cover image Around the Roof of the World

Around the Roof of the World

. University of Michigan Press, $39.5 (356pp) ISBN 978-0-472-10741-4

Tashkent and Samarkand, Genghiz Khan and Tamerlane--the very names associated with Central Asia quicken the pulse and conjure up conquests and migrations, daredevil horsemen and jagged mountain peaks luring climbers to glory and disaster. The Shoumatoffs fill in the traditional yak-and-yurt picture with varied expeditions and travel writings. Excerpts from four classics provide glimpses of 1940s Tibet, midcentury Hunza, 1912 Kashmir and Ladakh and Kyrghyz nomads in 1935. The editors' original contribution is the translation of 16 selections by four Russian writers. The dose of Soviet-era mountaineering history may be too heavy for all save confirmed devotees of the sport, but otherwise, the readings are largely accessible, some even lyrical. Botanist Okmir Agakhanyantz writes with charm and humor about a 600-kilometer walk across Tajikistan and grippingly about a landslide in the Pamir region; artist and ethnographer Alexandre Iacovleff recounts with philosophic subtlety a 1930s trip retracing the route of Marco Polo. Fine illustrations convey the area's natural grandeur and cultural flavor. Annoyingly, the reader has to flip between chapters, preface and bibliography to deduce the source of each piece and whether it is a translation or an excerpt. Worse, the single map is sketchy and unilluminating. But once armchair travelers have found Kazakhstan and the Kun Lun in an atlas, they can enjoy an exotic ride. (Sept.)