CDT Bookshelf: Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road

Colin Thubron’s latest book, Shadow of the Silk Road, chronicles his journey down the full length of the fabled route. The Times reviewed it last year when the book was released in the U.K. (It comes out in paperback in the U.S. this week):

From the very first page, where we join the author climbing at dawn through cypress woods in Huangling to the shrine of the Yellow Emperor, his blend of poetic writing, quirky encounters and social observations is captivating. By the second page, he is meeting a Chinese girl, who giggles through her fingers at the rare sight of a foreigner and tells him earnestly that the Yellow Emperor invented boots.

The Silk Road has long been a great romantic destination for travellers. At university, I remember poring over maps with a friend, considering retracing it through evocatively named places such as Tashkent and Samarkand. What we soon discovered was that the was never a road, but a shifting network of routes starting in China and crossing central Asia. Until I read Thubron’s book, however, I did not know that the route (which dates from Roman times) has been called the Silk Road only since the 19th century when the term was coined by a German. Nor was it used just for transporting silk. The camel trains that left Changan were often laden with iron, bronze, lacquer work and ceramics, and they would come back with Indian spices, glass, golden and silver artefacts, woollens and the western marvel of chairs. Later, they would transport fruit and flowers, including the first roses to arrive in the West. The road was also a conduit for ideas, religion and scientific knowledge. Among the revolutionary inventions that it took west from China were printing, gunpowder and the compass. [Full text]

A video of Thubron discussing his journey is on YouTube:

See also:

A review of the book in the New York Times

Excerpts of the book via

A Danwei post explaining what phrases got censored out of a translation of the New York Times review published in China.


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