The Silk Road: in 2007

The Silk Road: in 2007

The 'shadow' of the title applies not only to the ghost of the Silk Road that has officially vanished, but also to the memory of Thubron's previous encounters with the cities on this route

Mitali Saran
September 22 , 2014
02 Min Read

It's possible to fatally overdose on books about the most famous trade route in human history, but if you haven't read enough of them to feel that way, Colin Thubron's Shadow of the Silk Road is a nicely nuanced portrait of the road most taken.


It's a road that Thubron himself has touched here and there before, in decades of travelling and writing. The 'shadow' of the title applies not only to the ghost of a route that has officially vanished, but also to the memory of his previous encounters with it and the differences he notes between the Xian of 18 years ago or the Bukhara of 30 years ago, and the changed cities he sees now.

And it certainly refers to the lush, captivating past in which the road and its cities, tombs and memories are steeped. Thubron is a conscientious researcher who brings what he sees to vivid life with what he knows of its past. His retelling of old myths and histories — of how Lei-tzu, wife of the Yellow Emperor of Chinese antiquity, discovered silk; or of how Tamerlane the Great, sheep rustler-turned-emperor, built his great tomb at Samarkand, or of how Herat was once so cultivated that you could not stretch a leg without kicking a poet — make for compelling reading.

You might say that it would be difficult for anyone to render a boring account of a journey so rich in geography and history. But it is also a journey that makes its way through epic amounts of pain, both past and present, and that darker tone, too, quite sensitively shadows the account. Travelling across one of the most complex geopolitical regions in the world, at the volatile and often violent intersections of ethnicities, cultures, religions and politics, Thubron knows he is visiting, out of mere curiosity and interest, places and times where other people have suffered bitter losses. He isn't one of those macho travellers who edit out the bits that make them look bad; his account records a fair share of faux pas, anger, dislike, and incomprehension, and he sometimes reveals a cultural tin ear. But he is unfailingly curious, and unlike many travellers, engages with the people around him. One of the most interesting things about his version of the Silk Road is that he allows its present-day inhabitants to speak about themselves in their own voices, and those voices, more than Thubron's potted histories, illustrate the Uigher-Chinese animosity, the Shia-Sunni friction, male-female mores.

There is another shadow, too, the crusty Sogdian trader conjured by Thubron's imagination, who accompanies him along his 7,000-mile journey from Xian, China, to Antioch, Turkey, and asks him tough personal questions, including, Why are you doing this? One could speculate that Thubron is trying to understand the post-9/11 world through its pre-9/11 past, but he articulates his purpose in the universal terms of the dedicated traveller: “These are the nerve-ends of the world...You go to touch on human identities, to people an empty map. You have a notion that this is the world's heart...You go because you are still young and crave excitement, the crunch of your boots in the dust; you go because you are old and need to understand something before it is too late. You go to see what will happen.”

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