Review: Shadow of the Silk Road

Book coverShadow of the Silk Road, by Colin Thubron (HarperCollins 2007)

Review by Craig Dietrich from November 2007 CAFAM Newsletter

The “Silk Road” has taken on much glamour and romance as a tourist destination in recent years. One notable book that provides a glimpse into the halcyon years of the old trading routes between China and the Near East is Susan Whitefield’s Life Along the Silk Road (University of California, 1999). Another interesting take on the subject is Peter Hopkirk’s Foreign Devils on the Silk Road (University of Massachusetts, 1980). Hopkirk tells the story of the principal Western scholars, discoverers, and antiquarians who combed many of the ancient Xinjiang sites in the early years of the twentieth century and either “saved” or “looted” much of what they found, depending on one’s point of view.

In his travel account, Thubron takes the reader along as he observes and ponders the meaning of things between Xian in China and Antakya (Antioch) in Turkey.

Xian, or Changan as it was known, was one of China’s capitals in the Han (c. 200 BC – c.200 AD) and the Tang (618 – 907) periods. This terminus of the Silk Road is where Thubron begins his journey in 2002, just as the potential SARS epidemic is sowing alarm among health authorities around the world. Consequently, for much of his travels, he did not have much company.

He moves into Gansu Province and its capital, Lanzhou and takes a side trip to the Tibetan Buddhist monastery at Labrang. Continuing on toward Dunhuang, he visits the famous grottoes there at a time when it is almost deserted of visitors.

From there he launches himself onto the southern branch of the route around the great Taklamakan Desert. In recent centuries this route has greatly declined, relative to what it once was, mainly because the increasing encroachment of sand and desert has made it very difficult to maintain roads there. Having left a remnant outpost of Tibetans and Buddhism at Labrang, he now enters the world of Uyghurs and Islam.

The ancient city of Khotan (Hetian in modern Chinese) is probably the most flourishing region on the southern rim of the Taklamakan, a place with great historical importance to the history of Buddhism, and incidentally historically the source of much of China’s jade. Then he comes to the westernmost city, Kashgar.

Throughout this trek through western China, Thubron encounters many ordinary people as well as historical relics. He is willing to endure almost any discomfort or even danger. And since he has come extremely well prepared with knowledge of the history and religions of the area, he is capable of making even fleeting and mundane experiences meaningful in the broader picture of the region past and present.

Those oriented more toward China, will find in Thubron’s travels, as he leaves the Peoples Republic and proceeds through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and northern Iran, much that is surprising and helpful to understand (a little) the Turkic and Iranian Muslim world.

Thubron’s style is very personal and pholosophical, almost poetic. But the attentive reader cannot but learn a great deal indeed about this poorly understood part of the world. Given the relevance of this region to contemporary hair-raisers like terrorism, nuclear proliferation, clash of cultures, and the rest, it is a book that the citizen who tries to be informed will be thankful to have read.

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