SHADOW OF THE SILK ROAD
By Colin Thubron
HarperCollins. 363 pp. $25.95
Between the fall of 2002 and the summer of the following year, much of Asia was in a state bordering on panic because of the rapid spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), also known as yellow pneumonia. Especially in China, where the incidence was highest, medical authorities clamped down on travel and otherwise sought to isolate the disease. It was, all in all, an excellent time to stay at home -- excellent, that is, for just about everyone except Colin Thubron, the intrepid, resourceful and immensely talented writer who has made a career out of going to out of the way places and then writing brilliantly about them.
So of course Thubron went to China just as the SARS scare was peaking. "The SARS virus had frozen travel," but it hadn't frozen Thubron. He had it in mind to travel the ancient Silk Road, from Xian in central China to Antioch on the shore of the Mediterranean, and no marauding virus was about to stop him. Neither, for that matter, was advancing age. At the time, Thubron was well into his 60s, but apparently he was fit as the proverbial fiddle, since in the course of his adventure he met various physical challenges that I, a mere three months his junior and in not half-bad shape, can scarcely contemplate, much less undertake.
Good for him. Obviously, he had an uncommonly interesting and rewarding time, and he has now written an uncommonly interesting and rewarding book about it. Though I can recall no mention of the vogue word "globalization" in the course of this narrative, Shadow of the Silk Road arrives just as the reality of a shrunken globe has become inescapable. It provides timely evidence of the pressures this phenomenon exerts and the instinct of human beings -- especially those in remote places that only now are being touched by the modern world -- to resist it, to hold on to their old ways. If on the one hand Thubron's journey was undertaken to see the legendary Silk Road and discover how much of it has survived over the many centuries, on the other hand he ended up writing a book that is largely about change.
The Silk Road isn't really a road, but a chain of roads, paths and other means of passage that converge at some places, diverge at others, "a shifting fretwork of arteries and veins, laid [from Xian] to the Mediterranean." Depending on how you measure it, it is about 7,000 miles in overall length, though "length" is an ambiguous term for something that meanders as unpredictably as this does, and it may well be 10,000 years old, though its origins are exceedingly difficult to pin down. People didn't set out from Rome with the purpose of venturing to Xian (or vice versa), because that wasn't the way the Silk Road worked:
"In eras of stability, when the great Han imperium reached across central Asia towards ancient Rome, or the Mongol empire laid down its unexpected peace, the Silk Road flourished. But even in these times the same caravans never completed the whole route. No Romans strolled along the boulevards of Changan; no Chinese trader astonished the Palatine. Rather their goods interchanged in an endless, complicated relay race, growing ever costlier as they acquired the patina of rarity and farness."
Why did Thubron decide to travel this strange, exotic, elusive passage? Well, he is by nature and occupation a traveler: "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." In this specific case, Thubron went "to follow a ghost," a road that "has officially vanished," "not a single way, but many: a web of choices. Mine stretches more than seven thousand miles, and is occasionally dangerous."
Thubron's trek began in Xian, went past the westernmost vestiges of the Great Wall, continued westward through mountains and deserts, then through (or skirting) Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Iran before ending in the famous old Turkish city of Antioch. It is not a journey that can be easily summarized in a brief review, but among the many themes that reverberate throughout, two are especially prominent: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of modern China. Readers who assume that the evils of Stalinism were known and feared in all corners of the communist empire may be astonished to learn that many of the people whom Thubron met in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, for example, miss and mourn that known world. A "genial driver" complained to Thubron that "in Soviet years [his] town had been wonderful, he remembered -- the past growing rosier all the time -- when people went to the cinema and theatre on full stomachs. But now the future had stopped, and the national barriers were up." In another place, an old woman clung stubbornly to her Order of Lenin and read, for pleasure, "Zhukov's war memoirs."
But nostalgia for the lost Russian past is dwarfed by the complex emotions aroused by the rising giant, China. Thubron found as much apprehension in China itself as in the smaller nations coming under its influence. An old friend, a university teacher of English, complained to him that English -- the language of globalized commerce -- was sweeping away China itself:
"He was staring out of his office window. 'Already China's one big reconstruction site!' All along the river the white buildings were going up, each one topped by a crane. 'The trouble is this,' he said. 'You can't relate Chinese life in English language. Because nothing really translates. Not culture, politics or even the everyday. The words don't fit. The concepts aren't there.' He was writing a hefty article on this -- it would make him enemies -- in the university magazine called Silk Road. 'The foundation of language is thought. How can we think in English?' "
The "sea-change that was transforming China," in Thubron's view, was that "all at once the future had grown more potent than the past. Change was rendering things obsolete. You could see this where high-rise apartment blocks barged into the old suburbs, bulldozing the clustered generations of the communal courtyard and banking up tiers of nuclear families in their place." A man spoke to him about missing "those old hutong courtyards," but in the big cities those charming, neighborly places, if they remain at all, remain as tourist attractions that can be visited for a fee, places overshadowed by looming, ugly skyscrapers.
The farther west Thubron traveled, the farther away China and its cities seemed -- at times in the countries of central Asia he was in the Middle Ages, if not the Stone Age -- but everywhere China's presence was known: sometimes welcomed, sometimes feared, an 800-pound gorilla that had shed its Mao suit and put on blue jeans but remained aggressive and domineering. To be sure, by the time he reached Afghanistan and Iran other problems commandeered center stage, but China remained what it had always been: the last stop for caravans headed east, the ultimate destination, now one of the strongest economic forces and political powers in the world.
Thubron is British and very much in the rich tradition of British travel writers, from Sir Richard Burton to Bruce Chatwin with innumerable stops in between. He admits to fear, but almost nothing fazes him, though he did skip Afghanistan the first time around because an unpleasant war was in progress (he returned the following year to wrap up his journey). No challenge defeats him: He gets into sacred Muslim places closed to foreigners, scales improbable heights with nothing more than his own hands and feet, et cetera, et cetera. In addition, he is a scholar as well as a traveler and writer, with the result that Shadow of the Silk Road is as much a history lesson as a contemporary adventure. All in all, a splendid book. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.