Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road records his 7,000 mile journey from Xi’an China to Antioch, Turkey (today Antaky). Thubron is a peerless author of travel books. The Times of London placed him 45th on their list of the 50 greatest writers since 1945. The New York Times says he is “the dean of British travel writers.” Begun during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), the Silk Road linked Mediterranean civilization and Chinese culture and lands in-between through “a shifting network of arteries and veins” that carried trade, trade above all, in ideas. Over the millennia, the Road’s peoples merged into a conglomeration of diversity where “language and identity become as shifting as the sands.”
Islamist Uighurs settled in China, as did Nestorian Christians and Indian Buddhist missionaries, bringing new religions and values, still alive today. China exported seminal technologies that “transform the contemporary world” of the early 18th century: printing, gunpowder and the magnetic compass. The list continues, though the innovations are not (quite) as profound. Some are: paper, the mechanical clock, cross bows (exploding medieval warfare), the equine harness (exploding agriculture), heavy stirrups (again, warfare – armoured knights), spinning wheels (textiles) and iron – chained suspension bridges (travel, war) and, of course, silk (luxury goods).
Thubron travels one of the most famous and enduring itineraries in history. He begins at the Western Market of old XI’an, China, where
the Silk Road came to rest, two hundred guilds of merchants worked. Their reach was immense. They embraced almost every people between Arabia and Japan: Persians, Turks and central Asian Sogdians especially, Indians, Bactrians, Jews, Syrians. There were times when whole echelons of the Tang court – including its elite bodyguard – were foreign.
Thubron’s traveler’s tales blend the historical force of ideas flowing from the Silk Road with current issues dominating each “land’s” search for identity, cohesion and stability. Today, China’s imports over a metaphorical Silk Road swamp society, creating a new cultural revolution. The old one snapped the “lifeline between authority and virtue.” Responsibility can “no longer be displaced upward, but has come to rest, with guilt, in the confines of the self.”
“All that China wants to be, Xi’an is becoming.”
Already the shops and hoardings are persuading you that everywhere is here: Paris, New York, London. The supermarkets are stacked with goods inaccessible even five years ago: electrical products pour in from eastern China; food is piled up in what to older people seems a curious dream. And here and there some glossy mall oversteps into Elysium altogether. These cold palaces offer an unmediated West: Givenchy, Arden, Bally, Gieves & Hawkes, Dior, L’Oréal. The assistants look blank and sanitised… Something had been licensed which they called the West.
The Xi’an municipality ordered a “train of sculpted camels twice life size” to mark the Road’s start. But, their chosen site had
“already been engulfed by a supermarket, splashed with advertisements for credit cards. The camels occupy a traffic island nearby.”
The Road gives a nonchalant shrug to national borders. Ideas that course through its “veins and arteries” promise new and innovative change, most often perceived as invaluable, in reality a mixed blessing.
Tucker Cox – Zeteo Contributing Writer
Thubron narrates an excellent video about China and the Silk Road on YouTube (approx. 45 mins) – click here.
Mr. Thubron briefly describes his journey, also on YouTube (2 mins 48 sec). Click here.
On March 26, 2011 Thubron gave a lecture at Univ. of Pennsylvania’s Penn Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology on “Traveling the Silk Road Today” (about 33 minutes on YouTube) – click here
See the playlist for NHK’s documentary about the Silk Road. Twelve episodes on YouTube, each about 48 mins. long. I have not seen all; but have viewed enough other NHK productions to know they are good, high quality, literate, informative and entertaining. Click here
Click here for a brief bio of Mr. Thubron, his books and awards.
In the “Silk Road Travel Blog” visitors describe their experience of various places along the route.
CITIC, a reputable Chinese tour operator, offers exciting Silk Road itineraries.
Photo of Mr. Thubron courtesy of Wikipedia.