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.
~Peter Frankopan, from:
Whether in their policy of religious tolerance, devising a universal alphabet, maintaining relay stations, playing games, or printing almanacs, money, or astronomy charts, the rulers of the Mongol Empire displayed a persistent universalism.
~Jack Weatherford, from Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
Originally published July 2018; updated August 2018
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 are reading.
Read More: Stories about Mongolia
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan
From Amazon: “Peter Frankopan realigns our understanding of the world, pointing us eastward. He vividly re-creates the emergence of the first cities in Mesopotamia and the birth of empires in Persia, Rome and Constantinople, as well as the depredations by the Mongols, the transmission of the Black Death and the violent struggles over Western imperialism. Throughout the millennia, it was the appetite for foreign goods that brought East and West together, driving economies and the growth of nations.”
The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia, by Peter Hopkirk
From Amazon, “For nearly a century the two most powerful nations on earth, Victorian Britain and Tsarist Russia, fought a secret war in the lonely passes and deserts of Central Asia. Those engaged in this shadowy struggle called it ‘The Great Game’, a phrase immortalized by Kipling. Disguised as holy men or native horse-traders, they mapped secret passes, gathered intelligence and sought the allegiance of powerful Khans. Some never returned. The violent repercussions of the Great Game are still convulsing Central Asia today.”
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.
“Whether in their policy of religious tolerance, devising a universal alphabet, maintaining relay stations, playing games, or printing almanacs, money, or astronomy charts, the rulers of the Mongol Empire displayed a persistent universalism.” ~Jack Weatherford.
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.
From the book, “The royal Mongol women raced horses, commanded in war, presided as judges over criminal cases, ruled vast territories, and sometimes wrestled men in public sporting competitions. They arrogantly rejected the customs of civilized women of neighboring cultures, such as wearing the veil, binding their feet, or hiding in seclusion.”
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.
“In probably the first law of its kind anywhere in the world, Genghis Khan decreed complete and total religious freedom for everyone.” ~Jack Weatherford.
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 Ulanbataar as well as the remainders of the previous civilisations of the Turkic and Uyghur people who lived here.
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.
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.
Under the Flight Path: 15,000 kms Overland Across Russia, Mongolia & China, by Simon Pridmore
From Amazon, “This is a story that will make you think about how lives are lived in far-flung regions. It will teach you how to use the toilet on a Chinese train without coming to grief, how to bathe naked with dignity in a mountain stream and how not to panic when smugglers hide contraband in secret panels in the ceiling of your train compartment. Most of all, this is a story that will make you want to pack a bag and hit the road yourself.”
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.
My Bradt guidebooks for Central Asia are:
Insight Guides has an E-book on The Silk Road
My Lonely Planet guides are:
- More about guidebooks, maps and paperwork for Central Asia and Russia in this blog post.
- Take a look in our Bookshop.
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!
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