There is a wealth of writing on Central Asia and the Silk Road. The list I have compiled here focuses on the best books for introductory reading by the general interested reader/traveler. I left out books that are too specific, obscure or academic.
Central Asia history books
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).
Factual history that manages to excite? In 230 pages, Findley manages to present the complete history of the Turkic people from their appearance in the Central Asian steppes up to the victory of Erdogan in Turkey. Essential reading that ties together the whole area in a way no other history has managed, through the prism of the the Turkic people who now rule Central Asia and Asia Minor.
Concise and very well-written (for a history book), this books takes you on a journey through time, explaining why Central Asia was (and is) one of the most multicultural places on Earth. Fascinating all the way, from Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism to Buddhism and Islam.
The best general introduction to the area’s history. Not an exhaustive, all-you-need-to-know-and-more history, but a readable broad overview that will explain a lot without confusing.
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!
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.
Pretty dry (it’s from the 30’s) but it remains the classic work on the steppe empires of old and its nomadic rulers. Contains what is probably still the best portrait of Ghenghis Khan.
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.
Central Asia travel books
I guess there are books covering very similar territory in every main language of the world. Here is the best of what I found in English.
One of the most adventurous women of all time, Swiss Olympian Ella Maillart’s escapades put many of today’s adventurers to shame. Turkestan Solo, her equestrian adventure through Soviet Central Asia in the 1930’s, lets you travel back in time while keeping the adrenaline pumping. Recommended.
One of the best books to come out of the travel writing genre of “young Westerner goes to far off land looking for adventure, finds himself instead.” Insightful, and just beautifully written. Recommended to every 18-year old looking to get inspired.
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.
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.
Central Asia Politics books
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.
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.
The number 1 book on the nasty business of oil politics around the Caspian Sea. Great read by a seasoned journalist who knows the players and was there when it all took place. Another good book on the same topic is Lutz Klevemann’s The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia.
A series of essays grouped around topics such as community, gender, the nation state and religion, giving a good insight into contemporary life in the region. This all has little to do with politics, but at the same time, the book is really revealing in showing what people are thinking, making it a unique read all the same.