Traveling the Silk Road

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 December, 2011, 12:00am


Traveling the Silk Road
by Mark Norell, Denise Patry Leidy and the American Museum of Natural History
Sterling Signature

If nothing else this book, Traveling the Silk Road - Ancient Pathway to the Modern World, leaves the reader with a new appreciation for camels.

The authors of this lavish hardcover present such a magnetic portrait of these shaggy desert ships that it draws the most reluctant urban nomad into the world of a previously repellent animal. The knowledge alone that the dung of a stressed camel can be used as tinder from almost the instant it exits the beast is enough to inspire any former Girl Guide to bail up a bactrian and confirm it for herself.

The camels are the stars of the show because it is mainly on their backs that purveyors of ideas and goods made their way for two millennia along the legendary Silk Road stretching from China across Central Asia to the Middle East and Europe.

The trade route reached its peak in the Tang dynasty but remains today a source of wanderlust.

Like the Great Wall, the route is the sum of many parts and has its origins in national defence - the Han dynasty rulers started sending missions from the east in search of military alliances against the Xiongnu to the north. Commerce thrived and waned over succeeding dynasties, allowing luxury items such as fur and ceramics to be passed westward through a chain of traders in return for cargoes of gold, ivory and glass. The route also opened up an information superhighway for the exchange of ideas in the arts, religion and science. The Mogao Buddhist grottoes on the fringe of the Taklimakan are reminders of just how far a belief can reach.

Traveling the Silk Road takes readers across this geographic and cultural landscape, stopping along the way at five major cities to explore the lives and innovations that made it all happen. In Xian, there's the secret of silk, a fabric so prized that foreign weavers would unwind the threads of Chinese silk and 'reweave them into new garments'. In Turfan, there's the extraordinary karez water system that bleeds water from rock beneath the desert sands. And in Baghdad there are the meetings of great minds that advanced mathematics and medicine.

The volume is produced by the American Museum of Natural History and evokes an era of travel before suitcases had wheels and every way station between Dunhuang and Samarkand took online bookings. This is a journey through 2,000 years of exploration and international intrigue, bandits, pilgrims and archaeologists.

It's also a reminder of what has been lost, including the dozens of murals taken from caves near the ancient ruins of Gaocheng only to be destroyed in bombing raids on Berlin in the second world war.

Each city section is bookmarked by a map on translucent parchment paper and illustrated with full-page colour photographs. The text is pitched at the general reader and serves as a springboard for further investigation. The overall look and feel is of a bound exhibition. It would make a great gift for an armchair traveller or anybody who has ever wanted to join a desert caravan. Just remember to make sure your camels are well rested and watered every few days.