BOOK REVIEW / The present ruins of glories past: 'The Lost Heart of Asia' - Colin Thubron: Heinemann, 16.99

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THIS journey is, for Colin Thubron and for those readers who have travelled with him through the old USSR and China, the missing piece of the map: those, to us, remote republics, submerged for

70 years under the suffocating mantle of the Soviet Union, now independent and bent on separate experiments in nationhood. His journey begins in Turkmenistan, on the borders of Iran, and takes him to the edge of China, through Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

The names are magical: Dushanbe, Tashkent, Samarkand and the Pamir mountains - impossibly far-flung, vast and mysterious. Reality, of course, is ugly, polluted and confused. The past is represented by mounds in the desert where once a mighty city stood, by ruined capitals of peoples who rose briefly, flourished in a fleeting magnificence, then were flattened by the next arriving horde. This is, after all, the place that produced those fast-moving, pitiless horse-borne armies: the Scythians, the Huns, the Turks and the Mongols, the terrors that emerged from a dust cloud and cut softer civilisations to ribbons; the huge territory that grew rich on the land-borne trade from China and lost its capacity for splendour when the Silk Road broke up in the 15th century.

And what is there now? Thubron's journey was made the year after the breakup of the USSR. Since then there has been more war and some spectacular energy deals, but one senses that the confusion that he describes, the ambivalence about identity, the over- riding rage at the material difficulties of life must still be there. Thubron spends a great deal of time among graves, as though, for him too, the key to the future is buried under those broken tombs. He sets out from a series of grim hotel rooms, 'where . . . nothing worked, but everything - fridge, television, telephone - was represented' to persuade grumbling taxi drivers to take him to the remnants of the cities, to view the ruins of monuments thrown up by the epic leaders of the marauding hordes. He wanders alone over broken pediments and tumbled towers, encountering the descendants of these distant figures wandering in the shadows of the ruins, drinking vodka and enacting shreds of half-forgotten ritual, refashioning or rejecting memories according to the requirements of present desperation.

Daily life is lived in the deeper shadows of chaos. As Thubron combs through history, the people he meets want to know how much they could earn if they lived in Britain. They saw him, he realises after several weeks, as 'only an assemblage of material possibilities - a watch, a pen, a chance of dollars'. He begins to long for any disinterested curiosity or pleasure. Occasionally he encounters it: he seeks out the students in the newly revived medresehs to talk about Islam, trying to guess if they will be tolerantly Turkic or fiercely fundamentalist. In Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, he meets the gentle Talib, one of the few characters on his 6,000-mile journey who seems to enjoy domestic contentment, but who has laboured for 14 years to complete a dictionary of physics terminology in Tajik in the hope of equipping his people with the means to embrace science. It languishes in his lap, unpublished for lack of paper, as the people on whose behalf he struggled to complete it stumble towards ethnic conflict.

For a while, Thubron travels with Omar, a friend made the previous year, in Omar's beaten-up Lada. Omar is a difficult travelling companion, depressive, drunken and given to embarrassing orgies of sentimentality. He is consumed by resentment and given to quarrelling, but capable of reckless bravery. He is a man broken by a past injustice, whose circumstances offer no hope of redemption. His litanies become overfamiliar to Thubron - he rails against the mafia and inflation with the irreconcilable fury of the impotent. They part in the bleak dawn that follows a birthday party for one of Omar's sons, a party Omar has reduced to a flailing brawl.

This is a learned book, packed with history and brilliant architectural writing. It is also a cool book, occasionally too cool. A sense of hopelessness and loss pervade its pages, as passion is drowned in vodka and self-pity, ambitions seem squalid or hopeless, celebration gives way to drunkenness, and pleasure is crushed beneath the anxieties of inflation and dislocation. Everyone seems to be lost: the Russians who no longer feel welcome, the women who play with their baby sons, wondering if identity for their people will mean the veil for them. If there is a common fantasy, it is found in the mirage of the popular Mexican soap opera, The Rich Also Cry.

Thubron leads us through this desolation of fragmented tombs and ruined monuments with a tight-reined discipline; there is a rare precision in his prose and an intensity of description of landscape and physical objects. But I sometimes longed for him to discard his formality and let us feel the weariness or the drama without the Englishman's emotional filter. In Uzbekistan, for instance, in search of the remains of the citadel where Muqanna, a mysterious, messianic figure from the eighth century met a gruesome end, he encounters some local difficulties: 'One trip petered out at a pass where the driver refused to go on because of wolves. Another ended when a lorry skidded on a loose-stoned track and crashed into us. After some explosions of self-righteousness, the two drivers settled down to debate for an hour in a measured unravelling of pride. Then we limped home.' I would rather like to know more.