Colin Thubron and the “Shadow of the Silk Road”

Travel Blog  •  Michael Yessis  •  09.12.06 | 8:02 AM ET

imageHe’s among the best travel writers working today, and this Sunday The Times of London began a series of three excerpts from Colin Thubron’s new book, Shadow of the Silk Road. Thubron, whose Behind the Wall landed at No. 23 in World Hum’s countdown of the Top 30 travel books, travels through China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey, and the first excerpt finds him en route to Tibet.

My bus winds up into the land of carved dust. The hills circle and uncoil around us, then level out into a high valley where a tributary of the Yellow River has smoothed its bed to a broken pavement. Out of the scattered villages the bus fills up with Muslim Hui, their women wimpled in black or dark-green lace; and soon the towns are thronged with their high white caps, as if thousands of chefs were inexplicably wheeling bicycles and handcarts through the streets.

As we go west, the mosque minarets, where no muezzin is allowed to call, taper above the roofs in fantastical belvederes and colonettes, or stand like filigreed toys along the heights which shadow us to Labrang.
Then suddenly, beyond Linxia, the loess hills have gone, and our valley steepens into stone. A young monk climbs on board, and smiling Tibetan herdsmen in dented felt hats. The shoulders of unseen mountains drop towards us out of the clouds. Once, some police stop the bus and we are all emptied on to the verge while a man sprays disinfectant over the floor. The Sars virus has erupted in Xian to our east. The leftover Chinese hook on white masks. The Tibetans go on smiling.

The Times’s Rob Ryan also has an interview with Thubron, which the paper is currently podcasting. Thubron talks about his book, but also travel in general and the current state of travel writing, where books are fueled by, as Ryan says, strange companions or three-legged cats. “Modern travel writing has always been created with a certain amount of gimmicky,” Thubron says, “which surprises me because I don’t really understand why you have to do that. The world abroad seems sufficiently extraordinary and peculiar without my having to resort to all that.”

Tags: Asia, China, Tibet

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