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A land of enormous proportions, countless secrets, and incredible history, Central Asia--the heart of the great Mongol empire of Tamerlane, site of the legendary Silk Route and scene of Stalin's cruelest deportations--is a remote and fascinating region. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of newly independent republics, Central Asia--containing the mag A land of enormous proportions, countless secrets, and incredible history, Central Asia--the heart of the great Mongol empire of Tamerlane, site of the legendary Silk Route and scene of Stalin's cruelest deportations--is a remote and fascinating region. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of newly independent republics, Central Asia--containing the magical cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, and terrain as diverse as the Kazakh steppes, the Karakum desert, and the Pamir mountains--has been in a constant state of transition. The Lost Heart of Asia takes readers into the very heart of this little visited, yet increasingly important region, delivering a rare and moving portrayal of a world in the midst of change.


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A land of enormous proportions, countless secrets, and incredible history, Central Asia--the heart of the great Mongol empire of Tamerlane, site of the legendary Silk Route and scene of Stalin's cruelest deportations--is a remote and fascinating region. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of newly independent republics, Central Asia--containing the mag A land of enormous proportions, countless secrets, and incredible history, Central Asia--the heart of the great Mongol empire of Tamerlane, site of the legendary Silk Route and scene of Stalin's cruelest deportations--is a remote and fascinating region. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of newly independent republics, Central Asia--containing the magical cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, and terrain as diverse as the Kazakh steppes, the Karakum desert, and the Pamir mountains--has been in a constant state of transition. The Lost Heart of Asia takes readers into the very heart of this little visited, yet increasingly important region, delivering a rare and moving portrayal of a world in the midst of change.

30 review for The Lost Heart of Asia

  1. 5 out of 5

    Max Berendsen

    This couldn't have been a better literary start for this year. Travelling through early Post-Soviet Central Asia, Colin Thubron takes the reader upon a journey to one of the most underappreciated regions of the world. A region central to world history, a region where Muslims can be zealots as well as alcoholics, a region where the past is alive and dead at the same time. In my eyes, Central Asia has always been enveloped in a certain kind of magic and mistery. Thubron has succeeded to give the re This couldn't have been a better literary start for this year. Travelling through early Post-Soviet Central Asia, Colin Thubron takes the reader upon a journey to one of the most underappreciated regions of the world. A region central to world history, a region where Muslims can be zealots as well as alcoholics, a region where the past is alive and dead at the same time. In my eyes, Central Asia has always been enveloped in a certain kind of magic and mistery. Thubron has succeeded to give the reader a clear and thorough look into this world, while at the same time leaving a large part of the mistery and magic intact. And even though Thubron made this journey thirty years ago, the book retains a significant part of its relevance. Issues like political uncertainty, economic inequality, ethnic tensions, environmental pollution, etc. Still pervade the region today. If I had to summarize my feelings about this book in one sentence it would be: "One ticket to Turkestan, please!"

  2. 4 out of 5

    Lyn Elliott

    I was looking for more in this book than it delivered and was disappointed by it. Thubron accurately describes the buildings that interest him and which he has travelled so far to see. But detailed descriptions of ancient tombs and mosques can't take the place of photographs, and there aren't any here, not even black and white which would at least give and idea of the structures and environments. I looked up some images on the web (Wikipedia and Shutterstock), especially of Samarkand, Bokhara and I was looking for more in this book than it delivered and was disappointed by it. Thubron accurately describes the buildings that interest him and which he has travelled so far to see. But detailed descriptions of ancient tombs and mosques can't take the place of photographs, and there aren't any here, not even black and white which would at least give and idea of the structures and environments. I looked up some images on the web (Wikipedia and Shutterstock), especially of Samarkand, Bokhara and the Pamirs Unfortunately I can't see any quickly which I could paste in here and be certain they weren't under copyright. Samarkand, Bokhara and other places along the Silk Road were on my long-to-visit list for years, before I began to see some of the present day realities of Central Asia which held no appeal for me. Thubron was in Central Asia not long after the Russians had pulled out of their colonies, leaving behind disconsolate Russians, Ukrainians, other Eastern Europeans, survivors of Soviet Siberian exile and their descendants. He recounts meetings and conversations with some of those people, and with locals who speak Russian, a language he spoke. Life was hard for most of them. Some lived in hopelessness, some not. He asks about the rise of Islam now that Soviet religious repression has lifted. He's clearly interested in whether there nationalism is emerging, but I didn't get a strong sense of any pattern, rather that it was ethnic loyalty (Uzbek, Tajik) that mattered. Thubron doesn't seem particularly interested in analysing what was happening socially and politically in the countries he visited, but builds pyramids of anecdotal detail. It is tiresomely over-written. Sometimes there were so many adjectives and adverbs that I lost sense of what he was trying to say. As often happens with travel writing, I find myself feeling embarrassed for the people who were unfortunate enough to meet the travel writer. Drunkenness, slobbery eating habits, spongy flesh, bad teeth, foul breath and more are reported in detail, maudlin conversations and complaints are written out at length. I hope they have never read what he wrote about them.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jane

    I read The Lost Heart of Asia while I was living in the region, in the country of Kyrgyzstan. In this book Thubron travels throughout Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and – of course – Kyrgyzstan. This was by far the most informative book on Central Asia that I have read so far, in addition to being entertaining and well penned. I was a little disappointed by the fact that he spent by far the most time in Uzbekistan, and by the fact that he came to Kyrgyzstan at the very end of h I read The Lost Heart of Asia while I was living in the region, in the country of Kyrgyzstan. In this book Thubron travels throughout Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and – of course – Kyrgyzstan. This was by far the most informative book on Central Asia that I have read so far, in addition to being entertaining and well penned. I was a little disappointed by the fact that he spent by far the most time in Uzbekistan, and by the fact that he came to Kyrgyzstan at the very end of his journey, when his enthusiasm for extended travel was obviously winding down. However, I highly recommend this book to those interested in what life is like here Central Asia and/or the history thereof. Also, the fact that Thubron spent so much time in Uzbekistan meant that he penned pages upon tantalizing pages, which have left me itching to go there next.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Nick

    Thubron travelled through Central Asia in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet empire. Enabled by his knowledge of Russian, he managed to do it largely without intermediaries, so this trip is far beyond what one would expect of a grand tour of this huge region. Yes, there are visits to the touchstones, the abandoned ruins of almost-forgotten empires, the unimaginable savagery of the Mongols, the still-worshipped tombs of Sufi saints. Yes, there is the obligatory tale of the vermin-infested un Thubron travelled through Central Asia in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet empire. Enabled by his knowledge of Russian, he managed to do it largely without intermediaries, so this trip is far beyond what one would expect of a grand tour of this huge region. Yes, there are visits to the touchstones, the abandoned ruins of almost-forgotten empires, the unimaginable savagery of the Mongols, the still-worshipped tombs of Sufi saints. Yes, there is the obligatory tale of the vermin-infested underground prison used by the sybaritic emirs of Bukhara and the two British officers who spent years in it before their execution. Thubron recounts how Central Asia had played host to a strain of Islam that was inquisitive and intellectual (it produced one of the Middle Age's great thinkers, Avicenna) and how it was crushed. But what really sets Thubron apart is his affection for the people of these countries, and how they adapted to the wrenching decades of Russian domination, followed by the devastation of the Russian collapse. (This is still the nineties; the self-satisfied, oil and gas-rich Russia of Putin has not yet appeared, it is gripped by the chaos of Yeltsin). Thubron listens, not always the most notable talent of Westerners abroad, even if it's to the guide who swindles him, or the elderly widow who, having lost a father and a husband to the Soviet terror, still believes in Communism. He engages everyone, down to the shepherds who turn out to be some of the last speakers of Sogdian, spoken by Xerxes, Darius and Cyrus the Great, one of whom says of that language, without sadness, that it belongs in the past. Above all, in this collection of countries and cultures so poorly-understood in the West, Thubron has a talent for getting women to talk to him, whether it is the tough matron nostalgic for the Soviets, or the resourceful daughter-in-law who supports the family, or the Kazakh woman who dreams of being a conductor. And, in this inflation-ravaged region, there is always the dream of moving, to Thubron's England or New York. This isn't a book about dust and ruins or elites or about deluded, comic foreigners (I think Sascha Baron Cohen should be sentenced to memorizing it), it is about the people who live there, enduring and often failing but still struggling to create something new.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Tricia

    I really couldn't get into this book, but I tried to plough through since it was a book club selection. Timing defeated me, and I had to return the book to the library, but I figured I can always pick it up again hopefully before the meeting, otherwise after, when everyone at book club tells me that the second half makes it all worthwhile. Surprisingly, I had read the most pages in the book! Some got bogged down as early as page 35. My biggest complaints were that the author was quite smug throug I really couldn't get into this book, but I tried to plough through since it was a book club selection. Timing defeated me, and I had to return the book to the library, but I figured I can always pick it up again hopefully before the meeting, otherwise after, when everyone at book club tells me that the second half makes it all worthwhile. Surprisingly, I had read the most pages in the book! Some got bogged down as early as page 35. My biggest complaints were that the author was quite smug throughout, and really put down the people he was meeting and describing. It was very disjointed and there were no transitions between big description/colourful character portrayal/moving to the next location. It felt like a large canvas of connect the dots, before someone attempts to fill in the page. The language was very flowery and overly full of itself with big words that no one knows the meaning of. One of the book club members pointed out that every taxi driver had inscrutable eyes in a harsh face. Not recommended x 6 of us.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Lit Bug

    A brilliant insight into a vast, but little-known, little-explored area on Earth - Central Asia. A very simple account, yet, heart-warming and heart-wrenching. An exploration of not only physical places, but of the people, their culture, and their painful history. An effort to uncover and understand hitherto unknown facts of a place pushed back to a corner in world history and politics. A wonderful read. Both as travel and as exploration of human emotions.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Alexander Thomas

    I read this book after visiting Uzbekistan and I found it really terrific. Although Thubron had visited the region about a quarter century before us, I thought it was great to see how little, in essence, the places have changed. Thubron also captures the singular approach to Islam that the central Asians have with great faithfulness and it's heartening to see that time has not hardened their views. The language in the book is outstanding - some passages are strikingly beautiful and stay to haunt I read this book after visiting Uzbekistan and I found it really terrific. Although Thubron had visited the region about a quarter century before us, I thought it was great to see how little, in essence, the places have changed. Thubron also captures the singular approach to Islam that the central Asians have with great faithfulness and it's heartening to see that time has not hardened their views. The language in the book is outstanding - some passages are strikingly beautiful and stay to haunt you days after. Thrubon's vocabulary is enormous and I discovered a fair number of new words I hadn't known. One change, though, is with the people. Thubron visited the region in the throes of of calamitous change, and there is an air of hopeful but cautious optimism that pervades the book. Today the caution is largely gone (in Uzbekistan, at least) and the region seems to have much greater confidence and optimism than earlier. All in all, a lovely read and almost perfect. I'd give it 4 and a half. However, it's possible that my enthusiasm for the book is informed by the fact that I've visited at least half the places in the book. I found a few other reviews critisising the book as not being able to capture the place in writing in a way that's explainable. I can certainly sympathise, and I think that while the book is a terrific supplement to visiting the various monuments and places, perhaps it's not a substitute.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jan-Maat

    I was probably spoilt when I read this book. Either I had read too many good books, or too many bad ones. Either way this one didn't stand out as worthwhile. I thought it was an ok travel book. Thubron travelled in Central Asia a couple of years after the end of the Soviet Union in the period of transition while the current regimes were still establishing themselves. Before the reoccurrence of large-scale fighting in Afghanistan and steady migration of ethnic Germans and Russians out of the regi I was probably spoilt when I read this book. Either I had read too many good books, or too many bad ones. Either way this one didn't stand out as worthwhile. I thought it was an ok travel book. Thubron travelled in Central Asia a couple of years after the end of the Soviet Union in the period of transition while the current regimes were still establishing themselves. Before the reoccurrence of large-scale fighting in Afghanistan and steady migration of ethnic Germans and Russians out of the region. Among the Russians I felt was a more successful book, although probably far too dated now to interest many, possibly because Thubron spoke (some, at least) Russian and so in Central Asia is dealing with people through the old colonial language. Perhaps also because most of the areas he saw in the former book were part of a single cultural continuum rather than as in this book the border regions of a handful of civilisations nestling against the grasslands and cities in fertile valleys. Central Asia is a diverse area, and too remote from most English language readership to be anything other than lost I imagine. Entertaining and readable, although I didn't think it was particularly insightful, my abiding memory is of Thubron comparing a group of kebab eaters cleaning their skewers by plunging them into the sand to Roman legionaries, it is an example of how a travel book doesn't offer a lasting portrait of a region but a snapshot, momentary and elusive.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship

    Three weeks and only 141 pages in (through the end of Chapter 5) means I'm not enjoying this one, so it's back to the library for now. I haven't read travel writing before (aside from tourist guides like the Lonely Planet, when actually visiting a place, which is not at all the same thing although they are shelved together in the library), and perhaps given my impatience with travelogue fantasies it's unsurprising that I didn't much like this. Thubron spends a lot more time by himself, viewing l Three weeks and only 141 pages in (through the end of Chapter 5) means I'm not enjoying this one, so it's back to the library for now. I haven't read travel writing before (aside from tourist guides like the Lonely Planet, when actually visiting a place, which is not at all the same thing although they are shelved together in the library), and perhaps given my impatience with travelogue fantasies it's unsurprising that I didn't much like this. Thubron spends a lot more time by himself, viewing landscapes or ruins, than I anticipated, and the cast of local characters that he meets turns over very quickly. He has a strange way of writing about people, all of whom come across as mysteriously tragic. He surmises personality from physiognomy and always seems surprised when the people he meets are unemotional about historical events that occurred long before their births. He also has a vague, atmospheric way of writing about history - he is clearly impressed with the long and brutal history of Central Asia, but names and dates and specifics tend to get lost, and all that stuck in my head were the descriptions of torture, which I could have done without. There are some interesting characters here, and Thubron did have some exposure to the culture and write about it in an interesting way, but it wasn't enough to keep me going through this rather slow-moving and dense narrative.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Richard Newton

    Another great read from Thubron. This time travelling through central Asia in the time just following the fall of communism and the break up of the Soviet Union. He captures the vastness of central Asia, and the sense of former faded glory that did pervade much of it and I recognise from my time living and travelling there. There is much of the transience of life and societies. He also captures the local people's search for answers and the tendency to fall simply into the "the old times were goo Another great read from Thubron. This time travelling through central Asia in the time just following the fall of communism and the break up of the Soviet Union. He captures the vastness of central Asia, and the sense of former faded glory that did pervade much of it and I recognise from my time living and travelling there. There is much of the transience of life and societies. He also captures the local people's search for answers and the tendency to fall simply into the "the old times were good / the old times were bad" thinking. The truth is unfortunately much more complex - the Soviet Union caused many horrors, but there were some benefits. Independence may be potentially better, but the journey to achieve that potential has many pitfalls and pains. As always with Thubron, he himself does not always come across as a sympathetic character. He paints what I assume is an honest picture of himself and at times he can be irritating. He is annoyed that poor people in broken regimes hassle him. I would have thought he should have expected this and been more patient. But the quality of the writing and his insights mean you can skate over his own personality. However, as I've said before, if you need to love your authors to enjoy their writing, this may not work for you.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Bookguide

    This is very much slow travel. Colin Thubron travelled through the Central Asian states in 1991 to 1992, soon after they had gained independence from the Soviet Union, as the Union disintegrated. The countries left behind were floundering without any guiding principle, after having being told what to believe for several generations. The Soviet Union, especially in Stalin’s time, had used these faraway places to send the people they didn’t want, or wanted to work for them. Kazakhstan was full of This is very much slow travel. Colin Thubron travelled through the Central Asian states in 1991 to 1992, soon after they had gained independence from the Soviet Union, as the Union disintegrated. The countries left behind were floundering without any guiding principle, after having being told what to believe for several generations. The Soviet Union, especially in Stalin’s time, had used these faraway places to send the people they didn’t want, or wanted to work for them. Kazakhstan was full of former labour camps and collective farms. There were pockets of descendants of German farmers, imported to farm on the Volga by Catherine the Great, but sent off to work in the fields of Central Asia once the Germans invaded during the Great Patriotic War (WWII). In each of these countries he meets displaced Russians who long to go ‘back’ to the mother country, even though they may never have lived there themselves. And what of those who only have one Russian parent? In Soviet times, their Russianness gave them status. Now they are hated or tolerated or considered irrelevant. Thubron had obviously done his homework on the history of each country and the shifting waves of peoples and empires that had swept across the region, leaving behind distinct cultures and traditions. Yet each country is inhabited by many different peoples, who seem mostly tolerant towards each other, but the prospect of ethnic violence is always a possibility, especially as all the countries seem to be heading towards economic ruin. The part of this book that I most enjoyed are his descriptions of scenery, few and far between. This closely followed by his conversations with the people he meets along the way. Some are mere fragments, others last a couple of days or even longer, in the case of Oman, who drives him through the second section of his journey, alternately opening doors and bringing the whole trip to a standstill with his over-emotional reactions, his prodigious drinking and his maudlin reflections on society. He is by turns a coward who wants to give up on the whole enterprise and a wild adventurer who wants to push the boundaries. In fact, he’s like many of the people Thubron meets. These new nations have split personalities. What I didn’t enjoy so much were the expositions of each country’s history, usually at the beginning of a new section of the journey or the crossing of the border. Yet I did learn a lot from the information dumps, though I doubt if I’ll retain it. During the course of the book, I gradually built up a picture of this vast region, its history and the various ethnic groups that people it. I’m not sure he would still feel comfortable publishing some of his characterisations of different groups nowadays, describing types of noses or physical types. They can’t be very accurate and certainly not politically correct. After all, he is constantly surprised by his misidentification of people he at first identifies as ‘Russian’, only to discover they claim to have ancestors from some other part of the former Soviet Union. As he observes, many people tell a version of history that confuse actual history and Soviet mythology, Islamic lore and shamanistic traditions and superstitions. I was less fascinated with his endless descriptions of mosques and mausoleums and tombs. By the end of the book, I had decided this wasn’t an area I wished to visit, even though tourism is undoubtedly more developed now. However, I don’t think I would enjoy visiting quite so many tombs and graveyards. Of course, a travel book like this could have benefitted from some photos. I suspect the reason that Thubron didn’t take any was that he didn’t want to be accused of spying. A man with a notebook (the paper sort) arouses far less suspicion. Nowadays you would probably arouse more suspicion if you didn’t have one. Given this trip was almost exactly thirty years ago, I wonder what has changed and what has become of all those people he met.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Hayes

    A travel book with a slice of history. Colin Thubron travelled through these newly-independent countries almost immediately after they had left the USSR, and so he captures them at a unique time transition in their history. He records that moment when they were neither one thing nor the other. Some people hankered for the stable past of full employment and economic security. Others looked forward to a future which, though it might be uncertain, with unemployment and rampant inflation, at least pr A travel book with a slice of history. Colin Thubron travelled through these newly-independent countries almost immediately after they had left the USSR, and so he captures them at a unique time transition in their history. He records that moment when they were neither one thing nor the other. Some people hankered for the stable past of full employment and economic security. Others looked forward to a future which, though it might be uncertain, with unemployment and rampant inflation, at least promised them freedom. The dilemma was neatly summed up when Thubron visited the spacious headquarters of the Writers' Union in Bishkek, the capital of Kirghiztan, "once a bureaucratic hub of mediocrity and obstruction". There he met a writer named Kadyr, and asked what people did there now. They don't do anything, said Kadyr. They had hundreds of writers, but no money and no paper. At last they had freedom to write, but the publishers could no longer afford the paper to print what they wrote. "Our spiritual situation is richer, far richer, but our material one is hopeless." Last month I read The Road to Miran, also about Central Asia, but a little further east, in the Xinjiang Region of China. It's a part of the world that has always been rather vague in my mind -- lots of countries with names ending in -stan, but I was never quite sure of where they were in relation to each other. And what I learned about their history from this and some of the other books I have been reading was mostly new to me and quite revealing. The four countries that are the subject of this books were the creations of Stalin in the 1920s, which I had not known. Their convoluted borders were drawn in Moscow, regardless of geography, so that now major roads sometimes cross international borders several times within a short distance. In that, and in several other ways, they resembled Dr Verwoerd's "Bantu Homelands", and as I read I got a new insight into why the English-language newspapers in South Africa referred the "homelands" as "Bantustans". Perhaps the analogy came from Dr Verwoerd himself, as he tried to explain his vision in the South African parliament, but at any rate the name, and the similarity, stuck. One of Colin Thubron's concerns, and one that was quite widespread in the West, was that these four countries, where the majority of the population was nominally Muslim, might embrace Islamic fuindamentalism. A lot of his conversations, especially in the earlier part of the book, reflect this concern. In many of the towns he visited he would visit a madrassa and talk to the students who were studying Islam, and try to get their views on this. Most of the mosques and madrassas had been closed under the Bolsheviks, but were rapidly reopening, though for many, particularly in the northern parts, their Islam was more cultural than religious. The landscapes he describes are also interesting. It seems that much of the arable land was turned to cotton monoculture, the the diversion of rivers to irrigate it dried up the Aral Sea, so that in one case one of the main ports was 60 miles from water. Many other places were turned into industrial wastelands, with polluted air and water. The book was published 25 years ago, and was written a couple of years before that, so it provides a snapshot of a unique moment in the history of those countries.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Strivetoengage

    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 spe 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. I first posted this reveiw on my blog: https://strivetoengage.wordpress.com/...

  14. 5 out of 5

    Ian Perkins

    Beautifully written account of travels in a fascinating part of the world, complemented with interesting historical facts and wonderful descriptions of landscape. The stories of the dreadful impact of Russian occupation on the people, the culture and the land are a little depressing but eye opening as well.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Kyle

    A great book about an interesting, volatile part of the world. Thubron is a travel writer, not the Lonely Planet adventure or tuscan sun package travel writer, but a journalist who travels to see places, meet people and learn about the history, culture and politics of a place. In this book he travels throught Central Asia in mid 90's soon after the collapse of the USSR and the Central Asian countries are cast adrift. You can see the confusion, as in statues of Lenin still in squares; on person s A great book about an interesting, volatile part of the world. Thubron is a travel writer, not the Lonely Planet adventure or tuscan sun package travel writer, but a journalist who travels to see places, meet people and learn about the history, culture and politics of a place. In this book he travels throught Central Asia in mid 90's soon after the collapse of the USSR and the Central Asian countries are cast adrift. You can see the confusion, as in statues of Lenin still in squares; on person says they want to take down Lenin's statue but they don't know what to replace him with. Very telling, good summary for the development and problems forging of a national identity for these new nations. The people he meets are fascinating, Russians who feel scared now that they are a minority, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Koreans, Turks who are seizing new opportuniities or rehashing old grievances or making new idenities for themselves. Everyone he meets and travels with has a unique story to tell, some are sad, some funny, some inspiring, some revolting. Not everyone he meets is a nice person, some people are ignorant, some are schemers, some are racist, but all are interesting and worth hearing from. The geography and scenery he describes is beautiful and forbidding, and the history and political commentary are interesting nad thought provoking. What I found interesting was the realltionship the Central Asians had with the USSR. It is ambivalent at best, the older folks he meets were vets of WW2 and still wear Soviet Service medals proudly while Russian is their second language and they are concious of the cultural and ethnic distinctness. Most areheavy vodka drinkers, one of the more permanent and ingrained cultural contibutions of Russia. It is about 12 years ago he mad ethe journey, so it's a little out of date, but that onlymakesd you want to learn more about this region. His commentaries on Islam and fundamentalism pre 9/11 are prescient and revealing. The story stands alone as an interesting, exciting, funny adventure story. Its also a historical document, a snapshot of nations at a pivotal moment in history

  16. 4 out of 5

    Gina

    Jesus, Thubron seems like a trial of a person. He's humorless, relentlessly critical, condescending and seems to not understand the concept of joy. And yet, I keep coming back to his books. Why? He's blisteringly intelligent, and he writes history like no one else - he makes places come to life, even as they existed hundreds and even thousands of years ago. Because I'm heading to Uzbekistan (Inshallah) in the coming months, I was happy with the content imbalance in this book because it favors th Jesus, Thubron seems like a trial of a person. He's humorless, relentlessly critical, condescending and seems to not understand the concept of joy. And yet, I keep coming back to his books. Why? He's blisteringly intelligent, and he writes history like no one else - he makes places come to life, even as they existed hundreds and even thousands of years ago. Because I'm heading to Uzbekistan (Inshallah) in the coming months, I was happy with the content imbalance in this book because it favors that country. He almost seemed to enjoy himself in some spots, remarkably. The descriptions of life under the khans was evocative and, in parts, chilling. Pretty sure I'll be taking this with me on my trip to reference it.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Kevin

    "It is the traveler's illusion that everyone is assimilated except himself," writes Thubron, the best living travel writer, in this brilliant book in which he recounts his journey through central Asia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He may write primarily in short, declarative sentences, but they convey all you need to know about the landscape, the people, the culture, and, above all, the history of wherever he finds himself. Thubron's voice is often so subtle that you forget the pow "It is the traveler's illusion that everyone is assimilated except himself," writes Thubron, the best living travel writer, in this brilliant book in which he recounts his journey through central Asia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He may write primarily in short, declarative sentences, but they convey all you need to know about the landscape, the people, the culture, and, above all, the history of wherever he finds himself. Thubron's voice is often so subtle that you forget the power contained in his words. And then he drops an observation like the one quoted above, and you remember.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Mark Field

    Would be interesting for the author to write an update

  19. 5 out of 5

    Gina

    It's relevant to me and my life and travels in Central Asia, and I think my favorite parts were his profiles of people he met and his conversations with them about the Soviet Union and Islam and the futures of Central Asian countries. It's interesting how little has changed, in some respects, since the fall of the Soviet Union, but also how much has changed and developed and grown since then. The Tashkent and Khiva I just visited, and Bishkek, would be near unrecognizable to the Thubron of 1991. It's relevant to me and my life and travels in Central Asia, and I think my favorite parts were his profiles of people he met and his conversations with them about the Soviet Union and Islam and the futures of Central Asian countries. It's interesting how little has changed, in some respects, since the fall of the Soviet Union, but also how much has changed and developed and grown since then. The Tashkent and Khiva I just visited, and Bishkek, would be near unrecognizable to the Thubron of 1991. Most of the buildings are the same, but the atmosphere and hordes of tourists and amenities and transportation options are nothing like what was available to him on this journey. Thubron's writing could be too flowery, though, and I frequently got lost (not in a good way) in descriptions of buildings. I don't like the way he describes people's appearances, either; it's rarely flattering, and gives unnecessary details that often come off as racist and sexist, or body-shaming or just judgmental. His heart seems to be in the right place, and he's definitely put in the time and effort to get to know locals and "walk a mile in their shoes", but still persists in "othering" the people he encounters and trying hard to categorize them according to his terms. And it's pretty bleak and he ceased describing any enjoyable moments by the end of the book; he expressed interest in his surroundings but it clearly felt like a slog and a trip he was eager to get to the end of. Kyrgyzstan got the shaft at the end. I mean, I understand how fatiguing it would be; such a trip would really take everything out of you in 2019, never mind in 1991, but I would've liked a little more positivity, if possible. Worth reading, interesting, but heavy and flawed.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jan

    Fascinating read. I travelled in some of the countries Thubron explored last year, and to read his account from the early 1990s was sobering: everything changes, everything stays the same. Incredibly detailed and descriptive prose married with deep insights into the people he moves among make this chunkier and more satisfying than the average travel book fare.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Nicole

    Travel writing seems to be to be a tricky genre. There's so much room for the blurring of an author's capacity of subjectivity and objectivity that the genre itself is splayed uncomfortably between memoir and non-fiction. Its an odd place to be as a reader, and it becomes even more challenging when you the reader are familiar with the place being described. Often, as in travel itself, the author's shadow side casts itself over the narrative, whether the author intends it to or not. I imagine tha Travel writing seems to be to be a tricky genre. There's so much room for the blurring of an author's capacity of subjectivity and objectivity that the genre itself is splayed uncomfortably between memoir and non-fiction. Its an odd place to be as a reader, and it becomes even more challenging when you the reader are familiar with the place being described. Often, as in travel itself, the author's shadow side casts itself over the narrative, whether the author intends it to or not. I imagine that much of the worst of this often gets edited out, but a fair amount remains--how can it not? I mostly enjoyed Colin Thubron's "Lost Heart of Asia", even while some part of my brain prickles at the slight condescension of calling Central Asia "lost" when the only people it has ever been "lost" to are people who aren't from there. Mr. Thubron visited the five 'stans that make the formerly Soviet Central Asian bloc right after the fall of the USSR, and captured with sympathy the confusion and turmoil that these economically tattered and corrupt states were and still are in as they try to define themselves as a cohesive nation. Mr. Thubron has enormous skill as a writer, effortlessly weaving in history and culture as he talks about the sights and people around him. He is very knowledgeable about the region, especially Uzbekistan, and is willing to put himself at risk to find remote historical sights and explore the country around him. Still, there is a subtle tone of superiority when he comments on the people that didn't sit right. Mr. Thubron himself was an interesting study--always willing to engage with whoever he came across, yet very much removed and cushioned by his Englishness. Part of it is that I had some of the same attitude while I was serving in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan, always comforted in my worldly Americanness that my views were the correct ones. I'm not proud of it, but I certainly hope that as I've gained maturity and perspective that I would be more sensitive to the cultural differences that can make it easy to generalize about a whole race of peoples. Central Asia is often very culturally isolated, and that can mean that sometimes the views of the people there are extremely localized--same would probably be found if you visited many rural places in the US. In addition, some of his comments the various ethnic groups are outright racist. Of the Turkmens he sees when he first lands at the Ashkhabad airport, he comments that "[t]hey seemed like nomads still: predators and opportunists...". When in Kyrgyzstan, he speaks of the "flocks of sturdy women", and a people who "looked like last-generation herdsmen, coarser and burlier than their Kazakh cousins...They lumbered along the streets...and would drop unthinkingly to their haunches on the pavements. Their mastiff necks rolled into barrel chests...Many looked like pantomime peasants. Their rolling-pin arms swung out from muscle bound shoulders, and their felt hats lent them a doltish gaiety." Wow. As someone who spent two years in the latter country, that isn't how I'd choose to describe the ethnic Kyrgyz population as a whole. Or any population, really. Culturally and geographically diverse, and recovering from having the imprint of Soviet Russia forced on them, Central Asia makes for a fascinating study. Often overlooked due to its landlocked and remote location, it can be a rough place to travel. Poor tourist infrastructure, government corruption, and, admittedly, a cuisine that lacks a ton of appeal makes for a lackluster destination for leisure tourists, yet the vestiges of the Silk Road as well as its diverse cultural milieu marks it as a worthwhile place to go for those with some grit who want authenticity in their destination. At the crossroads of the empires that have traversed Asia throughout history, indelible marks of these epochs have been left on the people who reside there. The Turkic language roots coming from the west, the Mongoloid features of the east, the rise of Islam from the south west, the Cyrillic alphabet from the north--each of these affect the 'stans differently and every region has a culture that is uniquely theirs. I loved revisiting the region, but could have left the author behind on some occasions.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Anthony

    I think that this book was a drier read in the beginning but very interesting simply for the fact that it gives a unique look into a part of the world I know almost nothing about and it also has the distiction of being written directly after the fall of the Soviet Union. Some people may be turned off becasue it isn't an advenure book. The first 150 pages I learned that people like to drink vodka and radical Islam probably woun't take over the region. However, if you give the book a chance you wi I think that this book was a drier read in the beginning but very interesting simply for the fact that it gives a unique look into a part of the world I know almost nothing about and it also has the distiction of being written directly after the fall of the Soviet Union. Some people may be turned off becasue it isn't an advenure book. The first 150 pages I learned that people like to drink vodka and radical Islam probably woun't take over the region. However, if you give the book a chance you will be taken on a grand tour of the region from the second holiest Islamic city of Samakaland in Uzbekistan, to the beautiful mountians of Tajikistan, to the high mountain lake of Issyk-kul where a naval base 1500 miles from the nearest ocean was built to test torpedoes out of the preying eyes of Americans. I think the strength of this book lies in all of the individual people he meets from Central Asia and how they have all been transformed by the hugely significan collapse of the USSR and the challenges they face in each nation. Readers who open the pages of this book my not see any organization of such random characters, but as a traveler, I realize that they are just that, random interesting people in a foreign world. Everyone has a unique perspective on life in their lands. In this crisis one can see the sense of identity being lost with each person and the searching for a new sense of belonging to a new nation, religion, or simply tribes and family. It was evident that the collapse had a significant effect on purchasing power of people and how jobs were impossible to find and if you did have one recieving a pay check was hit or miss. Life was hard. I was not sure how much Soviet culture had influenced each nation but it was interesting to learn how much the vast nation of Kazakhstan was influenced by russians and how things like traditional ceremonies or religion was surpressed and replaced by russian culture. Not only Kazakstan, but the others as well. Industrializaton had taken a heavy toll on the region especially in the nations of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. I was relieved to read about how people in this region are not all religious fanatics. I knew that it was primarily Islamic but didn't know to what degree of Islamic funamentalism each nation was. It ranges from the more Islamic nations of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan to the more secular states of Kazakstan and Kirghiztan. Reading how many people didn't think the Iranian style of Islam with its more conservative and fanatical teachings was relieving and to hear that they'd prefer the Turkish style with its secular modern Islam is motivational. This was all 18 years ago so I wonder how it is now. A surprising fact was that each nation is very diverse. I had no idea that Central Asia had such a tramatic and volitile history due to the physical location inbetween huge empires. I didn't know how much Mongolians, Koreans, Germans, Russians, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and other people mixed together to form nations. This unfortuantely can lead to bad situations when the Russian pulled out bc the Russians were the government handlers and knew how to operate things efficiently. A power vacuum was created when they left to go back to the motherland and in natons like Tajikistan there were little known civil wars that killed tens of thousands. The journies of this man take place 18 years ago so now I am curious how the region has turned out now after civil wars, spread of Islam, and each nations' people running their own nation. Unfortunately the book contained no pictures which I thought was a great injustice. It is difficult to imagine foreign worlds so I resorted to googling different locations like mountain ranges, roads, cities, mosques etc. This gave me a better idea of how the region lookes. It is a poor, but beautiful area. I found it motivating that the old woman in Kirghistan said that she had enough to make her happy and didn't know what the fuss was all about. She was a true optomist in troubling times and as the book wound to a close seemed a prelude to better times in the region.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jan

    I agree with the reviewers stating that this book is very well written. As in «In Siberia» Thubron comes though as a very gifted writer in «The lost heart of Asia». Though the Lost heart of Asia is 80 pages longer than In Siberia, Thubron succeeds to go much more into depth and cover the region more throughly in «In Siberia» than in «The Lost Heart of Asia». First «The lost Heart of Asia» is primarily a book about Uzbekistan (213 out of 367 pages) and Turkmenistan (50 pages). As long as a book ab I agree with the reviewers stating that this book is very well written. As in «In Siberia» Thubron comes though as a very gifted writer in «The lost heart of Asia». Though the Lost heart of Asia is 80 pages longer than In Siberia, Thubron succeeds to go much more into depth and cover the region more throughly in «In Siberia» than in «The Lost Heart of Asia». First «The lost Heart of Asia» is primarily a book about Uzbekistan (213 out of 367 pages) and Turkmenistan (50 pages). As long as a book about Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is what you search for, that is of course no problem. Be aware of this if you mainly are interested in reading about some other country in the region though. It is hardly fair to holod against a book the year of publishing, but also be aware that the book was published in 1994 and a lot has happened since then. The manuscript for the rest of the region needs to be worked more on. The chapters about Tadjikistan and Kirgizistan are simply weak (and short as if the writer know they are weak). The chapter on Kazhakstan has some great qualities but is not worked enough on to fullfill its full potential. The nuclear testing sites and the Soviet Nuclear program, the Gulags, the deported minorities and life in the mines, Baykonur cosmodroe and the Soviet Space program, the Aral sea, are some examples of topics that arguably need to be covered first hand in a travel book about Kazakhstan. One can argue that the Aral sea is covered in the Uzbeksitan chapter and that central Asia is more than Gulags and toxic waste. A problem though, is that the coverage of the Aral sea and the Karakalpakistan region is the weakest in the coverage of Uzbekistan (The Aral sea is covered excellent in «Chasing the Sea» by Tom Bissel though). Another problem is that while Thubron is as successful with describing the beauty of the region and its people as in «In Siberia», he is unfortunately not equally successful with including the hardship of ordinary people and ugly face of the region and its history. This is a pity beacuse for instance the meeting with the former Gulag inmate of Vorkuta is among the most moving moments in «In Siberia». Chapter 9 about Fergana Valley is an exception, Thubron's meeting with the old Volga-German and the Uzbekhs story of the local people and the War in Afghanistan are highlights. If you know or have the slightest suspicion that you will like Thubron's portraits of people with a story to tell, chapter 9 is not unlikely to be the chapter you will enjoy most. All in all, that these portraits are fewer and far between and that «The lost Heart of Asia» does not cover the region as good as «In Siberia», makes me conclude on 4 stars, good - but not as good as «In Siberia».

  24. 5 out of 5

    John

    An excerpt: We splashed over a gulley, and found the only path out of the village. Ahead of us hung a wooden bridge whose struts stood thin as sticks in the river. My heart sank. It was the only way west. I thought we might edge on to it and test its strength. Then suddenly Oman shouted 'We'll see!' and set the car at it headlong. For a second it crackled like dry biscuits under us. Then we were over and charging up a precipitous bank. I yelled: 'Weren't you afraid?' "Of course I was!' he yelled bac An excerpt: We splashed over a gulley, and found the only path out of the village. Ahead of us hung a wooden bridge whose struts stood thin as sticks in the river. My heart sank. It was the only way west. I thought we might edge on to it and test its strength. Then suddenly Oman shouted 'We'll see!' and set the car at it headlong. For a second it crackled like dry biscuits under us. Then we were over and charging up a precipitous bank. I yelled: 'Weren't you afraid?' "Of course I was!' he yelled back. "The Lost Heart of Asia" is one of a trilogy Colin Thubron wrote in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, exploring parts of what had made up that great communist power. In this case, he explored Central Asia: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan and maybe a stan that I've overlooked. This is travel writing at its most basic: There are no five-star hotels, no Michelin restaurants, no Western tourists and no places Western tourists would go. There are no Westerners other than Thubron, who's from England. There's a great deal of adventure. During the early chapters of the book, Thubron seemed invariably to ask someone to take him to see something. Invariably, that person would insist instead on getting all his friends together for an impromptu party. This would consist of indigestible food -- Thubron lost a tooth at one of the parties -- and large quantities of vodka. Throughout this part of the book, Thubron seemed to be either becoming drunk on vodka, already drunk on vodka, or hungover from being drink on vodka. It's a wonder he was able to record anything that happened. Curiously, though, these are probably the most engrossing chapters of the book. Thubron is, I think, an amazing writer. Open the book to any page, plunk your finger down on any sentence, and it will be a really good sentence. I like this sentence, for instance, from Page 22: The historian's face cracked into a smile, which survived there senselessly a long time later, as if he had forgotten it. I will say that at times during the latter chapters of the book I felt like a child in the back seat of the car, bored with the scenery, wondering when we're going to get there. And when I did get there, I wanted to go back, and I told all my friends about what a wonderful trip it was (which is what I'm doing now). Pictures and more detailed maps would have been nice. Oh, and one more thing: If you're ever in Uzbekistan and find yourself in need of transportation, DON'T hire Oman to be your driver.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Brody

    “An aesthete’s paradise”, yes, I’ve heard that before. Years ago one of the few real travellers I’ve known somehow managed to send a postcard from “somewhere between St Petersburg and Tashkent. You’d love it here”. If I’d known where she was or how to get there I might have found out for myself. Alas, I didn’t. Books will have to suffice ….. * * * * * Colin Thubron has been described as “the last gentleman traveller”, the last of a line of his countrymen uniquely English in the best sense of the “An aesthete’s paradise”, yes, I’ve heard that before. Years ago one of the few real travellers I’ve known somehow managed to send a postcard from “somewhere between St Petersburg and Tashkent. You’d love it here”. If I’d known where she was or how to get there I might have found out for myself. Alas, I didn’t. Books will have to suffice ….. * * * * * Colin Thubron has been described as “the last gentleman traveller”, the last of a line of his countrymen uniquely English in the best sense of the word, intensely curious, deterred by nothing, solitary adventurers with a taste for the exotic and the wild restrained within a detached and ironic manner and by no means excluding the fair sex. In this book, through Thubron’s almost voluptuous prose, resonates the monotonous, melancholy and haunting harmonies as if echoing over vast distances of Borodin’s Symphonic Poem, also strangely voluptuous, though it’s not certain that the composer ever set foot anywhere near Central Asia. Reaching back before recorded time that enormous area of the world, mostly arid and seemingly inhospitable, between the now almost extinct Aral Sea and the Parmir Mountains has been populated by partly nomadic clans, organised by tribal affiliations rather by geographical boundaries and mapped frontiers. It was known to the West at least since Alexander’s armies had wandered over it in search of India three hundred years before Christ. After Marco Polo had somehow and with terrible obstacles found his way right to China – like India then representing to barbarian Europe fables of unimaginable knowledge and replete with treasure – the Silk Road became the connection between East and West, carrying caravans loaded with Oriental booty of such value that the terrible journey was worth the trouble and the danger, and great cities like Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara flourished along it, repeatedly ravaged by the fearful Mongolian hordes and built up again. From the 1860’s Imperial Russia’s expansionist ambitions ravaged them again and this time almost irretrievably. The wealth of the caravans had evaporated after the discovery of slightly less hazardous maritime routes. Central Asia was eventually absorbed within the Soviet Union, and not with a light hand. With the disintegration of that repressive regime the Central Asian territories split up arbitrarily into new independent countries and were left to their own devices but without much left to reconstruct nor by then the means of doing so. It was at that stage that Thubron arrived. In spite of the general air of a sort of sorrowful nostalgia for what has been lost, what makes this book so attractive is the author’s well-practised talent for combining historical knowledge with a natural ability to ‘get on’ with people regardless of their ‘position’ and so on – greatly assisted of course by a fluency in several languages. In that respect it’s not quite true that he’s the “last”; his younger counterpart, William Dalrymple, has the same enviable quality, alternating for example between accounts of the 17th century Mughal court and wryly entertaining conversations with land-ladies, taxi drivers, Urdu scholars, Sufi saints and just about anyone who comes to hand. Contrary to what some readers have said on here, there is nothing ‘condescending’ about that, Thubron has no affectations and is at much at home gnawing a bone over a makeshift fire in the middle of nowhere with unknown passing acquaintances as in any other circumstances. About an impromptu picnic in the wilds of Turkmenistan: “Soon the shashlik was being trust triumphantly from hand to hand. Dribbling fat and blood it was tough as rope. But the three men swallowed each morsel wholesale, or clamped it between their teeth like mastiffs and worried it to and fro until it separated with a noise like tearing sheets. They celebrated each mouthful with a carnivorous burp, and dipped gluttonously into mountains of radishes and olives … They looked artless and timeless. At any moment, I thought, they might break into shamanistic chant or propose a raid. The time was not long past when their ancestors had cantered eighty miles a day to harvest Persian slaves, and the desert still seemed subtly to nourish them. Their earthquake-stricken country gave no permanence in building or perhaps in any permanence at all. Better the open sky!” The meal was by no means yet over and even the durable Mr Thubron was showing signs of strain. “Assiduously they plied me with the tenderest chunks of shashlik but my teeth recoiled even from those. I smuggled them out of my mouth and secreted them wherever I could; in the bush behind me, under the sand between my knees and in my shirt pocket. Soon my pocket sagged with the tell-tale meat and a betraying stain of fat was spreading across my shirt-front …Fumbling in my rucksack I found a packet of English cheese biscuits and passed them around complacently. They nibbled them without comment. Later I noticed Murad dropping his onto the sand.” When everyone was riotously drunk on vodka (“they absolved themselves with blessings and peppered their talk with ‘As God wills’ and ‘Thanks be to God’ while pouring out the forbidden spirit”) they somehow managed to get back to the nearest thing to civilization, apparently none the worse for wear. Concealing it philosophically, the author’s disappointment with the once great caravan stops is clear enough; they don’t sound anywhere near as exciting as they should because not much of them was left. Merv, “after Baghdad the second city of the Islamic world, home to Hindu traders and Persian ancestors, a mighty metropolis of races and interests with rich libraries and a celebrated observatory and the seat of a Christian bishopric as early as the fifth century”, as good as disappeared in 1221 at the hands of Genghis Khan and his Mongol army, “squat foul-smelling men whose skin was as tough as shoe leather and pitted with lice” according to accounts by their victims. “More than a century later the city was still lying in ruins and the sands were flowing over it. Now the remains of a later town had flopped into dust alongside”. A few miserable habitations had cropped up in the meantime, in which Thubron conversed with some of the despairing souls still hanging on. “The whole world is committing suicide. All these trains, aeroplanes and cars when what we need is food… no-one works now, people have to work. Then god willing everything will bear fruit”. Under Communism these people’s fragile but sustainable agriculture had been eradicated and replaced with cotton crops to be used elsewhere; now no-one wanted the cotton and there was no water. Bukhara, also as old as time and also ravaged by the Mongols, besieged by the Red Army and finally as good as finished off in 1920, had fared a little better though first impressions were discouraging. “The sun rose on a chalk-pale city. Its heart was a mud-floored labyrinth where cars petered out. The lanes meandered in ravines of brick and stucco, so that I found myself tunnelling for miles between blank walls where white-washed clay and weathered door-frames propped themselves up, old and new together in a patchwork of splintering plaster. Ranks of timbers poked out of walls like the cannon from some rotting man-o’-war, or lifted whole storeys above the alleys. In these blind wanderings the lightly carved doors, bossed and ringed with brass, stood habitually shut. Sunlight never reached them. The streets curved ahead of me like an ambulatory full of closed chapels. Only occasionally, where some mangy Cerberus nestled in an open doorway, I would glimpse beyond a deep passage a courtyard where roses bloomed or a bicycle rusted or a stairway wriggled down from a balcony”. Then, suddenly: “above, in radiant atonement, hovered a tumult of turquoise domes. They swam up from their drums like unearthly fruit and flooded the sky with the heaven-sent blue of Persia…” But those were already being re-built: Bukhara was long in semi-ruination before the Russians completed the job in 1868, ruthlessly imposing on the Asiatic territories divisions they had never had and then leaving them to their fate. In recent years the city has been restored to a facsimile of what it once might have been for the purpose of extracting their wallets from television-gazing ‘tourists’. It’s not bad in a bland lifeless way, or anyway it’s less garish than Samarkand – on entering which after miles of Communist-driven wastelands “trumpeting socialism” where the very air reeked and giving way to orchards of the “finest apricots and nectarines in Asia: "‘Samarkand’ conjures no earthly city. It is a heart-stealing sound. Other capitals of Islam – Cairo, Damascus, Istanbul – glow with an accessible Mediterranean magnificence. But Samarkand inhabits only the edge of geography. It rings with a land-locked strangeness, and was the seat of an empire so remote in its steppe and desert that it only touched Europe to terrify it. For centuries after it slept under obscurity, it shimmered in people’s imagination. It was the fantasy of Goethe and Handel, Marlowe and Keats, yet its reality was out of reach”. The unearthly city conjured up in the imaginations of those who’ve never been there is really Tamerlane’s fantastically-decorated capital, the Great Mosque and that merciless ravager’s own memorial – the original inspiration by a complicated route for the eventual Taj Mahal. A former city, Maracanda, dating from at least 600BC, bore the strongly Hellenistic imprint of Alexander’s Bactrian Empire and may have taught the Chinese the art of glass-making until it was “put to sleep under the loam-filled earth" by Genghis Khan in 1220. The last of the Mongols, a curiously ambiguous historical figure (“a terrible divorce of aestheticism from compassion”) still both reviled and revered, was born a century later and wreaked havoc from the Eastern borders of Europe to Delhi in India, creating as an act of Imperial power and with “the parvenu impatience of shepherd princes” the premier city of Asia, the Mirror of the World. But Samarkand also had already been in decay for a long time when the Russians took it in 1868; contemporary paintings show crumbling masonry and large areas of missing tile-work, which they attempted to repair with the same diligence they repaired the Czarist palaces. Thubron’s account is even more desolate: “Once the centre of the world, it was now the centre of nothing …. Over the bare flagstones its enclosing majesty broke like a flood. In each of the three facades a mammoth iwan made a gulf of shadow and was flanked by walls tiered with shallow bays. Gate by gate, minaret by minaret, they echoed and confirmed one another. They overbore the square with an institutional solemnity, sureties or royal power and the immutability of God”. But the minarets had been skewed by earthquakes, the imposing facades were only flat stage sets concealing hollow spaces, the most fervent believers were afraid to enter the Mosque for fear of it collapsing on them, “the jigsaw of the tiles was shedding pieces everywhere, fragments easing loose from the ornamental whole, petals dropping, tendrils breaking. For the moment it was suspended in a sweet opulence of decay. Its threatened restoration was necessary of course; but something vital would disappear for ever. These bricks and tiles betrayed by their aging that they belonged to the first creation, to the piety and flare of their conceivers, not to the duty of a later time. They belonged to the past. Even if these restorations were identical (and some of it is suspect) its purpose would be modern, and would leave the imagination cold”. The population was either old and living despairingly on hopeless memories or loitering rapacious-eyed youths with American t-shirts and nothing to do. In the last couple of decades the author’s prophecy has become all too accurate. Tashkent, earthquake-ruined and built over by Soviet Russia at its ugliest, was not inviting: “It had become a city of unemployment, nerves, locked doors”. Apparently there nothing else to do than a round of despairingly drunken parties: “Nothing, for the moment, is more important, more overwhelmingly real, than this male fidelity. The vodka gurgles and the eyes gleam in the replenished belief in the world before they become overcast by drink and the phrases dither into platitudes”. So far the author had relied for transportation on local trains and buses and the occasional taxi; now he picked up with an Uzbeck friend from a previous visit, notable for ebullient mood swings, a fondness for vodka, the possession of a battered old Russian car, a certain knowledge of a wide area and an enthusiasm for adventurous exploration to match Thubron’s own. The magic, now with the embellishment of peril, starts again as the pair set off eastwards into the mighty Parmirs, one of the most terrifying barriers along the Silk Road, “the last gasp of a massif which has swept west more than a thousand miles from the borders of Mongolia …..Now, over a pallid membrane of grass, the heights were scattered with tulips…we were spiralling upwards towards the tightening circles, where crags burst in black fists and the mountain crests wheeled overhead in shimmering parapets of snow”, with much searching nestling piles of stones, the last remnants of the fortresses of long-dead despots, populated only by djinns and the air tainted with memories of horrible violence and cruelty. Elsewhere green valleys of willows, apricots, mulberries and vines gleam like jewelled settings in steely metal (one of them the birthplace of the first Mughal Emperor whose descendents recreated in Northern India what is perhaps still the nearest approximation to the lost world of Central Asia), or the detritus of Soviet industrialism hideously blights the landscape. To the Communists this was a land to eradicate because its tradition of incomprehensible Sufi mysticism posed the greatest ideological threat of all; their exiles were sent here to die. Some of their descendents remain, eternally homesick for their own steppes and making the best of a bad job of an alien transportation. Adherence to Islam is mostly superficial too, or that’s to say it’s adapted to different and more ancient meanings in which ‘terrorism’ has no place: “just as we were sold a mass of Bolshevik stories, all that emotion is unmanly”. As Thubron observes: “I thought about the paradox of these people, their mixture of rustic sturdiness and acquiescence. I found myself wondering about this helplessness in which as babies they were bound for months, and a herd of Freudian dogmas lumbered into my head, drifted away”. In the struggling vehicle, the only one visible on a road over a high pass, enclosed by peaks of up to twenty-three thousand feet and threatened by landslides that could engulf entire villages, they crossed unnoticed into Tajikstan, one of the most forbidding places on earth. Their meanderings, evidently marred by latent personal incompatibilities, do not make terribly cheerful reading. Ending up back at Tashkent they parted. “More than any facial expression, more than the dejected warmth with which he said goodbye, or the pudgy arms embracing mine, I remembered Oman’s back as it dwindled towards the exit. Steeped in a dogged gallantry it seemed to voice in its own small span all his resistance to the unjust world.” The train started to heave itself into Kazakhstan, Borodin’s romantically-imagined Steppes of Central Asia, merging north over hundreds of kilometres into the heart of Russia and Siberia. The southern fringes of “a formidable solitude”, barely touched by Islam, the “waste-bin of Moscow”, where a high proportion of the original population, descended from Mongolian nomads, had starved and perished under Soviet ideology, offered only a doleful vista of “a treeless wilderness under a dead sky”. Several hundred miles east, on the border of China, Almaty the capital combined an ostensible new spirit of optimism and ‘progress’ amongst local versions of McDonalds side by side to museums of crafts which no-one any more knew how to practice or even what they represented, vulgarity rampant, and left-over Lenin-esque concrete palaces of entertainment booming out Tchaikovsky. At the easternmost extremity of Central Asia, separated only by the surely mis-named Mountains of Heaven from the terrible deserts of Mongolia and the undecipherable inscrutability of the Far Orient, sparsely populated by a bizarre anomaly of “shambling short-legged mountaineers with jowled brachycephalic heads” and abandoned Ukrainians eking out hopeless existences in jerry-built cement and without even the comfort of nostalgia, it was clear under the stoical outer face that even Mr Thubron had had enough and was ready to return to Moscow and the neurotic hypocrisies of the West. In terms of careless cruelty, mass murder and wanton destruction it could be said that Lenin and Stalin and their soulless henchmen were hardly better than Genghis Kahn; at least the latter didn’t pretend to conceal his crimes under cover of any utopian theory. On the last Emir of Bukhara, certainly no saint: “He left no affection or regard behind him, but he was a Muslim who did not tamper with his people’s customs, and there would come a time when his boorish indifference would be recollected as merciful. Compared to Communist proselytism which followed his rule was blessedly unprincipled. Mass ideology and forced collectivism was beyond his horizon”. For all that, pockets of reverence for these monsters were found all over these territories, side by side with an austere devotion to original Islam as well as the last remnants of Byzantium. There’s not much to divide between Christianity and Islam in their true forms from Hinduism or even the cults of Zarathostra or Ancient Greece, unless interfered with by the unholy State which takes their place, as Socrates warned two and a half thousand years ago. Is it that human nature, no matter where or when, mostly does not know what to do with the ‘freedom’ it thinks it longs for and once having it immediately voluntarily enslaves itself again with nothing else than the shrug of a shoulder? Or is there something else still faintly beating under the lost heart of Central Asia? The austerities of Islam, let alone the brutal suppressing of the individual human spirit of the communists, are just latter-day veneers over something far more ancient and more genuinely sophisticated than the West can ever any longer imagine. And under all, the yearning to belong: these people of such mixed and amorphous ancestry, from lands without definition, seek for a homeland which they have never truly had. “We were told we would achieve perfect communism by 1980 and now what do we have? We must build up our houses again from nothing. On the old foundations? Or new ones? And how?” And then the last resort when all else betrays: “Let no man be my teacher, only God”. Veering jaggedly over very long distances with many excursions into unknown and inconceivable places, not all of which I think I should want to emulate, this is still a really marvellous and indeed profound book, exquisitely written, not just about very exciting travel but also religion and politics and human and individual nature, to be read very slowly paragraph by paragraph, too dense and rich to be summarised adequately.

  26. 5 out of 5

    S. Barckmann

    Thubron is the greatest travel writer alive. Every sentence is constructed to carry meaning and beauty behind the narrative of his story. From the western edges of China, through the sites of the once great cities of Central Asia, he takes us on a sand encrusted, foot-swollen tour of an area now almost unknown to western observers. His greatest gift, among many is the penetrating nature of the questions he asks. He comes to his trip prepared with an amazingly deep knowledge of the history of the Thubron is the greatest travel writer alive. Every sentence is constructed to carry meaning and beauty behind the narrative of his story. From the western edges of China, through the sites of the once great cities of Central Asia, he takes us on a sand encrusted, foot-swollen tour of an area now almost unknown to western observers. His greatest gift, among many is the penetrating nature of the questions he asks. He comes to his trip prepared with an amazingly deep knowledge of the history of the area, along with strong Russian and Chinese language skill. He travels alone and he seeks the most desolate, forgotten spots possible, spots that were once witness to the most amazing events of history. His encounters with the people of the region are studies of character, society and politics, as well as heart-felt attempts to understand the realities, both external and internal, of people he meets, whose entire life is conscribed by harsh environment he is passing through. His visit to the fabled cities, that were once ruled by the descendants of Alexander the Great's garrisons, where he sees the traces of that past in the sand under his feet and in the faces of the people who live there, give you a feeling similar to that of entering a great medieval cathedral. . His description of the City of Merv, now an ugly post-Soviet way station, but once possibly the most populous city in the world, is something I read three times to take it all in. All around are the ghosts of the millions of people killed by the Mongols in the 13th Century and the thousands killed by the Russians in the 19th. Thubron is probably the last of the disciplined, British rear guard of the Great Game, an eclectic, autodidact who somehow can keep his head while totally exposed, unsupported in a place few of us would dare to go.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Kenny

    Colin Thubron is one of the heavyweight travel writers. In a very good way. But not great for light reading (e.g. playing sardines on the train). You need to concentrate as there's a lot of detail and fleeting, but surprinsgly deep pieces of description, of dialogue, and he can summarise or cut through in just a few paragraphs a major piece of information. He doesn't do much of the lighter, laughing at himself not understanding foreign or the funny foreigners stuff of lesser writing, but really Colin Thubron is one of the heavyweight travel writers. In a very good way. But not great for light reading (e.g. playing sardines on the train). You need to concentrate as there's a lot of detail and fleeting, but surprinsgly deep pieces of description, of dialogue, and he can summarise or cut through in just a few paragraphs a major piece of information. He doesn't do much of the lighter, laughing at himself not understanding foreign or the funny foreigners stuff of lesser writing, but really detailed stuff that really does try to get under the skin of a country - without resorting to such cliches. This was his trip through central Asia in the early 1990s just after the collapse of the USSR. His historical grasp is detailed and well written into context - I particularly commend his concentration on the prospect of the poverty in Muslim countries leading to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism - the best part of a decade before this became a front page - or even more than secondary question in research. This is alongside the impact of the withdrawal of the Russians, the uncertainty - the bleak future for most of his hosts is starkly portrayed, but objectively, balanced without semtimentality or seeming callous. An old school book by an old school writer - in the best possible way. Except for reading on the 7.39.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Ben

    I was initially enamored with this book, but that soon gave way to boredom. At first the lush descriptions, detailed stories of conversations and connections with along Thubron's route, and historical background of pre-, contemporaneous, post-Soviet times pulled me along; however, this quickly gave way what felt like a formulaic story: Thurbron arrives at a location, provides background, gives description of a connection or conversation, asks questions about the Soviets, asks questions about Isl I was initially enamored with this book, but that soon gave way to boredom. At first the lush descriptions, detailed stories of conversations and connections with along Thubron's route, and historical background of pre-, contemporaneous, post-Soviet times pulled me along; however, this quickly gave way what felt like a formulaic story: Thurbron arrives at a location, provides background, gives description of a connection or conversation, asks questions about the Soviets, asks questions about Islam (and the opinion on the veil for women), laments the lost past and traditions of the land, describes ruins/graveyards/factories, pities the economic challenges of the people (while commenting on how inexpensive everything is for him thanks to the glory of the British pound), and then goes on his way. I would have liked more about the cities, nations, and people, and less about Thubron's awkwardness as an Englishman with an advantageous exchange rate in former Soviet republics.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jake Jaqua

    This is the best travel book I've read. It is as much or more an inner journey of people met, philosophy, history, culture than an outer journey of Countries and Landmarks, which he is rather defuse about, and some pictures or line drawings is the only thing I would add to the book. The people he met and speculations and insights on them and the culture that helped produce them, are the main focal points of his traveling. It was also fascinating tracing down lost cities and former centers in th This is the best travel book I've read. It is as much or more an inner journey of people met, philosophy, history, culture than an outer journey of Countries and Landmarks, which he is rather defuse about, and some pictures or line drawings is the only thing I would add to the book. The people he met and speculations and insights on them and the culture that helped produce them, are the main focal points of his traveling. It was also fascinating tracing down lost cities and former centers in the vast barrens, and then to only share them with grazing goats or an interesting local when he did find them. Its as well written as top literature, and he must have been in some type of "zone" for it, as it is the best of the three or four other Thubron books I've read, which were all good as well.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Noreen

    Better than "Among the Russians". Could use a more detailed map. The central asian area was occupied by nomadic tribes until invasion by Genghis Khan. The Mongols/Tamerlane occupied the area for about 543 years (1227- 1770s) when Russian Prince Bekovich invaded and lost 4000 men. There were various Russian invasions, until around 1915 before and after WWI and the Russian Revolution, the entire area became a part of Russia. There was an uprising (Basmachi) in 1918 after Russia decided to conscrip Better than "Among the Russians". Could use a more detailed map. The central asian area was occupied by nomadic tribes until invasion by Genghis Khan. The Mongols/Tamerlane occupied the area for about 543 years (1227- 1770s) when Russian Prince Bekovich invaded and lost 4000 men. There were various Russian invasions, until around 1915 before and after WWI and the Russian Revolution, the entire area became a part of Russia. There was an uprising (Basmachi) in 1918 after Russia decided to conscript Central Asians to fight in WWI. The Russians occupied (1771-1994) and settled the area for 225 years. There's an area in the High Pamir Mountains where remote villages speak Sogdian. The Sogdians were a refined Iranian people who lived in Marakanda/Samarkand before Alexander the Great invaded in 329 BC.

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