Shadow of the Silk Road is a phenomenal book. The author, British travel writer Colin Thubron, traveled from Xian, an ancient capital of China, to Antioch in Turkey along the silk road, blending broad historical knowledge with acute observations of contemporary life.
Thubron speaks Mandarin and Russian, and was able therefore to speak directly with many of the people on his journey, at least until he arrived in Afghanistan. A theme throughout the book is the mix of peoples, with tribes and nations spanning the current political borders. Most of western China has been populated by Tibetans, Uighars, and other central Asian people for a very long time, and is only now being colonized by Chinese. The Chinese are hated by the native people because of the vast migrations that are underway. Native cultures are being subsumed by a Chinese industrial juggernaut. Old towns are being covered over by concrete and by soulless industrialization.
The silk road was never a single road, but a kind of nervous system with two heads: one in China, one on the Mediterranean. It has existed in some form for nearly 3000 years. Silk began to appear in the Mediterranean by at least 500 B.C.E., having been cultivated in China since 2000 B.C.E. And Greek and Roman images began appearing in China by about 300 B.C.E. No one person actually traveled the length of the silk road - in Thubron’s words, no Chinese traders appeared on the Palatine to surprise native Romans. Instead, goods were transported by different traders via intermediaries along the route, enriching those intermediary cities in central Asia and Persia.
Today, as ever, the route is dangerous and often isolated. Thubron traveled by train, bus, truck, private car, on foot, horseback, camelback, and only once by plane, across the northern section of Afghanistan, where no driver would go, with or without him. He was quarantined for a time because of the SARS virus, and had a few close calls when crossing borders.
By the end of his long journey he was clearly ready to be done. He rushes through the last part of the trip, in southern Turkey, almost as an afterthought. After the long stretches of genuinely wild and dangerous travel, he seems not to have been aware of just how interesting a trip through Turkey would be for most of us.
This book gave me a much clearer view of the geography and people of Asia than I had before. I would never want to retrace Thubron’s journey, so reading about it is as close as I will get to experiencing central Asia and the silk road.