The wanderer as an alchemist

The wanderer as an alchemist

There are two kinds of travellers, and so two kinds of travel writers: the complainers and the innocent bystanders. The travel itinerary of the complainers takes them through places such as Bihar by local bus during a particularly virulent dengue outbreak, giving them a chance to be vicious about the locals—their food habits, hygiene and behaviour—in their writing.

Innocent bystanders, by contrast, sit at a local tea stall in places such as Bihar and use the scene around them as a detached anthropological experiment. They watch the locals eat, behave, and converse—in much the same way Darwin did with the apes—and at the end of each new experience, assiduously record their observations in their diary.

In one case, the writing is an outpouring of personal grief, in the other, a form of intellectual vendetta. In both cases, however, the cultural baggage of the writer becomes the unfortunate starting point of the journey.

There is, however, a third kind of traveller. Colin Thubron holds a mirror to the culture he is travelling in; but in the reflection he also sees himself; the writing explores both where he comes from and where he finds himself. For him, travel is as much about observation as it is a form of cultural conversation.

A set of personal beliefs is always on trial in a new place and among people whose own ideals may not match the traveller’s. In his new book, Shadow of the Silk Road, Thubron brings to his writing the potential of assimilation rather than confrontation.

For a short spell of words, it becomes possible to see the Silk Road as an ancient expressway, an M4, a Chinese autobahn—with aspects of movement, connection, meeting, places of rest and repair, commerce and trade.

Right at the beginning he explains that the Silk Road was not a single road but a vast fretwork of crossed and knotted veins that stretched to the Mediterranean. Travel and trade on it began as far back as 1500 BC, since evidence of silk was found in Afghanistan at the time, and even in the hair of a 10th century BC Egyptian mummy. The road connected innumerable cultures and created a vast opportunity for trade. It was the first real test of global connections. “Everything on the known earth passed this way: rhinoceros horn, cucumbers, musk, dwarfs, lapis lazuli, peacocks, and indigo eye-shadow."

A 7,000 mile (about 11,000km) journey undertaken in deep middle age from China to Turkey is enough to turn even the most committed of travel writers to nostalgia. For someone like Thubron, familiar with the territory, an occasional lament is but natural. In Tehran, a city that had barely existed during the silk trade “was now a polluted suburb of concrete apartment blocks".

For someone who travelled through China two decades earlier, the altered skyline of Beijing is also a sudden revelation. “All at once, the future had grown more potent than the past. All around now, another generation was on the move. Little silver cellphones glittered at every ear, couples were walking hand in hand, even kissing—a Maoist outrage. On offer was an unmediated West: Givenchy, Arden, Bally, Dior, L’Oreal…." In Herat, Afghanistan, Thubron similarly searches but cannot find the hotel he once stayed in, and the old place was now a polluted ruin “filled with diesel smoke".

When intersecting with a new culture, Thubron relies on a precise knowledge of language so as never to miss a linguistic nuance in any exchange. Before he travelled to write Among the Russians (2001), he learnt Russian; before his China journey, he practised Mandarin as if he were making China his home for life. Shadow of the Silk Road is an even more ambitious book, largely because many other travellers—from Marco Polo to Robert Byron—travelled the same route and left indelible impressions over several centuries.

Yet Thubron’s intensity of gaze takes in far more than merely the memories of their sightings; he sifts through forgotten places, not like a treasure hunter, but an alchemist, making connections to earlier times and evoking the present in poetic allusions.

Near the Tibetan border, his morning encounter with the Buddhist town is an impression of sounds. “Approaching the wall fraternities," he writes, “I would hear the chanting rise from different courtyards, but often could not locate them and ambled without direction through a murmuring city. From time to time, their chanting would stop and its thread be sustained by a lama’s single deep hum."

Unlike the jangled nerves of the conventional traveller who rides through places in a cultural road rage, Thubron transforms the travel experience into a finely wrought reflective essay. A muted uplifting thread of silk, created from a jumble of unlikely scenes that leads you beyond derision and condemnation into a quieter, subjective realm. Thubron writes as if whispering cultural secrets in your ear. An absorbing portrait from a real artist.

Gautam Bhatia is a New Delhi-based architect and writer. Write to