The Lost Heart of Asia


[Publishers] realised that travel writing could also be literature.
~ Colin Thubron

What made you interested in reading The Lost Heart of Asia?
I read Colin Thubron’s Where Nights Are Longest this spring; I needed to read more.  His travel memoirs carry no touristy weight; his concern is to understand how the region’s culture is translated into lifestyle, art, architecture, literature and religion. 

Why do you like Colin Thubron? 
Thubron is particularly gifted at meeting people and making them comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings.  A humble polyglot–I say humble because this fact is invisible in his writing–, Thubron can communicate with many different people groups in a native or near-to-native tongue.  He travels alone and strikes up conversations. People tell him compelling parts of their lives. 

So what, exactly, is the Lost Heart of Asia?
The five Central Asian republics: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kirghizstan.  These countries sit between Russia, China, India and Iran.  The book was written after their independence from the Soviet Union.  In short, the book explores the tensions between the two dominant ideologies, Communism and Islam, played out in this region. 

I’ve never even heard of some of those countries!   
In that sense it was a challenging book to read.  Nothing was familiar.  Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, reminded me of Tashbaan in C.S. Lewis’ book The Horse and His Boy.  That was the extent of my familiarity!  The book has two good maps which I used often.  The other challenge was the vocabulary: Thubron used more than a dozen words I’ve never before seen.  (That is not a criticism; it makes me want to read more.)

There must have been something else that pulled you into this book…
If someone writes well, the unknown becomes interesting.  Listen to this:

frothy muslin ribbons
his curtained politeness
a sunny robustness
a callow charm
his Brezhnev eyebrows
a reticent evangelism
an alto sanctimoniousness
a measured unraveling of pride
veil of splintered sunlight
a rumpus of old women
a strenuous happiness

And sentences like these:

The woman was violently silent.
He seemed perpetually stooped, not physically but emotionally stooped.
Somehow, for years, she had seen her nation bifocally.
Their decor dithered between cultures.

Learning for him was a process of accumulation.
I was entering the fringes of a formidable solitude.
Their Islam was like the Kazakhs’, drawn lightly over nomadic shamanism.

Favorite story from the book?
The story of the beginning of a Korean Baptist church in the capital of Kirghizstan was unusual.  A Korean Christian came from Los Angeles and asked the Korean community what they were.  They thought they might be Buddhist but weren’t sure.  He replied, No you are Christians.  And they became Christians.  He preached; they came out of pity for him, and then started believing.  

A favorite quote?
A girl in the capital of Kazakhstan, Dilia, who dreamed of becoming a conductor said, “If I didn’t become a musician, I’d starve inside.”

Do you want to read more Thubron?

Definitely.  Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China is on my shelf, in my queue.  In Siberia, Shadow of the Silk Road Mirror to Damascus, and Journey into Cyprus all interest me.  I’ve only read one of Thubron’s novels, Falling, and didn’t care for it.  I think my next read should be Shadow of the Silk Road,  another trip through Central Asia, while some residual geography of the region remains with me.


5 thoughts on “The Lost Heart of Asia

  1. I dropped by to thank you for the comment you left on my blog (U Krakovianki), and am utterly captivated by your review of this book and author (of whom I’ve never heard).  The region is of particular interest to me because I know a woman who was deported to Kazahkstan by the Soviets in 1939 or 1940, from where she eventually escaped to Iran (then Persia).  I’m adding your blog to my google reader so I don’t miss anything else…

  2. You may be interested in this review of “Shadow of the Silk Road”.(I have not read any of Thubron yet, and do not know the reviewer either.)

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