A Journey on the Old Silk Road

"We travel not for trafficking alone:

  By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:

  For lust of knowing what should not be known

  We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.”

                - James Elroy Flecker The Golden Journey to Samarkand (1913).

Central Asia brings to mind many images: vast uncharted deserts, camel caravans battling sand storms on the Silk Road, Timur and his dynasty of the 13th and 14th centuries and the “The Great Game” waged between Russia and England in the 1900s. The region is not on everyone’s bucket list but a trip to the five ’Stans is fascinating for its history and its unique geographic location between Russia, China and the Middle East.

The five ’Stans (see map) came under Russian influence in the mid-19th Century and all became Soviet Socialist Republics in the 1920’s. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the five countries gained their independence in 1991. The borders are the same as in Soviet times.

Central Asia is most famous for three periods in history. The first is the Silk Road which flourished from the first centuries after Christ to about 1400 AD. The trade highway was not one road but a series of many stretching from China to Turkey and from India to Russia.

Caravans of up to 1,000 camels took rugs, cotton, textiles (yes, China was once an importer of textiles!), linen, gems and even the first chair to China and returned with jade, silk, ceramics, paper and printing technologies.

The Silk Road was done in by the development of sea trade in the 15th and 16th Centuries. China is trying to redevelop a New Silk Road today with rail and highway connections across Central Asia. On my trip I mused that the symbol of the old Silk Road was the Bactrian camel, the two humped tireless transporter of goods. The symbol of the New Silk Road is the Chinese shipping container seen all over Central Asia and used for shipping, then storage and finally (after holes are cut for windows), for housing.

A second landmark in Central Asian history is the rise of Timur (Tamerlane in the West) and the fabulous buildings and culture of his capital, Samarkand. The madrassas of the Registan (see photo below) along with the Imam Mosque and square in Isfahan, Iran are two of the true gems of the Muslim world. (and yes, Americans can get visas and travel - safely - to Iran).

And finally, Central Asia was also a battleground of a different sort in the 1800s. Russia for most of recent history considered Central Asia its territory. England, to the south in India, worried about Russia’s intentions and worked hard to establish its own power base. Spies and political intrigue were the norm throughout the 19th Century as both countries vied for political influence. Explorers and government representatives  such as Francis Young- husband, Alexander Burnes, the Russian Nikolai Petrovsky, and Stoddart & Conolly (who were beheaded at Bukhara) are the things of legend. 

Now, some observations on the ’Stans.

1.) Is it safe? Yes, each of the five ’Stans is officially Sunni Muslim but all five are very secular. In fact all five are paranoid about ISIS activity. Radicals are closely monitored or arrested. Saudi Arabia has funded the building of new mosques throughout the region but only 10-20% of the population actually attend prayers. Not a hotbed of radical Islam.

2.) The state of leadership. The ’Stans are tribal based societies and most were originally nomadic so there is no long history of representative government. At the time of independence most of the countries ‘elected’ the local Communist leader then in place. This has continued today. One of the biggest problems in the region is corruption and this is compounded by the fact that leaders are very difficult to displace.

3.) The state of the economies. Three of the countries (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) have either oil or gas, or both. This means significant revenues coming in. Otherwise the major exports are metals and minerals, flour (wheat is widely grown, especially in Kazakhstan) and the big one, cotton. Cotton is a thirsty crop grown, ironically, in a region that is starved for water. But the Russians wanted a natural resource for their textile industry, and cotton remains King in Central Asia. If there is another war in the region it may very well be fought over water. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are both mountainous with plenty of water (although the glaciers are retreating) while the others are mostly desert. The Aral Sea between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan was once the fourth largest inland lake in the world. Today it is 80% dry. Turkmenistan is building the largest man- made canal in the world to take half the water of the Oxus river (which used to feed the Aral Sea) to fuel its desert agriculture and over-the-top fountains in the capital, Ashgabat. The Aral Sea is considered one of the biggest manmade environmental disasters in history.

4.) Chevrolets in the Desert, who would have thunk it? Uzbekistan has one car manufacturer. It used to be Daewoo before the company ran into financial trouble. The plant was bought about 10 years ago by General Motors and today 80% of all the cars on the road are Chevrolets. I can think of nowhere in the world where one car maker has such market dominance. GM may have gone bankrupt in the Great Recession but it rules proudly in Uzbekistan!

5.) The law of unintended consequences. Over 20% of the population of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan work in Russia due to the lack of employment opportunities at home. Recent sanctions have pinched Russia’s economy and many Central Asians have been let go and are returning home…to limited prospects. I am sure this was not the intention of the sanctions. Another unintended consequence, the recent Charlie Hebdo bombing by Islamists in Paris has significantly hurt European tourism in Central Asia. And who would have guessed that the French are the largest single group visiting the region. French tourism is off 30% to 40% and shopkeepers are suffering. Bombs in Paris, lost business in Bukhara!

Travel exposes us to the richness and variety of human life... and all the complications too.  Sound bites are convenient but only travel allows us to appreciate, and be more tolerant of, all the complexities in this world. Central Asia is worth the trip.