Eastern Horizons: Hitchhiking the Silk Road by Levison Wood

Reviewed by Liz Dexter

It’s worth noting from the off that this is not a ‘new’ travel book by the popular explorer, but a revisiting of a journey he made in his early 20s, in the early part of this century. He hadn’t published on it before and apparently enjoyed revisiting his notebooks; it also gives him an opportunity to make and write about a return visit to one of his hosts, with another, in the rather sweet epilogue. But if you’re looking for his latest adventure, this is not it. It is a journey along the Silk Road, the famous trade route that covers much of the East, from the Black Sea to India, although he starts further back and has a lot of time in Russia, too.

It’s a lovely looking book, harking back in its design, in my mind, anyway, to the Patrick Leigh Fermor books, and indeed he’s a bit like Paddy, not knowing where he’s headed, assuming he’ll be able to find a way through, being a bit naïve about taking risks and just generally being a young traveller. He gets grumpy like good old Paul Theroux and Colin Thubron … and in case you wonder why I’m throwing all these travel writers’ names into this review, it’s because Wood himself is very much rooted in the old classics himself.

Ostensibly, the journey was to be in the footsteps of Arthur Connolly, a heavily-bearded 19th century explorer and soldier who travelled the famed silk route himself. As is common with such exercises, he picks up Connolly’s narrative where it crosses his own route; and then says goodbye to him quite casually, much as he does his contemporary travelling companions. His second influence was a solider called James Whitehurst who found and returned a sixteen-year-old Levison’s wallet and later wrote him a long letter of advice, ending it with ‘above all, travel’. He actually used this letter as a guide for his formative years, although there’s no fond reunion here, alas. But added to these two, he’d clearly done his reading, with William Dalrymple, Eric Newby, Robert Byron and Richard Burton mentioned many times during the book (all people I’ve read, which was lovely). This gave a depth to the young man’s wanderings, and sometimes he even decides where to go next based on one of them, which I liked very much.

I also liked his musings on the psychology of travelling. He starts off with a companion who gets more and more nervous the further East they get, and we feel the anguish when two people want to go different ways and are quite upset but won’t talk about it because they’re British. Later, he meets other folk and in the slightly rushed ending, hooks up with a group to travel in India. But he also gets into furious rages if he’s treated like a tourist, suffers from traveller’s snobbery (he’s a traveller not a tourist, he wears local clothing, he’s better than them, etc.) then lambasts himself for it, and always ends up laughing at himself or even succumbing to fried chicken and lying around reading books from the shared bookshelf. He seems to get most freaked out when encountering groups of tourists, and then in Pakistan when he finds himself on a bus with a lot of people who speak English and are very curious about him:

When we slowed down to avoid hitting a three-legged goat, one young man with noticeably piercing blue eyes shouted from outside the window, ‘Hey you, sir, where are you from?’ ‘London!’ I shouted back, not wanting to complicate things [he’s actually from Nottingham]. ‘Not Crewe?’ he replied, disappointed. I shook my head, slightly baffled, and we moved on.

It’s not all jolliness – he travels through some pretty dangerous and conflict-torn areas, including the area around Beslan just after the school massacre. He’s careful and respectful and admits when he’s been frightened but seems driven by a need to be away in the wilds, whatever that ends up meaning. He gets mistaken for all kinds of terrorist and nationality, causing consternation in police officers when he displays his Koran and the whiskey in his pack: what should they make of them? He makes light of his multiple questionings in bare concrete rooms and also some of the terrible hotels, representing himself as a seasoned traveller who can deal with this stuff – maybe this is the bravado of youth, and I’d like to read some of his more mature works.

Because it’s the lightly edited work of a young man, there are some (travel and writing) clichés and a few minor error or clumsinesses. But it does read as fresh and charming rather than silly and too light. He’s obviously deeply respectful of the people who take him in or who he encounters on the road; he travels through Ramadan and makes a huge effort to observe the fast so as not to offend people, and he trusts people (some he should, some he shouldn’t) and attempts to learn from them.

With lovely maps on the endpapers and a good set of colour plates featuring many of the people mentioned in the narrative, and a good sprinkling of history and current politics giving context to the travels, this is a good read for those of us who love the classic travel books, as well as an interesting introduction to what is proving to be a life of travel for Mr Wood.

Liz Dexter reads a lot of travel writing, including the classics mentioned here, which cheered her heart to see. However, she has only oscillated between Cornwall and Iceland for her travels of the last several years. She blogs about books and running at Adventures in Reading, Writing and Working from Home.

Levison Wood, Eastern Horizons: Hitchhiking the Silk Road (Hodder & Stoughton, 2017). 978-1473676268, 367 pp., ill., hardback.

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