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Tales of ancient adventure and the "in-between" places on the Silk Road

Waiting for Michael Murrin to enter the Cobb classroom where his course Travelers on the Silk Road will be held winter quarter, it's easy to imagine the sights and sounds of a high-plateau caravansary stop on the ancient East-West trade route.

Ruddy-cheeked and wrapped in brightly colored scarves or coats with thick faux-fur collars, students have trekked across mountains of snow left on campus by the blizzards of winter break. There are about 30 students in all, graduate and undergraduate, with complexions ranging from deep brown and olive to yellow and peach with freckles. One divinity student, wearing the mustard and burgundy robes of a Tibetan monk, sets a neat white pencil case atop his leather-bound Higher Sanskrit Grammar. Stories of holiday travel mingle with more academic discussions of Byzantine art and a call for papers on Buddhism.

Silver-haired and dressed in shades of gray, Murrin enters the room quietly and surveys the colorful crowd, well-worn smile lines crinkling behind his large eyeglasses as he recognizes several students and nods hello to the student in robes.

"Shall we look at our readings?" asks Murrin, the David B. and Clara E. Stern professor of humanities, English, and comparative literature in the College and Divinity School. He works his way through the syllabus, a chronology of first-person and fictionalized accounts by people who lived and traveled along the Silk Road, the highway that linked China with the West, carrying goods and ideas between the two civilizations. Silk-and eventually gunpowder, porcelain, and tea-came westward, while gold, silver, and Christianity went east.

"We will not spend much time in the court of Kublai Khan or the old Seleucid dynasty capital of Antioch. If that's what you're looking for, I am sorry to tell you, you won't find it here," Murrin informs the students. "Rather, we'll spend our time in the areas that caused all the trouble-where all the adventures took place, where the travelers had their worst difficulties. Where there were robbers."

Throughout this first lecture, Murrin assumes the air of a seasoned Scout leader telling ghost stories to a captive audience camped in the woods. He has expert timing, at times pacing the room to deliver thundering descriptions of strange terrain and hostile inhabitants, at times stopping to put on the visage of a pious holy man or to peer down at a young woman taking notes in the front row. "If you're worried about the streets of Chicago-" he says to her, striking a mock-warning look. "Don't worry." He grins, and the students watch him in amusement.

The readings will carry the class along the very rocks and ruts of the Silk Road as it carved through the heart of Asia over the span of a couple thousand years. They will pass through countries whose names and allegiances will seem as ephemeral as cherry blossoms-"territories that are disputed even to this day," Murrin says. These are what he calls the "in-between" places: towns and nomadic stations in present-day Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Northern India, the Tibetan plateau.

"We will follow Asians and Westerners traveling in both directions on the road," he continues, and along the way, meet practitioners of a host of religions: shamanism, Buddhism, and Islam, as well as the more mysterious Manichaeism and Nestorianism.

The road will be strewn with many obstacles, not the least of which is language. "No one can know the languages of the Silk Road. No one has ever known all of them. I know the languages of the Western European accounts-Latin, Franco [the French-Northern Italian vernacular of Marco Polo's Travels], Spanish. I used to know Persian. I do not know Chinese or Sanskrit. But I think we have some people here who do"-he eyes the student in robes-"so this will have to be a cooperative effort.

"As for the old languages of the Silk Road," Murrin sits on the table at the front of the room, "I doubt that anybody in this room can know them. How many of you know Tokharian? Sogdian? That's the merchants' language of the Silk Road. You don't?" He strikes a mock-quizzical look, and a few students chuckle. "How strange. How about Achoemenid Persian? Middle Persian? You don't? Gee. How about Khotanese? The language of Khotan?" Several students grin back at him.

"Don't worry!" Murrin shouts, eyes twinkling, jumping to his feet. "They didn't write any travel literature. Not one of them. You don't have to worry about it. But the names keep showing up, and that's what's important." He turns to scribble on the chalkboard: -kan, -kent. "That's a Tokharian ending. You'll get used to that and a good many other endings and spellings, because we'll keep going over the same road again and again."

They'll begin their journey with what Murrin promises to be the quarter's most difficult reading: a biography of Chang Ch'ien, a Chinese gentleman commissioned by the Han emperor to forge China's earliest westward trade routes in 140 b.c. During expeditions stretching three to ten years at a time, Chang encountered bands of unfriendly nomads and remote towns refusing to provide supplies for his exhausted men. In the process, many a tribal king lost his head, and loyalties to the faraway Han emperor waxed and waned like the phases of the moon. By Chang's death in 113 b.c., he had traveled as far as Ta Hsia.

Murrin turns to scrawl on the chalkboard behind him: Ta Hsia = Bactria = northern Afghanistan. "Remember that," he says, running his hand across the words as he speaks, almost erasing them, "and you'll know where you're going." Several students flip through the handout-30 pages, two-thirds footnotes, most of which relate translators' quibbles over ancient Chinese characters. "If you survive that," says Murrin gleefully, "you'll stay in the course."

Even present-day place names will pose stumbling blocks for class discussion. "To refer to India and be talking about Pakistan sounds as if we're taking a position. And we most certainly are not. So how about East Central and West Central Asia? A bit heavy-handed. What do we do? I'm not sure. We'll try to work it out."

Murrin turns his lecture next to the terrain of central Asia, yet another challenge for travelers and a topic revisited many times throughout the quarter, with slide lectures and maps upon photocopied maps. "Nothing," says Murrin, "is a fixed quantity for travelers on the Silk Road-least of all the land. Prepare yourselves. You're looking tired already."

The Silk Road makes an indirect path between East and West, snaking northward, dipping south, sometimes doubling back on itself where the terrain is impassable. Geography is to blame: mountains, deserts, even rivers conspire against travelers. "No matter how you come across Asia, sooner or later you're going to hit mountains." A tangle of the world's highest mountains ("They're still growing! Everest has grown in my lifetime!") crisscrosses an arid swath of deserts, some of which can be as cold and desolate as others are hot and barren. Rivers change course or suddenly flow underground.

The class will repeatedly find itself at two bottlenecks: the Hexi Corridor and the Pamir Mountains, a "knot" from which several south-central Asian ranges radiate, including the Kunlun Mountains of Tibet and the "killer" Hindu Kush. "The Chinese called the Pamirs the Onion Mountains, because they thought it was the local onions that made them sick. We now know it was the altitude." Travelers looked for other routes, only to be blocked by the deserts, where they could easily be lost with no water or supplies.

"The names of the deserts suggest something already. Sahara means 'uncultivated land.' Gobi means 'pebbled' or 'stony desert,' which means you can go off the road here and not get stuck. Well, that's not true. You can. I've been there.

"Kyzyl Kum means 'red sand,' Kara Kum means 'black sand.' And sand is worst of all because it blows and shifts. No one ever goes into the sand dunes. They will never come out.

"I think you might like the Dasht-i-Kavir. It means 'firm floor soil' in Persian. It's salt. But underneath is viscous mud, an expanse of slime, whole channels of ooze."

"Tolkien fans, take note," he continues. The Gobi desert will be startlingly familiar.

At last Murrin arrives at the cultural implications of a nasty terrain peopled by strangers speaking mysterious tongues. "Towns on the Silk Road are like oases," he says. Cut off from one another, they weren't exactly welcoming to visitors with ulterior, imperialistic motives. China and the West had to develop a network of well-paid agents and needed plenty of money for bribes and gifts-lest the "towns naturally revert to an independent status," says Murrin. "If you control the west, you can't control the east. States appear and disappear. It takes a sophisticated system to manage it all."

At lecture's end, the students gather their things to return to the frigid outdoors. Murrin smiles benevolently after them. "Please," he calls out. "Be charitable to each other. We're in this together."-S.A.S.


  APRIL 2001

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All that jazz
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