Week 5: This Road is not Made of Silk

21 May 2016: agonies of travel, cloth made from the hair of leaves, the amazing adventures of rhubarb

Our surprise this week was a spread of items that have been traded along--and in many cases originate in--our region of study.

Our surprise this week was a spread of items that have been traded along–and in many cases originate in–our region of study.

The themes for this class are trade and travel. Continuing some of the discussion from last week, we’ll see how empires and conflict relate in surprising ways to the movement of people, goods and ideas across the many Silk Roads. From the comfort of our upholstered chairs, we’ll read about spine-jarring travel on horse, camel, train and car–all in pursuit of riches of one sort or another. As one of your classmates said, “It was never Route 66!”

Everything we’ll read and talk about this week orbits around the answer to a question raised by Sven Hedin:

It would not surprise me if some of my readers were to raise the question: “What was the good of your exposing your own life, as well as those of your men and camels, and your whole outfit, to the tremendous risks of those long journeys across sandy deserts devoid of water?”

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Readings for Week 5:

  1. Join a 26-year-old Owen Lattimore for a few days on his honeymoon trip. It’s not as titillating as it sounds: lice, vulgarities, brackish water and loss of items in the trousers are more common than love and lace. In fact, Mrs. Lattimore is not even on the trip (they meet later in Kashgar). This is an excerpt from The Desert Road to Turkestan. Any section of this account would have been as engrossing as this one–it’s a book in which to lose yourself.
  2. I’ve selected two sections by Colin Thubron:
    1. The first is the chapter “Bukhara” from The Lost Heart of Asia, written during the first months of independence from the Soviet Union. It is a heartbreakingly melancholy look at a quirky and destitute land of possibilities.
    2. The second is “The Southern Road” from Shadow of the Silk Road, a more recent travel memoir that I noticed many of you have purchased. The difference between these two selections is striking and I suspect that much of it is Thubron himself: he was in his early 50s when he went on the journey described in The Lost Heart of Asia and this book came almost 15 years later. No doubt, much has changed in Central Eurasia during that time–perhaps there is more optimism?
  3. “Highways and By-ways” from Cable’s Gobi Desert is an interesting look into travel in her time. And, of course, we seem to like her writing and I couldn’t leave her out.
  4. Benedict Allen, “Mutiny” from Edge of Blue Heaven. Allen is a fascinating character and this chapter is representative of what I like bestThirst about his writing: his sensitivity, self-reflection and the burden of responsibility he feels for the well-being and welfare of the people he meets and, most of all, his animals. The BBC released a multi-part documentary which Allen filmed on this trip, but I’ve never been able to locate a copy.
  5. Tim Cope is a young Australian who rode horseback from the heart of Mongolia all the way to Hungary in 2004. His account, similar to Allen’s, is a wonderful look into loneliness, doubt, difficulty and responsibilities–all of which add up to great adventure, of course. This is Cope’s chapter “Ships of the Desert” from his account, On the Trail of Genghis Khan.
  6. You may not know it, but this is what you’ve been waiting for–in fact, you already know this story from countless cartoons, parodies and slightly-less-fascinating fictionalized versions. These 38 pages contain the seeds that sprouted into this class–it was at the end of this passage that I knew a course could be developed around Central Eurasian travel accounts with My Life as an Explorer at the center of it all.
  7. Another article from National Geographic: “Caravan to the Roof of the World” by the Michauds in 1972 is an account of a journey through the Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of some of the most rugged territory in the world. The corridor belongs to Afghanistan and separates Tajikistan to the north from Pakistan to the south and borders on China to the east. As you might have guessed, this is an artificial borderland neither created by, nor helpful to, the people who actually live there. In this case, it was a political compromise between Russians and British. Great photos and a good adventure travel story.

Supplementary Materials:

  1. Since we discussed it in class last week, here’s a link to John Green’s episode on the Silk Roads. This is a fun series and I recommend watching any that appeal to you–aside from his dismal pronunciation of some names and places, it’s all impressively accurate.

Last week: Hordes of Mounted Archers and Pyramids of Skulls

Next week: Plunder and Pillage

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