The Silk Road, linking the empires of Rome and China, conjours up an atmosphere of mystery and exoticism by its very name. Actually, there were many branches of the Silk Road — just as there were many branches of the Great Wall of China — through a range of more northerly or southerly routes, binding West to East over the centuries. In 2006, the young Oxford graduate Nick Rowan (now working in the oil industry in London) spent four-and-a-half months travelling from Venice to Xian, in the hope of recapturing some of the spirit of intrepid traders of various nationalities, who would have spent considerably longer on their journeys, even if few covered more than one or two sections of the road. Inspired by the sights and sounds of Central Asia in particular, Rowan has written a travelogue recording his journey, during which he used many types of transport from buses to taxis to a clapped-out old ferry across the Caspian Sea, and even a few side excursions on horseback. Initially moving solo, he inevitably linked up with various people en route, both Western companions and, more significantly, interested locals. On the final leg of the journey, across China, he was joined by his younger brother. The resultant book is a mixture of travel diary and historical asides, as well as insights into aspects of economic and social development gained by contacts he had through an overseas aid charity. His narrative starts a little hesitantly — it is hard to say anything very new or remarkable about as well-chronicled a place as Venice — but he really gets into his stride when he reaches Iran and he encounters not only the architectural splendours of cities such is Isfahan, but also the engaging hospitality of the Iranian people, so different from what one might imagine if one just listens to Western propaganda. Turkmenistan wins the prize as the oddest country on his epic journey, but one senses that it is really Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan that win his affection. After them, China is something of an anti-climax. Reading Rowan’s book, one certainly feel one is accompanying him on the journey and can share his varying moods of excitement, frustration and boredom. He rather overuses certain adjectives (notably “stunning”), and a little tighter editing would have improved the text. But this is the account of a voyage that clearly was a type of rite of passage for the author and it is both enjoyable and informative for those who may never get closer to Kashgar or Samarkand than the comfort of their armchair.
Nick Rowan: Friendly Steppes: A Silk Road Journey, Hertfordshire Press, £14.95