Shadow of the Silk Road – Colin Thubron

You wander through courtyards interlocked like those of a Ming palace, where the stelae are carved alternately in Arabic or Mandarin, and a minaret rises out of a porcelain-tiled pagoda. Stone dragons and tortoises coil and slumber here and there, ignorant of the Muslim ban on living images. The roofs tilt and swing above their high-coloured eaves, and across the lintels Chinese birds and flowers flock round Koranic inscriptions. An imam’s sermon booms over the loudspeakers from a prayer-hall  strung with neon lights. The voice is emphatic, overamplified, but I can barely comprehend a word.

Starting in Xian in China, Colin Thubron charts as much of the old Silk road as he can, traversing what must be some of the least travelled parts of the world as he skirts the Taklamakan desert (Its name perhaps means ‘abandoned place’. but in local parlance ‘You go in and you never return.’ In it’s heart, unlike the Sahara, nothing lives.) through to central Asia, following the mix of people, philosophies, religion and of course, goods between East and West, finally looking out of the Mediterranean Sea at Antioch.

I’ve seen Thubron’s books on the shelf before, but have always passed him over, heading straight instead to Theroux, or more recently Gimlette or Jacobs. A novelist, like Theroux, the difference seemed that Theroux seemed to go to places that I wanted to read about, but Thubron didn’t. However I have had a slow burning interest in central Asia for a while, although I couldn’t say where it comes from, and a trip along the old Silk Road is something that appeals to the wanderlust in me.

Starting along with Thubron was a struggle, his China seemed impenetrable, conversation with locals muffled and difficult to understand, they being as inscrutable to the outsider as the country itself. It seemed Thubron himself was suffering, his conversation with the Sogdian trader indicating a descent into madness. The air clears some though as he reaches western China and skirts the Taklamakan desert along it’s southern route to Kashgar, before passing deep into Central Asia, an area that in my mental map is marked by here be dragons, so little do I know about it. Thubron fills the book with history, his interactions with the locals and officials, but it is prose that slowly seeps into your conscious, his descriptions of the places he ghosts through. It is beautiful, his descriptions at once evocative but distant, not immediately recognisable. As he filled out my geographical and historical black hole, winding down through to Afghanistan and Iran I took in the history but enjoyed it as if it was fiction, such was his elegant pen. Thubron has a natural curiosity that draws him deep into the history and nuances of a place. Even his trespassing in Meshed, something that for some reason I disagreed with, was something that was done our of pure curiosity, rather than a malicious incursion into forbidden territory. From the buried stoicism of the Uighur people to the state of Islam in Iran there is a melancholic yet piercing glance at the places and people of this historically critical part of the world, and it’s a trip I would love to take at some point myself, although I’m pretty sure I couldn’t write about it quite like this.

For more than half the year the sky above the sky above the town was opaque muslin, dense with unseen sand, and the sun only a white coin discarded there. From the invisible Kun Lun mountains, the twin Black and White Jade rivers cam winding out of mist between banks of silt and pebbles, flowing through the oasis to the desert. The Kun Lun seem to retreat forever into a cold elusiveness. here, in the Chinese mind, bloomed the orchards of immortality and the white land of death, where the Queen Mother of the West ruled from her jade mountain at the gate of heaven.



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