Thursday, January 04, 2007

Verbose Meanderings

Some months ago, a friend asked me if I had read Colin Thubron's 'Shadow of the Silk Road'. I replied that yes, sure, that had been written ages ago, hadn't it?

It seems that it was not written that many ages ago - the book I was thinking of was his 'The Lost Heart of Asia' which I really had read ages ago, when I was working in Kyrgyzstan - as you all now know...

This book describes Thubron's journey along the silk road from China to the Mediterranean. I have a feeling that the silk road is a bit in the eye of the beholder, and that there are many different routes. For this 'trip' Thubron went through China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Southern Turkey, sometime in 2003 to 2004 (he gets caught up in the panic around the SARS epidemic in China). At that time he was 64/65 years old - though his picture at the back of the book shows a very spry looking gentleman with a glamorous mane of thick white or blond(?) hair.

Thubron does not do comfortable travel. We consultants working in these parts sometimes feel a little sorry for ourselves for not always being very comfortable, but he really, really roughs it. Using all sorts of means of transport, hardly any of which might ever dream of attaining European standards of safety, sleeping in godforsaken places, hanging about in strange places while waiting for borders to open and quarantines to finish, undergoing tortuous emergency dental treatment in an obscure corner of Iran, getting done over by police in Kyrgyzstan, and spending days and days and days going to look at ancient monuments or relics of glorious pasts, only to find that most of them have vanished from the face of the earth, been demolished, disappeared under sand dunes ertc. While in China in some cases he can get by using Mandarin (though in the far north west the dialects become impenetrable), and in Kyrgzystan and Uzbekistan he can use his Russian, in Afghanistan and Iran he does not have a common language and gets by with arms and feet, and locals who practice their English on him, all the while pouring out their hearts and at times extolling their own strange philosophies. It's definitely a very hands-on journey, and when he arrives he cannot quite believe that he is in a hotel where water comes out when you turn the tap and the lights work. He must have a constitution like a horse not to have got seriously sick in that journey (other than that troublesome tooth).

It is a fairly intense book, mixing history with events that happened to him on the way. The history is a bit thin on data, such as dates of years - it seems like it was written from memory, possibly the deep knowledge that Thubron has of that area, rather than recent research. (We all do it when we know something but cannot find a reference).

As a writer he is amazing. His descriptions are awesome and the way he combines words, while sometimes a bit florid, really describes what he saw or felt: 'the spaces between them [church worshippers] ache with those who have gone', 'a glow of feasting', 'a rain of bullet holes', 'a defile of dust' - maybe he invented 'a pride of lions'? It makes you wonder if he writes like the German music critic Joachim Kaiser, who, as Thomas Quasthoff describes, writes thus: 'he padded through his office, forgetfully chewing his glasses. First three steps to the right, then four steps to the left, then back again and so on. Whenever he turned right, each time he stopped at a well-placed mirror, peered into it extensively checking his characterful profile, only to continue, visibly strengthened, picking up his train of thought. After a further five kilometres Mr Kaiser really gave birth, even though with much muttering and grumbling, to an adjective.' This might explain why the book was only published in 2006, even though the journey may have finished late in 2003/early in 2004. I am sure Mr Thubron is a perfectionist.

Some of the knowledge that he describes as having existed way back when makes you wonder why it was forgotten. For example the Romans used asbestos for tableclothes which they cleaned in fire. And yes, they knew that slaves who worked with it a lot got sick.

He describes the Uighur people, a Muslim group in north western China many of whom are also fairhaired and blue or green-eyed. It would seem that the Romans got as far as that part of the world at one stage; in any case, population and trade movements took place along that route from East to West and West to East all the time, and there would have been a bit of mingling of blood groups. When I travelled through the rural parts of Kyrgyzstan I also noticed many people who might have had mongolian shapes to their eyes and that kind of hair texture, but whose hair and eyes were light brown.

I found the section on Kyrgyzstan particularly easy to relate to, partly because I knew some of the places, and had seen buildings and yurts similar to those he describes. His experiences also include some hair-raising events involving drink, with one situation where he comes very close to death due to drunk driving. This is the country where we as a project team also developed, all by ourselves, with guidance by the Kyrgyz, many drink related stories... but we were all young and naive then - I have never experienced quite as many undiluted drinking events in other post-Soviet societies.

He also describes how the 'nations' of the Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks (and for that matter the Tajiks) were thrown together by the Soviets who drew borders around the states, and lobbed in an ancient hero who helped forge the local identity (Manas in the case of Kyrgyzstan; Tamerlane, a cruel and brutal guy, in the case of Uzbekistan - not much change there then). Quite clever really, these Soviets. Will it blow up in Russia's faces like Iraq? Perhaps not. It is interesting that at one stage he describes someone as having a Tajik face - Tajikistan is one of the countries where I found the population least homogeneous to look at, ranging from Chinese-looking people to Uzbeks, Russians, delicate Persians and so on.

Oh yes, and I learnt that 'the moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on' does not come from Agatha Christie, but from one Edward Fitzgerald in a fairly poetic translation of the Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam. One lives and learns.

The names of the people he describes can be a bit bewildering, though in different parts of his journey the same people pop up, and the reader begins to learn them. It's alright for Thubron - he spent weeks or months in the same part of the world, with nothing much else to occupy him apart from survival and person x, y, or z. For the reader, reading the book at some pace, it can be a bit harder to follow.

It's a very interesting book - but I wonder how people who have never been in that part of the world would relate to it. It might have been good to have a few photos in the book, just for illustration.


violainvilnius said...

I see Mr Thubron went to Eton. No wonder he can survive anything!

varske said...

Yes I'm always confusing the two and not buying the other, because I've got one, but which one is it. Now I shall try again. Haven't been in that part of the world since 1975.