Book Review: Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron

Posted: June 14, 2013 in Movie & Book reviews

“Sometimes a journey arises out of hope and instinct, the heady conviction, as your finger travels along the map: Yes, here and here… and here. These are the nerve endings of the world…

A Hundred reasons clamour for your going. You go to touch on human identities, to people an empty map. You have a notion that this is the world’s heart.”


After reading just the first few pages into prolific travel writer, Colin Thubron’s journey along the Silk Road, I guarantee you will be captivated. It is part travelogue, part historical re-exploration and anthropology, written in a somewhat poetic philosophical style that is easily accessible and a great read. Especially if you are planning on exploring this route by bicycle on the

Thubron chose the easy way out, kind off: he hopped on buses, donkey carts, trains, jeeps and camels through the drifts of the first great trade route, the heart of China, into the mountains of Central Asia, across northern Afghanistan and the plains of Iran into Kurdish Turkey. And even then it is a harrowing journey. I wonder if he could do it all over again, on a bicycle, if he would sign up? After all the TDA’s Silk Route Bicycle Tour has been described as “The longest, hardest, highest, hottest, coldest bicycle expedition on the planet.”

As you read Thubron’s tale your eyes will stumble over names like Xian, Lanzhou, Anxi, Charklik, Cherchen and Kashgar, and many times I had to go back to the map to try to figure out just where I am.  Perhaps it is just me, coming from a sunny country like South Africa with mostly easy to pronounce names, and not too many vast and curious stretches of lands still whispering of arduous journeys and ill-fated travelers. Yet he makes the journey accessible by his interactions with the locals, his honest curiosity and all the research he prepared. His description of the silk moth’s life span is as funny as it is chilling. He spends time to speak to strangers, visit mosques and even did a stretch being incarcerated in a Chinese cell. He encounters Hunan traders, Uzbek prostitutes and volatile Kurdish Turks. There is also that bit about him receiving root canal treatment without anesthetic in Iran, which should serve as a serious reminder for anybody taking on this journey, to visit the dentist prior.  Perhaps one criticism is that he gets somewhat nostalgic and too literary as he explores some of the people and places he meets. However his writing is filled with compassion as he attends burials and speaks to the relatives which reveal as much of the history of the locals as of their modern adaptations to an ever-changing world.

I would not take this book along on your journey as a light-hearted recount of the Silk Route but would rather recommend that you read it well in advance and let his evocative, poetic explorations sink into your psyche and hopefully, when you do get the chance to do this incredible journey, you will in part see it through his sage like eyes, which is what any decent travel writer should aspire too.

Keen to explore his journey by bike? The TDA is a 12,100 kilometer self-powered caravan that begins at Shanghai, China, the bustling center of China’s economic rise, and follows the classic Silk Route across fiery deserts and forbidding mountains. Eighteen weeks later you will arrive in faraway Istanbul, the majestic capitol of Byzantium, the Roman Empire.

One of the riders, of the 2007 Silk Route, Jo Demmler, says it best: “Beautiful sunsets, early morning sunrises, days of biking heaven, days of biking chaos, extreme temperatures , different cultures, headwinds, hills, heat, a cold beer at the end of the day, sharing tea, vodka & beer with generous locals, desert camps, sore bum, bike maintenance, snow, ice and yurts, kids on the streets, high fives, rough and smooth roads, long days, history, culture, architecture, generosity, markets, food, life long friendships” @Astrid Stark


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