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Colin Thubron
Harper Collins
New York, USA, 2007


The author is one of the most outstanding and highly admired travel writers currently active. This book is a masterpiece resulting from his second extensive trip to China - at age over 60. He travels alone with a minimum of baggage - and no camera, unfortunately. In this expedition he traveled from Xi'an along as much of the main routes of the "Silk Road" as possible to Antioch in Turkey. Warfare in Afghanistan forced him to stop the initial trip, but he returned the following year to take up the route at the same place. His style is distinctive. He travels with the locals in 2nd or 3rd class by bus or train, or cart of taxi. At each stop he meets locals, often spends time at their homes, for sure eats with them. (He must have an iron stomach). He recounts the discussions. Clearly he emphasizes with everyone, even when he requires a translator. He then describes the setting, terrain, weather, flora, in vivid prose. He mixes in a considerable amount of historical detail fully related to what he is seeing. He actually climbed up sheer mountain sides to visit the Assassin fortresses destroyed by the Mongols and narrated the events. Besides the Mongols and Turks, Thubron gives the reader much interesting historical information on the Han and Tang Dynasty activities in Chinese Turkestan.


The book has four excellent maps, a very useful chronology and full index.


For our purposes, it is his descriptions of the areas visited by Aurel Stein that are most interesting. And Thubron doesn't fail. He specifically visits some sites found by Stein and comments of Stein's activities. His first mention of Stein is related when Thubron visites the museum in Xi'an and examines the "oldest' piece of paper made during the reign of Chinese Emperor Wudi circa 100 BC made from hemp and nettle. But this is not considered the first true paper which was produced several hundred years later. But at any rate Thubron notes that Stein found, as he excavated the Han wall towers, true paper from around 313 AD. Thubron characteristically relates this fact with a discussion he is having with locals over dumplings.
We meet Stein next when Thubron visits the famous "Cave of the Thousand Buddhas" at Dunhuang. He relates in considerable detail the events and results of Stein's contact with the guardian monk, Wang, that resulted in the treasure trove of ancient manuscripts and Tang era paintings from the hidden cave being transported to the British Museum. Thubron describes some of these marvelous paintings, preserved at the museum, while all other Tang paintings have been lost. Many days later Thubron ventures from Khotan north into the desert to visit the famous Buddhist stupa uncovered by Stein. This is Rawak, and Thubron describes in several pages both it and the difficult journey he made to see it in vivid detail.
Thubron tells us also about the Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, (Stein's 'patron saint) whose memoir Stein carried with him both for reference and as a document that gained him immediate assistance from the Chinese mandrins. This time Thubron is venturing west of Khotan into the desert in search of the legendary shrine that Stein visited (the pidgeon place in Stein's books). ruincathay46.htmThubron provides full account of the legends as well as vivid description of his own trek into the desert and the local guides and others he met along the way. These brief passages provide the reader with colorful images of some locales brought to life originally in Stein's reports. And it is clear that our author has done his homework both in the history of the regions he traversed and in Stein's activities as well.


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