To compare Colin Thubron's writing
to most travel books is to compare the beautifully
crafted treasures inside the museum to the tawdry
baubles offered for sale on the steps outside.
Entire sections in bookstores are devoted to travel books, and TV travel programs take the viewer to every corner of the globe. Well, actually, not every corner - usually it's the same tired old landmarks coming into view time and time again. So, it is with something of a shock that the reader opens The Shadow of the Silk Road to be reminded that travel writing used to be a high art and, in the right hands, still can be; and those hands don't get much better than travel veteran Colin Thubron, who travels light with no camera and just a change of clothes, his money concealed in a gutted bottle of mosquito repellant.
No camera? But that means no pictures! A travel book with no glossy photos of wizened tribal elders and dirty faced but oh so adorable children; why would I want to read that? The short answer is that Thubron's writing doesn't need pictures. It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words - which is undoubtedly true up to a point; but one has to ask oneself whether pictures give the full story or even the accurate story, as the viewer tends to interpret images based on what they expect to see overlaid by their own cultural references. Page after page, Thubron's words tell a thousand pictures, bring alive not just the people and places of today but of yesterdays long past.
Thubron draws a thread through the complex history of Asian history's fluid borders as he travels through Central China, and then across more than 2000 miles of Turkic speaking lands and the Middle East to arrive at the Mediterranean coast. Across more than 5000 miles of ancient trade routes, he travels by rail, bus, bicycle, foot and by hitching rides; crossing lands that he has traveled for the past 40 years, enabling the reader to see them not just as they are today, but as they were in recent time, and in the distant past.
We begin to understand the legacy of the people and places, but also we start to grasp the extraordinary transition overtaking these multiple lands, mostly emerging from either China's cultural Revolution or Soviet control. We see the generational divide, meeting young people looking to the future, while their parent's generation has become largely redundant, their experiences of little interest. As Thubron puts it "Since the holocaust, my world has made a duty of remembrance. Russia, like China, had chosen forgetfulness".
Shadow of the Silk Road is Thubron's ninth travel book; it may possibly represent his last major journey. At 68-years-old he maybe ready to turn in the 3rd class hard seat for softer living. The reader can only hope that isn't the case because Thubron is a valuable eyewitness to the changing face of Asia and a charming, erudite, modest travel companion, who has a genuine compassion and patience for his fellow man and, as one reviewer puts it, "a cleric's knack for engaging the locals and extracting from them their true confessions."
Colin Thubron was born in London in 1939.
Educated at Eton College, he worked briefly for the
publishers Hutchinson and as a freelance television
film-maker in Turkey, Japan and Morocco. His first
three books were about the Middle East: Mirror to
Damascus, was published in 1967 and is still
considered one of the best books on the Syrian
capital; The Hills of Adonis: A Quest in Lebanon
(1968) and Jerusalem (1969).
Among the Russians (1983) describes a journey he made by car through western Russia during the Brezhnev era. Behind the Wall: A Journey through China (1987) won both the Hawthornden Prize and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. The Lost Heart of Asia (1994) narrates his travels through the newly-independent central Asian republics, exploring the effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union on the region; and In Siberia (1999) he explores the enormous and mysterious Russian territory of Siberia.
He is also the author of several novels, including a historical fiction, Emperor (1978), set in A.D. 312; A Cruel Madness (1984), winner of the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award; Falling (1989); Turning Back the Sun (1991), a haunting tale of love and exile; and Distance (1996). His most recent novel, To the Last City (2002), tells the story of a group of travelers in Peru.
A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature since 1969, Colin Thubron is a regular contributor and reviewer for magazines and newspapers including The Times, the Times Literary Supplement and The Spectator. He lives in London.
Interesting Link: Additional content about the book can be found at HarperCollins.
This review was originally published in October 2007, and has been updated for the July 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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