Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk

Source: Purchased at Novel Books
Paperback, 241 pages
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Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk, which was my book club’s September selection, is the kind of nonfiction that could be engaging with a different kind of narrative.  The author seeks to cover the archaeological digs and finds of six men over the first quarter of the century — Sven Hedin of Sweden, Sir Aurel Stein of Britain, Albert von Le Coq of Germany, Paul Pelliot of France, and Langdon Warner of the United States, though there is a little bit about Count Otani of Japan.  There is little about Otani, and as such could have been omitted as the records are considered secret by the government.  There also is little about Pelliot and Warner, which really leaves the author with the three main archaeologists — whom the Chinese view as thieves given the art and manuscripts the men stole.  The harsh conditions of the Silk Road through the Taklamakan Desert left many expeditions decimated, animals dead, and others sickened.

“On one stretch they found the route marked by wooden posts placed there to prevent travelers from straying away from the caravan trail at night or during a sandstorm as so many unfortunates had done over the centuries.”  (page 76)

There is a complete chapter of China’s past going as far back as 221 bc and before the birth of Christ, and a second chapter that focuses on the elements of the map, going across every road and aspect of a map that could easily be looked at on its own.  These pages would have been better served with details of the expeditions of the individual men, which the author clearly obtains from personal accounts of the men.  Hopkirk does quote from some of these accounts throughout the book, but readers may soon find that reading the first accounts of these expeditions would be more detailed and engaging than the recounting of them by Hopkirk.

The narrative is dry for more than 60 pages, leaving readers wanting more from the author.  It seems odd that the book would be so light on details of how the archaeologists obtained the frescoes and manuscripts they found until more than halfway through the book.  Rather than make rubbings of the artifacts or careful drawings — cameras were more than likely cost prohibitive at this time, not to mention huge — these archaeologists used knives and saws to cut away the wall drawings in pieces.  These actions are very disheartening and seem to be motivated by personal glory or scholastic gain.  Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk could have been so much more, but the narrative was lacking, and readers would be better served finding the accounts from the archaeologists and their peers — though one caution would be to watch out for political spin as a number of countries were competing for these treasures at the time.

**Unfortunately, with other obligations on the table, I missed the September discussion of this book.***

About the Author:

Peter Hopkirk is a British journalist and author who has written six books about the British Empire, Russia and Central Asia.

This is my 61st book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.


  1. I think it would’ve made for an interesting novel. At least you finished it, though. It was too dry for me, so I only made it through the prologue and two chapters.

    • I hate to say this about a book, that the less interesting/boring parts far outweighed the good parts that I did find in this book. I think it would have been great as a novel, or maybe narrative nonfiction. I’d almost rather read the source material the author used.

  2. Reading this sounds like too much work for me.

    • It was quite a bit of work, and I think that the information could have been conveyed better in a different structural format.