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on May 6, 2000
A mesmerising book, Hopkirk writes with a flair and passion that is infectious. The stories told by Hopkirk in 'Foreign Devils on the Silk Road' read like they belong in an Indiana Jones movie: Russian, French, Chinese, British and even Swedish(!) adventurers - heroes and villans both - competing to find the treasures of legendary cities buried for centuries beneath the trecherous sands of the Taklamakan desert. Exotic locations (still largely unknown to the Western world), rumours of supernatural forces protecting the buried cities - even the Indiana Jones-esque link to early Christian sects (the Nestorians) - it's all there! But it's more than just a "boy's own" adventure story: Hopkirk provides fascinating insights into the history of the ancient Silk Road as well as its latter intersection with the Great Game. I've been trying to figure out how to get to the Taklamakan ever since reading the book, which is now several years ago. This is history at its most readable.
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on April 12, 2004
Mr. Hopkirk in all of his works is accurate, profound and should be mandatory reading for all Foreign Service personnel. Having done Central Asia, the book was the "bible" in knowing the intimate details needed to not only do business in the post-Soviet era, but just in being able to discuss and move within the people where many thousands could not even bring voice to such concepts in the old days, which today are only "chatted" about in remote areas. Hopkirk rips at the fabric of humanity in what the west thinks is proper and what is reality in an eastern environment with its many passionate, intelligent, warm, and emotionally infectious people. I have read all of Peter's works several times and I continue to do so. You just have to be there to know that Hopkirk hits the nerve. It's just too much!!
G. Jannotta
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on January 20, 2002
What can you say about Peter Hopkirk that really sums up why he's the guru of the Great Game and derring-do in Central Asia. It's quite hard to put it down to anything in particular, but I find myself gripped with a longing for adventure every time I lift his tales and start to read. The Raj, the Russians, wild holy men and camel trains in Gobi sands - it's all there and I just can't get enough of it.
Is it being British and longing to know how a nation of bunglers can ever come so close to ruling the universe? Or is it the sheer romantic lust for wide open spaces and seeing things no one has ever seen before - except of course the ones who live here? I don't know, but By Jings Foreign Devils on the Silk Road is about as romantic as you can get.
It's about the race to steal the treasures of north-western China at the turn of the twentieth century. Sir Aurel Stein, a Brit. of Hungarian birth, and Sven Hedin, a Swede with a bit of thing for dictators, began a thirty year competition to find and save for posterity the ninth century Buddhist art work that had lain under the sands of the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts for the best part of a millennium. It would change the West's understanding of Central Asian history and their linguistics for ever.
After Stein and Hedin there came the ever-brilliant French, the determined Germans and a very strange bunch of Japanese 'holy men' come spies. A Russian or two arrived a little late and the final curtain came down on an headstrong Yank who didn't quite get what he'd bargained for when the Chinese decided enough was enough.
All set off from Kashgar and travelled by camel into no man's land in search of cities long forgotten and swallowed up in sand dunes. Not a satellite phone between them, they all managed to return with cart loads of precious art works and magnificent scrolls which they 'found' in desert oases and religious retreats guarded by monks who were up for a bribe or two. All met the McCartney's of Kashgar, those mad English nutters who ran a hilltop listening station in true Great Game style. (Yes the ones in 'Setting the East Ablaze' and the one's with the bathroom called 'Victory'). All steered by the stars and all had life threatening disasters involving frostbite and a bandit or two.
By the end you'll realise why Stein and Pelliot aren't names worth mentioning next time you're passing through Chinese customs. The Chinese, funnily enough, aren't too pleased at being reminded they all stood by and watched while wave after wave of expeditions left their territory with priceless artefacts - some of which were destroyed in WWII bombing raids while others lie stacked in boxes under the cobbled streets of Bloomsbury in London.
It's a gripping tale and one which reminds us that the world is very different now. You just can't ride a donkey into someone's house and rob them any more. How sad.
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on August 12, 1998
Excellent coverage of the first outside researchers to visit Chinese Turkestan (Xinkiang) in hundreds of years. These were men who braved extreme hardships to explore one of the world's most desolate places, the Taklamakan Desert. Hopkirk avoids a blanket condemnation of those who removed to other countries the old Buddhist wall paintings/manuscripts/etc., noting that at least some of it would have been ruined had it stayed -- and had been ruined. Hopkirk also follows up on some of the interesting side issues: were the Japanese "archeologists" really spies, for instance. And he brings the reader up to date on what happened to the old treasures and where they are now, noting that much of what was once buried in the Taklamakan is now buried in storage at the British Museum. This is not a large book but I suspect a lot of research went into it. Concise, informative, and entertaining.
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on November 10, 2003
A fascinating account of the plundering of art objects from the Silk Road. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the fascinating tale of the intrigue and scheming as well as the hazards of the laborious expeditions. However, as another reviewer has written, I think Hopkirk has missed the point in that removing these art objects has saved them for posterity. The stolen artifacts are China's patrimony, much like the Magna Carta for Britain, Russian Icons, Martin Luther's writings for Germany, The Bordeaux tapestry for France and the manuscript of the Genji Monogatari for Japan, they are the essence of a nation' cultural heritage and should not be plundered and stashed away in foreign museums! The time has come for these to be returned to their rightful owners so they can be studied and documented and kept for posterity. I commend the book otherwise.
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on August 5, 2003
It's easy to become enraptured by Hopkirk's romantic storytelling, but it's important not to forget that the "discoveries" of Sir Aurel Stein and others is tantamount to the theft of historical and cultural artifacts that do not belong to the European people. Like the plunder of religious objects of the Pacific Northwest Coast Indians and displaying them in museums like the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, European and Euro-American cultures have too long felt entitled to co-opt the "goods" of non-European cultures and do with them what they will. So-called "bartering" and "exchange" were often laced with half-hidden threats and intimidation.
The era of European domination is over, and it's time to return to those people what rightly belongs to them.
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on August 14, 2001
An excellent survey of the explorers of the Silk Road. In response to the New England reviewer, the bulk of the material in fact DID survive WWII; the majority of the texts were brought by Paul Pelliot to the National Library in Paris. There is also a collection in London. Therefore, Hopkirk's argument does stand (see the trouble Victor H. Mair had in finding funding for the Tarim Mummies!).
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on April 15, 2000
An interesting account, but Hopkirk's endorsement of the plundering of national treasures as "preservation" is a little disingenuous, given that the contents of the Thousand Buddha Cave were destroyed in the bombing of Berlin. That argument may have held some water in the 20's, but not after WWII.
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