Summary and book reviews of Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron

Shadow of the Silk Road

by Colin Thubron

Shadow of the Silk Road
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2007, 363 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2008, 400 pages

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Book Summary

Shadow of the Silk Road records a journey along the greatest land route on earth: Out of the heart of China into the mountains of Central Asia, across northern Afghanistan and the plains of Iran and into Kurdish Turkey.

Shadow of the Silk Road records a journey along the greatest land route on earth. Out of the heart of China into the mountains of Central Asia, across northern Afghanistan and the plains of Iran and into Kurdish Turkey, Colin Thubron covers some seven thousand miles in eight months. Making his way by local bus, truck, car, donkey cart and camel, he travels from the tomb of the Yellow Emperor, the mythic progenitor of the Chinese people, to the ancient port of Antioch—in perhaps the most difficult and ambitious journey he has undertaken in forty years of travel.

The Silk Road is a huge network of arteries splitting and converging across the breadth of Asia. To travel it is to trace the passage not only of trade and armies but also of ideas, religions and inventions. But alongside this rich and astonishing past, Shadow of the Silk Road is also about Asia today: a continent of upheaval.

One of the trademarks of Colin Thubron's travel writing is the beauty of his prose; another is his gift for talking to people and getting them to talk to him. Shadow of the Silk Road encounters Islamic countries in many forms. It is about changes in China, transformed since the Cultural Revolution. It is about false nationalisms and the world's discontented margins, where the true boundaries are not political borders but the frontiers of tribe, ethnicity, language and religion. It is a magnificent and important account of an ancient world in modern ferment.

Chapter One

Dawn

In the dawn the land is empty. A causeway stretches across the lake on a bridge of silvery granite, and beyond it, pale on its reflection, a temple shines. The light falls pure and still. The noises of the town have faded away, and the silence intensifies the void—the artificial lake, the temple, the bridge—like the shapes for a ceremony which has been forgotten.

As I climb the triple terrace to the shrine, a dark mountain bulks alongside, dense to the skyline with ancient trees. My feet sound frail on the steps. The new stone and the old trees make a soft confusion in the mind. Somewhere in the forest above me, among the thousand-year-old cypresses, lies the tomb of the Yellow Emperor, the mythic ancestor of the Chinese people.

A few pilgrims are wandering in the temple courtyard, and vendors under yellow awnings are offering yellow roses. It is quiet and thick with shadows. Giant cypresses have invaded the compound and now stand, ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Thubron's words tell a thousand pictures, as he conjures in the reader's mind the people and places of today and yesterdays long past. To compare Thubron's writing to most travel books is to compare the beautifully crafted treasures inside the museum to the tawdry baubles being hawked on the museum steps.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews

Ben Brink - The Oregonian

Shadow of the Silk Road is a travel book, not a novel with a plot, and the enjoyment of reading it lies in the details of every traveler, every situation and every town Thubron experiences along the way. The experiences add up to an interesting portrait of lands and people not well known or appreciated for all the twists of fate history has dealt them.

The Christian Science Monitor - Richard Horan

Though the journey is long and tiring, there is much to learn from it.

The New York Times Book Review - Lorraine Adams

With its elegiac tone, “Shadow of the Silk Road” is moving in a way that’s rare in travel literature, sidestepping nostalgia even as it notes its pull.

Boston Globe - Michael Kenney

Thubron is a patient traveler, invariably finding someone with whom to converse, learning life stories and local legends. His accounts are brief but vivid.

The Seattle Times - Lucy Mohl

No beach read was ever this thick with imagery and information. It takes time to absorb Thubron's story, and it can feel as though you're taking every step with him. But at the end, you emerge with a haunting and wonderful sense that you've been there, too. You've also crossed the shadow of the Silk Road.

Booklist - George Cohen

An illuminating account of a breathtaking journey.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Thubron's poetic eye teases out gorgeous subtleties in the panorama.

The Observer - Ian Thomson

In this book, however, Thubron has allowed the narrative to stagnate. His 7,000-mile tramp along the ancient trade route from eastern China to Turkey is timely, given our fears of Islam. He cut through missile-torn Afghanistan and other lands contested by the Taliban. Yet the writing is often ponderous and old-fashioned ....Shadow of the Silk Road, the culmination of a lifetime's travel, impresses with its scholarship and literary craft. Nevertheless, it disappoints after In Siberia, one of the finest books on contemporary Russia.

The Washington Post - Jonathan Yardley

[Thubron] is a scholar as well as a traveler and writer, with the result that Shadow of the Silk Road is as much a history lesson as a contemporary adventure. All in all, a splendid book.

Mail on Sunday (UK)

A beautiful and profound travel book

The Daily Telegraph - Sara Wheeler

[The] sheer force of his prose redeems the patternlessness indigenous to the linear journey, and his strong, clear voice confers its own unity. He wins the war against cliché, and as a stylist seldom falters. And he is concise. Arriving at Kashgar, where the southern and northern Silk Roads converge, he describes that city's role as a listening post in the Great Game before concluding, "But the game was China's now."

New Statesman

A masterpiece of travel writing ... a classic

The Independent - Benedict Allen

Thubron makes his way with an appealing blend of self-doubt and erudition; he is willing, he is patient; he knows he cannot resolve but he can attempt to decipher. It's no surprise that he's made so readily welcome. One by one they open up to him - in China, whether the broken and disillusioned of the Cultural Revolution or the wandering Buddhist monk with his pitiful dream of becoming a bodyguard to the Dalai Lama; in Kashgar, the quiet, beleaguered nomads whose market - a decade ago a great wonder of the world - is concreted over by a newly resurgent and soulless China advancing again westward on the world.

Reader Reviews

Mary

Like great writing?
I'm not recommending this for my book club because it's not very "discussable": I'm not recommending it to most of my busy friends because it demands an ambling read. I'm not talking about it with family because the subject matter is is far from ...   Read More

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The Silk Road (map) starts at the western gate of old Changan in Xian which, in the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), was the greatest city in the world. The Xian municipality commissioned a red sandstone sculpture of twice life-size camels in commemoration, but the site is now engulfed by a supermarket - so the camels have been relocated to a traffic island!

Nobody in ancient times spoke of the Silk Road; the term was coined by 19th century German geographer, Friedrich von Richthofen,...

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