Colin Thubron is trumpeted by his publishers as “our greatest travel writer,” meaning perhaps England's, perhaps the English-speaking world's, or perhaps simply the world's. In this new book he travels the vestiges of the Silk Road from Xian in China, via Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran to Antioch (now Antakya) on Turkey's Mediterranean coast. So -- what kind of writer is he? What are his fears and loathings, his delights and epiphanies?
In a sense, all travel books are similarly constituted - diary extracts form the skeleton, and this is fleshed out with passages of historical summary, plus some general thoughts. Places are described, and people met by chance along the way developed into minor characters. But in any travel book written by a solitary traveler there can be only the one major character.
Thubron is essentially a loner and an aesthete. But he considers joy in new places and experiences essentially a youthful phenomenon, and in several places complains of getting old. In addition the intellectual side of his character is generally skeptical. So what you have are frequent beautifully-crafted phrases about snow, the fading light of evening or the disappearing stars of morning, combined with descriptions where the magic of legendary names - Samarkand, Kashgar - is shown to be at best elusive, together with interviews with rather sad and disappointed people.
The landscapes are rarely experienced as awesome. Instead, there are valleys supporting mulberry trees (for silk cultivation) disfigured by pylons or a crumbling Soviet-era factory. Beauty where he finds it tends to lodge mostly in the sky, or in a view of distant mountains, still snowless in autumn sunlight. The result is a sense of loneliness. He carries a satellite phone, but nobody calls him on it.
Shadow of the Silk Road
By Colin Thubron
Chatto and Windus
The whole Silk Road area comes over as essentially a mixture, and on many levels. Uzbeks go away to work in Korea, and the Chinese are flooding into Xinjiang along the new railway to Kashgar (to the fury of every Uighur he talks to). But then the whole region was always like that, a place where different peoples met, traded and later inter-married. The author himself becomes absorbed with traces of Roman blood in northwestern China, seeking out fair-haired people in several locations. So if Central Asia has always been characterized by its cultural mix, the modern version of this must be accepted too - carrier bags in Uzbekistan made in China or Pakistan with logos proclaiming Estee Lauder or “Have a Nice Day!,” etc.
Thubron proves tough with the police. He carries his US dollars in a mosquito repellent bottle and routinely refuses suggestions that he pay a bribe. At one point he shouts “Who the hell are you?” at someone who may or may not be pretending to be an official, and when he refuses to pay up to customs inspectors on a train, one of whom had said, referring to a colleague, “Give him money,” he gets the reply “It was a joke,” and the pair move off along the corridor.
The Shadow of the Silk Road covers eight months, though the section through northern Afghanistan was postponed and traveled a year later because of fighting. Everywhere there's the fear of SARS, so we can assume the journey was largely made in 2003.
This isn't an eccentric account. Thubron calls in on all the celebrated sites – Xian's terracotta warriors, the famous Buddhist monastery at Labrang (also visited in the 1930s by Peter Fleming and described in News From Tartary) and Dunhuang where, in 1900, the Anglo-Hungarian archaeologist Aurel Stein discovered, along with many other things, the world's oldest printed book, and then made off with it.