Stories Spun from the Silk Road

Article excerpt

Colin Thubron, the intrepid, erudite author of numerous travel books, has once again undertaken an odyssey of Homeric proportions. This time he's ventured over 5,000 miles across the entire length and breadth of the Silk Road, through some of the most dangerous territory on the planet - Xian in China to Antioch on the Turkish Mediterranean, with stops along the way at Jiayuguan, Huatuguo, Ustkurgan, Maragheh, Orumiyeh, to name just a few of the mostly unpronounceable places he visited.

(And you might be advised to grab an old edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, because you'll need to reference some pretty obscure historical figures, such as Avalokitesvara aka Guanyin, the goddess of mercy during the Tang Dynasty; Husain Baiqara, the last Timurid sultan of Herat; and Yacub Beg, ruler of an independent Chinese Turkistan from 1865 to 1877, to name just a few.)

Shadow of the Silk Road is classical studies (think: Sir Kenneth Clark's "Civilization") meets exotic adventure (think: Lawrence Osborne's "The Naked Tourist"). Starting in the capital city of Xian at the shrine of the Yellow Emperor, "the mythic ancestor of the Chinese people," Thubron pointed his feet westward and sallied forth.

And it is quite the journey - physically, emotionally, and intellectually.

Thubron, ever the pedant, overloads the reader's neurons and synapses with page after page of historical references (see above for examples), yet he has a cleric's knack for engaging the locals and extracting from them their true confessions - primary source information that is the hallmark of all great travel writing.

For example, in Xian, in a dumpling restaurant, he met Hu Ji, a historian of the Tang dynasty. Out of the blue, and rather matter- of-factly, Hu Ji told Thubron (Thubron speaks Mandarin): " 'You know, in China we have no tradition of respect for human life. It's simply not in our past. That is our problem: inhumanity.' "

Later in Iran he met Vahid who confessed (Vahid lived in Canada so he speaks English): " 'We need a secular government. Everyone I know wants that. We want access to the world.' "

Amazingly, nothing bad happened to him along the way, despite the fact that he wandered alone into some treacherous locales he'd been advised to avoid like the plague.

Case in point: He was quarantined in a sanatorium in western China due to the outbreak of SARS, but he was released after only a few days no worse for the wear. Later, in Kyrgyzstan, he was duped out of a few dollars by thieves impersonating police, but other than that nothing of any consequence befell him. …