identifies some ways that travel may shape, broaden and educate us:

“It [the Silk Road] was not a single road at all, but a shifting fretwork of arteries and veins, laid to the Mediterranean.” (p24)

And later some corresponding thoughts in these exquisite words:

“To follow a road is to follow diversity: a flow of interlocked voices, arguing, in a cloud of dust.” (p31)

With courage, curiosity and respect Thubron demonstrates how to travel as a pilgrim rather than as a tourist. He writes with a compassionate eye towards groups of people that are persecuted for their race, faith or sexuality.

The style of Shadow of the Silk Road is poetic and imaginative. The author synthesizes a vast body of historical research and presents it in a fascinating and amusing manner. He writes not only about the invention of silk but the creation of paper, printing, gunpowder, drive-belts, the mechanical clock, the spinning wheel and the equine harness.

The reader is led from the ancient past to contemporary accounts as the author views the ruins and observes monuments. He blends oral history, contemporary stories and his observation of issues as modern as the impact of SARS. Above all Thubron has harvested the legends, songs, poetry and prayers from a myriad of cultures and religions that he encounters in records and from people along the way.

Thubron’s writing is immediate, descriptive and perhaps, at times too detailed. The book records people and places that he encounters but also many vivid paragraphs that begin with the words, “I imagined…” Thubron captures the sights, the sounds, the songs and the smell of the Silk Road. He writes, for instance, of “the cold touch of silk in his hands.” (p30) Enjoy this cameo of camels having a lunch break:

“The camels were busy chewing the thatch from the watchman’s hut. Their prehistoric heads on bald necks, and their long double eye lashes, proof against sandstorms, gave them the look of seductive reptiles. As we mounted, they stooped forward with odd whimpering honks, then lurched angrily to their feet.” (p121)

With his trademark honesty Thubron admits his fear:

“I’m afraid of nothing happening, of experiencing nothing. This is what the modern traveler [and travel writer?] fears (forgive me). Emptiness. Then you hear only yourself.” (p25)

Thubron needn’t have feared for his experience of people and places is rich. He hears others but he also hears and records his own thoughts and feelings.

The Shadow of the Silk Road is much more than a travel book. It comes with maps, timelines and an index. This is a book that makes you check out some airfares and start packing your bag.

Colin Thubron, Shadow of the Silk Road (London: Vintage, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 63.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front covers of various editions of Shadow of the Silk Road.