Book Review: Shadow of the Silk Road

Shadow of the Silk Road Book Review

“The author travels not just roads and paths through mountains and deserts, he also travels in time, venturing back along a route some believe to be 10,000 years old.”

The history of the Orient is written on silk. Silkworm cultivation probably began 4000 years before Christ; 3500 years before the Golden Age of Greece; 1000 years before the Old Kingdom of Egypt.

Legend attributes its discovery to Lei-tzu, the wife of the mythic Yellow Emperor, believed by the largest single group of people to have lived on earth to be the creator of civilization.

In the best tradition of the travel genre, Shadow of the Silk Road is the odyssey of a single sojourner, a stranger in a strange place. British author Colin Thubron’s two-year journey, begins in the fall of 2002. The people along the Silk Road still struggle within a medieval culture-a Stone Age culture in some isolated areas.

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The author travels not just roads and paths through mountains and deserts, he also travels in time, venturing back along a route some believe to be 10,000 years old. Thubron, an extremely learned man and gifted writer, is perhaps the world’s best known traveler; this book is the ninth such book he has written. Although the tale is fascinating-pages flow over with discoveries and facts and amazement-Thubron is the real subject of this book for me. Well into his 60s when he begins his odyssey, he goes, he says, because he is “old and need[s] to understand something before it is too late.”

Don’t we all.

The “Silk Road,” a nineteenth-century term, stretches 7000 miles from the ancient Chinese capital of Xian to Antioch, Turkey. Much of this area-Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq-is important to Americans only in terms of the “war on terror.” The “road”-not really a single road but many convergent and divergent roads-is defined by the constant and ancient pull and thrust of commerce.

Silk, though the most popular commodity, was only one of many goods carried on the east-to-west and west-to-east caravans.

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“At different periods,” Thubron imagines,” 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.”

A Dangerous Itinerary

The Silk Road was a veritable “relay race” of goods.

Thubron is no tourist. He remains as true to that itinerary and time as is possible for a twenty-first-century traveler. He moves by foot or hitches rides on wagons or catches the rickety peasant buses that irregularly navigate the dangerous itinerary. Here bandits and warring tribes and hostile nationalists rule empires measured in a few square miles. Nothing is predictable: weather and humanity alike are capricious and hostile. Thubron sleeps in the huts of peasants or the temples of monks. He eats their food.

One of his gifts as a writer of travel books is his patience, which provides him opportunity for conversation with and the self-disclosure of his hosts. (That he also speaks a number of languages and local dialects doesn’t hurt.) Often, these casual acquaintances provide startling revelations.

In China, for instance, Thubron solicited from many young Chinese confessions of fatalism and greed. One young Chinese intellectual told him, “‘You know, in China we have no tradition of respect for human life. It’s simply not in our past. This is our problem: inhumanity.’”

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Most of these young Chinese are the products of the “One Child Policy” and, as such, they have been doted on excessively; they are called “little emperors.” Born after the Cultural Revolution-which they regard as a joke-they are arrogantly self-confident. They have lost their past; the ancient wisdoms are dead, killed by atheism.

Communism itself is dying, the victim of greed and development. As Thubron observes, “[T]he ghost of the future [is everywhere] waiting to break through.” The observations of indiscriminate destruction of ancient temples and gardens in the path of ugly skyscrapers is poignantly rendered, the spoils of a generational war.

The young Chinese socialize and move in cliques of like-minded youth. They seem afraid and don’t feel comfortable in the present. For them, “[t]he future can hardly wait.” One senses sadness at the base of their anxiety. As a teacher of young adults, I was amazed at the similarities between Chinese and American young people.

Silk Road, however, is not exclusively about China. As Thubron aptly states, “to follow the Silk Road is to follow a ghost.”

Prominent ghosts include, of course, Islam and the Soviet Union. Abandoned Russian tanks litter the hamlets of Afghanistan. Surprisingly, many people are ambivalent about the defeat of the Russians. One young Afghani explains: “We’ve become poorer with independence. Old families are having to sell their Korans-lovely things, written on skins, some . . . with feathered quills. People say things were better in Soviet times.”

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The ghost of Christianity, with its specifically Asian tint, also lingers along the Silk Road. Thubron discovers a column, raised in AD 781, with a carved inscription: “‘Record of the Transmission of the Western Religion of Pure Light through China.’ And it was crowned by a Christian [Nestorian] cross.” The author’s description continues with startling revelation: “[D]renched in Buddhist and Taoist imagery-[it] celebrate[s] the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, and Christ’s Ascension.”

Cultures Transformed by One Another

In fact, for me, one of the most surprising revelations was the complex mix of peoples that existed-still exists-in Asia. Cultures were not so much tolerated as transformed by one another. In Zhelaizhai, a village in central China, Thubron finds a “statue of a mandarin flanked by a Roman soldier and a Roman matron.”

Nearby he meets people with undeniably Western features: tall with rosy complexions, aquiline noses, some with blond hair and blue eyes. Recent DNA tests on these villagers confirm a European genealogy, which history itself supports.

In 53 BC Crassus, a particularly avaricious and arrogant Roman general, lead an army of 45,000 Europeans across the Euphrates against what he had anticipated would be a Persian opponent. Instead, he met the cavalry of the semi-nomadic Parthians. Crassus’s army was trounced by the superior warriors: “In an unnerving moment . . .the Parthians unfurled banners of blinding gold-embroidered silk-stuff the Romans had never seen.”

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About 35,000 of the Roman soldiers were either killed or retreated back across the Euphrates. (Crassus himself was a victim, and legend tells us that the Parthian general had the Roman’s skull filled with gold-an ironic conclusion to the greedy general’s career.) Another exhausted 10,000 were taken captive by the Parthians. Rather than executing the Roman soldiers, the Parthians offered them employment as mercenaries, and as mercenaries in the service of their nomadic bosses, they spread their genes throughout Asia.

As Thubron prepares to leave Zhelaizhai, one of the European-looking Chinese villagers comments, in parting: “My people were Romans.”

I’ve left out much, of course. Thubron makes his journey during the height of the SARS epidemic in Asia. As a foreigner, he is harassed and then quarantined for several days in an isolated village. He fears he is forgotten.

Look, too, to discover what dentistry is like along the Silk Road. (What could be more terrifying than being an American with an abscessed tooth in Teheran, Iran, looking for someone to perform root canal therapy?)

About the Author

MaryJo Thomas is a published writer and journalist.

A college professor of literature and writing for fifteen years, she writes, “I escaped from academe three years ago to work full-time with my sister in our freelance writing, editing, and research business.

“I am 57 years old, divorced, with no children. I have seven cats and a black Lab . My interests include senior rights, animal and environmental rights, lighthouses, Albert Camus, poetry, and reruns of “The Prisoner” and “The Nanny.

“I proudly belong to no groups, though I believe American seniors need to form a coalition (not AARP) to combat those who would rob us of the rights and privileges we have worked and paid for (politicians, pharmaceutical and insurance companies, and generations X, Y, etc.). I am looking for writing jobs.”

MaryJo lives in Berea, KY.



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