The Heart of Nowhere - Silk Road to Bejiing
By Brendan Phelan
Exodus Assistant Sales Manager
The soldier shouted behind me, shook his head angrily and waved me away with his gun. I put my camera back in my rucksack and sat down on the roadside again. No photos then. It was getting colder and the sun was starting to sink behind the mud coloured sky line. A line of trucks were parked 100 metres down the road in the shadow of juniper trees, stretching back towards the Irkestan pass and the Kyrgyz border. Like us, they were patiently waiting for the border guards to return from their tea break and start stamping passports again.
In the distance, the white peaks of the Pamir Alay were starting to glow in the twilight. Over 7000 metres high and 200 miles long, this wall of mountains loom darkly over the valley of the Kyzyl Suu River, from where we had come. They form a natural border with Tajikistan, and within their isolated high altitude valleys live ancient, Persian speaking people and the rare giant Marco Polo sheep.
Suddenly a spluttering engine signalled the return of the guards, and, with stamping feet and curt nods - we picked up our bags and officially, finally, entered China.
The Silk Road, a term only coined in 1877, was actually a huge network of different routes linking ancient Xi’an in the east with Constantinople and Damascus in the west, via Heart, Samarkand and Khiva . In the course of fifteen centuries, it was the lifeblood of the continent and provided for an exchange of ideas and people never seen before, or since. The routes spread throughout Central Asia, an area that still forms a blank in many people’s minds, like a cloud covering an area half the size of Europe.
We were halfway through our trip, the Silk Road to Beijing, exploring the heartland of these routes which would take us from the historic cities of Uzbekistan to the walls of Xi’an in distant China.
Starting in noisy Tashkent, we met Russians and Ukranians trading with locals in the markets of the capital, rebuilt since the massive earthquake forty years ago.
Away from Tashkent, the mosques of the ancient cities of Bukhara and Samarkand teemed with native Uzbeks, the men in their colourful skull caps, the women flashing gold teeth as they haggled for eggs in the market. Samarkand’s legendary Registan Square, filled with magpies, now stands fully rebuilt after years of rot and decay following the decline of Timurlane’s empire, the last one ever won on horseback.
Kyrgyzstan followed. Immediately different, it was greener, emptier. The Kyrgyz people, originally Siberian nomads closely related to Kazakhs, are genuinely welcoming, as well as being fiercely independent. With it’s nomadic tradition, Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have the grand monuments and cities of its neighbour, but what it lacks in man-made artifices, it more than makes up for in natural beauty.
From it’s cosy capital Bishkek, the dark line of mountains on the horizon gave an indication of what was to come. An old Russian prop plane took us down to the southern capital of Osh, surrounded by meadows and situated at the head of the fertile Ferghana Valley. From here we were heading south on the unpaved Pamir Highway, aiming for Kashgar in China on the other side of the remote Irkestan Pass, high in the empty mountains.
A rough road crept slowly up through valleys blanketed with spruce and tulips. The only vehicles we met were giant Chinese trucks coming in the opposite direction, filled with TVs and mattresses and raising great clouds of dust that filled our van. At a roadside café located at the top of a windblown pass, local farmers in their traditional high felt hats stared at us unashamedly over their bowls of plov and lamb stew, as fascinated by us as we were by them. We finally emerged onto a high altitude plain dotted with irises and domestic yak, and just as the sun was setting, reached the Chinese border and settled down to wait, tired but satisfied.
Xinjiang province is the wild west of China. A huge tract of desert and mountains, it accounts for one sixth of China’s area but only 2% of it’s population. As a central hub of the old trading routes, the city of Kashgar has been a hive of economic activity and trade for thousands of years. In an area that has seen such an exchange of people in the past two millenia, it’s unsurprising to find a confusion of races unmatched anywhere else on earth.
The great square in front of the Ida Kah Mosque sets the nerves tingling, teeming with people and noise, as Han Chinese, Hui, Uzbeks Tajiks and Kyrgyz all mingle in the smoke from the spicy mutton kebab stalls. At night a giant TV screen broadcasts Chinese soap operas for free. Hundreds sit silently under the screen watching, captivated.
The notorious Sunday market still thrives in Kashgar. From dawn the streets start to fill with cars, trucks, bicycles and donkey carts, as people for miles around descend on the dusty market grounds just outside town. Primarily a livestock market dealing in horses, goats, camels, cattle and sheep, the perimeter lined with walnut groves also bristles with fruit and veg sellers, peddlars selling home made knives, watchmakers, tanners and scores of stalls beating saucepans into shape on the ground. The local Uyghur people predominate, standing guard over market stalls being window shopped for bargains by Kazakhs, huge Afghans and Tibetans, all distinct in their dress.
We were only halfway through our journey, but had already seen and experienced more in that short time than we thought possible. Ahead of us lay the dreaded Taklamakan Desert, the oasis towns of Kuche and Turfan, the Buddhist caves at Dunhuang, and beyond that the great imperial cities of the east, Xi’an and Beijing.
In this land the distances are vast, the conditions uncompromising and the food sometimes suspect. But for a real adventure steeped in ancient and living history, there’s no comparison.
The halcyon days of the old Silk Road may have passed over five centuries ago, but the faces and monuments from then remain.
In a shrinking world, there are fewer places we can truly call unique and untouched. This is such a place.
See it before that changes.
Brendan went on Exodus’ Silk Road to Bejing trip (Trip code: ACR).