Follow the Silk Road, Book by Book
Compiled by our contributors, a reading list for recreating the ancient trade route from the comfort of home.
This year, T’s spring Travel issue is devoted to just five stories, each an account of its writer’s journey along a different section of the Silk Road — the ancient network of trade routes that until the 15th or 16th century spanned some 4,000 miles of the globe, from Central Asia across the Middle East to Southern Europe, and formed a vital conduit for both new commodities and new ideas. While venturing to faraway places might seem like a distant possibility now, a year after this issue began to take shape, as we reckon with the global pandemic, these pieces are a powerful reminder of our innate desire to move and explore.
T writer at large Ligaya Mishan begins the journey by documenting her immersion in the cuisine of the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an, China, once the ancient city of Chang’an, where the Silk Road began. The writer Anna Sherman takes the second leg of the route, traversing the awe-inspiring desserts of western China. For chapters three and four, the writer Aatish Taseer travels first to Varanasi, India — where he considers how the Buddha, for centuries depicted only through symbols, finally found its human form — and then through the famous caravan cities of Khiva and Bukhara and the steppe of Uzbekistan. Finally, the novelist Esi Edugyan visits the country of Georgia, cited by the 13th-century explorer Marco Polo for its exceptionally fine silk, and discovers what remains of silk-making culture in the country today. Below, each of the writers recommends various books (and films and art) that proved invaluable to them along the way, works that you might also find transportive, whether or not you’re able to recreate these trips for yourself.
“Journey to the West” (16th century), authorship attributed to Wu Cheng’en
Considered one of the four great canonical novels of classical Chinese literature, this spirited adventure follows the Tang dynasty-era monk Xuanzang on a pilgrimage to Central Asia and India, defeating demons and crossing the Milky Way. Among his disciples is the beloved monkey found in Chinese folklore, who wreaks comic havoc wherever he goes, upending bureaucratic authority and undermining the ancient feudal order.
“Yellow Earth” (1984), directed by Chen Kaige
This starkly beautiful, unsettling film, set in the desolate reaches of the Huangtu Plateau in rural Shaanxi Province, was a breakthrough in Chinese cinema: Elliptical and true to the sufferings of life in the countryside, it shows peasants unexalted by Communism. Half the glory is the work of the cinematographer, the Xi’an-born Zhang Yimou, who imbues the landscape — thirsty and relentlessly open — with a kind of fatalism.
“The Story of Qiu Ju” (1992), directed by Zhang Yimou
Alongside Chen, Zhang is the most heralded of China’s fabled fifth generation of filmmakers. He returned to Shaanxi, where he was born, for this film about a village woman, heavily pregnant, who stubbornly travels across the province to fight for justice for her injured husband. The film was shot in winter, in subzero temperatures, and many of the street scenes were captured with a concealed camera, giving them a documentarian sting.
“Slippery Noodles” (2015), by Hsiang Ju Lin
Hsiang Ju Lin is the daughter of the philosopher Lin Yutang, who famously said, “What is patriotism but the love of the food you ate as a child?” Here she compresses 2,000 years of Chinese culinary history into short, vivid chapters that juxtapose ancient recipes, poems and matter-of-fact recitations of bygone delicacies like orangutan lips.
“The Music of Strangers” (2015), directed by Morgan Neville
In 1998, the American cellist Yo-Yo Ma started to wonder if the Silk Road could offer a model for an alternate form of globalization, in which strangers from the lands crossed by ancient trade routes might make a new kind of music out of the encounter of different cultural traditions. This documentary spotlights the individual journeys of musicians in Ma’s ensemble, including the Chinese pipa player Wu Man, who says, “There is no East or West; there is just the globe.”
Recommendations by Ligaya Mishan.
“Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Treasures of Central Asia” (1980), by Peter Hopkirk
An array of early 20th-century archaeologists and geologists — most of them European — vied with each other to map the remote region where the borders of India, China, Russia and Mongolia came together. Hopkirk’s history describes with economy and élan how British, French, Swedish, Russian and Japanese expeditions excavated the region’s abandoned cities and absconded with some of western China’s greatest art and treasures.
“Cave Temples of Mogao at Dunhuang: Art and History on the Silk Road” (2000), by Roderick Whitfield, Susan Whitfield and Neville Agnew
This is an excellent introduction to the subject, with fine reproductions of the caves’ painted interiors. Another great resource is the 1982 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition catalogue on German discoveries in Xinjiang called “Along the Ancient Silk Routes: Central Asian Art from the West Berlin State Museums,” by Herbert Härtel and Marianne Yaldiz. The catalogue is unfortunately out of print, although if you can find it, it’s worth the splurge for its beautiful photographs and thoughtful commentaries on statuary, textile fragments and paintings.
“The Diamond Sutra,” translated by Red Pine (2002)
Dunhuang’s Cave 17, the so-called library cave within the Mogao Caves, was sealed up under mysterious circumstances more than a thousand years ago. The cave once held more than 50,000 texts, the finest of which the explorers Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot carted off to Delhi, Paris and London. Among these writings — whose stacks Stein claimed stood almost 10 feet high — was a copy of “The Diamond Sutra,” the world’s oldest dated printed book, which was created in 868 and is now held in the British Library. Red Pine’s translation of the sutra is unpretentious and pitched to a modern register: “As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space / an illusion, / a dewdrop, a bubble / a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning / view all created things like this.”
“Tun-huang,” by Yasushi Inoue, translated from the Japanese by Jean Oda Moy (2010)
Cave 17 also fascinated the 20th-century Japanese writer Yasushi Inoue, who made its sealing up the heart of his 1959 historical novel “Tun-huang.” This 2010 English-language reissue has a thoughtful preface by Damion Searls, who writes, “Inoue’s great theme … is how the life you lead is not your real life. What we think of as our personal struggles — our decisions, desires, deliberations, the choices we make and the things we do — are less real, less to be trusted, and perhaps ultimately less important, than the wider forces of historical destiny or the cultural past … other people are not who we think they are, and nor are we.”
“A Little Primer of Tu Fu” (2016), by David Hawkes
This was the first book of Tang-dynasty poetry I ever read, and it is still a favorite. Originally published in 1967, Hawkes’s book includes the Chinese text alongside literal translations so that readers with little or no Chinese can appreciate the poet’s virtuoso patterning.
“An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911” (1996), edited and translated by Stephen Owen
This volume is valuable for the richness and variety of its sources, and for Owen’s thoughtful commentaries on the texts. Of Tang verse, he observes: “Such poems always recall the everyday world from which they came, and remind us that although a poem may have been read by a million readers over the course of a millennium, it was originally written for one person.”
Recommendations by Anna Sherman.
“The Dance of Shiva” (1918), by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy
This is a beautiful, difficult book about ancient India and its art. Coomaraswamy, half English, half Ceylonese, lived at the end of the 19th century into the early 20th, and his meditations on what art was in ancient India changed the field forever. He makes no concessions to anyone, and he doesn’t tolerate fools; this is a book worth mastering because it allows you to enter the spirit of ancient India.
“The Life of the Buddha” (first century), by Ashvaghosha
Ashvaghosha was born a Brahmin (in the Kushan capital of Saketa — today Ayodhya, in eastern Uttar Pradesh) and became a Buddhist monk. His “Life of the Buddha” is wonderfully readable, despite being a first-century text. As with all ancient literature, one must adjust to a different narrative rhythm, but it’s totally worth your while. There’s a beautiful Clay Sanskrit Library translation by Patrick Olivelle, which brings alive the texture of classical India and the heartbreaking story of Gautama, a renunciant prince who quits his wife and newborn baby in a quest to end all suffering.
“Benares: A World Within a World” (2002), by Richard Lannoy
Lannoy is one of those writers with a natural ability to render accessible the arcane and esoteric; he’s more famous for “The Speaking Tree: A Study of Indian Culture and Society” (1971), his book examining Indian culture, but this one on Benares, most commonly known as the city of Varanasi, is a personal favorite of mine. Certainly no other volume comes closer to dramatizing the cosmological significance of India’s most holy city.
“Empires of Ancient Eurasia: The First Silk Roads Era, 100 B.C.E.-250 C.E.” (2018), by Craig Benjamin
This is a seminal academic study on the Kushans, a dynasty that came to sit at the crossroads of civilizations — Persia, China, India and Greece — and became central to Eurasian cultural exchange. Set at the time of the Han dynasty in China, the Parthian Empire in Persia and the Roman Empire in, well, Rome, this book goes further than any in explaining how the first Silk Roads era (100 B.C. to 250 A.D.) became vital to the transmission of goods and ideas.
The “Fasting Buddha” statue (Gandhara-era)
It’s easy to forget that the land encapsulated by Pakistan was once Buddhist. The Lahore Museum is a stunning building that holds one of the marvels of Gandharan art: a stone sculpture known as the “Fasting Buddha.” The sight of the emaciated Gautama, his eyes turned to deep hollows, is utterly haunting and will remain imprinted on your sensorium forever.
Recommendations by Aatish Taseer.
“The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” (2015), by Peter Frankopan
This is a roaring best seller of a book that tells what can feel at times like the history of the world. The danger of glibness is never far, but it is always held off, and I have to say that “Silk Roads” is what my old friend the historian Norman Stone used to describe as “an old-fashioned good book.”
“Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age From the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane” (2013), by S. Frederick Starr
This is a marvelously erudite book that tells the story of the extraordinary importance of Central Asia to the transmission of culture, religion and ideas along the Silk Road. It’s one of those books that remakes one’s idea of history and, though occasionally too detailed, is simply indispensable.
“Journey to Khiva: A Writer’s Search for Central Asia” (1992), by Philip Glazebrook
I loved this journey through the former Soviet Union, on the eve of its demise, in the company of a bad-tempered Englishman. Glazebrook is what every travel writer should be: eccentric, irritable, rude and quick to judgment. He also writes beautifully and is not embarrassed by the futility of the search — or, in other words, the possibility of never finding what one left home in search of.
“The Lost Heart of Asia” (1994), by Colin Thubron
A classic travelogue by a classic English traveler. Thubron describes architecture beautifully and has an ability to dramatize the fault lines of Central Asian history, which are varied and fraught.
Recommendations by Aatish Taseer.
“Samarkand” (1988), by Amin Maalouf
Amin Maalouf’s “Samarkand” is one of my favorite novels. It brings to life the dusty details of a long lost ancient culture — 11th-century Persia (which at that time covered what is now modern Uzbekistan, hence the title) — with all the suspense and intrigue usually reserved for a Hollywood film.
Recommendation by T photographer Richard Mosse.
“The Travels,” by Marco Polo, edited and translated by Nigel Cliff (2016)
This beautifully rendered new translation of the Italian explorer’s travels, originally recorded around the 1300s, offers a lucid, modern take on the greatest travel narrative of all time. The introduction, which explores the ways Polo shaped Western ideas of the East for generations, is particularly fascinating.
“Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe” (2017), by Kapka Kassabova
Part travelogue, part history, part collection of myths and legends — this sui generis book is a wonderfully vivid rumination on land borders and their mutability.
“Georgia: In the Mountains of Poetry” (1998), by Peter Nasmyth
Nasmyth’s extended travelogue offers a captivating look at the history and culture of a country newly come into its own.
“The Knight in the Panther’s Skin,” by Shota Rustaveli, translated by Lyn Coffin (2015)
This medieval epic poem sits at the heart of Georgian identity. It explores the friendship of two men searching for their beloved Nestan-Darejan, a metaphorical stand-in for Queen Tamar the Great, who ruled Georgia during its golden age, from 1184 to 1213 A.D.
“The Sheltering Sky” (1949), by Paul Bowles
Bowles’s mid-20th-century classic is one of the most utterly transportive novels you’ll ever read. It follows the travels of an American couple and their friend across North Africa as they confront situations in which their estrangement is laid bare. It’s a sumptuous, poetic and haunting work.
Recommendations by Esi Edugyan.
www.nytimes.com 2020-05-15 13:48:43