Thursday, October 26, 2017


The Silk Road. The name has such a romantic sound, much more romantic than "The Oregon Trail" or "The Trans-Siberian Railway."  Who wouldn't want to travel on the Silk Road?

As early as 200 BC, caravans traversed a network of roads on the Asian, Southern European, and Northeastern African continents, spreading not just silk, but many other goods as well, along with the latest technologies, philosophy, art, religion, politics, culture, and even genetic traits. The road went as far east as Java and Japan and as far west as Italy.
The trade route was made possible by the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, and later Genghis Khan, Marco Polo, and Kubla Khan were key figures on the Silk Road. 

I must confess that I was astoundingly ignorant about the Silk Road. I knew it went through China, but not much more. I certainly didn't know it wasn't a single road and that it had branches all over Asia and fingers that reached into Africa and Europe. I couldn't have placed the Five Stans on a map to save my life, and I absolutely couldn't have spelled a couple of them.

However, that all changed with our most recent wild and crazy trip, which lasted 24 days and involved, if you count the air miles, enough travel to circumnavigate the globe. It was our longest trip ever in both time and distance. It included seven different airplanes,
From LAX to Hong Kong

two different trams:
Hong Kong

Almaty, Kazakhstan

two different trains,
HIgh speed train from Dunhuang to Turpan, China

Silk Road Express through the Stans

an untold number of buses,
Dunhuang, China

Turpan, China

some camels,
Dunhuang, China

a mini-van,

and a few taxis:
Hong Kong

We visited seven countries (eight if you consider our two-hour layover in Qatar as qualifying for "visiting" the country), slept in ten different beds, used nine different airports, purchased five visas before the trip, used nine different monetary systems (counting Hong Kong and the Qatar airport), and had to go through immigration/emigration sixteen times.

This was our itinerary:

Flight to Xi'an, China, via Hong Kong
Flight to Dunhuang, China
High speed train to Turpan, China
Bus to Urumqi, China
Flight to Almaty, Kazakhstan
Train to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Train to Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Train to Shahrisabz, Uzbekistan
Train to Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Train to Khujand, Tajikistan
Train to Khiva, Uzbekistan
Train to Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Train to Merv, Turkmenistan
Train to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Flight to Baku, Azerbaijan
Flight to Los Angeles via Doha, Qatar

At all of our stops, we also had tour buses that drove us to various destinations.

For all but our excursion in Hong Kong en route to Xi'an and the final three days in Azerbaijan, we were in the watchful care of Fun-for-Less Tours. While traveling in a group of 90 is not ideal, the difficult border crossings and the tremendous distances involved made this a very complex trip, one that we don't think we could have done on our own, and we were grateful for the tour company's expertise.

This was one of those trips that will take us months to process--not just because it was so long, but because we were introduced to so many new things--places, people, and food, of course, but also new ways of looking at our world and new perspectives on how we fit into it.

That's what travel is all about.

(P.S. Apparently Mohammed didn't really say that, but it's all over Pinterest and it's a good quote anyway.)

There are many books written about the Silk Road or major sites along the Silk Road. I include here two general overviews and a three-book fiction series set in the height of Silk Road trading.

Perhaps the best overview is Colin Thubron's Shadow of the Silk Road. Thubron is a highly acclaimed British travel writer and novelist who has been ranked 45th on The Times list of the 50 greatest post-war British writers. From 2008-2017 he served as President of the Royal Society of Literature, a very prestigious group.

Shadow of the Silk Road (2006) chronicles Thubron's 7,000 mile journey in 2003 and 2004 from Xi'an, China, to Antioch, Turkey. His lyrical prose covers many of the places we visited, and I'll be including quotes from this book in posts to come. For now, how about this beauty:

     A hundred reasons clamour for your going. You go to touch on human identities, to people an empty map. You have a notion that this is the world's heart. You go because you are still young and crave excitement; the crunch of your boots in the dust; you go because you are old and need to understand something before it's too late. You go to see what will happen.
     To follow the Silk Road is to follow a ghost. It flows through the heart of Asia, but it has officially vanished, leaving behind it the pattern of its restlessness: counterfeit borders, unmapped peoples. The road forks and wanders wherever you are. It is not a single way, but many: a web of choices. Mine stretches more than seven thousand miles, and is occasionally dangerous.

Another great option is China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power. The author, Rob Gifford, is a Brit with a master's degree from Harvard in East Asia Studies. He has worked for the BBC World Service, and for seven years he was the China correspondent for NPR. He is now the China editor for The Economist.

In 2006 he spent six weeks traveling Route 312, the Chinese equivalent of America's Route 66, beginning in Shanghai, eventually merging with the Silk Road, and ending at the Kazakhstan border. Gifford meets a lot of interesting characters along the way and is a compelling storyteller. Among his stories is an astute analysis of where China is today and what the future might bring. I found myself reading this book late into the evening on my back-lit Kindle when I should have been sleeping.  Here is a taste:

     History hangs heavy over China. Like a vapor that used to be sweet but has somehow imperceptibly turned bad, it seeps into every corner and silently makes its way into the mind of every Chinese person. Sometimes you feel the Chinese don't know quite what to do with their five thousand years of history.
     In the Western world, we love history. A visit to Colonial Williamsburg, or Philadelphia, or St. Paul's Cathedral in London, or the Colosseum in Rome is a positive experience that fills us with undeniable satisfaction. There are no doubt many reasons, but I think the main one is simply that we won. History for Ocean People led to the two most crucial elements of our societies: democracy and prosperity.
     In China, by contrast, there seems to be a great tension in people's minds about their history. All Chinese people know that their history used to be magnificent. Chinese civilization began its rise to world dominance in the seventh and eighth centuries, and reached its zenith in the twelfth century, while Europe was still in the Dark and Middle Ages. Many people in the West know about the Big Four inventions, which China came up with long before the West: paper, printing, gunpowder, and the compass. . . . . At that time, China was vastly more powerful, wealthy, and technological advanced than Europe or anywhere else. . . . 
     Historians say the problem was that China peaked too early. . . . [T]oward the end of the eighteenth century, China began to sink under the weight of its own success.

In 1986, Stuart Stevens and three friends decided to retrace the steps of Peter Fleming, a British travel writer (and brother of Ian Fleming), who made a famous journey along the Silk Road in 1936. They group makes their way from Beijing to Kashgar, one of the westernmost cities in present-day China, and once the most important city in a region known as "Turkistan," which once encompassed the present-day Xinjiang region of China, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and parts of Kazakhstan.

Stuart Stevens has recorded the group's series of perilous and hilariously funny misadventures in Night Train to Turkistan, and while their path differed a little from the one we took, they did visit many of the same places we did. I especially enjoyed Stevens's description of their time in Dunhuang and the excellent background information he gives regarding the pillage of the city's treasures by western scholars and organizations.

Reading the book made me appreciate how far China has come as far as tourism goes in the last thirty or so years. Still, I could relate to some of the ridiculous rules and the constant series of hoops that tourists have to jump through.

If you'd rather read some fiction, and I needed some fiction on this trip, I recommend the three-book Silk and Song Series by  Dana Stabenow. 

These books follow the fictional granddaughter of Marco Polo (born to his fictional Chinese concubine), her motley band of comrades, and her white stallion North Wind as they travel along the Silk Road from ancient Cambaluc (now Beijing) all the way to Venice, Italy. It's a light but fun look at what life in a caravan might have been like at the height of China's power in the 14th century.

1 comment:

  1. Pretty good recap. Can't wait to see what happens next!