The route of the hanging chains

Godfrey Hodgson marvels at the life of a fearless 19th-century adventurer; Aurel Stein: Pioneer of the Silk Road by Annabel Walker John Murray, pounds 25
In the last decade of the 19th century, scraps of writing of immense antiquity began to arrive in British India from the remote heart of Asia, the oases skirting the fearsome Taklamakan desert. Some were written on paper, some on wood, some on silk and others on birch bark.Among the scholars, travellers and intelligence officers whose imaginations were excited by these discoveries was a young Jewish Hungarian, Aurel Stein, who was then the principal of a college in Lahore.

Stein, who had already spent much time and effort searching for manuscripts of an ancient history of Kashmir, was a remarkable linguist. Besides Hungarian, German, English and French, he taught himself Hindi, Sanskrit and several other of the ancient languages of India. He grasped immediately that the writings and other artefacts came from the ancient cities of the Silk Road which, from the time of Alexander the Great to that of Marco Polo, linked the high civilization of China with that of the Mediterranean. Here, at last, might be traces of the old Chinese and Indian civilization which had prevailed before the Silk Road fell into the hands of the Muslims.

He also realized that there, in the sandblown oases of Turkestan, might lie the evidence of how Buddhism, a religion that had long since died out in its native country, India, had been transmitted to China. In three great expeditions, travelling with a handful of Indian lieutenants, a caravan of bearers and camels, and a succession of seven dogs all called Dash, he explored the Tarim Basin. He brought back caravan loads of texts, objects and sculptures, including Buddhas of great beauty showing unmistakable traces of the Greek art brought to north India by Alexander the Great's army in the fourth century BC.

A fourth expedition, intended to explore the Chinese end of the Silk Road westward from its terminus in Xian, was frustrated by the new nationalism that had grown up after the Chinese revolution of 1911. And Stein never fulfilled his ambition of retracing Alexander's steps in what is now northern Afghanistan. He died in Kabul, at the age of 80 and in the middle of a world war, still trying to get there.

In the meantime, his activity was prodigious. He helped to establish the track of Alexander's campaign across the Indus and to pinpoint the site of the mountain fortress which the Macedonian carried with one of his most famous assaults. At the age of 66, he was following the voyage of Alexander's naval commander, Nearchos, in a leaky 45-foot boat. At 77 he was standing up in the open cockpit of an RAF plane photographing the traces of the Roman frontier forts in the Iraqi desert, and just before his 80th birthday he explored the terrifying "route of the hanging chains", which the Chinese pilgrims took along the precipices of the upper Indus valley.

Stein was both learned and fearless. He was not a patient archaeologist. He was more interested in exploring historic routes through the wildest country in the world than in digging down through layer after layer of a site. He was also predatory, not for himself, but in the way he carted off mountains of artefacts to western (and Indian) museums.

Chinese scholars, in particular, have counted Stein among the "robbers" who despoiled China of its treasures, and the great English China scholar Arthur Waley agreed with them. In fairness, the artefacts Stein brought back from the desert would probably not have survived if he had not taken them away from sites where they were the prey of treasure-seekers, revolutionary bands and local officials. as well as white ants and archaeologists.

Annabel Walker has written a careful and delightful biography. She has followed Stein's tracks where she could, in Budapest and Oxford, in Lahore and in the mountains. She has painted an unforgettable picture of this angular, indomitable man, with his faithful dog and his band of servants, tramping Asia from Syria to Xian in search of the secrets of the past. I expect I will read more important books this year, but I will be lucky to read one that has given me more pleasure.