Travel literature review: Travels into Bokhara

Travels into Bokhara by Alexander Burnes

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Reviewed by Will Gourlay

In the 19th century, the Great Game was played out between the British and Russian empires as local diplomats and administrators manoeuvred to outpoint each other and extend imperial power and influence in Central Asia. Alexander Burnes was one such agent, who at the age of 26 made a trail-blazing voyage across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Iran, in the service of the British during the 1830s. Travels into Bokhara is his account of the journey, travelling by boat, horseback and on foot, dressed in local garb and mixing with a range of noblemen and villagers, storytellers and maharajas.

Burnes was excited to follow, part of the way, in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, but his greater goal was to further the interests of the British Empire. With the steady hand of the Victorian writer, he records geographical, environmental and strategic detail, but he also has an eye for the quirks of local life and an ear for colourful conversation.

This new edition splits his journey into two sections. The first runs from the mouth of the Indus River to Lahore and then Delhi; the second, his route onward to Kabul, the Silk Road city of Bokhara (modern Bukhara) and then to Tehran, Esfahan and Shiraz. Burnes recounts extraordinary sights and events: Sufi shrines, 'porpoises' swimming in the Indus, opium-smoking riverboat crews, the Buddhas of Bamiyan and a mountain where Afghans say Noah’s Ark landed. In Shorkote he finds coins that date back to Alexander’s Greek invaders and witnesses a tiger hunt; in Lahore he views the legendary Koh-i Noor diamond and attends a celebration where the maharajah showers guests with gold dust.

In his day, Burnes was seen as intrepid, as few Europeans had ventured into these lands before. To make the same complete trip today would still qualify as intrepid - this remains a corner of the world where few independent travellers go. Like modern travellers on the backpacker trail, Burnes was inspired by others who had gone further. In his case, it was Indian traders who had previously visited Kabul, Balkh and Bokhara. 'It was my conversation with these men,' he writes, 'that made me decide on undertaking the journey to Central Asia.'

Returning to England in 1834, Burnes published his travel account and became instantly famous, but he wrote that he hoped 'to stimulate others… to view and visit these lands'. This new edition is a readable account of the challenges and attractions of the region - it makes for great armchair travel, and may encourage some to strike out for Bukhara and beyond.

Will Gourlay is a Lonely Planet commissioning editor with a particular interest in Turkey and Iran; since a recent trip to Kashgar he is now plotting to visit more Silk Road cities.

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