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The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron
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M 50x66
's review
Mar 19, 2011

really liked it
Read in March, 2011

Thubron travelled through Central Asia in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet empire. Enabled by his knowledge of Russian, he managed to do it largely without intermediaries, so this trip is far beyond what one would expect of a grand tour of this huge region. Yes, there are visits to the touchstones, the abandoned ruins of almost-forgotten empires, the unimaginable savagery of the Mongols, the still-worshipped tombs of Sufi saints. Yes, there is the obligatory tale of the vermin-infested underground prison used by the sybaritic emirs of Bukhara and the two British officers who spent years in it before their execution. Thubron recounts how Central Asia had played host to a strain of Islam that was inquisitive and intellectual (it produced one of the Middle Age's great thinkers, Avicenna) and how it was crushed. But what really sets Thubron apart is his affection for the people of these countries, and how they adapted to the wrenching decades of Russian domination, followed by the devastation of the Russian collapse. (This is still the nineties; the self-satisfied, oil and gas-rich Russia of Putin has not yet appeared, it is gripped by the chaos of Yeltsin). Thubron listens, not always the most notable talent of Westerners abroad, even if it's to the guide who swindles him, or the elderly widow who, having lost a father and a husband to the Soviet terror, still believes in Communism. He engages everyone, down to the shepherds who turn out to be some of the last speakers of Sogdian, spoken by Xerxes, Darius and Cyrus the Great, one of whom says of that language, without sadness, that it belongs in the past. Above all, in this collection of countries and cultures so poorly-understood in the West, Thubron has a talent for getting women to talk to him, whether it is the tough matron nostalgic for the Soviets, or the resourceful daughter-in-law who supports the family, or the Kazakh woman who dreams of being a conductor. And, in this inflation-ravaged region, there is always the dream of moving, to Thubron's England or New York. This isn't a book about dust and ruins or elites or about deluded, comic foreigners (I think Sascha Baron Cohen should be sentenced to memorizing it), it is about the people who live there, enduring and often failing but still struggling to create something new.
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