Travellers’ Tales on the Trans-Siberian and Silk Road
First published in Steppe Magazine, issue 8, October 2010
‘Asia Overland: Tales of Travel on the Trans-Siberian and Silk Road’, by Bijan Omrani, Odyssey Publications, 2010
Attempts to cloister East from West (“and ne’er the twain shall meet”) are quite absurd, says Bijan Omrani in Asia Overland: Tales of Travel on the Trans-Siberian & Silk Road, a hugely entertaining guide to the continent. For Asia has forever been in cultural flow, ebbing along the troika and camel tracks that spread from Moscow to Beijing.
One of the joys of reading this weighty book is to plot your trip in the footsteps of the characters that fill its pages, such as Captain Richard Chancellor, shipwrecked off Archangel and entertained by Ivan the Terrible; journalist Peter Fleming, who crossed war-ravaged Xinjiang by camel; and the wonderfully plucky Annette Meakin with her aged mother, the first English women known to have travelled the Trans-Siberian in 1900, marvelling at their cabin´s all new electric reading light.Much of the literature from which Omrani draws is sprinkled with espionage.
But if the Great Game encouraged deceit in travel, some visitors simply enjoyed dressing up: Robert Byron rubbed his face with burnt cork to gain entry to the tomb of Gawhar Shad in Herat in the mid 1930s, and the headstrong Julia Pardoe in the 1820s was so intrigued to see the interior of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, she darkened her blonde eyebrows and smothered herself in an oversize pelisse.
The historical and geographical scope of the book is vast and the sheer variety of peoples, customs and anecdotes can be dizzying. But then the distances astonished even locals. Anton Chekhov, riding the newly built Trans-Siberian in the 1890s would comment on the never-ending larch, spruce and pine forest: “over the first 24 hours you pay no attention to it, at the second and third day you are full of wonderment, and by the fourth and fifth you experience the sensation that you will never manage to emerge from this green monster.”The arrival of train travel to Asia may have aroused considerable suspicion – in Russia among the vodka-soaked tarantass-drivers going out of business, and in China because the train disturbed the repose of the ancestors and upset the Feng Shui of their tombs – but one forgets how international trade was nothing new by the 19th century: travellers enlivened dull dishes with British ketchup bought in eastern Siberia, and there was already a Thomas Cook guide to China by 1917.
Asia Overland is richly researched and organized, and the choice of photography inspiring. However, given the online resources and practical guidance at the end of the book, I wondered why Omrani´s travellers´accounts stopped at the inter-war years, as a few modern tales might have brought it up to date. Nevertheless, Asia Overland is a fine addition to the travel trunk, and a warm inspiration to anyone looking to offset their carbon footprint.