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. Many of these books have been translated widely. In the links below we delve deeper in country-specific books.
The list we have compiled here focuses on the best books for introductory reading by the general interested reader/traveler.
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.
Arminius Vambery – Travels in Central Asia
Traveling in 1863, Arminius Vambery was the first westerner to travel to Turkmenistan, Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand who lived to tell the tale in several centuries. Disguised as a Sufi pilgrim he survives Turkmen slave raiders, desert crossings and meetings with the khans of Khiva and Bukhara.
A few years after, Russia completed its conquest of Central Asia and everything changed. What is left is a unique story, remarkably readable despite its age.
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!
The Road to Oxiana – Robert Byron
Robert Byron, self-taught scholar, journalist and adventurer, gets inspired by a picture of the Gonbad-e Qabus tower in Gorgan to visit Persia and Afghanistan and find the roots of Islamic architecture. We follow him for 10 months in 1933 and 1934 in search of ancient monuments. Byron regales us with tales from the long and arduous road and forms opinions on the societies he finds: both the Persia and Afghanistan of their respective Shahs, as well as the earlier civilizations that built the architecture he adores.
The genius of this book, and why it is still being read today, lies in its style. It reads like a personal travel diary, but in reality, The Road to Oxiana is the result of 3 years of hard labour. The prose is effortless and free-flowing, but layered; Byron uses events and descriptions to hint at wider conclusions. The result sneaks up on you unnoticed. Unique and remarkable.
Eurasia Overland – Daniel Sprague
Not a book, rather a travel blog, this is the best contemporary account of travel across Eurasia. Sprague spends 5 years driving his car independently across Eurasia, visiting pretty much every place in between Kiev and Dhaka. His travel style is adventurous, his opinions informed, his writing cool and balanced.
This is not a tale to cuddle up with on a winter’s evening, but it paints a very clear and realistic picture of what travel in Eurasia is like these days. Start by reading the chapters of countries you are planning to visit, and you are bound to end up googling some of the off-the-beaten-track destinations he visits.
Out of Eden – Paul Salopek
Or perhaps this is the best contemporary account of travel across Eurasia? Paul Salopek walked across the Eurasian landmass and reported along the way. The NatGeo team did great research, and every article has fresh angles and insights from past and present.
Shadow of the Silk road – Colin Thubron
A crusty old man travels the Silk Road from China to Turkey. This very mediocre travelogue has none of the joyous travel spirit of Bouvier, the sheer love of adventure of Fleming or the unique intelligence of Byron.
What it does have in abundance is a disjointed narrative of stories rewritten from history books mixed with the lives of people he met along the way. To make up for the obvious lack of a point to the book, Thubron has over-decorated his prose with baroque flourishes at every turn. The writing is, quite frankly, bad.
I’m just mentioning Thubron because he features in all other lists, but let it be clear, I don’t recommend this book. His 1994 book The Lost Heart of Asia suffers from the same illnesses.
The Dawn of Eurasia – Bruno Maçães
2017: Europe’s fortunes are down, Asia is rising. It’s the end of the end of history: democracy and human rights are no longer universal. A new multipolar world has China, Russia, Europe (and India) jostling for power in the Eurasian ecosystem. Where will the borderlands of Europe and Asia, caught in the middle, gravitate to?
Maçães opens up new vistas in thinking about 21st-century geopolitics. An uncomfortable, mind-broadening book.
Dictators Without Borders – Alexander Cooley
The follow-up to 2012’s Great Games, Local Rules (also worth a read, but a bit dated), Dictators Without Borders digs deep into the many dark links between authoritarian Central Asian regimes and global power centers. If you still consider Central Asia as a backward region irrelevant to the global scene, this will make you think again. Cooley contends that Central Asia is very connected, only in ways we find uncomfortable to look at.
The New Great Game – Lutz Kleveman
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 an 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 although we highly respect his work as a journalist, his writing suffers from the wooden style that plagues a lot of American pop-science books.
Goodnight, Mister Lenin – Tiziano Terzani
Like Kapuszynski or Salgado, master-journalist Tiziano Terzani is a man who always turns up at the right place at the right time. In 1991, Terzani is floating down a river 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 analyst 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 travel guide. 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.
Sovietistan – Erika Fatland
As the previous 2 books did for the 90’s and the 00’s, Sovietistan provides an update for the political and socio-economic situation in Central Asia around 2013, when Fatland traveled the region. All the regular stuff is here: there are chapters called Dictatorstan, The Lost Lake, and Don’t Cry, You Are Now My Wife.
Nothing exciting for those who have already traveled or read anything about Central Asia, but a good overview of the main tropes of foreign journalists for those who don’t know Central Asia yet. I do want to warn potential readers for Fatland’s gaze. She is dreadfully paternalistic and condescending. Shopping malls are ‘western oases’, when people say they are happy, she has trouble believing them.
It’s a very one-dimensional story: the focus is on the negative, you get little sense of place, and the (anti-)heroes are mostly Russian and male (women just suffer – see regular stuff). Translated into a dozen European languages, but not yet in English.
Samarkand – Caroline Eden & Eleanor Ford
While the cuisines of Russia, Afghanistan and especially Georgia get a lot of attention in the media, the other countries along the Silk Road are often forgotten. I used to say, “and rightly so!” but Eden and Ford managed to change my mind.
Samarkand gives plenty of space to ubiquitous dishes like plov, non, laghman and shashlik, but also unearths unusual recipes, like Uyghur pumpkin, cauliflower with pistachios and green beans in hazelnut sauce. Includes delicious pictures and stories of foodie travels along the Silk Road.
The Great Game – Peter Hopkirk
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 author is British, so keep in mind there is a very British bias.
A Short History of Byzantium – J.J. Norwich
Byzantium: an empire that stood for more than 1000 years, with Constantinople its glorious capital. J.J. Norwich manages to cram 1000 years of history into 500 pages (a more elaborate 3-volume history is also available), illuminating the somewhat forgotten, in any case misunderstood heritage of the Byzantines.
The endless succession of emperors makes this at times a confusing read, but there is plenty to keep you going: the splendour and religious fervor of Constaninople, the intrigues and outlandish personalities of the court, the waxe and wane of the Empire’s fortunes and of course, sex and violence à volonté.
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 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 put front and center.
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.
The Silk Roads – Peter Frankopan
As the global power of Europe has waned, the story of the subcontinent’s history was in need of reinterpretation. Western historians have started painting Europe as a place embedded in a web of relations in wider Eurasia, instead of rising up as a lone power to enlighten and civilize the world.
Frankopan focuses on economics and interfaith relations in the past 3000 years to impress on Western readers that Europe’s recent world domination was exactly that, recent (and temporary), and that extensive trade across Eurasia has been going on for thousands of years. For the uninitiated, this book may prove to be mind-blowing.
Those already aware of world history might still find some new insights here, but are much more likely to find this book far too long, prone to errors and written to impress on the reader the author’s personal views, rather than to let him make up his own mind. It’s not a terrible book, it has some merits, but we cannot wholly recommend it.
Central Asia in World History – Peter Golden
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!
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.
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.