A journey along the greatest land route on earth: out of the heart of China into the mountains of Central Asia, across northern Afghanistan and the plains of Iran and into Kurdish Turkey, Colin Thubron covers some seven thousand miles in eight months. Making his way by local bus, truck, car, donkey cart and camel, he travels from the tomb of the Yellow Emperor to the ancient port of Antioch. The Silk Road is a huge network of arteries splitting and converging across the breadth of Asia. To travel it is to trace the passage not only of trade and armies but also of ideas, religions and inventions. But alongside this rich and astonishing past, this book is also about Asia today: a continent of upheaval. One of the trademarks of Thubron's travel writing is the beauty of his prose; another is his gift for talking to people and getting them to talk to him.--From publisher description.
At times I loved this book. Mr. Thubron encounters many interesting people in his journey and has an ability to draw out their stories, dreams, hopes and fears. Sometimes humourous, sometimes sad, his stories of the people were wonderful. They reminded me a bit of John Berendt's marvelous way of finding and introducing fascinating people to the reader.
At other times -- unfortunately too many -- I found myself lost and confused. Mr. Thubron's descriptions of paintings and architecture, and his fictional conversations with an imaginary friend were beautifully written. He has a flair for description and evoking imagery that is unsurpassed. But too much of a good thing isn't a good thing. I often wondered "where is he again? What is he describing now?"
Glad I read this, but I don't think I'll be looking for more by this author.
I hadn't read any of Mr Thubron's travel writing in book form before (i have read short pieces in Granta) but I have a couple of his novels. But so enjoyable is his company that I will be buying more at the earliest opportunity
However, what I like about Colin Thubron's writing, is that he gets into the essence, the spirit, of a place that he visits. You get a sense of the history, albeit short, and it keeps you going right through the book. While it is about himself, he rarely gets sucked into the habit of putting himself first in every aspect of the writing.
Definitely worth reading
I have to say, this is one of the best travelogues I've read. I enjoyed it immensely. I've always found the Silk Road a fascinating subject, and Thubron brought both ancient legend and the modern region to life.
He also portrays himself with a matter-of-fact modesty. Thubron must have incredible stamina, as he regularly stays up late talking or drinking with younger men, then wakes up before dawn and wanders outside to look at his surroundings in the moonlight. He clearly also has a special kind of courage, traveling alone into situations in which he is wholly dependent on the decency of strangers. Yet, he doesn't make much of his accomplishments; he just shares his experiences. Finally, the man clearly does extensive homework before he starts on a trip, as he goes out of his way to visit interesting but obscure places.
Despite its many strengths, the book isn't perfect. While Thubron stops a few days in various places to look around, he's never anywhere long. He gets into relatively deep conversations with virtual strangers, but he doesn't experience enough of the rhythms of life in specific places to draw on that as context for his conversations. At times, Thubron hangs speculations about broad social change -- the shift towards a market economy in China, or the discomfort with encroaching western consumer culture in Iran -- on the thin reed of a conversation with a single native who may not be typical of his or her society at all. Thubron also invents an imaginary interlocutor, an ancient Silk Road trader, with whom he debates at intervals during the book. The main role of the character is to deprecate Thubron's motives for traveling; these conversations seemed to me among the least effective segments of an otherwise compelling book.