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August 8-14, 2007

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'Shadow of the Silk Road'

Shadow of the Silk Road
(By Colin Thubron; HarperCollins; 363 pages; $25.95 cloth)

It sometimes seems that the speed of globalization has made a 21st-century travel writer's job akin to that of a preservationist, only now he or she is racing against the onrushing tide of capital and Western influence to capture what remains of cultures suddenly opened to the wider world. Legendary travel writer Colin Thubron's Shadow of the Silk Road confirms this notion and places it into a much wider concept. While central Asia enters its biggest changes in what might be a millennium, he decided to retravel the pathway by which silk once moved, from China across Afghanistan and Iran into Turkey and from there to the wider world. Along this route—so faded it is by now a ghost—Thubron witnesses the tumult of a society racing to catch up with the future. Ancient villagers who survived the Cultural Revolution in China watch dazed as their grandchildren turn relics of their hard-fought years to kitschy Maoist ringtones. And yet the shock of the new never erases the past. Everywhere he goes, Thubron notes the way that one society or dynasty begat the next. "Chinese inventions which percolated along the ancient road—printing and gunpowder, lock-gates and drive-belts—flourished behind the Great Wall before emerging Phoenix-like in the West," he writes. This wonderful book chronicles a telling moment then: it would appear change is traveling westward along the path, at least for now.

Review by John Freeman


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