“Magic clung about it always. The earliest silk – the Indians called it woven wind – was sheer as gauze.” Colin Thubron’s splendid travelogue, Shadow of the Silk Road, winds through Afghanistan and Iran. He spends his last night in ancient Antioch. Today called Antakya, the Silk Road ended – or began – at this center on the Turkish shores of the Mediterranean.
The road’s “magic” is good and bad. Through it traveled ideas and inventions that improved humankind’s lot. From its travelers arose a mix of ethnicities, cultures and religions yielding conquest, peace and prosperity, a repetitive cycle beginning with Alexander the Great around 330 BC.
This was an invader’s highway, sick with the tramp of armies going east–Persians, Macedonians, Arabs–and with Turkic and Mongol cavalry swarming west, and its Silk Road was too rich and vulnerable for lasting peace.
This is one of the best travel books of the new century. Thubron’s literary prowess gives a lesson to any writer. His mastery of vocabulary, grammar, sentence construction, metaphor and simile produce a stimulating, haunting style. His knowledge of history and culture educates and enlightens. For instance, his commentary on the Taliban’s cruelties in Afghanistan brings relief to all but hardened cynics that Western intervention brought prayed–for peace with prosperity.
The Taliban drove their jeeps into the city [Mazar], machine-gunning shopkeepers, women, old men, children, even donkeys and dogs. Then they hunted down the Hazaras, house by house, killing the men with three shots, to the head, chest and testicles. Their leaders broadcast from the mosques that the Hazara were pagans [they were Shia, not Sunni Muslims], and so licensed their death. As refugees streamed from the city, Taliban aircraft strafed them at will… For five days bodies lay in Mazar’s street, mauled by dogs…All my life there’ve been bullets and bombs. We just hoped to stay alive, to have bread. And I thought it would always be like this. But now we’ve had a year of peace, and there’s this hope.
Thubron’s observations on the conflict between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam are brief and revealing. His recognition of legendary Iranian warmth and hospitality humanizes a people that Western media treat disdainfully.
A man in Qazvin writes me a card in halting English, wishing me a safe passage. Another offers me his wristwatch (mine has broken). Villagers give me rides on their motorbikes, showing off a little. Shop keepers add some small item free. Almost everybody is courteous to the stranger. Occasionally they arrange to meet you again…
Few people know the breadth and depth of Asia like Colin Thubron. Might he be far-seeing as he walks along the black sands of the Mediterranean in ancient Antioch? Looking up, he says:
But to West and East the sky was not the blue calm of my imagined homecoming but a troubled cloudscape that swept the city in moving gleams and shadows.
– Tucker Cox, Zeteo Contributing Writer
This article is part 2 of 3. Read Part 1 (Aug 14) about the Road’s Chinese legacy and varied identities
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. 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.