Although I fully understand the joys of a voyage of discovery, plunging head-first into a new place without any prior knowledge, I ultimately find it so much more rewarding to travel knowingly. With every new book I read, my knowledge about the region expands, and I come away with more interest, new travel ideas and a renewed vigour to explore.
Although there are still many gaps in the literature, there is already a wealth of writing in English on Central Asia and the Silk Road. In the links below I delve deeper in country-specific books. The list I have compiled here focuses on the best books for introductory reading by the general interested reader/traveler.
Books on Central Asia and the Silk Road region
1. The Way of the World – Nicholas Bouvier
A fantastically well-written travelogue, and one of only a handful that deserves to still be read today, both for its style, as well as its unsurpassed account of the regions traveled and their people. From the Balkans to Turkey, 2 artists bumble slowly across Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan in the early 50’s: working, hanging around, trying to get by, trying to move on. Slow travel has never been worded better.
Widely translated, a glorious account. To treasure.
2. News from Tartary – Peter Fleming
Peter Fleming travels from Beijing to Kashmir overland. The adventurous journey, at first seemingly impossible, takes 7 months, and is related by Fleming with great wit and intelligence. Even though it does not touch on any ‘Stan’, it gives a real sense of how the Silk Road was at one point, before modernity arrived. Reading, you understand how much has changed in China’s outer provinces, and how much has stayed the same.
The majority of travel writers are mediocre travelers, and mediocre writers. Fleming’s travel companion is Ella Maillart, an outstanding traveler but rather paltry as a writer: do not read her books. A skilled, sympathetic and above all honest raconteur who does not embellish, romanticize or exaggerate, Peter Fleming is a very rare breed of travel writer, who writes as well as he travels (Rory Stewart is another). Recommended!
3. Shadow of the Silk road – Colin Thubron
Colin Thubron uses beautiful, poetic prose to sketch his overland journey from China to Turkey. He records some interesting meetings and generally interweaves the narrative with a lot of history. He gets very poetic and pondering at times, though. More focused on Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is his 1994 book The Lost Heart of Asia.
4. Robert Byron – The Road to Oxiana
The classic. Byron, eccentric British scholar with a ridiculous knowledge of architecture, visits the Middle East, Persia and Afghanistan and remarks on its people and buildings. Sounds boring? Trust me.
1. Great Games, Local Rules – Alexander Cooley
The most recent and up to date overview of Central Asia’s regimes and their stance towards each other and the bigger powers surrounding them: China, Russia, and the US. Written by a recognized expert on the matter, this is the one to get for an informed view of present-day politics in the region.
2. The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia
2 books deal with a very similar topic: the politics of oil around the Caspian Sea around the year 2000. One is The New Great Game by Lutz Kleveman, the other is The Oil and The Glory by Steve Levine.
Both are good books that criss-cross the region from Tbilisi to Kashgar in attempt to ferret out the pipeline politics of the newly independent states post-9/11, with the US, Iran and China vying for a piece of the pie Russia could no longer gobble up alone. This is all old news as I write this review more than a decade later, but it serves as a great overview of the situation at the time, a good backgrounder for anyone newly interested in the region who is unaware of the recent history.
When it comes to recommending one over the other: I choose The New Great Game. Its scope is wider, including reporting from Chechnya, China and Iran. The writing is livelier, too: Kleveman actually went and talked to people and you get a sense of adventure as you travel along with him to refugee camps and drilling platforms, across mountain passes and into the boardrooms. Levine sticks to the boardrooms, and his writing suffers a bit from the wooden style that plagues a lot of recent American pop-science books.
3. Goodnight, Mister Lenin – Tiziano Terzani
Like Kapuszynski or Salgado, master-journalist Tiziano Terzani is a man who always turned up at the right place at the right time. In 1991, Terzani is floating on a boat in Siberia when a call comes in: the Soviet Union no longer exists. He hops on a whirlwind tour of Central Asia and the southern Caucasus, as the Russian colonial empire suddenly disintegrates. His mission: to find the corpse of Communism.
If you know the awful story of communism, there are few surprises here. If not, Terzani, who spent time being ‘re-educated’ in China, is the perfect observer and analyzer of the death of communism. The book climaxes with the toppling of Dushanbe’s Lenin by Tajik villagers shouting Allah Akbar. Truly a historic moment that Terzani manages to give its proper weight.
Finally, although his account is unique in terms of meetings with important people and events no other foreign observer witnessed, his hasty trip means he cannot delve deep enough. In the end he needs to fluff up the narrative with facts from the guidebook. Nonetheless, like The New Great Game does for the 2000’s, Goodnight, Mister Lenin provides a great historical overview of Central Asia and the Caucasus in the 90’s for anyone new to the region and eager to learn.
4. The new Central Asia: Geopolitics and the Birth of Nations – Olivier Roy
This one is quite a heavy read, tracking the political history and the birth of the Central Asian nations after the Communist collapse. In a similar vein is Eric McClinchey’s Chaos, Violence, Dynasty: Politics and Islam in Central Asia.
Peter Hopkirk – The Great Game
Probably the most popular book on Central Asia, and rightly so, this is the ultimate Great Game book. Reads like a spy novel, only that it actually all happened. A similar, equally gripping book by the same author is Setting the East Ablaze, about the Bolsheviks plot to bring communism to India through Central Asia (the story of Paul Nazaroff).
The Turks in World History – Carter Vaughn Findley
In 230 pages, Carter Vaugh Findley manages to present the complete history of the Turkic peoples from their appearance in the steppes of Inner Mongolia up to the victory of Erdogan in Turkey. Despite, or exactly because of its Turkic focus, this is the most readable and most enlightening big-picture history of Inner Eurasia from prehistory up until the present moment.
Don’t mistake it for an easy read, though. The book requires an effort of the reader, and if you do not yet have a basic grasp of the history of the region, you are better of starting with one of the other books listed here. But if you are willing to make the effort, you will come away with a much clearer idea of where the region stands in history, and where it might be headed.
In short, it’s essential reading that neatly connects 2 fields of study that are usually dealt with separately (Turkish Studies and Central Asia Studies). It puts the whole area in a wider Eurasian and global context in a way no other history has managed before: through the prism of the the Turkic people who now rule Central Asia and Asia Minor.
Religions of the Silk Road – Richard Foltz
Concise and very well-written, Religions of the Silk Road takes a look at the many religions that flourished along the Silk Road. By doing so, we not only learn why Russia became Christian, Japan Buddhist and why Iran turned to Islam, or, in a wonderful anecdote how the Buddha became a Christian saint.
Most importantly, it shines a light on the intermingling of these faiths at their crossroads, Central Asia, and how Central Asians altered these religions before transmitting them onwards. Fascinating all the way, from Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism to Buddhism, Islam and the new religion of The Market.
Lost Enlightenment – S. Frederick Starr
The intellectual achievements of the Persians and Turks in Central Asia in the early Middle Ages were astounding. This was, for a time, the intellectual center of the world. The author places the Golden Age of Central Asia back into the limelight. Usually when talking about this era, the focus is on trade and conquest, and warlords like Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. In this case, the work and lives of towering figures of science like Biruni and Avicenna are discussed.
You will come away with a better understanding of the might and importance of Central Asia in the Middle Ages, and the influence it had on our world today.
Central Asia in World History – Peter Golden
If you want to know everything, Inside Central Asia by Dilip Hiro and Svat Soucek’s A History of Inner Asia are fact-dense political histories, while Empires of the Silk Road by Christopher Beckwith focuses more on Central Asia’s connections to the wider world. Not for the faint of heart!
The Silk Road in World History – Xinru Liu
Everything you always wanted to know about the Silk Road, this is the benchmark book on this chapter of the history of the region. For a different take on the same material, 2 other books you can check out are The Silk Road: a New History, and Life along the Silk Road.
The Empire of the Steppes – Ren Grousset
Journeys on the Silk Road – Joyce Morgan & Conrad Walters
The story of Aurel Stein and the archaeological treasures buried in the desert of Xinjiang. Peter Hopkirk’s Foreign Devils on the Silk Road covers similar terrain, but focuses more on the race for treasure and the devious tricks Western nations played to get their hands on the spoils, while Journeys looks more at Stein in particular and the historical treasures themselves. Both are good books, depends whose style you prefer.
If you are just planning your trip, don’t know much yet and want to get some inspiration, the Insight Guide to the Silk Road is a great source. 100s of pictures and detailed overviews per country that get you dreaming, without the boring practical details (there are other books for that).
Lonely Planet Central Asia is the best here: clear and concise, mentioning both highlights as more off the beaten track destinations. If you are planning your first Central Asia tour, spending a few weeks in each destination, this is the book to get.