Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, by Peter Hopkirk, is a wonderful book, but I never would have read it if it hadn’t been for one of those book trails that leads us on from author to author, teasing our interest and taking us places we otherwise never would have gone. Last year, I read Laurie King’s The Game, one of her Mary Russell books. One of the characters in that novel was Kim, from Rudyard Kipling’s book of the same name. I read Kim next, and adored it, and then finally took Laurie King’s advice (from her author’s note) and read Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game, the riveting history, as exciting as any adventure story, of the battle between Russia and Britain for the riches of India. (And that’s another blog post.)
After that, I figured that anything Hopkirk touched would turn to gold, so I picked up Foreign Devils, hoping for another exciting ride, not caring much what it was about. I couldn’t have asked for a better sequel. Foreign Devils is the story of the explorers, archaeologists, philologists, and adventurers who came to the deserts of China in the last part of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th, and made unbelievable discoveries of treasure: no gold, but evidences of a vast, forgotten civilization buried beneath the sands. Manuscripts, delicate frescoes, huge and beautiful statues, lost languages, all were preserved in astonishing condition for over a thousand years until these men – French, British, Swedish, Japanese, and, at the last, American – came to find them, identify them, and take them away. The Chinese are bitter to this day about the looting that went on then, and Hopkirk doesn’t excuse it, but he does give the sense of wonder, almost of incredulity, that followed these men through tremendous physical hardship as they found what lay buried under impossibly remote deserts.
It really made me think to realize that just a few years later came the great discoveries made in Egypt: Tutankhamen’s tomb and the great pyramids. What is there left to discover in our day? What sources of wonder are left untapped? We have cures for disease left to find, but I’m not sure there is anything as openly, purely thrilling as the search for the unknown treasures of the past. At least, that’s how it seems when Peter Hopkirk writes about it.