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BOOK REVIEW

Ancient trade thoroughfare still makes a colorful journey

Colin Thubron took two years to travel the length of the Silk Road. Colin Thubron took two years to travel the length of the Silk Road. (Page Bertelsen photography)

Shadow of the Silk Road, By Colin Thubron, HarperCollins, 363 pp., illustrated, $25.95

In 53 BC, a Roman army was slaughtered by Parthian cavalry in the desert east of the Euphrates River, and the shadow of that defeat lies even today over the legendary Silk Road. Barely 700 miles into his own trip along the Silk Road, British travel writer Colin Thubron stopped in Yongchang, a country town in central China, lured there by reports of a statue of a Chinese mandarin, flanked by a Roman soldier and a Roman matron.

Thubron found the statue, and also met a number of townspeople with distinctly Western features. Standing with two such men amid a crowd with more typically Chinese faces, he writes, "I imagined us three Europeans." And when he leaves to continue his journey, one of them says in farewell, "My people were Romans."

History and DNA testing confirm those family memories, for the survivors of that long-ago battle became mercenaries guarding the Parthians' eastern borders, and reports of them appear in ancient Chinese annals and place names.

As Thubron writes in "Shadow of the Silk Road," his elegant account of a rough two years' trek, to travel it along some 7,000 miles from the ancient Chinese capital of Xian, across deserts and through mountain passes, to Antioch, Turkey, "is to follow a ghost," officially unmarked, but still vibrant with the movement, east to west and west to east, of people and their goods, and of legends.

In a bus lumbering toward the western Chinese oasis town of Cherchen at the edge of the forbidding Taklamakan Desert, Thubron muses that "over this desolation, centuries of caravans had moved. Through my splintered window I looked out on their memory with amazement. At different periods, everything on the known earth had passed this way: frankincense, rhinoceros horn, cucumbers, musk, dwarfs, lapis lazuli, peacocks. . . . Wares changed hands so often, or so distantly, that their origins became fabulous and forgotten."

But the reason the road existed, from earliest times -- even before that Roman defeat -- was Chinese silk, found in tombs from 1500 BC in Afghanistan and a princely grave of Iron Age Germany. Thubron's was not a tourist's vacation. He traveled by hard-sleeper train and peasant-packed bus , remarking that one train was "like a refugee camp on the move." One night his lodgings were in "a steel shipment container piled with the wreckage of beds and stoves. . . . packed with herdsmen and two poachers fishing the lake." What he found were wind-eroded ruins and, in Afghanistan, wrecked Russian tanks. He spent time in Xian, at the Buddhist grotto caves at Dunhuang, and, tucking his non-Muslim face into his anorak, at the grand 15th-century mosque at Meshed, in western Iran.

Thubron is a patient traveler, invariably finding someone with whom to converse, learning life stories and local legends. His accounts are brief but vivid. There is Dolkon, a Uighur youth with whom he is quarantined for several days at Cherchen because of the then-raging SARS epidemic. "There flows out of him . . . a torrent of inventions which have flowered in his head," among them a labor-saving grain sifter. He has already paid a metallurgist to make the first component and is saving up to pay for the second.

And looking for shelter one night near an ancient caravanserai in Kyrgyzstan, its caretaker, Nazira, "a young woman robust in baggy jacket and trousers," has a spare yurt. She offers supper and talks of how "in summer she rode her glossy horses," and in winter with her neighbors "would drive their horse-carts across the snow, singing in the sunlight -- and that was happiness."

The book contains maps on which Thubron's route is marked, but for illustration there are only his detail-colored accounts. Readers who would like to see for themselves can do so with the Japanese-Chinese television series "The Silk Road," filmed in the 1980s and available now (with English narration) on DVD.

Michael Kenney is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.

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