The Books: “The Lost Heart of Asia” (Colin Thubron)

Next on my history.travel bookshelf.

CAS07.jpgNext book on the shelf is the second in the “Russian trilogy” – and it’s called The Lost Heart of Asia, by Colin Thubron.

I love this book.

Please read it.

Thank you.

It’s my favorite of the trilogy. Thubron started his trilogy with his book about driving and camping through western Russia in 1980 – when Communism was still around, the monolith still existing – yet visibly cracking up. The second book in the trilogy is Thubron driving around through Central Asia in 1990, 1991 – after everything had fallen apart. It’s such a mysterious book, in a way – because those countries (or … regions, really) are so impenetrable in many ways. In the deserts of Central Asia are ruins of civilizations that are barely remembered today. Or not remembered at all. So much there is lost history because of how conquered or forgotten the entire region was, for hundreds of years. Once the sea route to India was discovered and utilized, Central Asia, once the highway of the world, dropped off the map, and dropped out of history. What was it like? How suddenly did the Silk Road “dry up”? Did they realize what was happening as it was happening?

Thubron drives through all the ‘stans – talks to people, gets local guides, sees things, he sets out to find the remaining Russians, too – the people whose grandparents had been deported there by Stalin – to see what THEIR plans are, now that Communism has ended. Where will they go? What will they do?

I couldn’t pick an excerpt … there are so many great anecdotes – so I decided to go with one of the more historical sections. Even though you can get this information anywhere, there’s just something about how Thubron writes that really draws you in.


From The Lost Heart of Asia (P.S.), by Colin Thubron.

For two thousand years Central Asia was the womb of terror, where an implacable queue of barbarian races waited to impel one another into history. Whatever spurred their grim waves — the deepening erosion of their pasturelands or their seasons of fleeting unity — they bore the same stamp of phantom mobility and mercilessness.

Two and a half millenian ago the shadowy Scythians of Herodotus — Aryan savages whose country was the horse — simmered just beyond the reach of civilization, like a ghastly protoplasm of all that was to come. Then the Huns flooded over the shattered Roman Empire in a ravening swarm — fetid men clothed in whatever they had slaughtered, even the sewn skins of fieldmice — and they did not stop until they had reached Orleans, and their rude king Attila had died in unseasonable bridebed, and their kingdom flew to pieces. But the Avars followed them — long-haired centaurs who rocked Constantinople and were eventually obliterated by Charlemagne at the dawn of the ninth century. Soon afterwards an enfeebled Byzantium let in the Magyars, and the fearsome Pechenegs rushed in after — Turanian peoples, all of them, who evaporated at last in the gloomy European forests, or settled to become Christian on the Great Hungarian Plain.

Then, at the start of the thirteenth century, as Christian Europe ripened and Islamic Asia flourished, the dread steppeland unleashed its last holocaust in the Mongols. This was not the random flood of popular imagination, but the assault of a disciplined war-machine perfected by the genius of Genghiz Khan. Unpredictable as a dust-storm, its atrocious cavalry — neckless warriors with dangling moustaches — could advance at seventy miles a day, enduring any hardship. Only their stench, it was said, gave warning of their coming. In extremes, they drank from the jugulars of their horses and ate the flesh of wolves or humans. Yet they were armoured in habergeons of iron or laminiated leather scales, and they could fire their steel-tipped arrows with magic accuracy over more than two hundred yards at full gallop. Consummate tacticians and scouts, they soon carried in their wake siege-engines and flame-throwers, and around their nucleus of ethnic Mongols rode a formidable mass of Turkic auxiliaries.

By Genghiz Khan’s death their empire unfurled from Poland to the China Sea. Within a few years his sons and grandsons came within sight of Vienna, laid waste Burma and Korea, and sailed, disastrously, for Japan. Meanwhile, in their Central Asian heartland, the Pax Mongolica was instilling administrative discipline, commercial recovery, and a frightened peace.

Tamerlane, the Earth-Shaker, was the last, and perhaps most awesome, of these world predators. Born in 1336 fifty miles south of Samarkand, he was the son of a petty chief in a settled Mongol clan. He acquired th ename “Timur-i-Leng” or “Timur the Lame” after arrows maimed his right leg and arm, and passed as Tamerlane into the fearful imagination of the Weset. By his early thirties, after years of fighting over the splintered heritage of Genghiz Khan, he had become lord of Mavarannah, the “land Beyond the River”, with his capital at Samarkand, and had turned his cold eyes to the conquest of the world.

From the accounts that are left of him, he emerges not only as the culmination of his pitiless forerunners, but as the distant ancestor of the art-loving Moghals of India. Over the terrified servants and awed ambassadors at his court, his eyes seemed to burn without brilliance, and never winced with either humour or sadness. But a passion for practical truth fed his unlettered intelligence. He planned his campaigns in scrupulous detail, and unlike Genghiz Khan he led them in person. He clothed his every move with the sanctions of the Islamic faith, but astrology and omens, shamanism and public prayers, were all invoked to serve his needs. An angel, it was rumoured, told him men’s hidden thoughts. Yet he assaulted Moslems as violently as he did Christians and Hindus. Perhaps he confused himself with God.

No flicker of compassion marred his progress. His butchery surpassed that of any before him. The towers and pyramids of skulls he left behind — ninety thousand in the ruins of Baghdad alone — were calculated warnings. After overrunning Persia and despoiling the Caucasus, he hacked back the remnants of the Golden Horde to Moscow, then launched a precipitate attack on India, winching his horses over the snowbound ravines of the Hindu Kush, where 20,000 Mongols froze to death. On the Ganges plain before Delhi, the Indian sultan’s squadrons of mailed elephants, their tusks lashed with poisoned blades, sent a momentary tremor through the Mongol ranks; but the great beasts were routed, and the city and all its inhabitants levelled with the earth. A year later the Mongols were wending back over the mountains, leading 10,000 pack-mules sagging with gold and jewels. They left behind a land which would not recover for a century, and five million Indian dead.

Now Tamerland turned his attention west again. Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus fell. In 1402, on the field of Ankara, at the summit of his pwoer, he decimated the army of the Ottoman sultan Beyazid, and inadvertently delayed the fall of Constantinople by another half century.

Between these monotonous acts of devastation, the conqueror returned to the Samarkand he cherished. At his direction a procession of captured scholars, theologians, musicans and craftsmen arrived in the capital with their books and tools and families — so many that they were forced to inhabit caves and orchards in the suburbs. Under their hands the mud city bloomed into faience life. Architects, painters and calligraphers from Persia; Syrian silk-weavers, armourers and glass-blowers; Indian jewellers and workers in stucco and metal; gunsmiths and artillery engineers from asia Minor: all labored to raise titanic mosques and academies, arsenals, libraries, vaulted and fountained bazaars, even an observatory and a menagerie. The captured elephants lugged into place the marble of Tabriz and the Caucausus, while rival emirs — sometimes Tamerlane himself — drove on the work with the parvenu impatience of shepherd-princes. The whole city, it seems, was to be an act of imperial power. Villages were built around it named Cairo, Baghdad, Shiraz or Damascus (a ghostly Paris survives) in token of their insignificance. It was the “Mirror of the World,” and the premier city of Asia.

Tamerlane himself confounds simple assessment. He kept a private art collection, whose exquisitely illuminated manuscripts he loved but could not read. His speech, it seems, was puritan in its decorum. He was an ingenious and addicted chess-player, who elaborated the game by doubling its pieces — with two giraffes, two war-engines, a vizier and others — over a board of 110 squares. A craving for knowledge plunged him into hard, questing debates with scholars and scientists, whom he took with him even on campaign, and his quick grasp and powerful memory gave him a working knowledge of history, medicine, mathematics, and astronomy.

Yet at heart he was a nomad. He moved between summer and winter pastures with his whole court and horde. Even at Samarkand he usually pavilioned in the outskirts, or in one of the sixteen gardens he spread round the city: watered parks with ringing names. Each garden was different. In one stood a porcelain Chinese palace; another glowed with the saga of his reign in lifelike frescoes, all long vanished; yet another was so vast that when a workman lost his horse there it grazed unfound for six months.

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One Response to The Books: “The Lost Heart of Asia” (Colin Thubron)

  1. Paul George says:

    I am currently attending a university class on travel journalism and Thubron has become one of the writers I respect the most in this field. I am reading “The Lost Heart of Asia” for a presentation and I sympathize with you: Thubron is difficult to quote because everything is so well written that only full paragraphs will do. His well-crafted prose requires a reader to go along with him on the journey.

    Anyways, great review.

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