When I was younger, I adored maps. (OK, still do.) At that time, one could check out bound collections of the National Geographic from the local library, and it was the 1920s – 40s collections that enthralled me, because they had maps. Glorious detailed maps, where there were plenty of empty areas, and the idea that no one knew what was actually there enthralled me. No one connected with the National Geographic Society, at least. And one of my favorite such zones was Central Asia. Certainly the route was well known – it is the Silk Road after all – but what was along the way?
Colin Thubron knows. And I might add here that apparently Thubron is an extremely well-regarded travel writer, but this is my first encounter with him, and I am in love. In this book, he revisits the Silk Road, east to west, something he had apparently done thirty years prior. This is totally a solo journey, relying on whatever local transportation he can scrounge up, and what makes it work so well is that he is conversant in so many languages. He’s actually British, so English of course, and Mandarin, Russian, Arabic, and a few others as well. Not to mention he is a historian, and is very familiar with the multitude of civilizations, and their more colorful inhabitants, that populated this journey over the last few thousand years. Some are still well remembered, and others not so much.
But my favorite bit is that he is an absolute fiend for the abandoned remnants of these long gone peoples. In Iran, he seeks the traces of the Assassins, a fearsome people defeated in 1256 by the grandson of Genghis Khan. Examining the mountain crags surrounding the village of Maimundiz, he sees what might be what’s left of their fortress, so as any self-respecting 50-some year old historian would do, he decides to check it out. Telling the guy who drove him there to come back in a few hours, he starts to scramble up the mountain.
Halfway up, my nerve failed me. I stopped, spread-eagled against the rock-face. A few drops of rain fell. Above me the crevice – thirty feet of it – rose sheer. Beneath me was a drop to solid stone. I could see the autumn valley descending past the oasis of Shams Kilaya to hills like grey dust. I waited for my breathing to still. I noticed the hands clenching the rock close to my face: they were lean and broken-skinned, not hands that should be doing this. Then I looked up and glimpsed the ceiling of the cave-chamber I could not reach. It was sooted by Mongol fires.
Hunch verified. He manages to complete the climb, finds unmistakable evidence of a former Assassin guard house from centuries ago, scrambles down before nightfall to meet his ride, and continues on his way, happy as a clam. My kind of a traveler.