I have had the most amazing opportunity to travel along the Silk Path/Road as I travel through China. It was a suggestion made by my Mum when we recently spoke on Facetime. She had seen a celebrity travel documentary on TV at home and she suggested I look it up. I am really pleased I did!
New mode of travel
For my journey I joined the first tour to travel the entire length of the original east-west route from Xi’an to Istanbul. In 47 days we would cover what would have taken a camel caravan — capable of travelling 20 miles a day — at least 400 days. We replaced four-legged dromedaries with trains, planes, buses and boats.
From the plane window, glacial streams sparkle like diamond necklaces nestled amid the bosom of the Tian Shan Mountains. Fissured rocks barnacled on to the earth give way to the sands of the feared Taklamakan Desert as we descend into Kashgar, the last oasis travellers would encounter travelling east and China’s westernmost city. Its streets are a whizz of scooters, and women sporting long rhinestone-bedazzled dresses and headscarves. Seventy per cent of the population are Uighur — a Turkic ethnic group that practises Islam. “Lots of people living here don’t even speak Chinese,” says our guide, Ablajan, a university professor. So it’s “salam alaikum” instead of “ni hao” and, as a further rebellion, time runs two hours behind China Standard Time.
Traditions and cultures
We have travelled to see an even older tradition — the famous Sunday Animal Market. Funnelling towards the entrance are trucks sagging under the weight of cows, and men on scooters with sheep slung across their laps. A choir of honking horns fills the air as I jump from the bus on to spongy layers of dried manure. Young men with powdery moustaches wrestle huffing yaks off carts and lasso their sheep together so they’re lined up as neatly as interlaced fingers. The people come to barter and buy livestock; it has been this way for more than two millennia.
Across the border, the steppes of Central Asia beckon. Exiting via the Irkeshtam Pass, we bundle out of the bus and roll our suitcases down the hill. Up here, at nearly 3,000m (more than 9,800ft), the wind is fresh and clean.
The wild fenceless hills of Kyrgyzstan are a refreshing change from the modernity of China and I relish the boundless horizon until we reach the hamlet of Sary-Tash at dusk. Columns of wood smoke snake into the indigo sky and horned cows mooch back to their owners’ compounds. Our homestay host, Mirbek, greets us with a gold-toothed grin and ushers us inside for a supper of dumplings and naan bread. Later I settle on to a mattress laid out beside the living-room stove and sleep. I rise before the others and stand surveying the distant mountains while brushing my teeth at the outside sink.
We drive towards the city of Osh, reputed to be 3,000 years old. Sulayman Mountain, which conceals King Solomon’s Throne, looms above it. At the top we meet three women who have travelled from Kazakhstan to seek a blessing for the youngest, who is unable to conceive. I watch her nervous hands slowly calm as the imam imparts his soothing words.
Nowhere on the Silk Road rings with as much romanticism as 2,500-year-old Samarkand, the cultural crossroads through which all traders and travellers passed. Alexander the Great visited in 329BC and declared: “It is even more beautiful that I had imagined.” It was the capital of Timur the Great’s empire, which stretched from the Indus River to the Bosphorus in Turkey. And from these conquered lands he forcibly brought back artisans from Basra, Baghdad, Delhi and Azerbaijan, and put them to work decorating Samarkand’s almighty architecture.
It has been a great chance to get to learn more about the history of people from such a different culture. This part of my adventure has been most epic and as you can tell I have still got so much more to tell about it. I think I will be telling this part of my story forever.