Interview with Nick Rowan—author of “Friendly Steppes: A Silk Road Journey”
Why did you choose the Silk Road as your travel destination?
After leaving university I knew I wanted to travel but I didn’t want to travel for travel’s sake ending up on a beach in Thailand with a bunch of 18-year old bums who thought they knew everything. I wanted to do something that was challenging, had an element of research and purpose and above all something that not many people had done. I considered travelling north to south from Alaska to Argentina and trying to cross every country of the African continent, but then I cam across these strange-sounding “Stans” as I pored over an open map of the world. For hundreds of years they’d been part of the Soviet Union and not much was known or written about them, in English anyway. For thousands of years a famous and majestic trade route, now extinct, had passed and quite a lot was known and had been written about the Silk Road. It made sense – travel and try and find out what influences this ancient trading route had had on these countries today. Best of all, there was never a single Silk Road, so whichever route I took would be my route, distinct from great travellers of the past like Marco Polo.
Did you travel with the aim of writing a book?
Not initially. I enjoyed reading books by Thubron, Danziger and Dalrymple that dealt with similar travel stories, some more adventurous that I perhaps wanted to be. Once I had set off with my route fully in mind and a fistful of visas to unknown territories and much maligned countries like Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan I started to run into my own situations that challenged me physically and mentally. I would meet people and hear their hopes and dreams as well as their stories from the past and it made me want to tell the story their way as they had told it to me, without media and politics. In Venice I had bought myself a lovely brown leather-bound notebook with hundreds of empty pages that I would spend my quiet evenings writing in – I wrote about everything and anything. I sketched and doodled in it and stuck all the random ticket stubs and bits of paper. When I got back to the UK after 7 months of travelling I started to write what was initially the 5,000 word research paper I had intended to write and it just spiraled from there as I realised that what I really wanted to write about were all the wonderful (and sometimes not so wonderful) people I had met along the way and who had taken me, a stranger, into their homes and lives no matter how briefly that was.
How long did it take you to write Friendly Steppes?
Writing the book took me about two years – much of that was done in the evenings after work and at weekends. I then spent a further four years reading the text, editing it, re-reading it, feeling despair that what I had written was rubbish, re-editing it, re-reading it and so on. It became a part of my life and many spare moments on the morning commute or on the plane to some less-than-exotic destination were spent re-living my journey and hopefully turning the words into something of meaning and entertainment for others. Fortunately I didn’t have to worry much with book structure – I started in Venice and ended in China, so it pretty much followed from there! Of course tying down a jumble of ideas and emotions into a comprehensible piece of prose took time and patience – and even then I didn’t manage to get everything I wanted in.
What part of the journey was the most challenging?
I’ve always had a thing about border crossings. I just don’t like them. I have nothing to hide, but the officialdom and knowledge that your fate is in the hands of a bored uniformed officer does nothing to ease my apprehension. The book mentions most of these because they are always a time of heightened tension whether it was trying to leave the practical joking guards on the Azeri port border or arguing with the Uzbek customs officer that my mis-declaration of 150,000 in currency was of the worthless Turkmen money rather than US dollars! The other time, when I felt really alone, was in Bosnia, a country shattered by conflict and still bearing the scars of today. I sat one evening reflecting on the stories I had heard of the war and just wanted to get away – and then I realised that I was missing home and only getting further away as I ventured towards the East. Funnily enough all the logistical and language challenges I faced later on in the trip always just seemed part of the fun – even having had the odd gun pointed at me by some jumped up military teenager in Turkmenbashi port made me smile, after the event of course.
What were the highlights?
That’s simple – the people. Most of the people I met (excluding border guards and taxi drivers) were simply charming and welcoming. Their inquisitive hospitality left me feel ashamed at the way we treat foreign visitors to Europe. People had so much time to help me when I was lost or speak with me when I was lonely and then wanted me to meet their whole family. Of course the architecture of Samarkand’s glistening blue domes, the stature of Kyrgyzstan’s mountains, the mesmerizing colour of Turkey’s bazaars and the sheer expanse of the Turkmen desert, with its burning gas crater, are impressive sights already out of the ordinary. Nonetheless, I struggle to find anything more beautiful in this world than its people. It’s just a pity that a few madmen spoil it for the rest.
What were the most important lessons you learned on your trip?
You couldn’t help learn something new every day whether it was about yourself or a country’s history, traditions, cuisine and people. A few choice words of wisdom do stand out though:
- “The weather in Istanbul is like a woman – very unpredictable”
- A salesman begins his work once the customer says, “no”
- Sign in Iran: “Ladies, the scarf is like a shell, the woman is the pearl inside”
- In Turkmenistan a good wife costs several thousand U.S. dollars, but they are very hard to export, along with ancient carpets and the celebrated Akhal-Teke horse
- Peking Duck eaten in China is almost the same as in Europe but with more body parts