“How did Ibn Battuta support himself on his travels?”, asked a student once. It’s hard to imagine a world where erudition and charm enable a man to travel the world as the honored guests of kings and scholars as well as humble folk, but that is how things worked in those days. It also helped to be able to sleep as soundly in silk sheets as on a crofter’s mat. A world like that, a man like that, does not belong to a remote past, but it may belong to a past that is fading fast. Tales from the Life is an outpouring of praise and sadness on the occasion of the death earlier this year of Bruce Wannell, the last great English traveler in the Orient. 

The title of Roberto Carmack’s book is a bit misleading, as is the book’s cover, which shows two helmeted and uniformed soldiers in battle. The book is part of the Modern War Studies series, but its focus is on the administrative, institutional and ideological aspects of war in the Kazakh Republic of the Soviet Union during the Second World War. It is more sociology than military history.

Perhaps because Central Asia is still off the beaten track, it attracts its fair share of travel writers, maybe more than its fair share, from the venerable Colin Thurbon (who has two, The Lost Heart of Asia and Shadow of the Silk Road), two by horse (The Last Secrets of the Silk Road by Alexandra Tolstoy and On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads by Tim Cope) and the cleverly-entitled Out of Steppe by Daniel Metcalfe and Postcards from Stanland by David Mould. Fortunately for Erika Fatland, the region is changing so quickly that no one, not even Thurbon, remains definitive for long: there’s always room for a new entry.

“Oooh,” said the Brooklyn lady, rapturously to her companion, “Shirley, that would look great on you.” She was pointing at the dazzling 24-karat reindeer broach in the Metropolitan Museum’s 1975 show “The Gold of the Scythians”. Our fascination with the nomads of the steppe has only increased since then, while our knowledge about them has grown by leaps and bounds. John Man’s Empire of Horses is an attempt to evoke the glory and glamor of the Xiongnu empire, as he has done previously with the Mongol empire. 

Few contemporary works of fiction from Uzbekistan are translated into English directly. Those that have found their way into the English language are usually classical texts or themselves translations of Russian translations of the Uzbek originals. Given this scarcity of accessible modern Uzbek literature, the casual English language reader could be forgiven for not knowing upon what basis to judge the relative worth of a novel like Gaia, Queen of Ants by Hamid Ismailov.