Bought second hand yonks ago (so long ago I can’t even recall where), this relatively slim travelogue has sat languishing on my bookshelf alongside other books about places and eras I wished I’d been able to visit and record myself.
On the face of Mountains of Heaven looks as though it’s going to be an annoying account, in the style of Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, of a scion of the British Empire’s boy’s own adventure through the lands on the edge of empires.
But it’s not. Half comprised of Charles Howard-Bury own edited version of his travel journals, with the remainder of the editing carried out by Marian Keane, Charles Howard-Bury does come across as an explorer-adventurer but one who is interested in the people, culture and wild life of the region; particularly the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ opportunities on offer.
A man after my own “circular route” heart, his outbound journey took him from London to Russian Omsk, on a “cruise” along the river Irtish to Semipalatinsk and via the post roads of Siberia and the steppe, crossing from the Russian side to the Chinese side of the Tian Shan. He returned to London by way of Russian Turkestan and the Silk Road, taking in Tashkent, Samarkand (fascinating accounts of the Registan, Bibi Khanum mosque and Shah Zinda mausoleum) and Bokhara before crossing the Caspian, the Caucasus and finally the Black Sea before taking the train home from Constantinople.
He’s in Central Asia at a tipping point. The British Empire is still going strong to the south, the pre-revolutionary Russian Tsars have expanded into the ‘Stans of Central Asia and the nomadic Kazakh and Kyrgyz inhabitants of the steppe are shifting eastwards, into modern day Xinjiang only a year after the demise of the Qing dynasty and the province acceding in name to the Republic of China.
Less than 100 years later, my Central Asia experience was vastly different.
Isabella Bird’s A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains and The Yangtze Valley and Beyond are still sitting on my bookshelf of travelogues to read, but Mountains of Heaven has finally (finally!) prompted me to pick up Tim Macintosh-Smith‘s The Hall of a Thousand Columns, which is proving to be another fantastic read. It’s 1349 and Ibn Battuta is just about to head off to China…..