We think of globalisation as a uniquely modern phenomenon; yet 2,000 years ago too, it was a fact of life, one that presented opportunities, created problems and prompted technological advance.
From The Silk Roads; A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan
Throughout my childhood years I read books about the Tartars, the Mongols, and the Silk Road, which sparked my imagination. I wish I remembered those titles so I could reread them and see how they would affect me today. But alas, I don’t and I have to do with but faint memories.
Fortunately, the world of talented authors has continued writing and today there is a wealth of books on the subject.
Here are among the books about Central Asia that we find fascinating reads.
The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia, by Peter Hopkirk
A book I read in one go. What a story, what a history, what a fascinating tales and it helps to understand some of the present political situations as well.
Restless Valley, revolution, murder and intrigue in the heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin
No easy read, but giving a good (better) understanding of reasons for unrest in Central Asia, particularly the Ferghana Valley.
Setting the East Ablaze, by Peter Hopkirk
I just love all of Peter Hopkirk’s books because they give such great insight into the history of the region, and in this particular case the Bolshevik’s attempts to get hold of Central Asia.
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford
I was fascinated by this book. Having grown up with the image of Genghis Khan being nothing but a conqueror and a brute, I was taught very much a one-sided version of this ruler and his empire. The cultural anthropologist and author Jack Weatherford studied the Mongol history for years and has lived in Mongolia for a number of years, all contributing to a concise yet detailed and very readable account of the Mongol history and the consequences of this empire for the world.
The author touches on the subject in his book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, but he then dedicated a book to the Mongol Queens. With the men off to battle in distant lands, the women were left behind and ruled the empire. I found it more fragmented and harder to read than his book on Genghis Khan, but I appreciate how he dedicated a book to a topic that is severely underrated throughout history and therefore more than worth a read.
The latest in the series, which has captivated right now. Imagine having religious freedom in the 13th century, what a difference with the Christian and the Islamic world in those days.
The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World, by Marie Faverau
Published in 2021, I think this is an interesting addition to the above-mentioned books to learn about the Mongolian conquest and what implications that had.
Karakorum the history and the legacy of the Mongol Empire’s Capital, by Charles River Editors
A Concise read about the Mongol Empire’s capital of Karakorum, the ruins of which lie some 200 miles west of Ulaanbaatar as well as the remainders of the previous civilizations of the Turkic and Uyghur people who lived here.
2. Travel Memoirs
On the Trail of Genghis Khan, by Tim Cope
I loved this book and couldn’t put it down. By horse from Mongolia all the way to the Danube River in Hungary? That certainly got my attention. Expecting to need less than a year, he took 3,5 years. I predict this book is going to be a classic. A detailed account of his journey including all its struggles of survival (winter in Central Asia!) Tim also details into great account what ethnic groups he comes across, giving you insight into the wide variety of, often marginalized, groups of people live in Asia.
One of my favorite travel books about Central Asia. She knows the region well, stays will local people and focuses on the traditions and cultures of food.
A Carpet ride to Khiva, by Chris Aslan Alexander
Another of my favorites. It’s not really a travel memoir but rather the account of the author living in Khiva and helping to revive the traditional arts of making carpets, giving a fantastic insight into the Uzbek way of life.
Off The Rails: 10,000 km by Bicycle across Russia, Siberia and Mongolia to China, by Tim Cope and Chris Hatherly
Before the above-mentioned journey on horseback, Tim Cope cycled through Russia, Mongolia and China on a recumbent bike, with his friend Chris Hatherly. Having written the book together, alternating chapters written by one or the other, this is a very different read. The journey demands respect in itself, cycling across these vast expanses of wilderness and emptiness. Doing it with a friend clearly had its pros and cons, and they are very honest about the struggles they faced.
The Horse Boy: A Father’s Quest to Heal His Son, by Rupert Isaacson.
Arguably better known by the movie, this is an incredibly touching tale about how Rupert and his wife Kristin take their autistic son Rowan to Mongolia in the hope that the shamans can help him to get better.
Equally inspiring is part 2 of this book about what happened next: The Long Ride Home: The Extraordinary Journey of Healing That Changed a Child’s Life.
Par les sentiers de la soie (French Edition), by Philippe Valéry
Recommended to me by a Landcruising Adventure follower, this sounds like an epic journey: 2 years and 10,000 kilometers on foot to follow Marco Polo’s journey from Venice to Kashgar. Too bad for us that the book is only available in French, but I thought French followers might appreciate this, hence I added it to this list.
Silk Road: A haunting story of adventure, romance and courage, by Colin Falconer
I had to bite through the first couple of chapters, thinking it was a too-easy-of-a-plot story. It particularly got my attention when I realized it covered a lot of the geographical area I had just learned about in the above-mentioned Genghis Khan book by Jack Weatherspoon.
As I got deeper into the book it gripped me and had me captured till the end. While fiction, the story does give insight into the enormous distance between Christianity and the religions of Central Asia.
4. Travel Guides
We always try to find 2 guidebooks for each country, on in Dutch and one in English. Ala, Central-Asia & Mongolia aren’t that popular yet, so the selection is limited. Having said that, there are a number of guidebooks worth buying.
Simply put, the Lonely Planet Guidebooks are good on lots of practical info such as accommodation, how to get there, where to eat, etc. The ones we bought:
Insight Guides are perfect to really get warmed up for a destination as it’s full of colorful photos, giving more a sense of the place rather than it being packed with loads of practical addresses like Lonely Planet. We used:
Bradt Guides focuses on destinations less traveled, and includes community based tourism, eco tourism, sustainable tourism, etc (where relevant, obviously). Unsurprisingly, Bradt Guides had dedicated books to all Stan countries:
- Bradt Travel Guide Mongolia
- Bradt Travel Guide Kazakhstan
- Bradt Travel Guide Kyrgyzstan
- Bradt Travel Guide Uzbekistan
- Bradt Travel Guide Tajikistan
- Bradt Travel Guide Turkmenistan
A general note: many of them are a bit outdated, and nothing got published during the covid years. I expect / hope there will be updates in the coming year(s), so make sure you buy the latest edition.
5. NEW – Overland Guidebook on Kyrgyzstan
Tips, Suggestions, Feedback?
Interested in more books about Central Asia, the Silk Road and/or Mongolia? Check out this list.
Do you have suggestions on books about Central Asia or the Silk Route that I should add to my list? I’d love to hear them. Feel free to share them in the comment section below or send me an email. Thanks!
Originally published August 2019 / updated October 2022
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