by Chris Moss, The Telegraph, September 11, 2018
History is full of long and legendary highways but none – frankly – come close to the Silk Road. It’s not just the magnitude (at least 4,000 miles, in more than 40 countries) but the mythic potency of the project. The world was cleft into east and west in the Middle Ages. But long before, the Silk Road – which has existed in one form or another since the fourth century BC – breached any such divide. While trade was its raison d’être – Chinese silk, of course, but also salt, sugar, spices, ivory, jade, fur and other luxury goods – the road forged deep social, cultural and religious links between disparate peoples.
In her new series for ITV, Joanna Lumley travels from China to Venice, passing through Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Turkey en route – modern nations that are geopolitical patches cut into the immense Eurasian carpet. It’s a journey from a one-party superstate that will likely be the next global superpower to a former city-state once nicknamed “La Dominante” for its mercantile prowess and – by William Wordsworth – “the eldest child of Liberty”. It’s also a journey through Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity – following the footsteps, horses’ hooves and camel trains of traders, herders, conquerors, explorers and travel writers.
The Silk Road was not a road, but a network. The central caravan tract followed the Great Wall, climbed the Pamir Mountains into Afghanistan, and crossed to the Levant. Along the way were spurs branching off to river ports, caravanserai, oases, markets and pilgrimage centres. Journeys demanded meticulous preparation: the Silk Road and its tributaries cut through some of the harshest, highest, wildest places on Earth.
Many traders used sections, much as Americans slip on and off freeways to get from A to B. But the mightiest and most power-hungry set off on epic crossings worthy of the Silk Road. Genghis Khan led his Mongol hordes down a central branch, looping round the Caspian Sea, at the start of the 13th century. Marco Polo used a southerly route to travel to Persia, Tibet and China at the end of the same century. Approaching the once powerful naval state of Cormos (Ormuz) he describes “a very difficult road, full of robbers.” Then, two days’ ride later, ships bringing “all kinds of spiceries, precious stones and pearls, cloths of silk and gold, elephants’ teeth.”
During the next century, the Black Death made its own fatal transit, ultimately wiping out as many as 200 million Eurasians. Before I got round to visiting the famous central Asian cities – Samarkand, Bokhara, Tashkent, Kashgar, where much of the related tourism is concentrated – I’d stepped, unknowingly, on the Silk Road’s hard shoulders numerous times: at the Great Wall near Beijing, in the Altai region of western Mongolia, at Palmyra in Syria, in Jerusalem and in Istanbul.
What, though, remains of the original Silk Road? Archaeologists concur that the route dwindled in the mid-15th century, when the Ottoman Empire boycotted trade with China. Since then, just about all the nations that straddle the network have warred, with each other or within themselves, and silk, paper and gunpowder have given way to opium, mobile phones and machine guns.
Capitalism has arguably been more transformative than Communism. In his 2006 travelogue, Shadow of the Silk Road, Colin Thubron laments Xi’an’s “turmoil of construction. Every other site is marked by a giant computer image of what will be there.” Lurking behind his irritation at the ubiquity of American training shoes, laptops and Big Macs is the long shadow of proxy wars played out across the lands of the Silk Road.
Nonetheless, away from the Soviet brutalism and the shiny new cities, you can still feel something of the timeless, adventurous pull of the Silk Road. Between May and November, buses ply the 810-mile Karakoram Highway that connects Pakistan with Xinjiang in China, a high-altitude road and engineering marvel which takes in beautiful Kashmir, the lush grasslands of the Fairy Meadows beneath Nanga Parbat and Kashgar’s Sunday market (still selling Uyghur silks). If that sounds too easy, you can join the intrepid cyclists for whom it is a “classic route”.
Or saddle up a horse. Like Genghis before them, capable riders get to canter across Mongolia’s Orkhon Valley or the Tian Shan – the “Mountains of Heaven” that range over four countries. Expeditions combine tough days with cosy nights in a yurt, beneath starry skies.
Silk suggests opulence, romance, exclusivity. The luxurious Golden Eagle train from Moscow to Beijing links up Almaty, Tashkent, Merv, Ashgabat, Khiva and the Great Wall, making leisurely stops to see the heavily Instagrammed highlights of the Silk Road – Khiva’s madrassahs and minarets, Samarkand’s Bibi-Khanym mosque and Bokhara’s bazaars.
Between the fabled, photogenic trading posts are some of the planet’s starkest landscapes. To my mind, steppe is as compelling as desert, and yet is quite unloved, even ignored. The wind-blasted treeless grasslands, where the seasons can be alarmingly different – sweltering in summer, gelid in winter – and the switch from daytime to night similarly extreme, sprawl across Central Asia as well as China, Turkey and Russia. As a biome, steppe supports grasses, thistles, shrubs, herbs, pulses. Hardy residents include the corsac fox, huge-nosed saiga antelope, Bactrian camel, saker falcon, gerbil and lynx; alongside these are domesticated yak, goats, sheep and horses.
The West remains ignorant of the cultures of the Silk Road. When was Mongolia last on the 10 o’clock news? When we hear about Central Asia, it’s obliquely: a rocket launch at Baikonur; a quirky album from Tuvan throat singers Yat-Kha; Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Consider the case of Kazakhstan – the world’s largest landlocked nation, and its ninth largest country overall. Yet few people get beyond Borat jokes. The 160 million or so Turkic people are a great mystery; eagle-hunting aside, their combined civilisations are completely off-radar.
Little wonder that this unknown swirls with legends: the exploits of Tamerlane, aka Timur, the last of Central Asia’s nomadic overlords; the summer palace of Kublai Khan at Xanadu; the “heavenly horses” that prompted a war between Emperor Wu of Han and the Dayuan. “Outer Mongolia” remains, like Timbuktu, an unimaginably exotic place.
Modern trade is conspiring to change all this. In the past 12 months, Chinese president Xi Jinping has waxed not so much lyrically as logistically about the Silk Belt and Road Initiative. His “The world economy needs new growth drivers,” can’t quite match “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure dome decree.” Joanna Lumley’s series is suddenly very timely.
History comes alive through materials and media: silk roads, iron curtains, internet highways. In 2011 Hewlett Packard began to ship laptops from Chongqing to Duisburg in the Ruhr. A journey from silk to silicon. Sooner or later, the entire Silk Road will be Google-mapped, linked by fibre-optic, built on and branded. For now, the world’s longest highway remains a symbol of an ancient, compelling idea about commerce as connection and the surest route into a pre-modern, multi-faith, dizzyingly varied world.
Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure starts on Wednesday at 9pm on ITV
The 10 greatest highlights of the Silk RoadShiraz, Iran
One of the most important centres in the medieval Islamic world and former Iranian capital, Shiraz is a city of wine, song and nightingales. Highlights include the Nasir al-Mulk (Pink Mosque), Pars Museum, tombs of Hafez and Saadi (two major poets), and beautiful gardens such as the Bagh-e Naranjestan, named after its orange trees. A nearby excursion is to imperial Persepolis, built in the sixth century BC.
Orkhon Valley, Mongolia
This Unesco-listed “cultural landscape”, still grazed by nomadic herders, was once a key transit route and political centre, containing Karakorum, the 13th-century capital of the Mongol Empire. The Orkhon River cuts through the arid vastness; Ordu-Baliq, on the steppe west of the river, was a fort and Silk Road trading post.
Built around the five-headed peak of Mount Suleiman (aka Solomon’s throne) – Kyrgyzstan’s only fully-owned Unesco World Heritage Site – Osh is the country’s oldest city. Short on architectural wonders of the ancient kind, it has a huge mosque and a real Central Asian vibe and is a useful starting point for trips into China, Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley and Tajikistan.
Bragging rights | Where Britons are least (and most) likely to visitMerv, Turkmenistan
One of the important oasis cities of the Silk Road, Merv blossomed following the establishment of Cyrus the Great’s Achaemenid Empire. Declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999, it has been dubbed the “wandering city” as there are actually five adjacent cities spread over the arid plains north of Bayramaly. They were built side by side as the water course changed its route.
The world's 15 most underrated destinationsAlmaty, Kazakhstan
One of Central Asia’s most ancient cities, the former Kazakh capital was a trading hub for agricultural produce and crafts in the 10th to 14th centuries, when it housed its own mint. Now, Soviet-era architecture rings a centre of leafy avenues and some fascinating sights, including the 19th-century wooden Zenkov cathedral and lively Green Bazaar. Just 200 miles from the Chinese border, Almaty is connected to Urumqi by bus and train.
At a key crossroads, this ancient city has been a melting pot of Silk Road cultures, with Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Manicheans and Nestorian Christians all passing through and staying awhile. Well-preserved, the original street grid is intact, though the bustle has long since gone. Frescoes were discovered in the multi-storey buildings and a citadel atop a hill affords great views.
It’s thought Emperor Wu dispatched his envoy Zhang Qian to obtain some of the legendary Ferghana from Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) in the second century BC. He returned minus the horses, but with tales of untold riches – thus commencing trade between east and west. Xi’an is home to the Great Mosque, excellent Shaanxi Museum and, of course, the Terracotta Warriors, and is an ideal base for trips to Kashgar and beyond.
Khiva, Bokhara and Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan gets three of the 10 stops on this list. Khiva, Bokhara and Samarkand were all important trading posts on the Silk Road, and have been painstakingly restored. Among the many glittering minarets, elegant domes and mesmerising mosaics, Khiva’s Tash Hauli Palace, Bokhara’s Kalon Mosque, Samarkand’s Registan public square and Bibi-Khanym mosque – the latter the poster-child of the Silk Road – all stand out.
The best tour operators
Many tour firms visit highlights in Central Asia and China, including Cox & Kings, Explore Kudu Travel, Martin Randall, Regent Holidays STA and Steppes. Wild Frontiers collaborates with Telegraph Tours on a comprehensive 33-day “Silk Road Adventure” .
Hinterland and Secret Compass offer more edgy destinations. The former has tours to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Indian Kashmir. The latter organises expeditions to Afghanistan’s Pamir Mountains, Iran’s Lut Desert, Iraqi Kurdistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Koryo Tours has added offbeat routes through Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Russia to its portfolio of DPRK itineraries.
Note: The FCO advises against travel along the Gilgit-Islamabad section of the Karakoram Highway. See the gov.uk website for advice before visiting the Silk Road or surrounding countries.
These are the major headache of a Silk Road trip. Azerbaijan, China, Mongolia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan all require visas. Turkmenistan requires both a visa and “a letter of invitation, certified by the State Migration Service of Turkmenistan, from a private individual or company to support your application” – but tour firms can provide this. UK passport holders can go to Kazakhstan without a visa for up to 30 days. No visa is required for Kyrgyzstan for visits of up to 60 days.
What to wear
Pack a hat, light clothes and sunblock – the heat and the UV can be fierce in the mountains, steppes and deserts, even in cooler seasons. Double-check your insurance to make sure cover includes all the countries you plan to visit.
Shadow of the Silk Road (2006), by Colin Thubron, describes an arduous eight-month trip and is considered among the author’s finest travelogues.
Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game (1992) is an account of the battle for supremacy in Central Asia between the Russian and British empires during the 19th century.
William Dalrymple’s In Xanadu (1989), written during a break from university, describes the young author retracing Marco Polo’s journey from Jerusalem to meet the fabled Kublai Khan.
Trailblazer’s The Silk Roads (2010), by Paul Wilson, based on an earlier Thomas Cook Award-winning rail guide, is packed with history and practical information.
Lonely Planet’s Central Asia (2014) is a well-researched introduction to the Stans.