February 14, 2008
I fell in love with Colin Thubron when I read In Siberia while living in Korea. He’s a travel writer who combines beautiful prose with a penchant for visiting obscure and exotic locales. He also holds a vast wealth of knowledge regarding the histories of his destinations, which he weaves in and out of his tales in a thoroughly engrossing manner. He travels without a camera (which frankly defies my comprehension) but his words are detailed enough to paint an intricate Shadow of the Silk Road which came out last year.
I read The Lost Heart of Asia first. In this book Thubron travels throughout Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and – of course – Kyrgyzstan. This was by far the most informative book on Central Asia that I have read so far, in addition to being entertaining and well penned. I was a little disappointed by the fact that he picture of all peoples and places in the reader’s mind. (Of course, Thubron is somewhat pretentious when it comes to his prose, and at times reading his works reminds one of studying for the verbal section of the GRE. I swear the man’s two favorite words are plangent and faience, and he uses them all the time. I don’t know about you, but I had to look those two up!) I brought two of Thubron’s books with me to Kyrgyzstan: The Lost Heart of Asia (published in 1994) and spent by far the most time in Uzbekistan, and by the fact that he came to Kyrgyzstan at the very end of his journey, when his enthusiasm for extended travel was obviously winding down. However, I highly recommend this book to those interested in what life is like here Central Asia and/or the history thereof. Also, the fact that Thubron spent so much time in Uzbekistan meant that he penned pages upon tantalizing pages, which have left me itching to go there next.
One of the few places Thubron visited while gathering material for this book was Burana Tower, which, as you may remember, I visitedquite recently. Here is his description of the place:
In this solitude, close by the river, all that remained of the city of Balasagun was sinking into fields of horse-high grass. It had been founded in the tenth century by a wave of Karakhanid invaders, and had petered away with their empire.... It lay inscrutably in ruin. A rectangle of crushed ramparts traced itself in the grass, and a farmer was grazing his donkey among the thistles over a buried palace. Nearby rose the minaret of a vanished mosque. Earthquake had broken it in two, but the eighty foot stub, banded austerely in decorative brick, burgeoned from a huge octagonal plinth in a lonely manifestation of the city’s power.
For Shadow of the Silk Road, Thubron traveled the entire length of the former Silk Road between China and the West, and as such, two-thirds of the book focus on locales outside of Central Asia. Nonetheless, it too was thoroughly engrossing, and I highly recommend it. However, since the space of time which Thubron spent in Central Asia in this book was much less than the time spent in this region for The Lost Heart of Asia, it isn’t as detailed or informative. If you can only read one of the two and are looking for information specifically on Central Asia, I’d go with Lost Heart. But seriously, try to read them both.