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Shadow of the Silk Road

I haven’t written about any books in weeks. What’s going on? Well, partly, I’ve been unable to decide which of several books to concentrate on, and partly, I haven’t been able to build up much momentum in the book that won the battle. I haven’t felt committed to it. But that has changed at last, and I anticipate finishing it this weekend.

Four weeks ago, I was struggling to figure out what books to have on my Kindle before we headed to New York and North Carolina. I had begun Candice Millard’s book about James Garfield’s assassination, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, and anticipated (correctly) that I would finish it during the trip. What to read next?

In the background, I knew two books would be coming out this month that would command my attention: the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s monumental LBJ biography, The Passage of Power (out yesterday, with a review now online by Bill Clinton that will appear in the Sunday NYT), and the second historical novel in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies (out next Tuesday, though reviewed by Janet Maslin in today’s NYT).

It turns out that I have yet to read Wolf Hall, the first installment of the Mantel trilogy, and a book I just had to have a couple of years back. (I have some old posts about it, dealing for instance with my desire to read it on our trip to Europe in the fall of 2009, except that it wasn’t available on Kindle and I didn’t want to carry the hardcover around). One option a month ago, then, was to read Wolf Hall at last. Or, I could read a massive history I had bought just before deciding to read the Garfield book, Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations. (I’ll have more to say about it another time.) And there was John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection Pulphead: Essays, which I had bought for Joel a few months ago and therefore could read as well on my Kindle.

But I had a different idea. I was determined to find something to read about Central Asia. Why? Well, that’s the topic for a massive post in its own right. The short version is that, with no particular plan in mind, I seem to keep reading history or travel books that treat regions near Central Asia without actually reading about Central Asia. For example, going back to the early months of Ron’s View, in December 2008 I wrote about Judith Herrin’s Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, which I never did finish, owing to terminal boredom.

Two years later, I read Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, and since then, Ted Conover’s The Routes of Man: Travels in the Paved World, Peter Hessler’s Country Driving: A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory, Eliza Griswold’s The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, Miranda Carter’s George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I, Max Egremont’s Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia, Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, and Orlando Figes The Crimean War: A History.

In my post on Figes’ book, I commented:

Time and again, as I read the book, I would recognize the ground being laid for conflicts of the twentieth century. The Balkans. The Caucasus. Afghanistan. Recent developments such as the Chechen War and the 2008 conflicts between Russia, Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia all make more sense to me now. Not to mention that I know where they all are. I have a complete picture for the first time in my life of the geography of the Black Sea (which happens to be where my grandmother was born and spent the first part of her childhood, in Odessa). And for good measure, I’ve extended my picture eastward past the Caspian Sea into Central Asia, inspired in part by the book and in part by attending the Central Asian ikat exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum two weeks ago. Indeed, I can now name and locate all 15 former Soviet republics.

Now that I could finally picture the geographical relative positions of all the countries in Central Asia, it was time to learn more. Plus, that ikat exhibit left me with thrilling images of the architecture in Samarkand and Bukhara. I wanted to know about Uzbekistan (Herman Cain’s proud ignorance notwithstanding) and Turkmenistan and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan too, though that I thought I knew a little about (and not just thanks to Sacha Baron Cohen).

What to read? After a little searching, I was led the famous British travel writer Colin Thubron, who wrote about all five former Soviet republics of Central Asia in The Lost Heart of Asia shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, and who more recently covered some of the same ground in Shadow of the Silk Road.

Before heading to New York, I downloaded the opening portions of both books from Amazon. The narrower focus of the earlier book more closely matched my specific interest. But I feared that it would dwell too much on the conditions in the five countries in the immediate aftermath of their independence. The alternative, Shadow of the Silk Road, has the following description from the publisher’s website:

To travel the Silk Road, the greatest land route on earth, is to trace the passage not only of trade and armies but also of ideas, religions, and inventions. Making his way by local bus, truck, car, donkey cart, and camel, Colin Thubron covered some seven thousand miles in eight months—out of the heart of China into the mountains of Central Asia, across northern Afghanistan and the plains of Iran into Kurdish Turkey—and explored an ancient world in modern ferment.

My fear with this book was that I wasn’t really looking to read still more about China. The table of contents suggested that Thubron would take a long time to get out of there. Also, in passing from China to Afghanistan, Thubron traveled through only Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Nonetheless, this seemed like the better bet. On the eve of our departure for New York, I downloaded it.

I have to say, Thubron really does take forever to move on from China. Every time he left a city, I thought, great, he’s going to get to the border. But no matter how far he traveled, the border never seemed to get closer.

Which has something to do with why I moved slowly myself. A few pages here, a few pages there. The book doesn’t have narrative drive, a lesson I was slow to accept. Now, at last, I have learned to be content with Thubron’s pace. And we’ve made some headway in recent nights: through Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, across the Amu Darya, and into Afghanistan.

Thubron isn’t much for filling in the history in big doses. He goes for drips instead, the picture slowly emerging of peoples and religions and cultures and languages and goods working their way slowly back and forth across the vast distances of Asia, national boundaries falling where they may, through accident or force but not logic.

Here are some passages I’ve marked that give some small sense of Thubron’s writing. From somewhere in China:

I listened to the river, and felt the traveler’s old excitement. The early Silk Road seemed to enter Central Asia as into somewhere wild and opaque. The great empires to east and west — China, Persia, Rome — petered out in its silence. The illusion was of a dark transition. But in fact this black hole in Asia’s heart nursed a delicate interdependence of nomad and settler. A distant turbulence at one end of the road trembled along its length like an electric current, so that the pressure of pastoral tribes along the Great Wall, in a relentless chain reaction, might unleash the Huns over Europe. A disaster could not occur in Asia, wrote Cicero, that did not shake the Roman economy to its foundations.

From Tamerlane’s grave in Samarkand:

The tsarists, and the Bolsheviks after them, entered a land without nations, where a state was only the outreach of a ruler. Its heart was not an abstract institution, but a living dynasty. Its frontiers were blurred opinions. Craving order from this multilingual soup, Moscow prescribed labels, tinkered with languages, allotted suitable heroes and carved out countries as best it could. By the time Uzbekistan lurched to independence in 1991, the nation was a full-blown Russian invention. Its rulers, part of the myth themselves, discovered legitimacy in the Soviet fantasy of a pre-existing Uzbekistan, embracing the glory of Tamerlane now, and fading back into an indefinite past.

Still in Samarkand:

You climb a stairway of intricate splendor. Its hexagonal stones are mellow underfoot. Here and there a willow brushes the path, or a swallow chirrups from a cupola. On either side the tomb facades converge in waterfalls of pure faience, sometimes only twelve feet apart. Their colours are turquoise and kingfisher blue, often on a dark blue field, tinged by olive or Pompeian red. Half close your eyes and you imagine this a street of the living, lined with mansions of inexplicable richness, their doors open. Sometimes their porches are lined by six or eight vertical bands of glazed terra-cotta, perforated with a spider’s delicacy, so that the whole building seems to glisten in a skein of blue lace. Over them a gallery of fifteenth-century ornament unfurls, interlocked flowers, a dusting of stars, tears, wheels, a lexicon of scripts. To the illiterate eye, calligraphy and foliage intertwine, words become leaf-stems, creepers blossom into letters.

I love that last image.

I will continue on my journey with Thubron. It may not be the journey I was looking for. And I don’t have the enthusiasm evinced by Christian Caryl in his New York Review review or Lorraine Adams in her NYT review, both from 2007. But I’m hooked at last.

Caro beckons. And Mantel. Though I may detour through Pulphead, Sullivan’s essay collection. A couple of weeks back, when I was bogged down in China, I dipped in a little and found his essay on Michael Jackson improbably thrilling. (Yes, Thriller/thrilling. I know. But that’s what was most thrilling, Sullivan’s discussion of the making of Thriller.)

Back to Afghanistan tonight.

Categories: Books, History, Travel
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