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The Lost Heart of Asia.

There are travellers who write and writers who travel. Between them Lies a river of reality. Colin Thubron belongs to the second class. He is no Thessiger or Post. He has an excellent mixture as before which teases out into gobbets of history and chats with the natives, heavily larded with epithet and adjective of which he has a large and original variety; and uses deftly. But like an over rich cake, scintillation can sicken and so die like gorgeous palaces of the 'Tempest'. There is a certain egoism which informs us that his first book was written in a monastery; the second in a brothel. For travel books he needs the conscious eccentricity of Holland Park, within reach of libraries.

This creates the unworthy thought that a first class journalist might have created this book without stirring. There is plenty of material for Thubron's fascinating excursions round the Asiatic Muslim States of the ex-Soviet Union and even more down the great Sea River Oxus, where was enacted the tragedy of Sohrab and Rustem, and where Alexander nearly lost his army to thirst in 329 BC.

Thubron evokes vividly the vast shapelessness of an area where emperors rose like whirling storms riding west until the impetus failed, from Genghis Khan to Tamurlane.

For two thousand years, in Thubron's picturesque prose, Central Asia was a womb of terror where implacable queues of barbarian races impelled one another into history, and empires reaching from Vienna to China; where Iranian and Turk fought in age-long enmity. Tamurlane, a kind of Asiatic Arthur, was the last of these world predators, born in 1336 near Samarkand, his capital.

No travel hook is complete without Samarkand, city of golden imagination on the edge of myth and geography. A true product of the Music Makers, 'with wonderful deathless ditties we build up the world's great cities'. For no city has been so lauded by people who never saw it. Thubron's bus made landfall at a nondescript depot near a monolithic statue of Lenin but only the great mosque of Tamurlane still spoke of past glory.

Today, the lost heart of Asia is being transformed into ECO, a ten-member Economic Cooperaton Organisation with a prosaic and prosperous future. But within it Turk and Iranian still face each other; the growl of a new Islamic empire can be heard and Colin Thubron is wise to draw no conclusions. Only that it was late and dark, and not his country.

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Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Mortimer, Molly
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1995
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