Thursday, December 02, 2010

Road to Oxiana

I assumed, when I got this book that "Oxiana" was some sort of allusion to the classical world, or maybe Oxford, so I thought that The Road to Oxiana would be an Oxford man's account of his travels in Greece, or possibly Turkey. Surprise, surprise, "Oxiana" means the geographical area roughly contingent with Afghanistan and bits of Iran and Robert Byron's diary of his journey there in the 1930's is considered one of the classics of travel literature.

I'm not really recommending that you all go out and read it, because then you will think that everything I read is impossible and you will never take my book reviews seriously ever again. Still, in between long, dry, (yet edifying) passages about Persian architecture are some gems. It is Robert Byron who came up with the "glucose doormat" description of carob that so tickled me last week.

Then there's this, after he first arrives in Persia:

Here we changed cars, since Persia and Irak refuse admission to one another's chauffeurs. Otherwise our reception was hospitable: the Persian officials offered us their sympathy in this disgusting business of customs, and kept us three hours. When I paid duty on some films and medicines, they took the money with eyes averted, as a duchess collects for charity.

I remarked to Christopher on the indignity of the people's clothes: "Why does the Shah make them wear those hats?"
"Sh. You mustn't mention the Shah out loud. Call him Mr. Smith."
"I always call Mussolini Mr. Smith in Italy."
"Well, Mr. Brown."
"No, that's Stalin's name in Russia."
"Mr. Jones then."
"Jones is no good either. Hitler has to have it now that Primo de Rivera is dead. And anyhow I get confused with these ordinary names. We had better call him Marjoribanks, if we want to remember whom we mean."

For the rest of the book, the Shah of Iran is written as "Marjoribanks" which is pronounced "Marshbanks" if I am not mistaken, and if I am, perhaps a British reader could enlighten me.

The thing about this book is that it shows how absolutely amazingly beautiful Iran and Afghanistan are. Of course, tourism in those countries is impossible now, and probably much of what Byron saw there has been bombed into rubble. Did you know that there was an artistic and architectural renaissance in Afghanistan in the 1400's?

I've read a number of travel books about Afghanistan--the most recent written in the 1960's by Dervla Murphy who rode a bicycle from Ireland to India. It seems it has always been a very dangerous place and the wonderful movie, The Man Who Would be King (based on a Rudyard Kipling story) bears that out. I doubt that travel there will be possible in my lifetime.

Generally, when picking travel destinations, I gravitate toward the safe: Italy, Ireland, Iceland, Canada. If I were to ever plan an adventure destination, I think it would have to be Afghanistan. If you could travel somewhere dangerous, where would you go?


  1. I bet that would be a fascinating place to visit. A few years ago National Geographic followed the old Silk Road and I would love to do that--but that sounded pretty treacherous, too.

  2. I've always wanted to go to Israel. Which I understand isn't actually as dangerous as people make it out to be. I would also like to go to Egypt and see the Pyramids--those are in Egypt, right? And Egypt is actually dangerous, right? But I'd rather go to Israel.

  3. Mad Housewife, my cousin has lived in Egypt for years and my brother and other family have been to visit and no one has ever felt unsafe, other than from the swimming in the Nile parasite (which is why you can't swim in the Nile). And the scary meat. A friend of mine, who is from Detroit, lived in Israel for a year and swears that it's safer than Detroit.

  4. There are travel books about Afghanistan that have been published far more recently than Dervla's- by a country mile the best I've read is 'An Unexpected Light' by Jason Elliot, whilst Rory Stuart's 'The Places In Between', which documents his walk from Herat to Kabul in 2001, is informative and easy to read.

    Also, whilst travel through Afghanistan is all but impossible, much of Iran is perfectly safe and friendly.

    NB, I'm in Kabul now and have traveled to various parts of Afghanistan including Herat. Peruse my blog if curious!

  5. "Of course, tourism in those countries is impossible now,..."
    Why say so. Tourism in Iran is perfectly possible now and was in 2010 (if you dare look beyond personal prejudice) and i believe Afghanistan could be doable too.

    1. Not so much personal prejudice as cowardice on my part. Actually, I've read a couple of relatively recent (by that I mean 1990's or later) accounts of travel in Iran, and I concede that it could be done by an adventurous traveler.