Silk Road: Tracing the path of ancient footsteps

By Jim Eagles

Jim Eagles travels a well worn path through a historic landscape and finds plenty of remnants from its fascinating past still in place.

Caravanserai on the road between Khiva and Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Photo / Jim Eagles
Caravanserai on the road between Khiva and Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Photo / Jim Eagles

The old caravanserai stands beside a section of the Silk Road as it has done for over a thousand years.

On the other side of the road is an equally ancient cistern built to to provide water for camel caravans plying the hot, dry, dusty path between the timeless cities of Samarkand and Bukhara.

But although those two structures may have survived the centuries, things are much changed here since the days when the Silk Road was a vast network of trade routes linking the great empires of Europe, Asia and North Africa.

The road that passes between them is no longer a rough track worn into the sandy soil by the hooves of a million camels but a four-lane sealed highway covered in potholes worn by trucks and cars.

Still, while I was waiting to cross the highway there was a small taste of the old days when a young man rode by on a donkey, and back down the road I had seen a small herd of camels, so maybe they visit from time to time.

The cistern still holds water, thanks to recent restoration work, but it's a couple of metres lower than would once have been the case. "A lot of water is taken out to feed the factories in [the nearby town of] Navoi," explained Ramil, my local guide, "so the water level is dropping."

The facade of the caravanserai was also restored a few years ago, so it still looks the part, but behind there are only the old brick foundations.

Still, the foundations do give a picture of where there used to be stables for camels, sleeping rooms for traders and even a mosque for wayfarers to pray in.

Other things have changed here, too, with the passing of the ages.

Navoi is now an industrial town, with a huge open-cast gold mine, a uranium mine and a big chemical factory, so the air is badly polluted. There are also a lot of flies, which Ramil attributes to a local chicken factory.

It's about 600 years since the Silk Road died, traders stopped coming and the caravanserai closed its doors.

But I fancy that late at night, when the traffic on the highway falls quiet, there might just be a long line of misty figures, men in flowing robes and tall hats, and two-humped camels piled high with bales of silk or sacks of precious stones, to be seen passing by.

For me the caravanserai was a sort of shrine, one of many I paid tribute at during a month-long pilgrimage down part of the Silk Road.

A pilgrimage? Well why not? After all, by linking most of the great civilisations for the first time, the Silk Road effectively laid the foundations of the modern world.

It gave China access to the likes of Russian furs, Indian ancient footsteps sandalwood, Arabian spices, Egyptian glass bottles, Roman gold, Byzantine musk, dates from Persia, and Somalian frankincense. In turn the rest of the world was able to enjoy the benefits of Chinese silk, tea, iron and porcelain.

Of course it wasn't all good. The Silk Road made it possible for bubonic plague to create the first global pandemic and provided a map for the conquering armies of Alexander the Great and the Arab Abbasid caliphate, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane.

But it also saw Chinese inventions like gunpowder, moveable type and the magnetic compass transform Europe, and facilitated the spread of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam into China.

The fledgling trade links, which grew into what is now called the Silk Road, probably had their origin in neolithic times and involved simple goods like sheep and goats, obsidian and figs.

But the lucrative silk trade which was to provide the network with its name - coined in 1877 by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen - really began about 200BC under China's outward looking Han dynasty.

During its heyday the Silk Road ran from China across Central Asia to the shores of the Mediterranean, with branches north to Russia and south to India, and tendrils extending on to Northern Europe and North Africa.

It thrived for well over a thousand years until around 1400 when the combined pressures of disease, war, the rise of shipping and the xenophobic policies of the Ming dynasty meant the caravans finally stopped.

But, though the Silk Road itself is long gone, the magic of its name lives on, and it continues to lure adventurous tourists to follow the path of the trade caravans across China, through the Gobi Desert, over the Tian Shan Mountains and across the grasslands of Central Asia to the Mediterranean.

The Silk Road followed many paths and ended in many places but there was really only one starting point: the West Gate of the ancient Chinese capital of Changan - home to 13 successive ruling dynasties - now the modern city of Xian.

But where, today, is that starting point for the great caravans? It was a question I needed to answer because, clearly, that gate was the place where a modern traveller seeking to discover the romance of the Silk Road should begin his pilgrimage.

Xian still has impressive city walls, 12m high, 13km long and wide enough at the top to cycle round, and there are several spectacular gates. Those, however, were only the inner fortifications of old Changan which in its day was the world's largest city with a population of more than two million.

Travel writer Colin Thubron, whose book Shadow of the Silk Road was a congenial companion on my journey, discovered the real West Gate was demolished long ago and its site is now occupied by a supermarket.

But Xian is now keen to promote the city's status as the start of the Silk Road and I'd heard a giant sculpture of a camel train had been erected close to where the gate once stood.

Where was it, I asked Bin, our World Expeditions guide in China, and were we going? "Oh, no," he replied. "It is out west. Too far."

But I was determined to get there so, on our last day in Xian when we had a bit of spare time, I got Bin to write "Silk Road sculpture" in Chinese and went out to hail a taxi.

The driver stared grumpily at my note, pointed at the back seat - so he was protected from my foreignness by a grille of heavy metal bars - and off we headed, past the old Drum Tower which once told citizens it was time to get up, through the West Gate of the inner city and along a motorway.

After about an hour he stopped, looking puzzled, asked for Bin's piece of paper again, then started waving his arms as though to signal this was a wild camel chase. But I had spotted the shape of a huge humped beast carved in red sandstone sitting just across the road on a giant traffic island. This was the spot.

Close up the memorial was rather impressive: a 50m-long string of half-a-dozen larger-than-life camels laden with trade goods, plus several riders and a leader walking ahead (apparently their features are based on the Central Asian Sogdians who dominated the trade route for centuries).

Around the statue was a pleasant park with well manicured gardens and shady seats. And in a way the heavy traffic roaring past on all sides seemed appropriate, a sort of nod from the present to the past, showing that its history of trade continues today.

It was quite a busy place, with several women doing tai chi, parents and grandparents entertaining assorted small children and soldiers performing fitness exercises involving a truck tyre and a big gas cylinder, and there was a friendly atmosphere.

When I went to the front, to get a picture of the caravan leader with his pointed hat and flowing robes, a proud father popped his son on the plinth and signalled I should photograph him. As I stepped back to get a shot, the son quickly produced the V sign which seems compulsory for Chinese photos, and with a grin his father followed suit. And as I left the park, father and son waved a cheery goodbye.

In practical terms my journey down the Silk Road didn't start until that evening with an overnight train to Lanzhou. But I felt my outing to the West Gate of old Changan meant it was already off to the right start.

Caravans of 10,000 camels may be a thing of the past but a surprising number of the landmarks the old traders would have known are still there to be enjoyed (and so inspiring that I returned from the trip with 38 stories).

At my first stopping point after leaving Xian, 700km down the Silk Road at Lanzhou, a modern industrial city has replaced the old oasis town, but the White Pagoda built on the orders of Kublai Khan still stands beside the Yellow River, and in the superb Gansu Provincial Museum I found a 2500-year-old piece of patterned silk which would surely have had customers in Rome reaching for their gold.

A further 800km train ride took me to Jiayuguan, where a mighty fortress still guards the end of the Great Wall and the boundary of ancient China.

After a dusty 400km bus trip through the empty sands of the Gobi Desert I was as relieved as any Sogdian traders of yesteryear to see the sparkling oasis of the Crescent Moon Spring on the outskirts of the modern city of Dunhuang.

And, like them, I marvelled at the nearby Mogao Buddhist grottos built by travellers to express their gratitude for passing safely through the desert.

A further 1000km away in Turpan, the lowest and hottest place in China, I was able to sit in the shade of grapevines and enjoy a glass of the local wine thanks to the 2000-year-old Karez underground irrigation system.

In Kashgar, 1800km further on, I wandered through markets where traders from across Central Asia still haggle over camels and donkeys, carpets and daggers, as their ancestors must have done centuries before.

The Torugart Pass, through the snow-capped Tian Shan Mountains, these days links China to Kyrgyzstan, but during the bumpy 1200km drive from Kashgar to the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek I saw nomads driving their flocks to the mountain pastures and pitching their white felt tents as they have done every spring for centuries.

And some 500km further down the Silk Road, in Uzbekistan's great cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, I gaped in amazement at the mighty fortresses, glittering turquoise-capped mosques and magnificent mausoleums built largely from the profits of trade and the plunder of conquest.

These days Samarkand seems remote from the world, but when you stand amid the splendour of its great square, the Registan, built using the finest craftsmen, architects and materials from across Eurasia, it's not hard to accept this was once the hub of global trade.

A group of Chinese tourists was clustered grumpily outside the entrance to one of the great stone buildings of the Topkapi Palace, once home to the Ottoman sultans, in the historic city of Istanbul.

I was a little surprised to see them because it was more than 11,000km since my Silk Road pilgrimage had begun in Xian and China seemed a long way away.

For a camel caravan to make such a journey, moving at their average speed of about 35km a day, would have taken nearly a year.

I had done it in four weeks, travelling by train, bus and plane across China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, then flying over Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, Russia, Georgia and the Black Sea to Istanbul.

As capital of the Byzantian Empire, in the days when it was called Constantinople, this was once an important terminus of the Silk Road. But what were a lot of Chinese doing here and why were they so grumpy?

Mehmet Kayici, my guide to the city, provided the answer.

The stone building, once the kitchens which produced 400 dishes a day for the sultans, was now a museum.

"It houses the second finest collection of Chinese porcelain in the world," he said.

"The Chinese have come to Istanbul to see their porcelain but the museum is closed for renovations. They are very disappointed."

I shared their disappointment because, having seen a lot of superb porcelain displayed in museums along the Chinese leg of my journey, I'd like to have seen the collection amassed by the sultans.

But, nevertheless, the fact that "the second finest collection of Chinese porcelain in the world" was here in Istanbul showed the tentacles of the Silk Road had indeed reached this far.

Back in the Gansu Provincial Museum I had seen a 2500-year-old silver plate showing Bacchus the Graeco-Roman god of wine.

Maybe it got there via Constantinople in exchange for a Tang dynasty vase.


Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies 12 times a week between Auckland and Singapore and then on to 62 destinations in 34 countries, including China, Turkey, Malaysia, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Korea.

Getting around: World Expeditions operates its Silk Road to Samarkand via Kashgar expedition in April, May, August and September. Ring 0800 350 354 for further details.

Jim Eagles travelled the Silk Road with help from Singapore Airlines and World Expeditions.

- NZ Herald

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