Book review: ‘Shadow of the Silk Road,’ by Colin Thubron
Special to the Daily
The love of traveling has always paired perfectly with the love of history; indeed, the two are inseparable, for experiencing the vibrant and bustling sites of the world goes hand in hand with seeing the crumbling or preserved remnants of the past. The modern landscape is built upon the foundations of history, nowhere in a more intriguing style than along the mythical Silk Road, familiar to most Westerners because of Marco Polo, though the saga of the route is much more complex.
Author Colin Thubron very capably documents his own journey along the remains of the famed trade highway that spanned the breadth of Asia during ancient times. “Shadow of the Silk Road” is brimming with dense descriptives and with very evocative and sensual visuals, awakening the history that he so carefully and respectfully investigates.
There are many reasons why the Silk Road is a unique travel experience, the first being that it is not officially even there; it is a memory of past civilizations that spans 7,000 miles, which raises the second point, that of landscapes and cultures that envelope the fabled route. In its hey-day, the Silk Road — composed of not one road but many — did not bear its current moniker; that came after centuries of trade of the precious and much coveted fabric, which was only one of countless goods exchanged along the busy route.
As Thubron emphasizes, not only material goods traversed the Silk Road. Ideas and beliefs were passed along, too, with philosophies and religions blending into intriguing amalgams as peoples and armies moved back and forth. As he travels from east to west, Thrubron proves to be an astute observer of both his physical surroundings, as well as the people he encounters. To follow the Silk Road is to take a walk through the ancestral past of mankind. Over time, travelers, traders, warriors, slaves and kings journeyed in both directions, leaving behind settlements and offspring, stirring the gene pool into the dynamic faces of modern humans.
Much of the route is perilous and difficult to navigate, even with modern transportation. Some of the planet’s most treacherous landscapes flank the Silk Road, with the deserts and devastating earthquakes having swallowed centuries of stories along the route that has seen the trade of most of earth’s treasures, both natural and man-made.
Along every step of his journey, it is evident that animosities and disagreements, both recent and ancient, have festered over time and still hold sway along the borders — borders that have shifted as conquering despots have laid claim to the lands. Overlaying the whole region is a cacophony of cultures and tribal groups, each one vying for dominance.
Thubron emphasizes, through anecdote after anecdote, the fragile foundations upon which many of the region’s modern nations are built. He points out that “a nation, as the philosopher Renan said, is bound not by the real past but by the stories it tells itself; by what it remembers and what it forgets.”
All along the journey, Thubron becomes aware of a profound disconnect with the trajectory of the line of history, especially in the regions most contested throughout the centuries, namely the countries of Central Asia — Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, etc. Like changelings over time, they ooze with a sense of loss and forgetting, a vague collective consciousness of long distant wrongs, but wrongs that have become so pervasive in the contemporary mindset that all judgment and decision-making is clouded and narrow-focused, as the original wrong is forgotten or mutated.
Evidence of violence — contemporary and ancient — borders the entire stretch of the route, for no trade road as spectacular as the Silk Road was spared the attention of wealth-seekers and the powerful. Mass graves and temples to fallen tyrants dot the grim landscapes, fitting of all the terrors and the centuries of blood that have soaked the parched soil.
No part of the ancient world, he points out, dwells in a vacuum. Modern times intrude, muting or enhancing the significance of certain landmarks. Layers of ruins exist as modern warfare does not always spare heritage sites, and as civilians struggle in a harsh and violent world, the distant past often loses its value.
Thubron makes a point on his rambling journey to seek out and connect with the locals, traveling in a fashion that links him more intimately with the stories he tries to tell, but which also makes him more vulnerable to dangers and to exploitation. His path is definitely not the one most traveled, and for that we all gain as readers from his astute observations and his thoughtful analysis of a part of the world that will forever have one foot in the past and one in the turbulent present.
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