I wanted this book for ages and having read a fair few travel writers, it was nice to pick up a book where the reviews didn’t harp on about the hilarity of the words contained within, Perhaps it’s just me but travel books are about the people and places visited and not all about the author and his or her humourous misadventures.
Nevertheless when reviewers use phrases like ”erudition metamorphose into exquisite prose (The Economist) and ‘haunting, elegiac, melancholy [and] magical’ (Financial Times), you have to hope you are onto a good thing and not something really pretentious and self loving.
Colin Thubron travels along the first great trade route out of and subsequently into the heart of China. A journey of 7000 miles encompassing many well known countries such as modern Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as well as trouble hotspots Afghanistan and Iran.
The Silk Road was for thousands of years the most important trade route in the world, linking Asia to Europe, and to travel it is to take in not only an evolution of culture that inspired empires but also to see of the roots of the many turmoils of today in these regions. This book then becomes equal parts travel book and history book. Showing the spreads of religions, scientific discoveries, architecture, spices and fashions, amongst others along the Silk Road that changed and inspired cultures, a bit like a sandy internet if you will.
Starting in China, an interesting contrast soon begins to appear. Thubron revisits people whom he met in a previous book (entitled Behind the Wall) and shows how the new wealth and materialism of China is affecting them, (for better or worse) and their way of life. This is a theme repeated throughout the book evoking an air of melancholy, a yearning for the past from people in transition, yet tinged with hope from the younger generations.
I don’t say this often, if ever, with a travel book, but the way this book is written impresses from the first page and the quality exudes throughout the rest of the book. Thubron is a serious travel writer with a rich and diverse vocabulary. Each person is portrayed with care and attention and in short he makes you wish you knew the people he meets and afterwards wonder what they are upto now. If you only pick up one travel book this year then go for this.