The first time I took this book in my hands I almost regretted buying it.
Mind you, it was a cheap bargain at Turnham Green’s Oxfam branch, so at least I was sure that those £2.90 had not been wasted, but – still – I couldn’t feel but robbed of that sum. Why? The writing was pompous, the paragraphs seemingly endless, the action sporadic, and on top of that there were those long paragraphs in which Colin pretended to be talking with an old medieval merchant from the Silk Road. How absurd.
The book then lay on my bookshelf for a number of months, seemingly forgotten, until one day I picked it up for my morning commutes. I didn’t dare taking it out on a trip, lest it confirm itself like the lemon I suspected it was and I became trapped with it. But, in one of those pleasant shocks that are so rare to find, Shadow of the Silk Road turned out to be a masterpiece.
Colin Thubron is a writer that takes some time to get adepted to, at least for me. But once you do, once you find that “hole in the pages” that Stephen King often refers to, it’s easy to be drawn to his writing like an insect to light. Beware commuters, cooks and those who need to be somewhere at a certain time: you’ll miss your stop, ruin your recipes or be late. For once your start reading, there’s no stopping.
In this book Thubron – whom, I must confess, I keep on mistaking for a slightly older Michael Palin – has set the bar quite high: he’s attempting, no less, to follow the old Silk Road, from Xi’an in China to Antakya on the Turkish-Syrian border. The year is 2007 and, even though he’s not likely to end up beheaded by a Brummie lad who’s read the Quran and understood fuck all about it, he still has some issues such as SARS, during which epidemic he’ll be imprisoned in China, as well as entering Afghanistan (never a healthy place for a tall Briton) and undergoing root canal treatment in a backyard dentist practice in deep Iran.
I initially felt rebuffed by Colin’s writing because I perceived him as an over-educated, posh toff ready to vomit is educated despise on anyone not as refined as himself, but that must have been my biggest mistake this year. Colin Thubron is one of the most sensible, intelligent and attentive travel writers around, one of the few that has the power to draw up the whole personality of a man – be it a truck driver, a self-appointed guide picked up at a caravanserai in Herat province or an Iranian doctor – in the space of a few lines. He doesn’t judge, he doesn’t measure the cultures he comes across against his own, but rather he appreciates beauty wherever he can spot it, no matter how drab his surroundings.
Whenever a book is particularly good at recreating a scenery I cannot help but close my eyes, feeling the scene materialising in my mind. With Shadow of the Silk Road I had many such moments, much to the perplexity, I’m sure, of my fellow commuters. There I could see Colin, looking as a retired professor in his creased shirt, dusty trousers and half empty day pack on the shoulders, lost in contemplation of the faded glory of the Uzbek cities, or wandering amongst groups of mullahs in the holy city of Mashhad, where the locals still worship Farsi poets, in the face of the stern ammonitions made by the masters of the sharia.
I finishd Shadow of the Silk Road in a staggeringly low number of to and fros from work, something of a personal record. Did I have any desires, upon reading the last page? Yes, two. The forst was for it to continue, and the second was for me to become one third of the writer that Colin Thubron is.