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The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron

The Lost Heart of Asia, written in the first year of the Central Asian republics’ independence from the collapsing USSR, has recently been reissued. Not only is Colin Thubron a masterful travel writer, this book also reminds us how much—and how little—has changed in this important part of the world in the intervening decade.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron
The Lost Heart of Asia, Colin Thubron (Vintage, April 2004; Harper Perennial, July 2008)

Central Asia is still in many ways a backwater, and although some world leaders might not know exactly where some of these countries are, or who leads them, the region can no longer be ignored as a provincial cul-de-sac of the Soviet Empire: Central Asia has become a front line in the so-called War on Terror, and is also an increasingly important conduit for, as well as source of, petroleum (a feature that looms ever more relevant as prices top US$40 per barrel).

The “Great Game” of the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries, where Britain and Russia tried to outmaneuver each other to control the region, has picked up again, with Britain’s role largely replaced by the United States, and with China becoming an increasingly important third player. Turkey had what now appears to have been a largely abortive look-in for a few years, trying to build on linguistic and ethnic solidarity with the region (interestingly paralleling a similarly abortive attempt in the fading years of the Ottoman Empire when Turk Enver Pasha led a rebellion against the Bolsheviks; Thubron went searching for his grave).

It is also a place where one can see the development of new nationalism—after all, there was no country called Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan until they were left washed up on the beach by the retreating tide of Soviet hegemony—but also the dangers inherent in such nationalism.

As Thubron travels the region by one broken-down means of transportation or another, he explores the various peoples’ relations with their own past (often tenuous and misunderstood), their ethnic and linguistic present, the tensions between Islam and nationalism. He also explores Soviet legacy as a unifier (WW2 in particular), provider of wider opportunities (much as the British Empire provided intellectual, academic and cultural opportunities for its subject elites a half-century earlier) and oppressor.

There are, as in much of Thubron’s work, fascinating tidbits of information, such as the survival of the ancient Persian language of Sogdian—“the last, distorted echo of the battle-cries shouted 2500 years ago by the Great Kings at Marathon and Thermopylae … spoken by impoverished goatherds in the Pamirs.” Travellers need to have a sense of romance and irony in equal measure.

It is an important story, not just an interesting one, brought home by Thubron’s careful selection of traveling partners, destinations and anecdotes. China’s role in Central Asia is set to increase. There are commercial opportunities in oil and general trade to be sure, but China also has a political flank to defend: Central Asia, historically, linguistically and culturally arguably includes much of Xinjiang.

This timely reissue reminds us that Central Asia is worth watching and watching carefully.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.