Monday, July 27, 2009

Book: Colin Thubron's "Shadow of the Silk Road"

Our last vacation out of the country, Peru, waked the traveler in me. Unfortunately in the three years since that vacation we have been international-vacation-less. As a way to feed my need I have started reading my issues of National Geographic practically cover to cover. I have also added travelogues to my non-fiction repertoire. My latest adventure, even if it was only in my mind's eye, was Colin Thubron's "Shadow of the Silk Road".

"Shadow of the Silk Road" recounts Thubron's travels of the historic Silk Road. Specifically he traveled from Xian, China west through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Iran, ending in Antioch, Turkey. He began his journey in 2003, a year when we'd planned to tour China but were deterred by SARs. His journey was interrupted by repeated SARs checkpoints including one two week quarantine in western China.

Thubron traveled like the locals. Buses, trains, hitchhiking with passing trucks, even riding with the mail delivery land rover in one particularly remote area of China. Along the way he visits tombs, temples, mosques, and other sites off the beaten path including some that even the locals aren't familiar with. He survives with English, a little Mandarin Chinese, and Russian through most of his travels.

I liked his style. He is a very descriptive writer. I often wished he'd had a camera with him (he didn't) so that he could have shared some of the wonderful locations he traveled through. The first third of the book, the part through western China, I found most interesting. His travels took him through the land of the Uyghurs whose struggle with the Han Chinese has been in the news recently. His travels in China had an airy, bright feel to them despite the poverty of the area.

Once Thubron leaves China, his writing loses it's luster until, to me, it feels almost alien and dark in the Muslim areas of Afghanistan and Iran. I'm not sure it was the culture or my perception of the culture that darkened the narrative.

Thubron is an intrepid traveler. He made it through areas I would never dream to even approach and I was amazed when he stared down several officials looking for a bribe. It seems refusing to give a hand out results in them letting you go on your way. In one case he accidentally hands some money over with his papers. When the police officer pockets the money, Thubron demanded his money be return and it was. I wonder if that would work for me? I bet I would end up in some dark and dank prison somewhere.

There is no timeline of the trip in the book. This may be because the trip was done in two pieces a year apart (Afghanistan was too dangerous to travel through in 2003). Despite the interruption, the narrative is written like one contiguous trip, something that bothered me. I'm sure I am being picky, he is very up front about the interruption, but is feels like he cheated. Of course, in travelling, there really aren't any rules so it's not fare of me to say that he is cheating.

I enjoyed traveling with the author. I wish I were as adventuresome as he was appears to be. An interesting read and recommended.

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