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.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz