This Shanghaiist isn’t a massive fan of travel writing. As interested as we are in other places and in travelling, we’d rather experience these places ourselves – we don’t like someone else spoiling all the surprises for us. We’ve also become a bit tired of reading work by Westerners “experiencing” China, given that these pieces often tend to say the same shallow things: China is currently in the midst of rapid economic growth (gasp!); the Chinese eat all sorts of crazy stuff (shriek!); they openly spit in public (run for the hills!).
Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road – a travel book which spends roughly half its pages focusing on China and is written by an Englishman – may therefore seem like a strange choice of book to read, but it came to us as a Christmas present and highly recommended by our mother, so who were we to argue?
As the title suggests, the book sees Thubron following the path of the old Silk Road, beginning in Xi’an and winding his way across China and through several central Asian states before reaching his journey’s end at the shore of the Mediterranean in Kurdish Turkey.
Having written his first book about China – Behind the Wall – during the 1980s, Thubron inevitably comments on the vast and sweeping changes that are taking place in modern day China, but he does so in a refreshing way. Touching and amusing anecdotes abound as he threads his way along the former Silk Road trail, revisiting old haunts and old friends, and it is these individual and informed viewpoints on what is happening that set this work apart from the jaded, formulaic writing on China that you may find elsewhere.
In addition to displaying a substantial amount of knowledge and understanding about the areas through which he travels, Thubron writes in a way that humanises the country – something that other Western writers sometimes fail to do. Indeed, in many ways, the book is more about the people he meets rather than the places he visits. Whether it’s a naïvely optimistic businessman in Xi’an, an angry, nationalistic Uighur in Kashgar, or a poor farmer in a village in Gansu who believes he has Roman ancestry, their tales are at times heart-warming, at times heart-breaking, but are always delivered in an honest way that neither patronises their subjects nor seeks to use them as a basis for sweeping generalisations about the country as a whole.
There is no attempt to portray their stories or their lives as revelations that he alone has discovered despite the fact that he visits some fairly remote locations – Thubron merely offers these individual insights into the well-documented changes occurring within China’s borders as human interest stories that provide a personal viewpoint on the struggle for identity in the midst of enormous economic and social upheaval. If anything, Thubron uses their tales to show what a diverse and fragmented country China is, rather than taking their tales as indicative of all Chinese.
Another reason that Shadow of the Silk Road presents a refreshing reading of China’s transitions is Thubron’s mastery as a writer. An accomplished and broadly experienced travel writer, Thubron is also an award-winning novelist and this is evident in his narrative – the account of his travels at times reading like a work of fiction, brimming with rich descriptions and colourful characters. The pace of the book is measured without dragging and provides a suitable amount of depth whilst retaining a page-turning quality, but every sentence, every word, appears carefully chosen and paints a vivid picture or makes a salient point.
Whether you are a newcomer to China or have lived here for years, Thubron’s writing style and the stories contained within combine to make Shadow of the Silk Road a thoroughly worthwhile read. Moreover, Thubron’s fascinating career, that has seen him travel extensively throughout central Asia and Russia, together with his understanding of China, should make his appearance at M on the Bund this Sunday one of the highlights of this year’s Shanghai International Literary Festival.