Christina Lamb reviews Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron, in the London Times:
The Silk Road has long been a great romantic destination for travellers. At university, I remember poring over maps with a friend, considering retracing it through evocatively named places such as Tashkent and Samarkand. What we soon discovered was that the Silk Road was never a road, but a shifting network of routes starting in China and crossing central Asia. Until I read Thubron’s book, however, I did not know that the route (which dates from Roman times) has been called the Silk Road only since the 19th century when the term was coined by a German. Nor was it used just for transporting silk. The camel trains that left Changan were often laden with iron, bronze, lacquer work and ceramics, and they would come back with Indian spices, glass, golden and silver artefacts, woollens and the western marvel of chairs. Later, they would transport fruit and flowers, including the first roses to arrive in the West. The road was also a conduit for ideas, religion and scientific knowledge. Among the revolutionary inventions that it took west from China were printing, gunpowder and the compass.
The northern route chosen by Thubron traverses some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth, skirting the Gobi desert through asbestos mountains and “expanses of alarming yellow nothingness” to Kashgar and on to the ancient Mediterranean port of Antioch.