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The Way West

Colin Thubron, the dean of British travel writers, would hate being called the dean of anything. A hitchhiking man, he gets drunk with Kyrgyz villagers who drive headlong toward a truck. He camps in a mud hut with workers in the mountains of northern Iran. He equably drinks wine out of paper cups with a Russian beggar. His clothes are dodgy, his rucksack light.

He does, however, speak Mandarin and Russian. And this, his ninth travel book, is no lark. It chronicles his 7,000-mile journey in 2003 and 2004 (begun when he was about to turn 64) from Xian, China, to the Turkish coastal city of Antioch.

The Silk Road Thubron travels is, he reminds us, not one road but a “fretwork ” of trade routes dating back to 1500 B.C. Its very name, now appropriated by everyone and everything from Yo-Yo Ma to aromatherapy products, was actually coined by a 19th- century German geo grapher. Along these trails, the great Chinese inventions made their way west: printing, the crossbow, gunpowder, lock-gates and drive-belts, the mechanical clock, the spinning wheel, iron-chain suspension bridges, equine harnesses and deep-drilling techniques.

Since Marco Polo first narrated a new kind of text in a Genoa prison cell, much of the finest Western travel writing about Asia has managed to be both serious and appealingly haphazard. The master British explorers of Eastern climes have been beautiful writers who can also be laugh-out-loud funny — Vita Sackville-West in Persia, Freya Stark in Luristan, Robert Byron on the road to ancient Oxiana and Eric Newby in the Hindu Kush. Thubron possesses the same gifts. His account of an unexpected root-canal procedure at the hands of a chador-wearing dentist is a small masterpiece of painful hilarity.

Yet in “Shadow of the Silk Road” Thubron departs from his countrymen in important respects. This is not his first trip across these deserts and mountains, and he saw many of these places before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Because he travels without a camera, Thubron never compares snapshots, only memories. In this, he is more poetic than his predecessors; the passage of time is his book’s most interesting feature.

“Over this desolation, centuries of caravans had moved. Through my splintered window I looked out on their memory with amazement,” Thubron writes in western China. “At different periods, everything on the known earth had passed this way: frankincense, rhinoceros horn, cucumbers, musk, dwarfs, lapis lazuli, peacocks, indigo eye-shadow (the monopoly of the Chinese empress), even a caged lion or two.”

Today policemen looking for drugs and bureaucrats protecting borders have replaced the Sogdian traders who once plied these roadways. As Thubron and a busload of Afghans cross into Iran: “We were stood against a wall, as if to be shot, with our baggage at our feet. The Afghans looked bitter and depleted. Many of their passports had been signed by the illiterate with a thumbprint. When an officer realized I was a Westerner, I was motioned aside, guiltily exempt, with women and mewling children, while the men were ordered to take off their shoes, then sharply frisked. The bags were emptied again into the dust, spilling out their intimacies: spangled shoes and bras and family photographs. The few goods people were carrying for sale, the small exchanges of the Silk Road — pistachio nuts, woolen coats — were fingered, questioned, valued, then at last, mostly, returned.”

With its palaces, silk-clad camel drivers and flourishing trade, the Persian caravan city of Rey “once compared to Baghdad.” Now, Thubron finds, it’s a suburb of apartment blocks on the southern outskirts of Tehran, a polluted city of 14 million whose population has doubled in 20 years. During the heyday of the Silk Road, Thubron reminds us, “Tehran had hardly existed.”

Other journeys to other places shadow Thubron’s travels. Eating alone in a Uighur restaurant, “a fleeting nostalgia touched me. I remembered a young man in Damascus 40 years ago, seated alone like this, eating, watching. But now those around me spoke not Arabic, but the scuttling, stressless language of a Turkic people.” Thubron’s first travel book was “Mirror to Damascus,” published in 1967, when he was in his late 20s.

Thubron last saw China 18 years ago, before its market economy took off. In Xian, searching for the “coal dust” and “autumnal mud” he remembers, he finds instead a “hectic procession of shopping malls, restaurants and high-tech industrial suburbs,” the invasion of Givenchy, Bally, Dior and L’Oréal. He sees “couples walking hand in hand, even kissing — a Maoist outrage.”

Yet the past, as Thubron amply demonstrates, is no haven for angels. In China, he visits an old friend , a professor of English literature. A survivor of the Cultural Revolution’s mass terror, in which more than a million people are said to have died, this man’s concerns are confined to the forwardness of college students and, ironically, the widespread teaching of English. As Thubron makes his way through the former Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, he finds other living contradictions — like the Uzbek grandmother who reveres Stalin, killer of her husband and father.

The heinous is not confined to relatively recent times. Thubron recounts stories about the great butchers of the Central Asian past — about Tamerlane’s pyramids of skulls and the Mongols’ destruction of Balkh, Tus, Nishapur, Merv and Rey. “They were not just laid in ruins; they were all but extinguished. The Mongols herded their inhabitants outside the gates — men, women, children — and massacred them, even dogs and cats, then ploughed every dwelling into the ground.”

In the Afghan city of Herat, which he first visited 30 years ago, the complicated presence of the past is particularly clear. For Thubron, memory “had reduced the city to a few lanternslides: a pony-trap pawing the ground outside my small hotel; sunbeams hanging in dust through the pines by the minarets of Gawhar Shad.” A quarter-century of war intervened: first the Soviet invasion, then the civil war that brought the Taliban to power , then the United States-led campaign against the Taliban in 2001. The hotel Thubron stayed in is gone, and the stink of diesel fumes has replaced the pure air he remembered. Yet he finds that “beneath this clamor an old suavity and grace survived.”

As he checks into a hotel near the Old City, Thubron peers through windows that overlook crossroads “where the Taliban had once hanged their victims on makeshift gallows.” In the distance, however, “the isolated minarets of my memory reared up in golden pillars across a blurred sky.” Then, in one of the wonderful asides with which his book is packed, Thubron mentions another of this blighted city’s fascinating discontinuities: in the 12th century, its population exceeded that of Paris or Rome.

At first, Thubron explains, the Silk Road had a “gentle decline,” but then, in the mid-15th century, “as Central Asia splintered into belligerent Turkic and Mongol khanates, China closed itself away. In an astonishing act of self-isolation, the Ming dynasty unrigged its entire heavy merchant fleet of 3,500 ships, and abandoned trade contacts by both land and sea.” Spain and Portugal built their empires. Columbus’s voyage for the Orient resulted in an entirely different discovery, while the Portuguese pioneered the sea routes around Africa. The weight of the world shifted. Yet Thubron locates the beginning of this change not in Europe but in China, where, back in the 10th century, an unknown inventor discovered the maritime compass.

With its elegiac tone, “Shadow of the Silk Road” is moving in a way that’s rare in travel literature, sidestepping nostalgia even as it notes its pull. Thubron goes to places most other sojourners can’t — because they’re not so much geographic locations as states of mind, formed from the lifelong accretion of intriguing facts, mistaken hopes, mysteries. Here, on civilization’s oldest and longest road, which isn’t quite a road, he has found his way into that kingdom and brought it into focus for us.

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