Travel Stories from the Silk Road in Central Asia
I always dreamed of exploring the Silk Road in Central Asia, visiting places that ancient caravans traversed, and sites where the world’s oldest cultures and religions intermingled with each other, such as the Chinese, Indian, Persian, Greek, Roman, etc. I spent nearly two months in the region, but quickly realized it wasn’t going to be enough! Still I saw a lot as I travelled through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.
The Central Asian “stan’s” were even more beautiful than I imagined. Let me take you through this journey:
If you are considering a trip to Central Asia, there are few major factors to consider – time of the year (summers are unbearably hot in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, winters can be frigid in northern Kazakhstan), visas (single/double entry, sequence of travel, etc.), and time available to do what you wanna do.
The largest airport in the region is Almaty, Kazakhstan, (feels like a small-size airport in the US) which has numerous international links, and it might be cheaper to fly here first. However, it’s well worth researching alternatives – for example, Tashkent and Samarkand can be viable if you are flying from Moscow, Bishkek is a three-hour flight away from Delhi, Turkish airlines flies to most capital cities, and Lufthansa does to a couple of them.
I took a flight from Delhi, India to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and I can certainly tell you it was the most beautiful view ever as the plane cruised over the Himalayas, the Hindukush, the Pamirs, and the Tian Shan mountains, over Alay and Fergana valleys, over many of the places I would travel to in the next few weeks by road. If possible, I would definitely recommend this route.
Kyrgyzstan has the most liberal visa regime in the region – citizens of many developed countries can get a visa on arrival at any border crossings and it’s hassle free. Bishkek, the capital city is laid back and has a very strong Soviet feel to it. Since independence in the early 90’s, Kyrgyzstan, much like its neighbors, has slowly draped the capital in Kyrgyz colours, and symbols and icons, leading to a mixed feel.
Near Bishkek is a minaret called the Burana twoer. This minaret was built by the Kara-Khanid Khanate, a 9th century empire on the Silk Road that fell to Islamic conquests around the 10th century. The original tower was 45m tall and succumbed to several earthquakes, leaving us with this diminutive Soviet-restored version from the 70s.
The Tian Shan mountains
After celebrating my birthday on the northern coast of the Issyk Kul lake, we then headed to Karakol at the base of the eastern Tian Shan mountains. We spent the last three days hiking the Ala-Kol pass trek in the Tian Shan mountain ranges that border Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and China. The Silk Road networks passed through these regions between 2BCE and remained until 16CE. This was by far the toughest trek I did, starting from 1.7km all the way to the summit at 4km.
We rented camping gear and set out on the scenic trail which looked pleasant at the start (and also at the end), but the intermediate parts were very demanding. Besides straight up elevation gain that makes you stop every ten steps, the trail was on rocky terrain with predominant scree sections – those always terrify me because one slip means… let’s not think about it. However, that’s also the rush we crave for, isn’t it?
The Ala-Kol lake itself was meh (we are spoilt by the Himalayas, I reckon) but the views from the summit were stellar. Unfortunately we didn’t get to spend much time up top because it was getting late and there was much ground to cover (or slide) before we could find a suitable campsite before dusk. It ended up being quite a scenic spot.
Overall, a highly recommended trek – but know in advance that it is nowhere an easy hike (unless you hire porters!).
Travelling from Bishkek to Osh brought us close to some spectacular scenery. This road not only cuts through colourful mountains and pastures, but also through the cultural divide between the Kyrgyz in the hilly north and the Uzbeks in the fertile Fergana plains. The only reason this road exists now is thanks to some ridiculous borders drawn by the imperial masters in Moscow, to divide and rule. Kyrgyzstan is keen on linking these key cities. Nevertheless, the views are amazing.
Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second biggest city, is predominantly located in a Uzbek-majority Fergana valley. This ancient city is said to be over 3,000 years old and was a famous silk production center on the silk road from where roads crossed to Kashgar (now in China). This was our jumping point to the remote regions to the south, on the Pamir highway leading into Tajikistan.
The Pamir Highway from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan
“The plain is called Pamier, and you ride across it for twelve days together, finding nothing but a desert without habitations or any green thing, so that travellers are obliged to carry with them whatever they have need of. The region is so lofty and cold that you can not even see any birds flying. And I must notice also that because of this great cold, fire does not burn so bright, nor give out so much heat as usual.” – Marco Polo, Description of the World
To the Wakhan corridor and old ruins along the Afghan border.
Travelling through the “superbly remote” Wakhan valley, shared with Afghanistan, revealed stunning views of the Hindu Kush mountains (“place where Hindus get killed” – referring to the early of Islamic invasions in India), with its side valleys bearing numerous silk road era relics and forts to guard invasions from China and Afghanistan.
Highlight of this trip was meeting the immensely friendly Pamiri people, stopping at various settlements and ruins along the Afghan border.
Our stay in Tajikistan ended in Dushanbe, the capital city. The autocratic president of the country is lavishly decorating his capital city while the rest of the country, particularly the GBAO region to the east, suffers. We relaxed for a few days in Dushanbe, and then headed on to the Denau border for crossing into Uzbekistan.
Afghanistan – Wakhan corridor
Travelling along Tajik-Afghan border was a beautiful journey that I would definitely recommend to anyone visiting the region. It was kinda surreal and depressing how people in villages across the river had gotten divided by these arbitrary borders drawn between the British and the Russian imperial powers in late 19th century. Their development paths couldn’t be any starker.
We hitchhiked with Belarussian truck drivers and then with a couple of dudes to Denov on the Tajikistan border to Termez on the Afghanistan border. Termez was mostly unremarkable, except the remarkable number of burger joints on the main drag. We spent a couple of days here mostly getting used to a new country and their crazy black market currency, and then moved right to the western end of Uzbekistan, to Khiva.
This old city of slave caravans, barbaric cruelty, terrible desert journeys, and fear striking wild tribesmen has now been transformed into a chic UNESCO museum-city. Ichon-Qala (old city) is really pretty, with lots of photo opportunities both during the day and the night. Khiva is low-key and very relaxing.
Muynac is a little settllement on the Aral Sea far away from civilization and used to be a booming place of commerce. Alas Soviet planners diverted water from rivers feeding into the Aral Sea which led to one of the biggest environmental disasters in the world. Now this is just a graveyard of dead ships..
Bukhara is a city-museum with about 140 architectural monuments now. This place has existed for several millennia and has long served as a center of trade, scholarship, culture, and religion on the Silk Road.
Most definitely the climax of our Silk Route trip, Samarkand is full of larger-than-life technicolour monuments and high profile historical attractions. Nothing else evokes strong romantic images of trade caravans, palaces and articulate decorations as the buildings in this city. The structures are predominantly Islamic, but the influence of Buddhist, Hindu, Zoroastrian, and Jewish elements is clearly visible.
Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, is a cosmopolitan city and filled with international restaurants, shopping malls, cafes, etc. After eating kebabs and similar foods for weeks, we were very relieved to find – Korean food! Tashkent is low on historical sites, but what makes up for it is its laid-back urban vibe. Also a good place to pick up visas!
We spent out last week in Kazakhstan – in Shymkent and Alma-Ata. Arriving from Tashkent, the border crossing was very crowded and intense – you have to get used to a new country, new people and norms, different language, currency, and timezone. We forgot the last one and actually missed our train to Turkestan, which was high on my list, in what was clearly a rookie mistake. So we improvised and spent the day in a little town called Sayram.
Almaty is the largest city in Central Asia, and a former capital. The city is surrounded by mountains, so while the views are beautiful, air pollution also gets trapped. There are lots of things to do in Almaty – museums, parks, entertainment and such. Also a great place for your end-of-trip shopping!