As long as there are still gaps in the literature, there is already a lot of English-language writing about Central Asia and the Silk Road. The translations of many of these books have been done a lot of times. There are more links below to books about a certain country.
The books on this list are good for people who want to start reading about travel or reading about travel.
The Way of the World – Nicholas Bouvier
For both its style and the way it describes the places and people it visited, this book is one of the few that should still be read today. From the Balkans to Turkey, two artists make their way across Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in the early 1950s. They work, hang out, try to get by, and move on. Slow travel has never been put into words better.
Widely translated, this is a beautiful story. To be grateful for.
Arminius Vambery – Travels in Central Asia
Traveling in 1863, Arminius Vambery was the first westerner in a long time to visit Turkmenistan, Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand. He lived to tell the tale. As a Sufi pilgrim, he hid from Turkmen slavers, crossed the desert, and had dangerous meetings with the khans of Khiva and Bukhara.
After a few years, Russia had conquered Central Asia, and everything changed for the better. What is left is a unique story that is still very readable even though it is very old.
News from Tartary – Peter Fleming
Peter Fleming travels by land from Beijing to Kashmir. The journey, which at first seems impossible, takes 7 months and is told by Fleming with great wit and intelligence. Because it doesn’t touch on Stan, it gives a real sense of how the Silk Road looked before modernity came. In reading, you can see how much has changed and how much has stayed the same in China.
Most travel writers aren’t very good travelers or writers. Fleming’s travel partner is Ella Maillart, a great traveler but not very good at writing: don’t read her books. It’s very rare to find a travel writer like Peter Fleming, who can write as well as he does on the road (Rory Stewart is another). Recommended!
The Road to Oxiana – Robert Byron
When Robert Byron sees a picture of theGonbad-e Qabus tower in Gorgan, he decides to go to Persia and Afghanistan to learn about Islamic architecture’s roots there and find out how it evolved. When we go with him for 10 months in 1933 and 1934, we are going to look at old things. Byron tells us stories from the long and difficult road, and he makes up his mind about the people he meets: the Shahs of Persia and Afghanistan, as well as the people who built the architecture he likes.
There is a reason this book is still being read today because of its style. As if it were a personal travel diary, but in reality, The Road to Oxiana took three years of hard work to make happen. The prose is easy to read and easy to understand, but it also has a lot of meaning. Byron uses events and descriptions to hint at bigger ideas. The result sneaks up on you and you don’t even know about it at first Unique and interesting.
Eurasia Overland – Daniel Sprague
This isn’t a book, but rather a travel blog. It’s the best modern account of travel across Eurasia. It takes five years for Sprague to drive his car across Eurasia on his own. He visits almost every place between Kiev and Dhaka. His travel style is risky, and his opinions are well-grounded. His writing is cool and balanced.
During the winter, this is not the kind of story you want to read. But it gives a very clear and realistic picture of what it’s like to travel in Eurasia these days, and it’s not a fairy tale. You should start by reading the chapters about the countries you want to visit. You’re bound to look up some of the places he visits that aren’t on the main routes.
Out of Eden – Paul Salopek
Or, could this be the best modern account of traveling across Eurasia, or is this the best? It took Paul Salopek a long time to walk across the Eurasian landmass and report on what he saw. Those who did research for NatGeo did a great job. Every article has new ideas that come from both the past and the present.
Turn Left at Lenin’s Statue – Fabrizio Soggetto
Another self-published book, this one has a lot of research, meetings with locals, and descriptions of the land. In general, it’s well-written, and it shows that the author has a good sense of what the reader can understand. The protagonist isn’t an annoying buffoon or “adventurer,” and the book doesn’t exaggerate the tourist’s experience in Central Asia (either good or bad). There are good chapters about the Aral Sea, Bukhara, and Xinjiang in this book.
Shadow of the Silk road – Colin Thubron
People on the Silk Road go from China to Turkey. Neither Bouvier, Fleming, or Byron are in this very bad travelogue. It doesn’t have any of these things.
Disjointed stories from history books mixed with the lives of people he met along the way are what it has in abundance, though. It’s clear that the book doesn’t have a point. To make up for that, Thubron has over-decorated his prose with fancy baroque flourishes at every turn. People think the writing is bad.
To be clear, I’m not going to recommend this book. Thubron is on every other list. His book The Lost Heart of Asia, which came out in 1994, also has the same problems.
The Dawn of Eurasia – Bruno Maçães
It was a bad year for Europe, but Asia is on the rise. It’s the end of history, and democracy and human rights aren’t the same all over the world now. Multipolar: China, Russia, Europe (and India) are all competing for power in the Eurasian ecosystem, which is part of the world’s new world. To where will the borderlands of Europe and Asia, which are in the middle, end up moving to?
Maçes opens up new ways to think about geopolitics in the 21st century. A book that makes you uncomfortable and makes your mind grow bigger is this one.
Dictators Without Borders – Alexander Cooley
Dictators Without Borders is a follow-up to 2012’s Great Games, Local Rules. It looks into the many dark connections between authoritarian Central Asian regimes and the world’s most powerful people. If you still think of Central Asia as a backward region that isn’t important in the world, this will change your mind. Cooley says that Central Asia is very connected, but only in ways that we don’t like to look at.
The New Great Game – Lutz Kleveman
One book is all about how politics of oil around the Caspian Sea in 2000. Another book is all about how politics of oil in 2000 worked. Both are written by Lutz Kleveman. One is called The New Great Game and the other is called The Oil and The Glory by Steve Levine.
Books that go from Tbilisi to Kashgar try to figure out the pipeline politics of the newly independent states after 9/11. The United States, Iran, and China were all competing for a piece of the pie that Russia could no longer eat alone. As I write this review more than a decade later, this is all very old news. It gives a good overview of the situation at the time, which is good for people who aren’t familiar with the recent history of the area.
It’s hard for me to pick one over the other. I choose The New Great Game. It covers a lot of ground, from Chechnya to China to Iran. The writing is more lively, too, because Kleveman went out and talked to people. You get a sense of adventure as you go with him to refugee camps and drilling platforms, across mountain passes, and into the boardrooms. Levine prefers to stay in the boardrooms. Even though we admire his work as a journalist, his writing has a wooden tone that is common in American pop-science books.
Goodnight, Mister Lenin – Tiziano Terzani
Like Kapuszynski or Salgado, Tiziano Terzani is a master-journalist who always shows up at the right place and at the right time, just like these two people. 1991: Terzani is on a river in Siberia. A call comes in: the Soviet Union is no more. Suddenly, the Russian colonial empire falls apart. He goes on a quick trip through Central Asia and the southern Caucasus. His goal is to find the body of Communism.
If you know the bad history of communism, there aren’t many new things to see here, though. Yes, Terzani, who was “re-educated” in China, is the best person to watch and study the end of communism. Book ends with Tajik villagers toppling Dushanbe’s Lenin with chants of Allah Akbar, which means “God is great.” I think it’s very important that Terzani is able to give this event the attention it deserves.
Finally, even though his account is unique in that he met important people and saw events that no other foreign observer saw, his quick trip means that he can’t go into enough depth. In the end, he needs to add facts from the travel guide to make the story more interesting. Like The New Great Game for the 2000s, Goodnight, Mister Lenin is a great book for anyone who wants to learn more about Central Asia and the Caucasus in the 90s.