Shadow of the Silk Road

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Modern Central Asia is a continent in political upheaval. In Shadow of the Silk Road, Colin Thubron sets this in the context of the Silk Road’s ancient and tumultuous history as a trade route, a road along which ideas and people, as well as consumer goods, have traveled, eastward as well as westward, for thousands of years.

“To follow a road,” writes Thubron, “is to follow diversity, a flow of interlocked voices, arguing, in a cloud of dust.” No road is more diverse than the Silk Road, the world’s greatest land route. The road, a fretwork of arteries and veins, begins in China and crosses Central Asia, passing through northern Afghanistan, Iran, and the Kurdish area of Turkey, before finally reaching the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. As a concept, it is a nineteenth century artifact, the creation of Ferdinand von Richthofen, but as a trading route it is centuries old, constantly shifting and transforming. Thubron, who had made the seven-thousand-mile journey once before, some twenty years ago, notes that following the Silk Road is like following a ghost. The route has “officially” vanished from the map but can nonetheless still be traced through physical remains of earlier civilizations and through the ideas and products that traveled along it, transcending what Thubron calls modern “counterfeit borders.”

The effect of these counterfeit borders preoccupy Thubron throughout his journey, not only in practical terms of having to deal with border officials, who very often do not understand the visas and permissions he is showing them, but also because of how they shape the lives of the people he meets. Borders have placed artificial constraints upon them, turning land into nations and states, often in ways that do not reflect their lived experience. Standing in Xian in China’s Shaanxi province, where the Silk Road is said to begin (or end), Thubron reflects on the movement of peoples and ideas up and down the length of its route, and how they have shaped world civilization.

Thubron is struck by the pace of change since he last visited this area of China. There are parts of the cities he no longer recognizes, and he comments on the way in which they seem to have embraced the “unmediated West” in terms of architectural style and consumer demands. Visiting friends, he is struck by how eager they are, how necessary it has become, to “forget” Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Those who remember it forget to protect themselves from its memories, while the young have no point of reference with which to remember it. Thubron visits old friends who welcome the transformation, but with caution, and encounters many people who remain scarred by their experiences.

This sense of needing to forget seems to haunt Thubron as he sets out on his journey. Aware of how history is being reconstructed around him, providing a seamless narrative of Chinese supremacy, Thubron seems to be determined to dig as deep as he can into the ancient history of the Silk Road, showing how, before the borders became hardened, before the Yellow Emperor defined the nature of Chinese civilization, the area the maps now call China was a shifting landscape of peoples and allegiances.

While the Silk Road was once the route by which silk, paper, printing, and gunpowder made their way west into Europe, now it is a route along which the deadly SARS virus, which breaks out in Central Asia during Thubron’s journey, is equally capable of traveling. During the first part of his journey, Thubron is constantly beset by officials solicitous of his health; he is detained in a quarantine hospital for several days before being released and allowed to go on his way. It is an early indication of the official belief in the power of boundaries and how fragile that reliance actually is.

As Thubron shows, the Silk Road was always a counter to boundaries. As easily as trade goods made their way westward, so did ideas and peoples from the west make their way eastward. Thubron traces the remains of a small group of Nestorian Christians who settled in Shaanxi province in 781 and...

(The entire section is 1683 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

America 197, no. 12 (October 22, 2007): 25-27.

The Economist 380 (September 30, 2006): 93.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 10 (May 15, 2007): 492.

New Statesman 135 (September 25, 2006): 78-79.

The New York Review of Books 54, no. 20 (December 20, 2007): 18-24.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (July 15, 2007): 1-10.

The Times Literary Supplement, November 17, 2006, p. 9.