Tearing up the Silk Road: A Modern Journey from China to Istanbul, through Central Asia, Iran and the Caucasus
by Tom Coote
Garnett publishing, 2012 (buy on AMAZON)
With nine weeks on your hands, the last thing you want to do is breeze from Asia to England through the Silk Road and the Caucasus. Trust me: I know what I am saying as I completed a very similar trip in double that time. The sheer vastness of this part of the world would be enough to put such a task under the perspective of “this time, maybe better not”. However, for some determined individuals, being short on time is not necessarily a problem getting in the way to realize life-long dreams.
Tom Coote is one of them. An individual who’s not just content with the personal pride of having completed such an overland odyssey using only public transport, as he also managed to pen his experiences down in Tearing up the Silk Road. The title is explicative enough, as Tom has literally breezed through a lot of ground, still being able to visit the highlights of 8 countries, a couple of which – China and Kazakhstan – are two of the biggest colored drops on every World map. The more we get into the book, and the more we feel the hourglass inexorably passing sand to its bottom. Ancestral sands similar to those the author has felt creeping down his collar as he ventured from the wilds of Xinjiang to the barren deserted expanses of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
The relentless march of time only seems to inject more determination in Coote’s voyage. His knowledge that time is being progressively lifted from his hands possibly helped open his eyes wider on the exhilarating – or extremely desolating – human and geographical landscapes he got to touch, albeit briefly. And I have to be careful using the adjective “brief”, for two main reasons: firstly, because this book is indeed full of rich details. It depicts a multi-layered vision spanning from carefully researched historical insights to mundane accounts of nights spent crashing in different ranges of accommodation, haunted by an equally complex taxonomy of quirky characters. And secondarily, because clocking at about 100,000 words, this is definitely not the kind of book that will leave you wanting for more. Coote definitely succeeds in picturing a modern, unbiased and down to earth version of the Silk Road that comes as fresh air sweeping the dust off a part of the world that other writers – such as Thubron – have instead described like a triumph of taxidermy. I am in fact afraid that after reading this book, more travellers would start flocking to the region, basically spoiling a part of Asia that is still quite devoid of the backpacker subculture that has already “corrupted the apple” elsewhere. Backpacking is, indeed, one of the themes of Tearing up the Silk Road, and one that has an ambivalent connotation for Coote: on one hand, it is the solid structure upon which he relies to get around, find accommodation and get to his next destination. On the other, it is a world that Coote skeptically takes a distance from, but never really abandons in favor of more unknown road pleasures. What is definitely laudable, however, is how Coote uses this traveler-friendly backbone to engage in the observation of the local youth he meets along the road. In fact, Coote is a metalhead, and this detail transpires not only from the abundant musical citations peppering the book, but also from the way the author’s long-haired appearance gets him connected with an underbelly of Central Asian youth that thus far has found very little space in the spotlight of travel literature. The shifting overtones of a globalized world and its impact on the youth are indeed very present throughout this book, and give it a unique take on the Silk Road subject.
However, pushing on this aspect also leads to a bit of criticism – it must be because of my ethnographic penchant-: I have found myself waiting for more original outcomes from the interactions with said locals and the traditions the author has so bravely gone through. One example that stuck to my mind was Coote’s inability to find Iranian food he could enjoy, as he mostly found street side fast food places. Based on my personal experience in Iran, I have instead tasted some of the best food I came across on the mutton-infested Silk Road’s buffets. And it has been gently provided by all those families I have easily befriended by getting slightly out of the “acknowledged” adventurous tourist trail. With this remark, I am not arguing that Coote’s Silk Road’s depiction is less authentic because of his forcedly rushed experience. However, by reading his travelogue from my own perspective of a similar adventure, I believe that the downside of his run against time produced a slightly solitary deformation of an otherwise potentially very fulfilling human experience. Regardless, this book is a truly enjoyable read that should convey one clear message to the minds of all those travelers – armchair and not – pondering a similar quest: it is that nothing can stop you from materializing your dreams into, at your own pace. Highly recommended to anyone considering an adventure along the sandy Central Asian roads.