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Peter Hopkirk

central asia, here we come

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Hopkirk mostly writes about Central Asia, which turns out to be much more interesting than you might think. His first book, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, concerns the first Europeans to explore the ancient Silk Road. In antiquity, the Silk Road ran from China, through the Gobi, Lop Nor and Taklamakan deserts to Kashgar in Turkestan. At that time many cities flourished along the trade route, but water grew scarce, and the desert grew, and the cities were buried. Explorers like Sven Hedin and Sir Aurel Stein searched for and excavated many of them, taking away manuscripts and frescos to museums in Europe. "But wait!", you cry, "frescos are painted on walls! How could they take them away?" The answer is, "Very carefully; and in great numbers." Apparently the Chinese government still gets snippy when Sir Aurel Stein's name comes up. The book describes many interesting characters, including a pair of brothers who found it lucrative to provide the Europeans with "ancient" manuscripts. No one caught on until they got greedy and started using wood blocks to print more manuscripts more quickly.

Trespassers on the Roof of the World concerns European explorers in Tibet. At the close of the 19th century, Tibet was a great distress to your average explorer. Tibet is a huge country, strategically placed between British India and the Russian Empire, and the Tibetans discouraged visitors. Many tried to explore Tibet anyway, including the ubiquitous Sven Hedin, the great prize being the holy city of Lhasa, home of the Dalai Lama. The first to succeed was Colonel Francis Younghusband, who arrived at the head of a British army, having managed to escalate a minor trade dispute into a full scale invasion. Hopkirk makes Younghusband seem quite the hero; further reading on my part seems to indicate that he was a real looney-tunes.

Global politics played a minor role in Hopkirk's earlier books; in The Great Game it takes center stage. Throughout the 19th century, Russia and Great Britain jockeyed for position in Central Asia, Britain trying to protect India, and Russia trying to get into position to take it. The activities of the spies and explorers on both sides were referred to, even then, as "The Great Game". The book is just awash with great feats of endurance and derring-do, and is especially interesting in the light of the breakup of the Soviet Union, as this is the era in which Russia conquered many of the Central Asian republics.

More recently Hopkirk has written Like Hidden Fire and Setting the East Ablaze, which describe later Central Asian conflicts between Great Britain and Germany, and Great Britain and Russia

Incidentally, except for Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, which was published (as I recall) by Harvard University Press, these books are all available from Kodansha.


Foreign Devils on the Silk Road
Reviews: 1 July 2000
Trespassers on the Roof of the World
The Great Game
Like Hidden Fire
Setting the East Ablaze

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