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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Elusive Quest in Central Asia

Traveling in Uzbekistan in May 1992, I photographed a figure who seemed to have stepped out of the last century. Seated under an onion-shaped arch in the center of Bukhara, and making copious notes, he was dressed in immaculate white and had the wispy, wizened look of the eccentric English explorer.


Although this Victorian vision was somewhat spoiled when I later saw the same man soaking up Uzbek culture in the unexotic dining room of the Intourist Hotel, the man turned out to be no less intriguing: He was in fact Colin Thubron, researching his latest book on Central Asia.


Thubron calls this latest work "the most elusive piece of a personal jigsaw" of best-selling travel writing. The earlier pieces of that puzzle are books on Russia ("Among the Russians"), China ("Behind the Wall") and several books on the Middle East.


The text of "The Lost Heart of Asia" is alive with extraordinary anecdotes about how people lived, dressed, fought battles, loved, ate and drank in the past. As for the present, Thubron picks up beautifully on the flux of conflicting ideologies in people's own muddled heads. One famous Moslem elder is described by a local in a wonderful mixture of Islamic and communist rhetoric as "a Stakhanovite holy man who achieved through work and cultivated melons."


But perhaps his grand scheme of reducing half the earth's surface and people into his own personal system of five travel books is a little contrived. When you are presented with the lost heart of Asia between two cloth-bound covers, shouldn't you be a little skeptical?


Maybe Asiatics themselves think very differently about whether Asia has a common "heart," and for that matter, whether it was ever "lost."


Hearts, nevertheless, throb in metaphors throughout the bewitchingly beautiful prose. Even a vast physical landscape is made obedient to the intellectual insights Colin Thubron finds in the nations he is visiting: " ... this enormous, secret country had turned in on itself. Its glacier-fed rivers -- the Oxus and Jaxartes of the ancients, ... never reached the ocean, but vanished in landlocked seas or died across the desert."


Thubron may have visited the place, but sometimes he persists in making it sound more exotic than it is. He dreams: "Samarkand is no earthly city. It has a heart-stealing sound." If you claim to be penetrating into the essence of a place, surely you should ignore such romantic subjective constructs from the far-off West?


Some of the somewhat simplistic questions he asks of the region throw up rather interesting and penetrating answers. He discovers that this is a region where there is little or no nationalism and finds a cocktail of extreme views on nostalgia for the Soviet Union.


The moral dilemmas in which people have found themselves are life-destroying and almost beyond comprehension. A half-Kazakh, half-Russian man tells him how he was forced to work as an interpreter liaising between Soviet and Afghan forces during the Afghan war. This is where the book becomes genuinely and horrifyingly exotic.


People take refuge in loyalty towards their own extended families. Even this, however, can be undermined, as is described in an enormous drunken family brawl, with uncles, brothers and grandfathers locked in swaying combat.


Islamic fundamentalism is found only in small pockets, and most people proclaim principles like "It's only the heart that matters!" and "Our women should be free of the veil!" Thubron eruditely assumes this is a more northern version of Islam mixed with the population's history of nomadic shamanism.


The book is in fact most interesting when Thubron throws off the baggage of history and the obligation to find the quintessential Asia. He then becomes more perceptive in his discovery of complicated reality.


After a drunken afternoon in Bukhara with a Russian woman and her lover wallowing in sentimental bliss, he discovers that the lover is still married to someone else. Worse still, he learns that she became pregnant at the age of 50 and had to get rid of the child. "I wondered how many other lives here would darken into confusion if more deeply known," the author muses.


Each time his conclusions end in such confusion, we are given an insight into his own personality, as well as into the region in which he is travelling. He gives up the claim to the great objective, old-fashioned travel book, and leaves us with a more personal, fascinating and colorful read.


Thubron puts it best himself after a long day's search for the fabled mountain castle of Muqanna, near Shakhrisabz. He comes upon an outcrop of rock high over a valley and cannot tell whether it is natural, or the result of the famous, ancient and man-made bastion. After much legend-narrating and speculation, he "gave up wondering whether [he] was seated on the ravaged castle, and listened, without history, to the river." In his book one could wish for him to do more of the same.


"The Lost Heart of Asia" by Colin Thubron, Heinemann, 374 pages, ?16.99 ($27).