Colin Thubron Returns to Central Asia

by Laurence on 9/25/2006 · 3 comments

The British travel writer who penned The Lost Heart of Asia has a new book out, Shadow of the Silk Road , published by Chatto & Windus. Thubron certainly knows how to tell a story. Recently, The Times of London published an excerpt of his latest ripping yarn–about a trip to Namangan from Osh:

“So what happened to the Wahabis?” “They’re still here, but their beards have gone and they look like anyone else. They may be in many jobs — teachers, even professors. Some must be out of work, others in prison. They were very young, impressionable. Now their faith is blocked by the government, and I think it’s a pity. They should have been allowed to take their own way. Not many people will follow them.”

He smiles, a boy again. His is a familiar Turkic voice. It implies that extremism is unmanly. It may suit Iranians, Pakistanis, Arabs — merchant races, some of them infidels, people with no self-control. But our Uzbek way is different. Travelling here years before, in the dawn of their independence, I had heard this often.

Mansur says: “But we have been taught always to obey, to conceal. That was even before the Russians came, perhaps for centuries, I don’t know. How do you lose that?” I say: “Independence is a start.”

“We’ve become poorer with independence. Old families are even having to sell their Korans — lovely things, written on skin, some of them, with feathered quills. People say things were better in the Soviet time. We young can’t remember that.” He presses a finger to his pulse. “But I think there is slavery in our blood.”

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Peter September 26, 2006 at 5:09 am

He is certainly good at spinning yarns. I am always suspicious at the sophisticated conversations he manages to get into, in spite of his decidedly limited Russian. I saw a TV programme he made at the time his first Central Asia book was published and the discrepancy between his actual speaking skills and the exchanges he reported in writing were quite startling. He purportedly travels unaccompanied, so he has either taken a few classes or a bit of gilding of the lily has taken place. Or am I being uncharitable…?

Nick September 26, 2006 at 8:44 am

I heard him speak last night night at an event hosted by the Royal Literary Society at the Courtauld Institute. He admitted that his Russian was somewhat shaky, but since he is a novelist as well it is likely he has been “sexing-up” his stories. Furthermore, he has actually created a fictional character, a Sogdian merchant, for about 4 or 5 passages of interior dialogue throughout the book. To me epitomises the stereotype of the well-educated, somewhat barmy English travel writer (see also Robert Byron, Eric Newby, Bruce Chatwin, Rory Stewart, Jason Eliot, Nick Danziger etc.)

Nathan September 26, 2006 at 11:25 am

Peter, I don’t think you’re being the least bit uncharitable. I think that what you describe sounds quite a bit like Robert Kaplan as well.

I think that some degree of “sexing up” is inevitable in travel writing, but I do appreciate it when the author owns up to its likely existence in their work.

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