Friday, September 29, 2006

Title:Extremes Along The Silk Road
Author: Nick Middleton

Nick Middleton is a Geography lecturer at Oxford University. Between term times he likes to travel. To experience Geography first hand. This is his seventh travel book, following from his third television documentary. Increasingly Middleton is interested in extremes, in this case along the Silk Road, what he describes as the world's oldest super highway. The Silk Road was key to trading between Europe and Asia, for the flow silk, paper, salt, spices and rhubarb (which apparently was so popular and had so many uses, it could just as easily have been the Rhubarb Road).

The road is bordered by extreme territories, where nomads live, in a manner not so different from how they lived all those generations ago. On this journey Middleton joins the nomads and observes their life style. travels to the most extreme territories to find people still living there regardless. Through Mongolia, Tibet and ending in Kazakhstan.

Middleton has set himself a series of key steps, and to a degree how he manages is very much on the fly. Journeys with archaeologists, pilgrims, fellow geographers, ex-army; by motorbike, jeep, micro light, or camel. He moves through the Gobi with yak farmers. Enters the Badan to find mega dunes, the biggest sand dunes in the world - scaling one taller than the Eiffel Tower in hours with an Austrian explorer, descending in minutes. Exploring underground water channels that maintain oasis towns using 1000 year old technology. Going on Tibetan pilgrimages at an extreme altitude of over 5000m above sea level. In Mongolia he searches for pre-historic horses, while in Kazakhstan he looks for the horses that the Chinese believed had come from Heaven. Explaining how Genghis Khan had attempted to trade with the Kazakh city of Ottar, how Ottar killed his ambassador, leading to the city's decimation by a furious Mongol horde. He speculates as to whether Marco Polo brought pasta to Asia or from Asia to Italy.

After visiting natural extremes he completes his journey with a visit to a man made extreme. The Aral Sea was huge, twice the size of Belgium. In the last century everything changed, Soviet plans for feeding millions, turning the steppes into fields irrigated by the Aral turning badly wrong. Draining the sea, putting fishermen and villages out of work, splitting the sea into it's current state of Big Aral and Little Aral. Even worse, in the middle of the sea lay Rebirth Island, which at the height of the Cold War was used by Russia for weapons testing. Not it is an island no longer, and it is still contaminated.

Through out his travels Middleton is driven to face his fears, to experience the things that fascinate him, that he teaches about but has never seen. He doesn't like heights, yet there he is up a colossal sand dune, or hanging from a rope at the top of a deep well. Despite the fact that he can barely breath, that each step is a struggle, he continues to walk round a mountain in Tibet. Despite Anthrax and a real terror of dying on a contaminated ex-Russian test site, he keeps on going. This takes a mixture of humour and determination, but all along he retains a certain bumbling, enthusiastic charm, untainted by any excess of machismo, even if he does sometimes admit that it is entirely pride that keeps him doing something he really doesn't want to.

Mongolia, Tibet and Kazakhstan are obviously off the track a bit for your regular travel book. But with the combination of key history, with exotic and extreme locations Nick Middleton's book makes for fascinating reading.

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