Posts Tagged ‘silk route’

William Atkins: The Immeasurable World

January 17, 2019

41dqbism+jl._ac_us218_I asked for and received another volume of desert travel writing for Christmas and I’ve just finished it: it was really good. The first thing to say is that it is a very nicely produced book, with some integral illustrations – not many – excellent maps and a very full bibliography. I was gratified to find that I’ve read a good number of the books in my own armchair desert explorations already, and I’ve added others to my long list…

Atkins visits most of the major deserts of the world and spends time in each, not so much exploring as experiencing and reporting. The only one he misses is the Namib/Kalahari, which is a shame; it’s one of the ones I know least about, too. His fascination is evident, as is his close observation and description of the places and people he encounters.

I was horrified to read about the violence done to Aboriginal ancestral homelands in the Australian desert by British nuclear testing in the 1950s; the sheer callousness and cavalier attitude is truly shocking. I have to say I was not surprised by what I read, though, given the imperialist past of the British state. We should be truly ashamed at what was supposedly done in our name.

The Gobi and other surrounding areas of desert and wilderness are what I have read most about and yet they still remain enigmatic in many ways. The Silk Route necessarily skirted either the north or the south of these regions and so, whilst uninhabitable and desolate, were nevertheless known. Atkins is interesting and informative about current issues the Chinese state has with the largely Uighur and Muslim population of the Xinjiang region, and his journey there often seems rather perilous.

The devastation and death of the Aral Sea has been well-documented by others too, and the adjoining desert areas of Kazakhstan were also abused by the Soviets for their nuclear testing programme. As I read this book I realised that humans had contrived, by their efforts to make many of these already inhospitable areas of our planet even worse…

I learned much from Atkins’ travels in the United States, too. He visits the desert areas along the border with Mexico and recounts some dreadful tales of what refugees attempting to reach the ‘land of opportunity’ endured, and that killed many others. All this is currently hidden behind President Trump’s machinations and lies and attempts to build a wall. I was heartened to read of Americans taking risks and breaking laws in order to support and rescue refugees in danger of dying in the desert regions. In many ways the visits to the deserts of the US were the most disturbing, weird and unnatural of all.

Atkins also visits the Egyptian deserts and spends time in some of the ancient Egyptian monasteries that date from the earliest centuries of Christianity. Here he walks in similar footsteps to William Dalrymple in his excellent book From The Holy Mountain.

This was a lovely books in so many ways, written by an intelligent and enquiring traveller who taught me a lot; his evident fascination with deserts, as well as his observant and reflective approach make it a read I seriously recommend.


Bernard Ollivier: Longue Marche – suite et fin

May 19, 2018

I was fascinated by Bernard Ollivier‘s account of his three-year endeavour to walk the 12,000kms of the Silk Route, from Istanbul to Beijing, a project he undertook around the turn of the century, after he had retired, and lost his wife. It wasn’t exploration, but it was genuine travel, as he engaged with all sorts of people he met on his journey, and grappled with many problems. There are three volumes in his account (1,2,3).

He met and settled with a new partner and lives in Normandy: she asked why he had started from Istanbul rather than from France, as Lyons was where silk manufacture and trade had developed in France from the Middle Ages. Then she suggested they walk that final stretch of the journey together. Ollivier was faced with two challenges: walking with someone else, whereas he had always walked alone, from preference, and covering a further couple of thousand kilometres at the age of seventy-three. I can only admire him and hope that I have a small portion of such energy and the desire to live adventurously if I reach that age…

He is less rigid about scrupulously covering every kilometre on foot this time; there are occasional short bus and taxi journeys when these are necessary to avoid difficulties. He is older and more crook than previously and he lets us know this. Encounters with locals in places they pass through are markedly more difficult and rarer when there are two of them, though people still do marvel at the craziness of the exploit when they learn what the couple’s goal is.

It’s Europe, so feels more familiar than the earlier walking, but for me the real eye-opener was his account of their journey through the Balkans. He passes through all the countries that were rent by the horrific civil wars and massacres in the years around the turn of the century, conflicts that we lived through and heard about at the time and were appalled by, but which, of course, we have now more or less forgotten. Their impressions of the aftermath of the war: the destruction still apparent; the cemeteries which dot the landscape as those of the Somme battlefields do; the suspicions and latent hatreds still smouldering between communities and nations, the issues unresolved; the footpaths they cannot walk along because of the uncleared mines… it was a chilling picture, presented through the eyes of a couple with whom I could identify because of their ages and their love of walking and encountering people.

The book rounds off and closes the epic adventure, I suppose. Ollivier is a kind of hero for me, or at least someone I can admire for his spirit of adventure at his age, knowing that he has done something I might aspire to but will never do…

William Dalrymple: In Xanadu

March 9, 2016

419DJZH9NFL._AA160_Dalrymple sets off to retrace the steps of Marco Polo, to the legendary Xanadu, in China. It’s a crazy undertaking, worthy of a student in his carefree student days – though his time is limited by the need to get back to Cambridge to prepare for his finals…

He’s travelling in 1986, so not all parts of the journey are straightforward, or even allowed. Travel between Israel and Arab nations requires a certain amount of detouring, Afghanistan incompletely off-limits, and crossing the areas of China through which Polo travelled required subterfuge and illegality, passing as it does, right next to their nuclear testing grounds.

He veers between being humorous – his tone is often bemused when he encounters various oddities of travel and people – and very knowledgeable about many interesting places along the route, which is basically the ancient Silk Road. Sometimes events, accidents, conversations take on a tinge of farce; sometimes he surprises us with details and contextual background to places and events we are perhaps vaguely familiar with. This is what I’m looking for from good travel writing: knowledge, interest and enthusiasm from the traveller. The maps are rather on the vague side, though. At times, he reminded me of Robert Byron, who travelled in the Middle East in the 1930s, and who describes, and conveys a sense of place, like very few other writers I’ve come across.

It’s an uneven work, by which I mean that some sections are leisurely and the journey and places are fully described, whilst sizeable actions of the journey are dashed through against the clock, with nothing seen or remarked on, let alone described. Such are student travels, in my experience, though I never went this far afield. Despite the haphazard voyage, the many scrapes and adventures he gets into along with his companions (two different women at different times) he nevertheless succeeds, daringly, in attaining his ultimate objective. This demands respect. But his later travels in From the Holy Mountain are far more engaging, less about him and more about what he saw.

Travel and Tourism

May 12, 2013

This post is prompted by a recent find at Aardvark Books, which I’ve mentioned before. Alone Through the Forbidden Land, by Gustav Krist narrates the adventures of this Austrian traveller in Persia and other Silk Route countries in the 1930s, when much of the area was ‘closed’ to foreigners for various reasons, not least being that a considerable part of the area had only recently been annexed to the Soviet Union. Krist (who I’d never heard of before) had been an Austrian prisoner of the Russians during the First World War, which made his travels even riskier.

I really enjoyed the book. Krist covered territory and peoples which I never tire of reading about, and came across as a real traveller with curiosity about, understanding of, and sympathy with, the people among whom he was travelling, willing to share their lives, and to take risks to find out… an explorer, I suppose. For me, he fits in with the other interesting travellers of that time, such as Thesiger, Thomas, Maillart and Fleming.

I much prefer to read accounts from the days when travelling involved effort, privation and the unknown, for people who really wanted to get to know people and places. This is very different from travelling nowadays, which I think is more correctly called tourism: it is now so easy, and quick, to get to anywhere on the planet; one is protected by Western medicine and technology from most dangers and risks, and so there seems to be little real adventure involved in going to faraway places. Increasingly, too, I think Westerners are parasitic on other societies, and our needs as tourists warp and deform the lives and needs of the local inhabitants who are drawn in to service us. We have the money to buy the time and the luxury of travel to anywhere on the planet regardless of our effect on our world, others’ worlds and their environment, and what do we learn? Do we even think about such questions? Reading the book, I got the sense of a world that was gradually and inevitably changing as modernity caught up with it; this is a double-edged sword, in the sense that such things as modern medicine, and some modern technology have the ability to transform people’s lives, that people often lived under cruel and barbarous regimes (but then so did they in the ‘civilised’ West quite frequently) in states of great poverty and need, that such people often crave the benefits of the West, and yet here, we are so often dissatisfied with what we have, and yearn to get away from it all.

The book is well-written, illustrated with some of the author’s photographs, and has a decent map to enable the reader to follow his journey – this is always an added bonus, and often sadly lacking in more recent and cheaply produced books.

Ollivier: La vie commence à 60 ans

May 5, 2013

51+U8MrxdVL._AA160_I’ve written about Bernard Ollivier’s epic walk along the Silk Route in earlier posts; this is more personal and biographical, and explains more of his thinking about life. I decided to read it as I approach the ‘six-0’ in a short while, and I found it quite inspirational.

One of his major ideas is that walking solves everything, and I agree with him: he discovered this by walking from Paris to Santiago di Compostella in Spain, and I read his book while on a walking holiday in the hills of Luxembourg. He explains how he came up with the idea of walking the Silk Route, how he planned it and the reactions of family and friends to the exploit. There is honesty in the way he approaches ageing and its inevitable effects, and coming to terms with these; plenty of material for thinking about here. Above all, it’s an attitude of mind which I’d hope to emulate. One can’t escape growing older and gradually weaker, but one doesn’t have to be oppressed by it; being retired brings opportunities and freedoms along with it.

Bernard Ollivier: Longue Marche III

November 16, 2010

51KKE2v8M1L._AA160_The final volume covers the last two sections of his journey, from Samarkand to Turfan, across the Taklamakan desert, and then from Turfan to Xi’an, where he completes his walk, at the age of 64 (!) of somewhere between eleven and twelve thousand kilometres.  The achievement is astonishing – he realises at the end that he is possibly the only person ever to walk the entire length of the Silk Route.  The section in China is rather weird as he knows nothing of the language, meaning that his contact and communication with people is somewhat restricted, and yet he has many friendly contacts and encounters with people. He communicates a powerful sense of the dynamism of the Chinese as a people, reinforcing my impression that China is the nation that will mould the 21st century.

I really enjoyed these books.  If you read French, read them.  If you know someone who will translate them for English readers, tell them.

Bernard Ollivier: Longue Marche II

November 16, 2010

51c4INK4KQL._AA160_A year later, he’s back on the road, in the most interesting of the three volumes, in my opinion, as he walks through Iran, heading for Samarkand. Given that Iran seems such a closed society to us in the West, characterised mainly by its nuclear ambitions and its – as presented though our media – rather bizarre regime, it was really refreshing and eye-opening to read of an ordinary person’s travels through this country, and his encounters with ordinary Iranians, their lives, cares and friendliness.  He had problems and difficulties at times, because of the regime and its restrictions, but I found myself warming to the place and the people second-hand, as it were, through his account.  Bernard does revive one’s faith in human nature.

Bernard Ollivier: Longue Marche 1

October 18, 2010

51rBtL2fDoL._AA160_ I’ve been fascinated by the Silk Road/ Silk Route, and descriptions of travel along it, for a number of years; there are a lot of very interesting accounts out there.  But Bernard Ollivier was a sixty year-old retired journalist when he decided to walk from Istanbul to Xian, carrying only a backpack and trusting to fortune.  He didn’t do it all in one go, but planned a route carefully to allow him to complete a section one year, go back home to Normandy and then go back and begin again where he’d left off, the following year…

This volume follows him across Turkey almost to the border with Iran, when he is floored by amoebic dysentery and eventually evacuated as a medical emergency, and taken back to Istanbul.

He’s trusting (sometimes to the point of naivete) and open to all encounters and situations, and meets a wide variety of people as he walks.  The standard reactions to him are that he must be insane to walk – so many people want to offer him lifts – and that, as a European, he must be very rich, and therefore worth robbing.

The book is a straightforward account of his travels; it could have done with a better map.  I admire him for his guts and energy, and his willingness to encounter the world when so many of us seem increasingly to be afraid of ‘the other’.

I’ve begun the second volume…

%d bloggers like this: