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I picked up a 2nd hand copy of Colin Thubron‘s The Lost Heart of Asia (1994) after being attracted by it’s cover illustration and the glowing reviews that are listed on the covers. Like many people I read as much as I could about Afghanistan after it catapulted to centre stage in 2001 (e.g. this review, this one and this one are the 3 most recent that I’ve read). Since then I’ve been fascinated by Central Asia and read some great books such as A Carpet Ride to Khiva, visited exhibitions, and spent time fantasising about travelling there. After reading an excellent summary of the modern history of the Arab world, I turned at last to Thubron’s masterpiece.
I can’t understate the pleasure that I gained from reading this fascinating account of an incredible journey from Turkmenistan, through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, part of Kazakstan and Kirghizstan during the first spring and summer of Central Asia’s independence from Moscow. Thubron obviously read very deeply and widely into, not only the ancient history, but also the modern history of the entire Central Asian region. He never lectures but imparts small historical vignettes on the reader at apposite points during his journey. He also obviously meticulously planned his journey, to optimise visits to sites of archaeological and anthropological significance. In the face of Thubron’s mastery of history, language, planning and calm attitude towards adversity I feel boring and unprepared in my own travels. It was with surprise recently that I read an email from a female colleague (who is older than me and has travelled a bit) saying that she thinks I am very intrepid! I think that I should be with my children rather than allowing my work to send me to the Middle East, but I digress.
When I viewed an exhibition of the treasures of four main archaeological sites in the north east of Afghanistan I pondered who these people were and how nomads could amass such stupendous treasures. Thubron amply answered that question. When I read the tragic history of the land of my Polish forefathers I wondered who the exceptionally violent and inhumane raiders that rode in from the East and left death, pregnancy and destruction behind them could be. Thubron amply answered that question too.
When I read The Road to Oxiana I was intrigued to learn more about Ulug Beg and his grandfather Tameralane. Thubron certainly provided not only the history I wanted to know but also visited their tombs and shared his feelings of fear and revulsion towards Tamerlane. While Byron kept himself aloof from the locals and looked down upon them (as a throwback to the attitudes of colonial England), Thubron had a very different approach. Helped by his ability to speak and read Russian, his understanding of Central Asian cultures, religions and history, and his empathetic attitude, Thubron made connections with locals everywhere that he went. Some of these are prolonged, such as his car journey through the Pamir’s with Oman (see below) and others are fleeting like his meeting with a Russian Babushka at the far eastern end of Issuk-kul. He was searching for a drowned 13th Century Nestorian monastery when he met her. She had left Sibera 30 years beforehand and lived a very hard and impoverished life but said:
Everything’s fine, it’s wonderful! When people say how terrible everything is, I ask Why? … Why can’t people be content? I have a little garden over there… where I grow cherries and nuts, and there’s a plot of land for pensioners where we plant potatoes. I’ve got everything I need… Our Gorbachev did the right thing (breaking apart the USSR)… Who doesn’t make mistakes? Nobody is walking on this earth who hasn’t made mistakes… But I was ashamed when Gorbacheve said his pension was insufficient… I wrote him a letter offering him two hundred roubles out of mine! I told him I could manage on seven hundred and five, even if he couldn’t get by on four thousand.
Five years ago I visited an exhbition on the Silk Road and saw then a letter written by a Sogdian trader. I was fascinated by these mysterious, highly organised and literate people of whom so little is mentioned. Thubron obviously shares that fascination because he went on a long car journey through the north-west Pamir on tracks that climbed to 11,000 feet and caused his friend Oman’s battered Lada to ‘buck like a stallion’ in search of goatherds who still speak Sogdian. His interaction with, and voice recording of, Sogdian-speakers in a secluded valley was an exhilarating encounter with the distant past.
Yes, they said, they were Yagnobski. They all spoke Sogdian in the home, young and old, and had inherited the language from their parents, by ear … I listened almost in disbelief. This, I told myself, was the last, distorted echo of the battle-cries shouted 2500 years ago by the armies of the Great Kings at Marathon and Thermopylae, all that remained from the chant of Zoroastrian priests or the pleas of Persian satraps to Alexander the Great. Yet it was spoken by impoverished goatherds in the Pamirs.
This passage is paraphrased from an interesting review in the Independent that you can read here: The Seljuk city of Merv in the 10th century CE, while Europe was repeatedly raided by Vikings, was the second city of Islam: a flourishing Silk Route capital, made rich from trade with China and tributes paid from an Empire extending from Afghanistan to Egypt. Along with three other great cities in the region (Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand), Merv developed a rich culture, was home to great universities, and attracting such leading minds as the polymath al-Biruni (I listened to a very interesting podcast about him on In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg), the lyric poet Rudaki (considered the founder of Persian classical literature), and the great Ibn Sina, (Avicenna – I also listened to a very interesting podcast about him on In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg), who wrote 242 books of stupefying variety and whose Canons of Medicine became a textbook in the hospitals of Christian Europe for over 500 years (and referred to heavily by Mehran in the novel Rosewater & Soda Bread).
The golden era was shattered in a single year when the stinking hordes of Genghis Khan swept through Turkestan, destroying everything that stood in their wake. It was unable to recover as a trading centre because Europe discovered a sea route to the East and the Silk Route caravans grew infrequent, finally drying up in the 17th century. 200 years later, the Czar’s armies were able to conquer the whole region – an area the size of Western Europe – with just 40 casualties.
When Thubron visited Merv he discovered:
The ruins of their once magnificent capital lie now amid the camel-coloured wastes of Turkmenistan: a scatter of mud walls, a few ambiguous foundations, the cracked dome of a mud-brick Muslim tomb. This ghost capital lies forgotten now on the outer edge of a polluted and provincial Soviet town: on one side a forest of smokestacks belches fumes into the desert, on the other, a spread of barren collective farms extends towards the encroaching dunes.
This is an excellent book and I unreservedly recommend it to anyone who is interested in Central Asia, pines for a true adventure, or likes to read about random interactions with strangers.
As Dervla Murphy put it in the Spectator:
Within these pages Turkmenia, Uzbekistan, Kirghizia, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan become real places, inhabited by individuals with whom we can identify — places at once anciently romantic and Soviet-squalid, their beauty and their ugliness equally extreme. Communism brutally overwhelmed these artificial ‘republics’, importing millions of superior (in their own estimation) Russians and establishing borders as meaningless as the colonial lines on the map of Africa. In many areas industrial pollution …(is) rapidly debilitating communities bred to survive nature’s toughest challenges. And now the ordinary folk must struggle to adjust to their frighteningly abrupt liberation.