Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Walking the Silk Road

There are different kinds of travelers writing about their journeys. Some are completely immersed into the culture and the people they meet along the road. Sometimes, the human encounters are a welcomed contradiction to the usual image that media and cultural representations are projecting upon a group of people or a whole country. Some other travelers are on the road with a plan: they want to see every country in the world, and as we all know, life is short therefore they need to do it fast, at the expense of spending enough time in a place to really get familiar with a culture and society; some visit in specific circumstances - to reconnect with their family or literary stories; some do it because they are interested to experience in a country in specific circumstances, like, for instance, walking across, or crossing on motorbike or bike.
Mid-May 2000, journalist Bernard Ollivier started a journey from Turkey to Uzbekistan, on foot. Or mostly on foot, as sometimes the weather conditions and the invitations to run in a car are more tempting, but this happens only in 5% of the cases. Thousands of kilometers by foot, crossing Iran and Turkmenistan, walking the Silk Road, an important economic destination in the region for centuries, that was resuscitated after 2 centuries of neglect recently, for various political, geopolitical and economic reasons. A welcomed reactualization from the point of view of the travel writing, as it brings back cultures and peoples neglected and misread due to repeated pre- and post-Cold War interpretations.
Walking to Samarkand (originally published in French and recently translated into English) is Olliver´s project of covering this part of the Silk Road, on the way to his childhood dream-destination: Samarkand. It is also a test of resilience and personal achievement, as walking saved his life from depression after the death of his wife. Therefore, the stakes of his travels: ´I want to free my body and mind from the limitations they´ve become to believe in; I would also like to free them from fear´. 
Most part of the book thus has to do with various preparations and adventures encountered while walking, the physical limitations and challenges. It makes sense for the economy of the book but my interests/curiosities both as a traveler and travel writer are related to the reflections on culture and geography and eventually politics. 
The majority of the time he spends crossing Iran - ´Everywhere I go, I´m amazed by the kindness and warmth of the people I meet´. ´Can anyone be more hospitable than an Iranian?´. - with relatively short passing by through Turmkenistan - where policy corruption and the personality cult are the most debated topics - and ending up, as scheduled, in Uzbekistan. While he is not planning carefully his next amount of miles for the day, he is reflecting on his priviledges and lessons learned: `(...) travel affords us with an unparallel opportunity to take a step back and see where we´re from in a new light`. 
I felt missing from the writing a deep personal involvement with his travel experiences, a bit too dry for my taste. Maybe there were nuances lost in translation, but probably this is the way in which the writer himself chose to write about his journey. At a certain extent, it can be enough to make the reader interested in his or her own adventure or at least for starting to see this region through completely different eyes. Definitely, personal travel experiences and individual projects are doing much more for promoting a different kind of travel than the usual travel guides.

Rating: 3.5 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

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