IN ALL THE NOMENCLATURE of world geography

there is probably no name which carries more resonance of mystery and high adventure than that of the Great Silk Road, a thoroughfare which a thousand years ago extended all the way from Peking in Northern China, through the vast length of the Indian subcontinent on to the Mediterranean Sea and the city of Rome.

This irresistibly romantic name--given to it by a 19th- century German scholar--is not only somewhat imprecise but even misleading. The Road's camel caravans, moving regularly through deserts of treacherously shifting sands and over ice-bound mountain passes, were not merely carrying China's most famed export, the secretly-made silk for which all the then civilized world was clamoring. The camels in their two-way traffic were also transporting gold, asbestos, amber, coral, lacquer, ceramics, textiles less precious than silk, spices like the much-desired cinnamon bark, rare plants and animals, artifacts of bronze and stone. Most significantly the road served as a carrier route for the dissemination of widely different manners, customs, arts, crafts, and above all, religious beliefs, including those of the Western-outlawed Nestorian Christians and the Manicheans, worshippers of the mysterious Persian Manes. The dominant religious influence was, however, the gentle, peace-loving Buddhism coming out of India. Since Buddhism had from early days used the language of art to communicate and give expression to its beliefs, there had grown up along this well-traveled artery with its networks of garrison outposts and rich oasis cities, many Buddhist temples, libraries, carved caves and sanctuaries which on their momentous rediscovery were enthusiastically described as "a stupendous desert art gallery."

How could a road, once so well-known and well-traveled, with all its attendant civilization, disappear from man's consciousness for centuries, its memory kept precariously alive only by certain fantastic tales like those of the great Chinese foot-traveler, Fa-hsien, who saw the Silk Road in 399 A.D., the Chinese monk-scholar Hsuan-tsang who traveled to India for Buddha relics in the 7th century, or Marco Polo who as far back as 1224 was already reporting "ghoul-infested deserts" which had once been thriving communities?

A combination of forces both human and natural accounted for the fate of the great Silk Road: the shifting or disappearance of major water sources in the desert and the subsequent encroachments of mountains of wind-blown sand; the decline of powerful kingdoms like T'ang China and Imperial Rome; the arrival of waves of destructive nomads, Huns and Muslims; the eventual triumph of Islam; finally, China during the Ming Dynasty withdrawing herself from the West altogether and abandoning the commerce of the Silk Road--all these factors down the centuries played their fatal part. In time the road disappeared and its immense treasures of art and archaeology were lost in a Land of Death, a vast terrain so dangerous and desolate that it was said if Nature herself had wished to keep separate the great cultures of early mankind she could have done no better than her creation of Chinese Central Asia known in part as High Tartary, Chinese Tartary, Chinese Turkestan. What was destined to become in our time one of the world's greatest archaeological digs was--still is--surrounded on three sides by the highest mountains on earth with the treacherous passes that lead from Tibet, Afghanistan and Kashmir ice-bound the year round, while the fourth side is guarded by the Gobi desert. The very name of its central desert, Taklamakan, means in Turki, "Go in and you won't come out!"

Small wonder then that for hundreds of years very few travelers ventured into these formidable wastes. Those who did survive brought back stories of incredible hardships and suffering, the death of fellow travelers from unknown pestilence, from starvation, lack of water or freezing, or at the hands of passing bandits or the omnipresent "demons." The worst deaths of all came from the mighty sandstorms which could bury entire caravans of men and animals in a matter of minutes or kill them with the huge rocks the monstrous winds tossed about like pebbles.

No outsiders disbelieved these bone-chilling warnings but more enticing tales began to circulate that had been handed down from generation to generation by oasis dwellers. These hinted of buried cities and ancient treasure preserved as in some timeless magic by the high arid climate and the protecting sands. By the late 19th and early 20th century there appeared a handful of individual adventurers (mostly European)--archaeologists, botanists, explorers, students of ancient languages and cultures-- who could no longer be kept away from this apparently deserted no man's land.

The story of what this handful of dauntless men from different modern countries endured in order to procure some fragments of Central Asia's lost culture for the museums of their own or an adopted land, is told in great style by Peter Hopkirk in his Foreign Devils on the Silk Road. It is a series of interwoven accounts of high adventure, high stakes, spies, loyalty, treachery, forgery, greed and occasional magnanimity. It celebrates courage, vision, dedication and will. Hopkirk has a remarkable cast of characters with whom to work: Sven Hedin "the pathfinder"; Sir Aurel Stein, "treasure-seeker extraordinary"; Albert von Le Coq and Theodore Bartus; Professor Paul Pelliot; the mysterious Japanese "spiritual leader," Count Kozui Otani and his two "pious monk" archaeologists and their wicker baskets; the hospitable George Macartneys lavishly entertaining all travelers at their post in Kashgar, Great Britain's Central Asian "listening post"; the clever half-literate forger, Islam Akhun; Grunwedel; Oldenberg; Koslov; Langdon Warner, the American orientalist who "attempted the unthinkable". . . every story Hopkirk touches is totally engrossing.

One of the most appealing has to do with the wily little Chinese abbot, Wang Yuan-lu who guarded the carved Buddhist grottoes, the wall paintings and the secret sealed rooms of manuscripts at famed Tun-huang where "hidden away in the heart of the Gobi Desert, four days' camel ride from the nearest town, was one of the least known of China's many wonders: 'The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas.' " How Sir Aurel Stein managed to charm the cautious Wang by his, Stein's, sincere devotion to the memory of the great 7th-century Buddhist traveler, Hsuan-tsang, and thereby procure what is still considered to be "an unparalleled archaeological scoop" is but one of many vivid tales.

There were some 30 years of "an archaeological free for all" before modern China grew so irate at the persistent raiding of her long-neglected treasures that she put a stop to it. This did not happen, however, before a great Central Asian collection had been scattered throughout the museums and institutions of at least 13 different countries. The author tells us that to see everything which has survived and is being preserved one must be prepared to travel to India, Japan, Russia, America, Taiwan, South Korea, Sweden, Finland, West Germany, Britain, France and China, and to visit 30 different institutions.

In spite of the angry accusations leveled at the eminent specialists whose prodigious labors and lucky chances enriched so many museums, it is at least arguable that even the crudest techniques of removal down the years did no more damage to precious relics than centuries of vandalism, random digging, religious bigotry, floods, wars. Sir Aurel Stein reported how Chinese tomb-robbers hoping to find treasure had smashed to bits dozens of colossal Gandhara-like Buddhas and Bodhisavatta statues before he could rescue them and build the great museum of his dreams in Khotan. White Russian internees destroyed beautiful murals and scrawled obscenities on the lips of the Buddhas. The Muslims, decrying all "images," beheaded and defaced everything they could get at. Even in modern times ignorant villagers demolished historic buildings to procure richer soil and scraped fresco from the painted walls in the belief that it was a potent fertilizer.

World War II tells perhaps the worst story of all. "On seven terrible nights in World War II, more masterpieces of Central Asian art were wiped out in Berlin than tomb robbers, farmers, irrigation schemes or earthquakes could have accounted for in many years." Similarly a great part of the collection of Buddhist art brought back from the Otani expeditions did not reappear in Japan after the War.

For the reader who finds himself curious about the final destinations of these legendary adventurers in the Central China Desert, Hopkirk obliges near the end of the book with a few mostly sad facts. Sven Hedin, who "began it all" lived longer than anyone except Langdon Warner, but since he was pro-German at the wrong time, he died in Stockholm neglected, alone and scorned. Today, however, Hedin's treasures are proudly displayed in the city's fine new Ethnographical Museum. Sir Aurel Stein, the devoted Hungarian-born Anglophile, has been in Hopkirk's view insufficiently honored by his adopted land. Hopkirk cannot help feeling that what Stein dug up in China has been "buried again in Bloomsbury." Stein himself, active to the very end, died in Kabul at the outset of a new adventure and lies buried in the mud-walled Christian cemetery in the shadow of the Hundu Kush "surrounded by the graves of hippies for whom also Afghanistan was the end of the trail." The "old books," sold by the forger, Islam Ahkun, which were to cause Stein and other famous scholars of the day such deep humiliation, were recently rediscovered in neatly packed boxes in the British Museum basement carefully labeled "Central Asian Forgeries." (They have been properly catalogued and are now in the British Library.) Professor Pelliot has his memorial room at the Mus,ee Guimet in Paris. Langdon Warner, the American Orientalist, is honored and beautifully represented at the Fogg museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In spite of Germany's terrible losses during the last war the West Berlin State Museums still have valuable collections of von Le Coq's central Asian art finds, a number of which were recently exhibited at New York's Metropolitan Museum. In the Hermitage in Lenigrad, Russia's Silk Road Treasures are displayed in eight rooms with one given over entirely to 25 beautifully preserved Buddhist paintings from the tomb of a princess --gift of the explorer, Koslov. And so it goes!

And how does the "long old road" look these days? Modern highways link new oasis towns. Motor traffic crosses the dreaded Karakoram and even the fierce desert of Taklamakan, the swallower of caravans, has lost its terrors; "aircraft and satellites flush out its remaining secrets." The Macartney's commodious, memory-haunted home, Chini-Bagh, is now a hostel for long distance lorry drivers. China has taken over the task that the little abbot Wang once tried to handle alone. Skilled workers are reinforcing crumbling walls, discovering and repairing earlier frescoes, finding, it is said, ever most recent caches of ancient documents. One cannot but wonder how many people visit the faithful old abbot's grave from among the tourists who since 1979 have been descending from British motor coaches in the burning desert sun at the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. Here for Hopkirk "the last shred of mystery and romanceehas finally gone from the Silk Road."