Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia (August 2019)
A few months ago, while walking on the Kota Kinabalu waterfront in northern Borneo, I met Michael and Santina from Zurich. I liked Michael’s tattoo. And in this picture, I like how Santina’s fingers seem to pull back a curtain to reveal the world.
The picture brings to mind a passage I’ve shared previously on this blog. It’s from the opening pages of one of my favorite travel books, Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road:
Sometimes a journey arises out of hope and instinct, the heady conviction, as your finger travels along the map: Yes, here and here…and here. These are the nerve-ends of the world…
A hundred reasons clamour for your going. You go to touch on human identities, to people an empty map. You have a notion that this is the world’s heart. You go to encounter the protean shapes of faith. You go because you are still young and crave excitement, the crunch of your boots in the dust; you go because you are old and need to understand something before it’s too late. You go to see what will happen.
Like me, a New York Times reviewer liked the book as well, explaining, “With its elegiac tone, ‘Shadow of the Silk Road’ is moving in a way that’s rare in travel literature, sidestepping nostalgia even as it notes its pull. Thubron goes to places most other sojourners can’t — because they’re not so much geographic locations as states of mind, formed from the lifelong accretion of intriguing facts, mistaken hopes, mysteries.”
Thubron, who speaks Mandarin and Russian, did his 7,000-mile journey in 2003 and 2004, the same years I made my own journey across Asia. We took different routes, though they sometimes overlapped. He began in Xian, China and ended in Antakya, Turkey, whereas I began in Beijing and ended in Istanbul.
He was also 34 years ahead of me in age, beginning on the eve of his 64th birthday.
Here are a few more excerpts from this recommendable book:
- …the Romans were cremating their imperial dead in asbestos shrouds, and using it for tablecloths and napkins which they cleaned in fire. They realised too its threat to health—slaves who mined or wove it died of lung disease—but this knowledge was forgotten for two millennia (99).
- Sometimes you feel yourself weightless, thinned. You draw back the curtains (if there are any) on a rectangle of wasteland at dawn, and realise that you are cast adrift from everything that gave you identity. Thousands of miles from anyone who knows you, you have the illusion that your past is lighter, scarcely yours at all. Even your ties of love have been attenuated (the emergency satellite phone is in my rucksack, and nobody calls). Dangerously, you may come to feel invulnerable. You fear only your failure to understand or to reach where you are going. Sometimes you are moved by a kind of heartless curiosity, which shames you only on your return home. At other times you are touched, even torn; but you move on (115).
- Chinese travellers wrote with astonishment how these people [in Khotan] with deep-set eyes and prominent noses greeted each other by touching one knee to the ground, and how whenever they received a letter they would hold it to their forehead in respect. Their women—to Chinese horror—wore girdles and trousers and rode horses like the men; and an unveiled openness, with rumours of promiscuity, touches them still (117).
- The train to Samarkand was like a refugee camp on the move (194).
- Russia had turned its back on the past [in terms of digesting and accounting for the gulags and other sins]. And I, how could I understand? Since the Holocaust, my world had made a duty of remembrance. Russia, like China, had chosen forgetfulness. That, said the writer Shalamov, was how people survived. A nation was not built on truth (204-5).
- I found a hotel on the main square. In its gaunt five storeys I was the only guest. The locks of all its rooms were smashed, but there was water in the communal bathroom. The hotelier sent out his son to bring me shashlik from the bazaar: it was dangerous at night, he said. For a long time I stood looking down from my window on the still city, which seemed to be glimmering under water. I felt a light expectancy. This, I thought idly, was how people died: by mistake, imagining themselves bodiless. I took this uncomfortable notion to bed with me, after wedging my door shut with a chair, and lay awake a long time, the bedsprings raking my back. Outside, the few street-lamps flickered out, until only the twin domes of the Hazrat Ali shrine—legendary tomb of the caliph Ali—went on shining in a necklace of amber lights (221, in Afghanistan).
- Danger was cumulative, of course, it crept up step by step half-noticed as your journey took you deeper, farther. Until you woke up at night in a place beyond help (242).
- [Speaking to an Iranian man inquiring about his journey]: “I’m crossing to Tehran and Tabriz, then to Turkey.”
He searched my face. “But why are you alone? Only God goes alone” (270).
- In these anxious years of the mid-thirteenth century, the whole Mongol empire, in European eyes, was close to conversion. Pope Innocent IV and St Louis, King of France, sent envoys to the Great Khan seeking help for the Crusades against the Arabs, and Asian Christians hailed Hulagu’s destruction of Baghdad as a triumph over the second Babylon. As the Mongols advanced toward the Mediterranean, the last great Muslim power, the Mamelukes of Egypt, mustered to meet them. But disruption in the Mongol homeland forced Hulagu to withdraw, leaving behind a depleted force under his general, the Christian Kitbogha. Had Kitbogha prevailed, almost the whole Muslim world would have fallen under a Mongol aristocracy sympathetic to Christianity. But he was slain at the battle of Ain Jalut, and his army decimated.
What kind of Christianity the Mongols embraced may hardly be guessed. King Louis’s ambassador to Karakoram described the Nestorian clergy as debauched and ignorant, and their services as little less than orgies. One Sunday he saw the empress of the Great Khan reeling back from High Mass (318).
- From my hotel window the banked lights glimmer like a city behind gauze. The Orontes river flows sunken through the rain-filled dark beneath me. I imagine I can smell the Mediterranean.
In the murk of Antioch I have blundered into my grandest hotel in eight months. It is empty. Tourism, ever since the Iraq invasion, has thinned away. I sit alone in the dining room, watched by waiters. It is strange. Back in my bedroom the lavatory flushes, and when I turn a tap, hot water comes out. A voluptuous woman is hosting a chat-show on my television. No dead mosquitoes smear the walls.
My clothes, in these corridors, are suddenly uncouth. I try to conceal the holes in my pullover—it’s hopeless—and button my anorak against my neck, to hide a torn collar. I feel like a stray animal. The face in the mirror belongs somewhere else. For a sad instant I mistake it for my father’s. But it seems startlingly solid now: not the refinement of eyes and ears I had imagined on my journey. I see features harsher than mine, or his. A wind-tan has darkened them since China. The eyes are hung with tired crescents. One tooth is chipped, so that smiling is a qualified event. And my fingernails are still jagged from climbing Maimundiz. As I fall asleep between white sheets, I feel surprised that anyone ever talked to me, belatedly grateful (336, at the end of his journey)
For more about the book, or to order it from Amazon: