Road to Oxiana

Robert Byron has often been acclaimed as one of the leading travel writers of his generation. A huge compliment considering who he shared that generation with - Peter Fleming and Patrick Leigh Fermor to name just two (though Fermor's tales of his travels in 1930's Europe were published long after the event). Byron was very much a product of his generation - an astonishingly erudite, well educated man, who'd flunked his way out of Oxford, and was by 1933-34 at a bit of a loose end, and was en route to Iran to meet up with a group of like-minded friends, who had the potty idea of driving a charcoal powered car across the old Silk Road.

The charcoal fuelled car blew up en route before Byron even set eyes on it. But either by himself, or with his friend, Christopher Sykes, a minor diplomat, he set off on a journey of exploration around Persia and on into Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Although I'm sure Byron must have done some editing along the way, most of the Road to Oxiana reads like a diary or a selection of notes encompassing everything from bad experiences along the way to interesting people he's met, notes on history, medicine and geography, and anything else that happens to pique his interest. As such there's a wonderful sense of immediacy to the book. It's also surprisingly relevant as Byron drifts through some of the great war-zones of the modern age; which although not quite as dangerous then, still had a frisson of peril.

Byron loved Central Asia, and was fascinated by the architecture of the Islamic world; and this shines through in his enthusiasm for the journey. To a Western audience sickened by the violence of war in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, it's easy to forget the importance of these areas and the rich culture that had underpinned the countries for thousands of years. From the lapis-lazuli of Afghanistan that enriched the tombs of the Pharaohs to the wonderful architecture of Iran and Iraq, and of course the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan (ironically enough Byron mentions that they had already been vandalised during a pre-Taliban outburst of iconoclasm in an earlier century).

Dome of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan, Iran. Admired by Robert Byron
Unusually, for his era, Byron is positive about non-Western cultures, and in general embraces the art and work that had flourished under Islam in a way that had been rarely seen in earlier writers. This may make him sound rather serious, but his self-deprecating tone is often very funny "I have been reading Proust for the last three days and begin to observe the infection of uncontrolled detail creeping into this diary."

It's a delightful and gripping account of an astonishing journey. It just made me very sad that the journey now is largely impossible. It was certainly much more difficult to travel long distances in the 1920's and '30's, but I envy the travellers of the day, the freedoms that they had, that now no longer seem to be ours.

There's a sad postscript to Road to Oxiana. Robert Byron died a few days before his 36th birthday in February 1941, when the convoy he was on, en route to Alexandria, was torpedoed off the coast of Scotland. Most of the hands were drowned. Shockingly eleven other merchant vessels were sunk on the same day.


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