The Silk Road, China

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

End of part 1

Three months ago, Billo and I sat drinking a beer overlooking the Mediterranean in Beirut. Yesterday we sat drinking fermented grapes (it would be wrong to call it wine) overlooking Nanga Parbat - one of the world's highest mountains.

It has been an epic journey: We have travelled by land as far away from the sea as it is possible to go. We have visited ten countries for the first time (eleven if you include our brief illicit visit to Afghanistan) and met all the Stans except Kazakhstan. And that wasn't for the lack of trying: Billo even bought a visa but we simply did not have the time.

In three months, there is no doubt that we have packed it in. We have visited the oldest city in the world, the largest bazaar and surely made a dent in UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites. We have seen a bewildering array of mosques, minarets and blue tiled domes. Our journey has taken us across sweltering deserts, up high altitude snowy passes and across some of the most hair-raising roads on earth. On foot, We have trekked in the Pamirs, the Karakorum and the Himalaya, taking in a 5000m peak and the base camp of one of the world's few 8000m+ peaks.
We have stayed in a 19th Century traditional Uzbek house, a Kyrgyz yurt, a Tajik mud hut, a cave, a tent, a number of Soviet monstrosities and on two occasions - unexpectedly - in hotels that seemed to be making money charging by the hour...

We have travelled mainly by bus and car, although jumped at the chance to use the Russian railways when we could. We have seen petrol vary in price from nearly a dollar to around one cent per litre. We have grown accustomed to buying a seat in a taxi and waiting it out until the car is full. We have had our eyes opened to the meaning of "full" - 6 people in a Lada Niva and 40 in a minibus being the most memorable examples.

We have never been able to spend more than 20 dollars on a meal for two (and only this much on a handful of occasions) and once had a delicious cooked lunch with tea and bread for $1.50. Alcohol has varied wildly in price and in quality: we paid over 15 dollars for a 1.5 litre plastic bottle of fermented grape juice in Pakistan and yet found some outstanding draught lager for 30 cents a pint in parts of Central Asia. We also tried fermented mare's milk in Kyrgyzstan; not something we needed to try again.

The trip has fallen into three parts. The first in the ancient civilisations of the Levant and Iran, which ooze culture and in whose history the Silk Road was a significant, but by no means dominant part. Here I was blown away by Palmyra and Esfahan in particular.

The second part was the Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where the Silk Road made radically shaped the culture of what were previously entirely nomadic peoples. Here I found Samarkand the most impressive.

And finally, our journey took us into the mountains of Tajikistan, Kyrgistan and Pakistan where the Silk Road has made very little impact at all; no more impact, in fact, than the Russians or British empires managed to in their heyday. Here the experience was completely different: I have been astonished at what we have seen in Bulunkal in Tajikistan, at lake Song Kul in Kyrgyzstan and, by the fact that the Karakorum highway is ever open and finally by the sheer unparalleled beauty of Passu and Karimabad in Northern Pakistan. We arrived loving the mountains and having seen a few in our time, but the convergence of some of the biggest mountain ranges in the world has exceeded our wildest expectations.

The people we have met and the hospitality we have been shown has been truly humbling. We have never felt unsafe in any of the countries. We have often felt we have countries like Iran and Pakistan to ourselves, as people have stayed away since 2001: a treat for us, perhaps, but sad for the people trying to make a living in tourism.

Finally, we have appreciated the the little things that you notice and pick up when travelling: taking our shoes off before entering a house; eating cross legged on the floor; learning the local way to count bills that have been hopelessly left behind by inflation; removing sesame seeds from their cases with one hand; playing backgammon Uzbek style; urging on a horse Kyrgyz style (Choo!); and in every single country seeing people greet one another by touching their heart and uttering one of the first Arabic phrases we heard in Syria: salam aleykum.

I am now half way to the China sea. The time has gone too quickly and it was sad to bid farewell to Billo and draw a line under our hectic and adventurous final weeks. Thankfully, once I have travelled across the desert I will be joined by my sister Helen and then by friends Tom and Debs in Tibet.

And now, I need to cut my hair for the first time since February.



William said...


William said...

Have very much been enjoying reading about your trip. Awesome.. If you want any tips etc for China let me know.
I await your continuing tales
Will S