Stories spun from the Silk Road

British travel writer Colin Thubron's trek along the ancient route is classical studies meets exotic adventure.

Colin Thubron, the intrepid, erudite author of numerous travel books, has once again undertaken an odyssey of Homeric proportions. This time he's ventured over 5,000 miles across the entire length and breadth of the Silk Road, through some of the most dangerous territory on the planet – Xian in China to Antioch on the Turkish Mediterranean, with stops along the way at Jiayuguan, Huatuguo, Ustkurgan, Maragheh, Orumiyeh, to name just a few of the mostly unpronounceable places he visited.

(And you might be advised to grab an old edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, because you'll need to reference some pretty obscure historical figures, such as Avalokitesvara aka Guanyin, the goddess of mercy during the Tang Dynasty; Husain Baiqara, the last Timurid sultan of Herat; and Yacub Beg, ruler of an independent Chinese Turkistan from 1865 to 1877, to name just a few.)

Shadow of the Silk Road is classical studies (think: Sir Kenneth Clark's "Civilization") meets exotic adventure (think: Lawrence Osborne's "The Naked Tourist"). Starting in the capital city of Xian at the shrine of the Yellow Emperor, "the mythic ancestor of the Chinese people," Thubron pointed his feet westward and sallied forth.

And it is quite the journey – physically, emotionally, and intellectually.

Thubron, ever the pedant, overloads the reader's neurons and synapses with page after page of historical references (see above for examples), yet he has a cleric's knack for engaging the locals and extracting from them their true confessions – primary source information that is the hallmark of all great travel writing.

For example, in Xian, in a dumpling restaurant, he met Hu Ji, a historian of the Tang dynasty. Out of the blue, and rather matter-of-factly, Hu Ji told Thubron (Thubron speaks Mandarin): " 'You know, in China we have no tradition of respect for human life. It's simply not in our past. That is our problem: inhumanity.' "

Later in Iran he met Vahid who confessed (Vahid lived in Canada so he speaks English): " 'We need a secular government. Everyone I know wants that. We want access to the world.' "

Amazingly, nothing bad happened to him along the way, despite the fact that he wandered alone into some treacherous locales he'd been advised to avoid like the plague.

Case in point: He was quarantined in a sanatorium in western China due to the outbreak of SARS, but he was released after only a few days no worse for the wear. Later, in Kyrgyzstan, he was duped out of a few dollars by thieves impersonating police, but other than that nothing of any consequence befell him.

He even traveled through Afghanistan (he's British), from Mazar-e Sharif in the north to Herat in the southwest, bumming rides from area locals. This was 2006! He was just plain fortunate.

And serendipitous: Toward the end of his journey, in Iran, there was one incredible scene at the mosque of Gawhar Shad where the cenotaph of Haroun al-Rashid is located.

Thubron was touring around outside, and trying to get a peak at things inside, when suddenly he was "swept up in a moving crush of worshippers. Staccato groans and cries broke out, and I looked up to see beyond a black ocean of heads, the huge, gilded casket of the grave.... Drowning hands tore at the casket's bars and men were clambering on to others' shoulders, caressing its filigree, kissing its gold, smearing their palms over their faces.... For an instant it seemed we would be swept against the tomb. Then the slipstream carried us away."

Thubron seems convinced that there is something revelatory in visiting the unexplored tombs and long-forgotten outposts of the ancient world. Yet he never seems to find that insight he so longs for. Never. Much to his credit, he doesn't complain nor does he desist, no matter how far off the beaten path he finds himself.

Throughout the adventure, silk resonates. Thubron refers to it again and again, making extravagant claims: "magic clung to it" or occasionally offering non sequitur anecdotes: "An Arab merchant in the ninth century was astonished to observe the mole of an imperial eunuch's chest through five layers of gossamer silk."

Silk, of course, is the central metaphor of the book, for it was silk and silk alone that brought the myriad races together, the Romans and the Turkmen, the Persians and the Uighurs, the Nestorians, Tochtors, Mongols, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Jews, and Chinese, across the vast Asian continent from the dawn of civilization up to the present day; and like the silkmakers, "the nations had interwoven one another."

At journey's end, Thubron imagines the Silk Road from a merchant's point of view, where everything is "convertible, kaleidoscopic. The purity of cultures, even the Chinese, becomes an illusion.... To follow a road is to follow diversity: a flow of interlocked voices, arguing, in a cloud of dust."

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

• Richard Horan teaches composition at the State University of New York at Oswego. He is the author of two novels, 'Life in the Rainbow' and 'Goose Music.'

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