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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Review of The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron

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Thubron is the greatest travel writer alive. Every sentence he writes seems to be constructed to carry profound meaning and beauty beyond the basic 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-swelling 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 skills. He travels alone and he seeks the most desolate, forgotten locations 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 heartfelt attempts to understand the realities, both external and internal, of people he meets, whose entire life is conscribed b the 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.