Ollivier takes us on an absorbing walking tour of the Silk Road, experiencing many of the same marvels and dangers as the ancient caravans.
Originally published in France in 2001, the book is the first installment chronicling the author’s arduous three-stage journey on foot from Istanbul to the former imperial Chinese city of Xi'an. Ollivier, then 61, began his trek through Turkey in 1999, planning to end the initial stage in Tehran. Firmly believing that walking is the only form of transportation that allows us to connect with cultures and individuals on a fundamental level, the author refused all offers of a ride—until he had no choice. Endlessly curious, Turkish villagers were amazed that anyone would actually walk the breadth of their country, and they barraged him with questions at every stop. Paranoid soldiers and arbitrary constables were more suspicious and aggressive. Ollivier spoke little Turkish, but given Muslim custom, he enjoyed the most extraordinary generosity and hospitality through much of his route. Still, the perils of solo travel, especially hiking through a country torn by armed conflicts and beset with banditry, surfaced the farther east he walked. With determination battling doubt, the author traversed daunting distances on a daily basis, often in mountain country. A fierce attack of amebic dysentery near the Iranian border brought him up short, though he does offer snippets of Silk Road history and longer expositions on Turkish and Kurdish traditions. Ollivier occasionally comes across as judgmental, though not without cause. He romanticizes or overstates certain points, yet he admits to Western prejudice and imperfect understanding. As fascinating as his odyssey can be, this English-language edition suffers from observations on Turkish politics and culture that are 20 years old—fine for timeless village life but lacking for the nation as a whole.
Though having an episodic feel, Ollivier's account brims with a sojourner's passion and an insatiable hunger for new vistas and peoples.