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The Last Secrets of the Silk Road by Alexandra Tolstoy

Alexandra Tolstoy’s The Last Secrets of the Silk Road in many respects reads more like the diary of a friend, rather than the facile yet sometimes too-confident accounts that we see from more accomplished travel writers. You forgive her the gossipy tales, however, and instead admire the pluck of her and her friends in challenging an eight-month, 5000-mile Silk Road journey on horse and camel.

The Last Secrets of the Silk Road by Alexandra Tolstoy
The Last Secrets of the Silk Road, Alexandra Tolstoy (, )

The journey is spurred when Tolstoy finds herself not yet a year out of the University of Edinburgh, but already tired of “waking at five each morning and sitting at a bank of desks with telephones ringing and traders shouting for twelve hours a day,” a routine “not as exhilarating as many had led [her] to believe.” Later, while recuperating from the horrors of The City and working at the Chelsea Flower Show, Tolstoy bumps into Sophia ‘Mouse’ Cunningham, an acquaintance of hers from Edinburgh, who confides in her about a dream she has “of riding the ancient Silk Road on horses and camels.”

The two are joined on the expedition by friends and fellow Edinburgh alumnae Lucy Kelaart and Victoria “Wic” Westmacott.

Tolstoy suggests that the daily routine on the Silk Road was, in some ways, more excruciating for its tedium than it was fraught with danger: gathering with their truck-bound backup team to decide on a destination for the day; the backup team driving to an agreed upon site to wait for the women, then unloading the equipment, setting up camp, and preparing dinner while waiting for the English travelers; the arrival in the evening of the women after a hard day of riding; the feeding of the horses (or camels); the setting up of tents, then Alexandra, Lucy, Wic and Mouse unwinding by reading or playing cards. Downplaying the dangers, Tolstoy even chides her friend Mouse, for whom “the achievement rather than the journey itself [is] important. She appeared highly concerned about the image we presented and eager to portray us as the toughest and most intrepid of travelers.”

Yet Tolstoy actually sells herself, Mouse and her friends short: how many of us would set off on a journey of 5000 miles, through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyztan and China, including struggling through the arid Taklamakan desert? Most of us would be put off by the stranger in a strange land stress of going to towns that have never seen a foreigner in order to find new horses and camels, or to replenish food and water supplies. And, of course, there are the bouts of illness that lay out our intrepid travelers along the way. Miles away from the clean hospitals on England, the women rely on a “thick tome” they carry called Where There is No Doctor from which they diagnose themselves with “amoebic dysentery” and salmonella poisoning, and prescribe antibiotics to each other. When they stumble across a Chinese clinic later in the journey, it does not seem to raise the level of medical care, as when they are later diagnosed with “Diarrhoea Number Two” and set up on intravenous drips.

One of the oddest parts of the book is how Tolstoy allows her travelogue to indulge her infatuation with the “very good looking” Shamil, the backup team member through Central Asia who has “light hair and bright blue eyes, his nose crooked from being broken several times by the horses.” The wise Adonis warns the travelers as they approach towns that “Cities are where civilization ends and crime begins.”

Various members of the group take Shamil and the rest of the backup team to task for their treatment of the animals, a clash between a first world and third world view on how animals should be treated. Alexandra explains to them that “English people tend to get very emotional about animals,” while Shamil answers: “I’ve spent over twenty years working with horses and I wouldn’t have done so if I didn’t love them because it’s such hard and badly paid work.”

Tolstoy, in a frankness indicative of her writing style, admits that part of the divisiveness results from the resentment of Lucy, Mouse and Wic towards her, given that they were responsible for raising a majority of the sponsorship for the expedition; Alexandra in contrast “had gone for holiday for ten days as well as spending a couple of weekends away, leaving them to work and attend the medical training course without [her].”

The fact that Alexandra and Shamil share a common language in Russian, while the others rely on Alexandra to act as interpreter between themselves and the Russian-speaking backup team that accompanies them through the Central Asian leg of the expedition further drives a wedge between the duo of Shamil and Alexandra and the rest of the group. At one point, the two are virtually exiled and relegated to riding in back of the rest of the group. When the group leaves Central Asia, bringing closer the time when the backup team is to be swapped out for a new team to accompany them through China, Tolstoy “[cannot] bear the thought of leaving [Shamil],” and she begins to cry. The idea of being alone with a team that resents her leaves her feeling lonely, she says. The team comes back together, however, when they unite against a penny-pinching, unhelpful Chinese backup team that accompanies them through the last leg of the expedition.

The Last Secrets of the Silk Road is largely a simple account, but from time to time, Tolstoy makes us take notice with the way she notices certain scenes, for instance the asbestos deposit near China’s Simianqiang, where “everything was grey, from the sky to the road to the people, who slowly appeared from behind the mounds of dust wearing white facemasks with their hair matted by asbestos flakes. They looked prematurely aged, with their white hard and dusty faces.” Tolstoy is surprised to find that her remarks echo Marco Polo’s own account of “the Salamander.” In fact, Tolstoy is at her best when she refrains from recounting the infighting of the group or her infatuation with Shamil, and focuses instead on the history of various towns or geographies along the Silk Road, for instance when she tells the tale of Chang Ch’ien, whom she describes as the “father of the Silk Road.” That does not detract from the fact that the book is a somewhat promising attempt at an adventure book. Those hoping that Tolstoy continues her adventuring and adventure writing need fear not: last year she traveled through Mongolia and Siberia, and with luck, she will raise the bar with her next book.


Wayne E. Yang is based in New York, where he lives with his wife and two children. His web site is www.wayneyang.com.