Sunday, March 16, 2008

Book Review: 'Shadow of the Silk Road'

A Ming Dynasty temple (top) in Jiayuguan on the Silk Road (map)
I have read perhaps a dozen books in recent years about the Silk Road, the amazing ancient network of trade and cultural routes linking China and the Mediterranean coast. All were good in their own right and I recommend a couple of them below, but none have the combination of beautiful prose and deep insight as does Colin Thubron's Shadow of the Silk Road.

From the east on the Silk Road came Chinese gunpowder, printing and paper, the astrolabe and compass, silk and Buddhism. From the west came woods, fruits, metals, musical instruments and Christianity. And that was just for starters.

Thubron is an Englishman who speaks Mandarin and Russian and has spent a lifetime traveling throughout Asia. His trek began in Xian in central China and went west through ethnic lands where the Chinese are populating, paving over and plowing under settlements, shrines and cemeteries in their relentless mission of make everything everywhere modern and Chinese. Then Thubron crossed several former Soviet republics, war-ravaged Afghanistan and Iran before ending his trek in Antioch in Turkey.

And Thubron did it the hard way, traveling third-class or no class in a variety of conveyances ranging from rattletrap buses to donkey carts. He stayed in decrepit inns and farmer's houses, battled the local bureaucracies and once was quarantined by health officials because of the SARS virus.

Herewith excerpts from
Shadow of the Silk Road, beginning in Xian:
"Sometimes through half-closed eyes, I tried to reimagine the city of my memory. But I found myself recalling a place which I was no longer sure had existed, under those louring ramparts, now reverberating with traffic, the farmers had spread their market stalls, and avenues had run deserted. Already this older Xian was retreating to a sepia photograph in my head. I struggled to recover it, but it faded by the hour.

"All around now, another generation was on the move. Their pace was more nervous and directed. Little silver cellphones glittered at every ear. In my memory, their parents' expressions were guarded or blank, and footsteps lumbered. But now they had wakened into difference: more changeable, demonstrative, uneasy. . .

"Something had been licensed which they called the West. I gawped at it like a stranger. Yet the outbreak of individualism, I sensed, was not quite that. Being Western was a kind of conformity. Even as the West touched them, they might be turning it Chinese."
At a Confuscian temple west of Xian the author makes a shocking discovery:
"The stele I was hunting was quite another. The dragons that crested it writhed around a flaming pearl and a vivid superscription. Along its base and sides, running like light cavalry round the Chinese columns, was a cursive script which turned out to be Syriac. The carved inscription read: Record of the Transmission of the Western Religion of Pure Light through China. And it was crowned by a Christian cross."
Raised in AD 781, the stone recorded the arrival of Aloban, a priest from the West a century and a half earlier who presented a copy of the Scriptures to the emperor Taizong. In a Ming dynasty tower in Gansu at the end of the Great Wall, there were faint remnants that told an even older and more improbable story of West traveling to East:
"In 53 BC, when Rome was ruled by the triumvirate of Caesar, Pomey and Crassus, and the Chinese empire was expanding under the Han dynasty, the boorish and avaricious Crassus, hunting for the military glory of his peers, marched an Army of forty-five thousand against the West's ancestral enemy, the Persian empire. . . .As the Romans started across the desert beyond the Euphrates, they were surrounded by a haze of cavalry. In an unnerving moment, while the air shook with a terrible reverberation of leather drums strung with bells, the Parthians unfurled banners of blinding gold-embroidered silk, a stuff the Romans had never seen."
The Parthians routed the Romans and killed Crassus, whose skull the Parthian king filled with gold. The troops were then marched on the Silk Road to the eastern frontiers of Parthia where they served as mercenaries and fought in a Chinese battle against a Hunnish chief some 17 years later. Further to the west at the cave temples of Dunhuang:
"Buddhism in China kept open house. Here its founder's austere journey to perfection shattered into clouds of myth and godlings, and was often subsumed by folk cosmology. In several shrines the ceilings teemed with Hindu angels and lotus flowers, while among them flew nine-headed dragons and all the Taoist pantheon: winged ghosts and horses, human-headed birds and airborne immortals. The Queen Mother of the West careered on her sled of phoenixes through a blizzard of falling blossom, and on every scene -- as if glimpsed dreaming -- was sketched in with discreet dashes and swirls, like a celestial Morse code. So the otherworld was not stable at all, but a cosmic whirlwind in which animal and human, earthly and divine, were helplessly intermingled, and the borders between faiths swept away."
And still further west Thubron stops at a giant oasis where he mingles with pilgrims at the sanctuary where a martyr was buried a thousand years ago:
"They prayed with muted sadness, several of the women crying, in a quiet, transposed grief for someone unknown, perhaps imaginary, killed a thousand years before. The spindly flagpoles, bound with the fleeces of sacrificial sheep, flapped and rasped above them. As the storm thickened, they did not move. Only the fence quivered and shook with its votive burden -- with poverty, barrenness and misfortune -- as the wind sifted the dunes around the martyr's grave."
Three hundred miles to the west the author is in Kashgar, which he explains lies:
"[W]here the maps in people's minds dissolve. The southern and northern Silk Roads converge here, and the desert dies against the mountains. Fifteen centuries ago, in its Buddhist days, its inhabitants were famously fierce and impetuous, and in time it grew to be a champion of Islam. To Europe it was barely known until the nineteenth century. Then, as tsarist Russia pushed south and east, Kashgar became a listening post in the Great Game of imperial espionage, played out between the Russian and British empires beside an impoverished China.

"But the game was China's now. Through the soft sprawl of the Uighar town, the Chinese roads pushed like knife-blades. The crossroads of People's Road and Liberation Road, carrying their white-tiled banks and emporia among serried officers, lay like a crucifix on the old city. And in People's Square an antique, sixty-foot statue of Mao Zedong -- too vast safely to dismantle -- lifted his arm like a club."
Thubron leaves China behind and enters Kyrgyzstan, where he follows a track into a quiet valley to a caravanserai:
"Under the high gate, down a vaulted corridor of uneven stones, I walked alone into its central chamber. From its bare corbels rose a low octagonal drum breached by rough windows, which leaked in an ashen light. A ghost of old plaster clung to its squinches, and above this twilit cavern a cold dome hung. I pushed in half-darkness down other passages, the walls clammy to my touch, and entered sleeping-chambers domed like old beehives. Beyond them stretched long, platforms rooms lit above by tiny windows where stars were shining."
Wary of a united Muslim bloc in the burgeoning Soviet empire, Stalin had proscribed the borders of Kyrgyztan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in the mid-1920s, handing them doctored histories:
"Hopelessly his frontiers tried to trace ethnic realities. Even now, after seventy years of Soviet rule, the Turkic dialects flow into one another. Uzbekistan, misshaped like a dog barking at China, spills its people into all the countries around it. Yet Tajiks and other Iranian peoples form the bedrock of its old cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, and spread into Afghanistan, and all Central Asia is infused by Russians, Ukrainians, Tartars, Germans, Uighurs, Chinese and Koreans. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, its infant Muslim republics, whose boundaries had been planned to grow meaningless with time, took their frail identities on to the world stage."
At Samarkand in Uzbekistan the Silk Road takes a sharp southerly turn toward Afghanistan:
"The oldest Samarkand, named from a mythic giant, has sunk beneath the plateau of Afrasiab in the city's north-east. Once fortified with eight miles of ramps and iron gates, it is now a fissured wasteland where the shards tinkle underfoot. On the heights of the citadel wrecked by Genghis Khan -- a gaunt, rain-smoothed bluff -- the trenches of Russian archaeologists are filling with dust.

"This was Maracandra, metropolis of the Sogdians, the greatest merchants of the Silk Road. A sophisticated Iranian people -- less a nation than a confederation of states -- their city was already rich when Alexander the Great entered it in 329 BC, and it remained beautiful long after the Arab conquest in the eighth century scattered its people. . . . By their heyday in the sixth century AD Sogdian was the lingua franca of the Silk Road."
Thubron arrives in Afghanistan:
"I awoke to streaming sunlight. Beyond my balcony, aground the tree-darkened square, Mazar-e-Sharif spread in multicolored arcades and awnings dangled over splintered pavements. Already the bazaars were stirring, and hand-carts and horse-carts and old Russian taxis were about, with turbaned men on bicycles, who went very upright, as if riding horses. Beyond this reviving heart, the suburbs stretched in a lake of mud and whitewash, and the Hindu Kush hung a blurred curtain to the south.

" went into the markets round the shrine gardens. They covered the paths with second-hand garments, cheap penknives, cigarettes. Cobblers, fortune-tellers and street masseurs were at work, with vendors of turquoise jewellery and overripe banands. Chinese radios blared out the music once forbidden by the Taliban, and youths were peddling cassettes of Indian pop singers and pirated DVDs of a Sylvester Stallone movie."
Further west in Iran, he mingles with pilgrims in Meshed:
"At the shrine's walls, through deep entranceways, a great tide of people was flowing in and out. Amongst them, between black-turbaned sayyids and brown-robbed mullahs, the whole wide family of Islam swept: Pakistanis, Iraqis, Afghans and Saudi Arabians, yellow-turbaned Baluchis and white-turbaned Turcomans. But I could not follow them in. Before the inner courtyards, at every entrance, custodians with silver-headed maces stood in ceremonial calm, and only Muslims could pass. Even Gawhar Shad's mosque, which unbelievers had sometimes entered, was forbidden now."
But Thubron can't help himself:
"At last it became unbearable. I merged with the moving crowd, in a knot of tall, concealing men. My head cringed into my anorak. I had no idea, at that moment, how my foreignness blazed out, or went unseen. But the next minute I was in the bright enormousness of the Enqekab court. I waited for a shout, the shock of rough hands. But nothing came. . . . My heartbeat stilled. I was staring into a vast, hushed quadrangle across a moving sea of worshippers. Their carpets unfurled fifty yards deep before the inner sanctuary, and they knelt or stood with cupped hands, intent, some barefoot, all facing where the gold dome budded above the tomb. Some of them, dangling amber beads, held prayerbooks or Korans, but their prayer in that huge expanse was only a hum of bees."
Finally, on to the capital city:
"Tehran engulfed me. . . . I looked out from my cab window on a city of public abstinence: one of the most polluted in the world, with a population of fourteen million that had doubled in twenty years. Everywhere the black-bearded heroes of the Iran-Iraq war gazed down from outsize hoardings: selected martyrs with the soulful eyes of premonition, yet too poorly painted to be quite real: symbols only of the Shia hunger to weep. 'Beloved Kohmeini!' an advertisement cried. 'We will never drop the banner you have raised!' "
His journey nearing an end, Thubron crosses over the mountains into northern Iraq near the border with Turkey:
"A dolmus taxi, stuffed with exuberant Kurds, welcomed me on board. They were the first people, in all my months of traveling, to applaud the invasion of Iraq. They clapped my shoulders and shook my guilty hands. They ejected the Iranian mullahs in gobs of spittle through the windows, and stamped on the ghost of Saddam Hussein. Then they unfurled my map to point out the proper reaches of their country, grabbing outsize chunks of Syria and Iran."
And finally to the eastern terminus of the Silk Road in Antioch:
"[T]he ruined port of Seleucia Pierea rears a ruined acropolis above the waves. The shore stretches empty now, and the Mediterranean opens beneath me with a leap of the heart, in a plain of glinting thunder.

" . . . Two thousand tears ago the legionaires of Titus and Vespasian, with prisoners from their grim Judean campaign, carved out a fifteen-hundred-yard channel which split the acropolis in a precipitous ravine, to divert floodwater from the port. In and out of its darkness, it made a gauntly beautiful passage now. I followed it upstream, its torrent purling beside me. I heard nothing but the drip and splash of the breaking storm, and the downward rush of water. Chisel-strokes still cross-hatched the rock. At the end, beneath a blackened inscription to the deified emperors, towered the ivy-hung dam which had guided the floodwaters in. Beside it -- sudden and enigmatic in the solitude -- a copse of laurel trees bloomed with votive rags."
In closing, Thubron notes that these Romans did not know the land where silks came from nor the Chinese the source of the strange goods from the west:
"Somewhere edging the easternmost sea, they heard, the country of the Seres escaped the influence of the stars and was guided only by the laws of its ancestors. Mars never drove its people to war, nor Venus to folly. They had no temples, no prostitutes, no crimes, no victims. The king's women -- seven hundred of them -- rode in golden chariots drawn by oxen. But this land of Serica, by some divine spell, was impossible to reach.

"Meanwhile the Chinese, in a mirror-image, came to believe that in a great city to the west -- Rome, Alexandria or Constantinople -- the people were ruled by philosophers, peacefully elected. Their palaces rose on crystal pillars, and they travelled in little white-draped carriages, and signalled their movements by the shaking of bells.

"It was as if the road between the two empires, quarter the length of the equator, had leached out in its passage all their trouble. For as they declined both China and Rome were racked by war.

"I walked along the black sands to the mole. Close inshore, the water shown brilliant turquoise. It came warm to my touch. But to west and east the sky was not the blue calm of my imagined homecoming, but a troubled cloudscape that swept the sea in moving gleams and shadows."
* * * * *
Two other recommended Silk Road-related books are written from very different perspectives: The Places In Between by Rory Stewart and Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment by Richard Bernstein.

Stewart, a young Scottish journalist, risked life and limb to walk across Afghanistan in the deep of winter only a month after the Taliban were deposed after the 2001 American-led invasion, and probably does a better job of humanizing the many Afghan tribes than any other contemporary writer.

Bernstein, a
New York Times book critic, travels the arduous path taken by Hsuan Tsang, who set out in AD 629 from what is present-day Xian for India to see the principal shrines of his religion, and in the process the author learn much about himself and his own Jewish faith.


upyernoz said...

two minor points:

(1) antioch is in turkey, not syria (and it's modern name is the turkified version: "antakya")

(2) samarkand is in uzbekistan, not tajikistan (although it is quite close to the tajik border. when i was in samarkand, it took only about 20 minutes to taxi to the border)

Shaun Mullen said...

Fixes made. Thank you.

jj mollo said...

Fascinating stuff. If only life were longer.