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The journey is the destination The ancient Silk Road was a vital trade route that linked five countries. Today, it’s tourism that provides the link… CONSTANTINOPLE ( ISTANBUL, TURKEY)



Just think about it—moving along the shifting sands of the Taklamakan Desert in China’s Xinjiang Province in the midst of a sandstorm. The wind blows relentlessly, in one long, continuous force of hot air into your face and enters your eyes and nose, and you can feel the sand grating against your teeth. Weary travellers had to face the furies of nature and much else besides, as they trudged along the edges of this very desert, many centuries ago, selling their luxuriant wares in distant lands. Aptly called The Desert of Death, it was part of the famed Silk Road. It found mention in the diaries of Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer, who visited the oases of Shache and Hotan (on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert) in the 13th century and spoke about the voices and spirits that travellers heard all along the Silk Road, persuading them to walk into the desert. All this, and bandit raids, bribes and heavy duties, added to the cost and danger of travelling on the Silk Route. Considering this, it’s amazing that the Silk Road trade continued for 1,500 years. For the whys and wherefores, it’s worthwhile to track back and see what the Silk Road is, how it functioned, and what it holds for today’s traveller.

The Silk Road – what was it?



It was the most important pre-modern trade route, that linked China, central Asia, Persia, western Asia and Europe. And it was christened by a 19th century German scholar, who called it so because Chinese silk, so valuable a commodity at the time, was transported on the route. Historians date the beginnings of the Silk Road to the 2nd century BC, but jades, bronzes and silks were already percolating across Central Asia as early as the first century. Trade continued on the Silk Road until the advent of the sea trade, which was a death knell for the land route, in the late 15th and 16th centuries.

How trade developed The fame of Chinese products, particularly silk, spread to Central Asia, Persia and to the Roman Empire, who wanted a piece of the pie, and therefore, started trading. And the combined empires of China (Han dynasty), Persia (Parthia empire) and Rome (Roman Empire) at the time were at the zenith of their power, which was highly conducive for commerce. Both the Han and Roman emperors built roads within their own domains, thereby facilitating caravan travel.

The Route The Silk Road does not have one single route, it comprises several routes that developed due to environmental impediments and

changing political scenarios. The east-west route started from Chang’an, now Xi’an, in northern China, along the Hexi Corridor, now in Gansu Province. At Jiayuguan, the caravan route then headed for Anxi. Travellers had to make their way along the formidable Taklamakan Desert, just beyond Anxi. Here, some travellers continued south, while others went north. The southern route passed through an oasis town called Dunhuang and, thence, to the basin of the Tarim river. Travellers generally broke journey at Hotan, an oasis town, that was a significant trade centre. The caravans then







continued, until they arrived at Kashgar, at the foothills of the Pamir mountains. The longer, more round about route from Anxi, takes the stark desert route till Hami. From here, the route joins up with part of the southern route at Korla, before reaching Kashgar. The route from Kashgar to western Asia was vast and varied, stretching across the rugged mountain ranges. One route headed west, crossing the Tian Shan mountains and ascending to Samarkand and Bukhara (both in today’s Uzbekistan), then continuing to Merv, or Mary, in Turkmenistan. Another route ran south through the high Pamirs to Bactra (now Balkh, in Afghanistan), before making its way to Merv. From here, travellers journeyed to what is present-day Neyshabur in Iran. Then, passing south of the Caspian Sea, some continued west towards the Mediterranean

The Silk Route, depicted above, extends from Chang’an (Xi’an), China, to Esfahan, Persia

Chang’an ( Xi’an)





Sea, while others headed north, for Byzantium (later Constantinople, now Istanbul, in Turkey). Later, the cities of Tabriz, Shiraz, and Esfahan in Persia, also became important centres for merchants plying the Silk Road. It seems somewhat inconceivable to us now, that distances that can be traversed within a few hours today, would have taken travellers of yore many days, and then too, fraught with misery, danger and death. The caravan traffic on the Silk Road covered about 50 km on a good day’s journey, and 25 km on a bad day. As many as 10,000 camels made up a single caravan train. The merchandise comprised luxury items, usually silk, jade, porcelain, etc, from China, which was greatly valued by the elites of West Asia and Europe. The merchants, cognizant of the profits to be made, were ready to combat the dangers en route and deliver their cargo at its destination.

Spread of religion and art The economic import of the Silk Road may not have been much, but the cultural impact was great. The most notable example is the spread of Buddhism from India to China and Central Asia in the 2nd century. Buddhism influenced the spiritual views of the Chinese, their cuisine, art and architecture. You can see it in their pagodas, the designs and motifs in their art, and in the Mogao caves of


Dunhuang and Kyzyl in present-day southeast Russia, two vital locations along the Silk Road.

Tracking the Silk Route today You can begin your journey at the train station in Urumchi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang Province, and an important Silk Road town. Today, it is inhabited by the Uyghur people, who are Islamic, and make up 50 per cent of the population. It’s amazing how the sights, sounds and smells of the city remind you more of Maraakesh than China.

Kashgar and Hotan Kashgar is a huge oasis on the western fringes of the Taklamakan Desert. The Sunday bazaar in Kashgar is a spectacle to see- it’s a bazaar centre for all the surrounding villages and towns and has the ambience of a typical Central Asian bazaar, with its myriad animals, people, and most of all, its carpets. There are traditional East Turkestan weaves and designs, and the cheapest hand woven knotted pile rugs in the world. From Kashgar, it’s a long, dusty bus trip to Hotan, and as you go along this road, remember that this was the old southern branch of the Silk Road. Like Kashgar, Hotan, too, is inhabited by Uygur Turks. It is also a

prolific carpet and silk weaving centre.

Kyrgyzstan You leave the heat and dust of the Tarim Basin behind, to climb and wind your way up into the snow-capped Tien-Shan mountains that separate China from Kyrgyzstan, because that’s the next part of this journey on the Silk Road. As you cross the border and the famous Torugart Pass, up 3752m high, the landscape changes, from dry and desolate to lush steppe and forested mountains. Kyrgyzstan is relatively new to visitors, having opened its doors only in 1991. But it offers an unforgettable setting, as also a warm welcome from these traditionally nomadic people of Central Asia. Officially the Kyrgyz Republic, with Bishkek as its national capital, Kyrgyzstan has an unspoilt countryside. Revel in the beautiful hidden valley at Tash Rabat, or enjoy the great outdoors in a yurt camp, or in the alpine pastures at Lake Song Kul.

Kazakhstan Kazakhstan is part of an ancient civilization of the Eurasian continent and a prominent part of the great Silk Road. The land is a veritable utopia, with its snow-capped mountains, its sparkling glaciers, tall conifers, vast rocky canyons, sparkling emerald lakes, gurgling brooks and

Clockwise from top: Mogao caves, Dunhuang; Pagodas; Sunday Bazaar, Hotan; Cheapest hand woven carpets at Sunday Bazaar, Kashgar


sensational sunrises. There are many ancient monuments here, dating from the third century, such as the Issyk and Saks burial mounds. By virtue of its size, Kazakhstan rates ninth in the world, after Russia, Canada, China, US, Brazil, Australia, India and Argentina. The Kazakhs are an extremely hospitable people. Visit a Kazakh home and you will be welcomed warmly, and invited to partake of traditional Kazakh cuisine at the dastarkhan or low table, in a yurt. Take away some fine souvenirs, such as exquisite, hand-crafted felt mats, beautifully embroidered headdresses, decorative wooden cups and bowls, as well as some splendid silver jewellery.

Uzbekistan The Republic of Uzbekistan is a new independent state in central Asia. And of all the countries of the Silk Route it has the richest repertoire of craft and some of the

Clockwise from above: Mausoleum of Tamerlane; Registan Square; Yurt

The yurt is a moveable home and one of the greatest inventions of Eurasian nomads. A Kazakh woman can dismantle it in half an hour and load it on a camel with ease.

most exquisite examples of Islamic architecture in its mosques and mausoleums, in the splendid cities of Bukhara and Samarkand. The country is multi-ethnic, with Tashkent as its capital. Samarkand, the second largest city of Uzbekistan, is as old as Rome, Athens and Babylon. Places to see At the old city’s centre is located the magnificent landmark – Registan Square – which has an amazing number of monuments that represent the finest in Islamic art. The turquoise domes of Samarkand are amongst one of the world’s most evocative architectural symbols. The mausoleum of Tamerlane is the other historical site worth visiting. The architectural forms and lines and the colourful mosaic designs of the monument make it unique. You can’t help but be spellbound by t h e blue-ribbed cantaloupe dome of the mausoleum, that rises over the tin roof-tops in central Samarkand. And the massive slab of green jade under which Tamerlane was laid to rest, is said to be the largest in the world.

What to buy Carpet weaving is an age-old art, so is embroidery, felt making and blue pottery. The jewellery is interesting, but vintage Suzani embroidery is what you must look out for. The women do most of it, on large pieces of handmade fabric called matha. Embroidered skull caps are especially appealing. Food Choose from over one thousand Uzbek dishes – there are about 500 varieties of plov, or pulao alone – as well as an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables. Bukhara Interestingly enough, the name Bukhara originates from the word vihara, which means “monastery” in Sanskrit. It is one of the oldest cities of Uzbekistan and is located on a sacred hill, where fire worshippers made






TA N Samarkand


sacrifices. The city was once a large commercial centre on the Silk Road, besides being a centre of learning in the Islamic world.

Bukhara’s silk and woollen carpets are outstanding; they even have silk ikkat weaving, wood carving, miniature paintings and decorative lacquered boxes.

Places to see Take your pick from over 350 mosques. The most popular sights from the visitors’ point of view are Poi-Kalon, Kos Madras, Ismail Samani mausoleum and the Kalian minaret. Amble along the city’s narrow streets and the green parks, see the many monuments from different epochs, that are located close to each other.


What to buy





Located in the heart of Central Asia, between the Caspian Sea in the west and the great Amu Darya river in the east, from the Aral Sea’s littoral steppes in the north to the Kopet Dag mountain range in the south, Turkmenistan is now an independent state, and is also one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Remains of civilizations that existed about 5,000 years ago can be seen almost everywhere—in the desert, at the foothills of mountains, along dry river beds and inside caves. Places to see Ashgabat—The capital city of Turkmenistan is a prosperous city, a n d prominent

TA N Ashgabat


places to visit include the Tower of Neutrality and the Arch of Neutrality. The latter stands tall, at75m, within, is a rotating golden statue of the President. Pass by Lenin Square, with Lenin’s statue. Be sure to visit Ertogrulgazi Mosque, the largest mosque in Turkmenistan, with its four minarets and a dome. The National Museum of History and Ethnography has a rich collection of ancient artifacts from Turkmenistan, with more than 500,000 exhibits, that are displayed in nine halls. The highlight of the museum is its ivory collection. Visit "Talkuchka" or the Sunday bazaar, where you’ll get anything and everything you want. The selection is far wider and the prices far lower than anywhere else in Central Asia. Most carpets sold to tourists in Bukhara and Samarkand come from here. Drive to Mary, or the ancient city of Merv, the “Queen of Cities” as it was known, and an important town on the Silk Road. What to buy Turkmenistan has a tradition of carpet and kilim weaving as well, apart from embroidery and silver jewellery craft. The jewellery is made in silver and set with turquoise, cornelian and agate. Food Meals often begin with a soup, called chorba, a meat and vegetable soup. Plov is the national dish. Turkmenistan cuisine is


Clockwise from top: Ismail Samani Mausoleum and Kalian Minaret, both in Poi-Kalon; The Arch of Neutrality


similar to other Central Asian countries and consists mainly of rice, vegetables and various meats. Gok chai, or green tea with dry fruits and herbs, is a perennial favourite.

Azerbaijan This ancient land, once a great stopover on the Silk Road, is located between Russia and Iran, with Baku as its capital. There is much to see in this captivating country, such as Bronze Age petroglyphs, medieval minarets and mosques. Places to see Atesgah Fire Temple—The site of the Atesgah Temple, also known as the Temple of the fire-worshippers, has been a centre of Zoroastrian worship for thousands of years. The temple is built on the site of a natural gas vent, sacred to the Zoroastrians, since the 6th century AD. Among the most amazing sights at the temple are the ancient Sanskrit and


Hindi inscriptions and the onion dome, topped with the trident of Hindu god Shiva. Qobustan Museum — This is an open-air museum, littered with neolithic rock drawings. It has some 4000 inscriptions that go back 12,000 years. What to buy Azerbaijani carpets are famous, and you have a wide choice, from new to old, semi-antique Caucasian rugs and carpets, including pile rugs, kilims, sumacs, shadda, verni, etc, as well as hand-made embroideries and other ethnic textiles. Food The food carries a strong Turkish influence, with doner kebabs being popular, and barbecued meat a favourite. Try Dovga, a warm soup made from yogurt, cucumber, spring onion and ground meat. Or Manti, large, Turkish-style ravioli, stuffed with minced lamb and served with yogurt.

Georgia Georgia is a small country in the Caucacus, surrounded in the north by Russia, in the east by Azerbaijan, in the south by Armenia and Turkey, and in the west by the Black Sea. It is at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and the Silk Road once passed through the country. Today, it has an important geo-political location, connecting East to West. Tbilisi, the capital, is multi-ethnic. Remnants of Chinese silk, dating back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries was found at burial sites in Georgia. Today,

Above: Atesgah Fire Temple; Top: Uplistsikhe, completely hewn from sandstone rock

international travellers know Georgia for its beautiful landscapes and spas and its fine wine and cuisine. Places to see The museum town of Mtskheta, located an easy drive away from Tbilisi, is one of the world's oldest cities, founded in the second half of the 1st millennium BC. Straddling the Silk Road, its walls, citadel and churches are on the list of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites. Uplistsikhe is an entire town, hewn from sandstone rock, and is an hour's drive from the capital. And in the temple town of Vani, in central Georgia, magnificent gold jewellery has been uncovered. Food Tourists to Georgia laud its cuisine, which is very specific to the country, but also contains mid-Eastern and European culinary traditions. The food offers a variety of meat and vegetable dishes and this can be best seen at the supra, where vast assortments of food are served up, with copious amounts of wine. The toastmaster, or tamada, holds an important role, toasting the entire proceedings, which could take hours.



Silk Route  
Silk Route  

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