Two Types of Travel Books

The Blue City of Samarkand in Uzbekistan

Constantinople, Trebizond, Tbilisi, Baku, Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent, Lhasa—these are cities I would dearly love to know more about. So when I read Kate Harris’s Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road, I looked forward to learning more about these magical places. Alas, I was disappointed: The book was more about a bicycle trip with little attention paid to destinations, and most of the attention paid to the roads connecting the destinations.

I had to remind myself that there are two types of travel books. First, there was my preferred kind, which combines personal experiences with history, literature, art, cuisine, and culture—the whole ball of wax! But there is another kind of travel book as well. Call it adventure travel or experiential travel. All mountain-climbing books fall into this category. They can be excellent reads, such as Jon Kracauer’s Into Thin Air, Alfred Alvarez’s Feeding the Rat, or any of Eric Shipton’s great books on mountains he has climbed.

Tibetan Monastery

Kate Harris and her companion Melissa Yule concentrated all their efforts in surviving a multiple-thousand-mile journey involving multiple mountain ranges and passes. It was quite an accomplishment, but it just left me hungry to learn more about Constantinople, Trebizond, Tbilisi, Baku, Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent, Lhasa, and points between.

Oh, well, as long as the quarantine and my health last, I’ll have the time to make up that deficit.

Dunhuang

Bodhisattva and Guardian God

Bodhisattva and Guardian God

It is over a thousand years ago. Caravans with goods from Europe and the Middle East are about to enter China, right near where the Great Wall sputters to an end near Mogao and Dunhuang. There, at an oasis wedged between the sand dunes of the Lop Desert and the Qilian Mountains, is a series of caves which have been hollowed out and converted into Buddhist temples.

Although Buddhism was the predominant religion of the time, works have been found among Dunhuang’s treasures that included scrolls about Christianity and Judaism, not to mention the oldest printed work on the planet, a scroll of the Buddhist Diamond Sutra.

Notice the western edge of the Great Wall in the map below.

Dunhuang Is Located North of Tibet in Chinese Turkestan

Dunhuang Is Located North of Tibet in Chinese Turkestan

The Getty Center in Los Angeles is running a major exhibit of items from Dunhuang and replicas of the most impressive Buddhist temple caves, including 3-D images. Today, when we visited, the Dunhuang exhibit halls were thronged primarily with Chinese tourists. Still, it was the most interesting of the traveling exhibits now at the Getty Center. Fortunately, the caves at Dunhuang have not been vandalized by jihadist thugs such as were the giant Buddhist sculptures at Bamiyan in Afghanistan.

We tend not to think much about the Silk Road, because it was so thoroughly shut down by Western European naval exploration and the new markets that were created by it. But as long ago as the Roman Empire, silk and spices and other goods from the East were being traded to Europe via camels on the Silk Road that extended from China to the Middle East.