A land of enormous proportions, countless secrets, and incredible history, Central Asia was the heart of the great Mongol empire of Tamerlane and scene of Stalin's cruelest deportations. A remote and fascinating region in a constant state of transition—never more so than since the collapse of the Soviet Union—it encompasses terrain as diverse as the Kazakh steppes, the Karakum desert, and the Pamir mountains. In The Lost Heart of Asia, acclaimed, bestselling travel writer Colin Thubron carries readers on an extraordinary journey through this little understood, rarely visited, yet increasingly important corner of the world.
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About the Author
Colin Thubron is the author of seven award-winning novels, including To the Last City, which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. He is an acknowledged master of travel writing, and his most recent titles include Behind the Wall, winner of the Hawthornden Prize and the Thomas Cook Travel Award; In Siberia, winner of the Prix Bouvier; the New York Times bestseller Shadow of the Silk Road; and To a Mountain in Tibet. In 2010 he became president of the Royal Society of Literature.
Read an Excerpt
The Lost Heart of Asia
The sea had fallen behind us, and we were flying above a desert of dream-like immensity. Its sands melted into the sky, corroding every horizon in a colourless light. Nothing suggested that we were anywhere, or even moving at all. The last solid objects in the universe were the wing-tips of the plane. Yet when I stared at the faces dozing or brooding around me, I felt that only mine did not belong in this sun-stricken wilderness. They were wideboned faces, burnished and still. They slept.
We had turned along the forties 'latitude now, midway between Gibraltar and Beijing, into the world's heart. It was a childish concept, I suppose - that the world had a heart - but it had proved oddly durable. As a boy I had soon lost the notion that one day I might slither down the North Pole or run my fingertips along a, red-hot Equator. But unconsciously I had gone on feeling that somewhere in the core of the greatest land-mass, on earth, beyond more familiar nations, there pulsed another country, half forgotten, to which the rest were all peripheral.
Yet even on the map it was ill-defined, and in history only vaguely named: 'Turkestan', 'Central Asia', 'The Land beyond the River'. Somewhere north of Iran and Afghanistan, west of the Chinese deserts, east of the Caspian Sea (which lay far behind us now), -this enormous, secret country had turned in on itself. Its glacier-fed rivers - the Oxus and Jaxartes of the ancients, the Chu and the Zerafshan - never reached the ocean, but vanished in landlocked seas or died across the desert. The Himalaya cut off its mountains from any life-giving monsoon where the Pamirs rose in anaked glitter Of plateaux, so high, wrote Marco Polo, that no bird flew there and fire burnt with a pale flame in which you could rest your hand.
Yet this region stretched from the Kazakh steppes to the Hindu Kush. it was larger than Western Europe and split by atrocious geographic extremes. While the Pamirs lay under permafrost, the Karakum desert beneath us could simmer for weeks at a time in 1050F in the shade, and its flatlands harden to a surface like levelled stone.
"There's nothing to see down there" said the Uzbek seated beside me. 'It's the Turcomans' country' -- and his voice darkened in despisal. "They're shepherds." Then, alerted by my clumsy Russian, he asked: 'Are you from the Baltic?'
'England.' He contemplated the word as if waiting for something -- anything -- to flutter into his mind. 'That is next door to America
I stared down. The plane's fuselage was gliding above a wasteland where faint tracks wandered. Here and there, as in some anatomical chart, canals and arteries converged over the blank tissue of the sand, or spread into dark fields. Occasionally, too, the soil whitened to saline flats, where all shrubs had withered away, or never been. But against the desert's enormity these features looked as slight as craters on the moon. For mile upon mile the only colour was a terrible,, famine-breathing platinum, less like pure sand than the pulverised clay of the empires which had petered out in its dust: Persia, Seleucia, Parthial Macedon .... it was awesome and somehow expected: that the heart of the world was not a throbbing organ but a shifting question-mark.
People had filled it with their inner demons. In ancient times it was the domain of Cimmerian hordes who lived in perpetual mist, and of the dread Scythians with their horses and gold. it became a corridor awash with nomad nations. For centuries it would remain silent and the movements of its peoples unknown, then it would unleash its wild cavalry west and east -- Scythians, Huns, Turks, Mongols -- to unwrap the softened empires round them. It was the hinterland of God's vengeance.
Its strangled rivers also nurtured empires of its own, muffledto Western ears by the vastness surrounding them. They leftthemselves behind in cities and tombs broken over theencroaching wilderness or in the river valleys. Only after thefifteenth century, when the Mongol empire fractured -and theSilk Road died, did this fearful heartland sink out of history,splintered into obscure khanates and tribal pastures. Fourcenturies later the Russian empire easily devoured it,and its noise was heard only dimly, through Moscow, as if it were a ventriloquist's dummy.
'You will go to Samarkand and Tashkent,' the man beside me said. it sounded more a command than a question. 'But you won't go to Tajikistan, there is fighting there. They are fighting everywhere now. Nobody knows what the future is.
But my journey unravelled in my mind through six thousand miles of mountain and desert. The Soviet system of tourism had broken up, and I had secured my visa by pre-booking rooms in a chain of grim hotels, which I would often ignore. The old order -- all Soviet Central Asia - was cracking apart, and its five republics, artificially created by Stalin, had declared their sovereignty a few months earlier. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kirghizstan -- suddenly the Soviet tide had ebbed from these shadowy Moslem nations and had left them naked in their, independence. What would they become? Would they hurl themselves into the Islamic furnace, I wondered, or reconvene in a Communist mass? I could conceive their future only in the light of powers which I already knew: Islam, Moscow, Turkey, the West.
To the south, for more than an hour now, the snow-peaks of the Kopet Dagh, the 'Dry Mountains', had guided us eastward. Adrift in a sea of haze, they drew the ancestral battle-line between the Turkic and Persian worlds. For more than two hundred miles they followed us like the first waves of an ocean poised to come crashing out of the Iranian plateaux barely thirty miles to the south.
Then we started to descend over a wide oasis. Beneath us the snake of the Karakum Canal was taking silt and water to the Caspian Sea. The collective farms looked as neat as Roman camps, bisected by pale streets where nothing moved. A voice over the Tannoy announced that in ten minutes we would be landing in Ashkhabad.
Ashkhabad: the capital of Turkmenistan evoked no feelings at all. Turkmenistan was one of the poorest and wildest of the old republics of the USSR, a desert region huger than Germany, peopled by less than four million souls.The Lost Heart of Asia. Copyright © by Colin Thubron. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I agree that this is a terrific book. It is very well-written, and I would definitely recommend it to others.
This book is compleltey amazing.Describes perefectly the juxapostion of a country,trapped between the decay of russian communism and the ancient culture mosiac of the turkish empire.
Thubron is a talented writer, and it's clear he spent a lot of time in Central Asia. The tone is a little melancholy and depressing. Not sure if this is a reflection of the author or Central Asia. If you are interested in learning more about Uzbekistan through an exciting thriller, check out The Opportunists by Yohann de Silva, which has received some great reviews.