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Camels, poetry and history: my Silk Road journey

Take the epic 47-day journey from northwest China through the Stans to the European gateway of Istanbul

Cocoons bubble in the cauldron like quails’ eggs. A bibi in a blue floral dress sits cross-legged behind the bowl and I watch as she hooks out a clutch of silken strands with a stick and feeds them into a spinning wheel. The thread looks so fragile, yet for nearly 2,000 years its power was immense. Traded for everything from jade to slaves and weapons, this lustrous yarn spun a route of more than 7,000 miles — roughly a quarter the length of the Equator — from central China, across the steppes of central Asia, to the shores of the Mediterranean.

This Silk Road — or Seidenstrasse, as the 19th-century German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen would name it — burgeoned into a reciprocal flow of not just goods, but ideas. Of art and architecture, religion and philosophy, science and technology. Who would have thought the cocoon of a humble caterpillar could change the world?

It’s a myth-laden route whose romanticism has attracted travellers from Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta and Odoric of Pordenone, to William Dalrymple and Colin Thubron. Von Richthofen got it wrong, though. There wasn’t just one road, but rather a collection of trails that branched southwards into India and northwards to Kazakhstan. Granted, it’s pegged to sites of significance such as Samarkand’s dazzling sea-blue majolica-tiled madrassas, the crumbling palaces of Merv, ghostly medieval murals of Ani and Istanbul’s graceful Hagia Sophia. Really, however, it’s a story about the people — Uighurs, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Kyrgyz,Iranians and Turks — you meet along the way and their journeys.


The Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan

For my journey I joined the first tour to travel the entire length of the original east-west route from Xi’an to Istanbul. In 47 days we would cover what would have taken a camel caravan — capable of travelling 20 miles a day — at least 400 days. We replaced four-legged dromedaries with trains, planes, buses and boats to traverse six countries: China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey.

From the plane window, glacial streams sparkle like diamond necklaces nestled amid the bosom of the Tian Shan Mountains. Fissured rocks barnacled on to the earth give way to the sands of the feared Taklamakan Desert as we descend into Kashgar, the last oasis travellers would encounter travelling east and China’s westernmost city. Its streets are a whizz of scooters, and women sporting long rhinestone-bedazzled dresses and headscarves. Seventy per cent of the population are Uighur — a Turkic ethnic group that practises Islam. “Lots of people living here don’t even speak Chinese,” says our guide, Ablajan, a university professor. So it’s “salam alaikum” instead of “ni hao” and, as a further rebellion, time runs two hours behind China Standard Time.

We have travelled to see an even older tradition — the famous Sunday Animal Market. Funnelling towards the entrance are trucks sagging under the weight of cows, and men on scooters with sheep slung across their laps. A choir of honking horns fills the air as I jump from the bus on to spongy layers of dried manure. Young men with powdery moustaches wrestle huffing yaks off carts and lasso their sheep together so they’re lined up as neatly as interlaced fingers. Kazakhs, Uighurs, Kyrgyzs and Uzbeks come to barter and buy livestock; it has been this way for more than two millennia.

Across the border, the steppes of Central Asia beckon. Exiting via the Irkeshtam Pass, we bundle out of the bus and roll our suitcases down the hill. Up here, at nearly 3,000m (more than 9,800ft), the wind is fresh and clean.

The wild fenceless hills of Kyrgyzstan are a refreshing change from the modernity of China and I relish the boundless horizon until we reach the hamlet of Sary-Tash at dusk. Columns of wood smoke snake into the indigo sky and horned cows mooch back to their owners’ compounds. Our homestay host, Mirbek, greets us with a gold-toothed grin and ushers us inside for a supper of dumplings and naan bread. Later I settle on to a mattress laid out beside the living-room stove and sleep. I rise before the others and stand surveying the distant mountains while brushing my teeth at the outside sink.

We drive towards the city of Osh, reputed to be 3,000 years old. Sulayman Mountain, which conceals King Solomon’s Throne, looms above it. At the top we meet three women who have travelled from Kazakhstan to seek a blessing for the youngest, who is unable to conceive. I watch her nervous hands slowly calm as the imam imparts his soothing words.

Nowhere on the Silk Road rings with as much romanticism as 2,500-year-old Samarkand, the cultural crossroads through which all traders and travellers passed. Alexander the Great visited in 329BC and declared: “It is even more beautiful that I had imagined.” It was the capital of Timur the Great’s empire, which stretched from the Indus River to the Bosphorus in Turkey. And from these conquered lands he forcibly brought back artisans from Basra, Baghdad, Delhi and Azerbaijan, and put them to work decorating Samarkand’s almighty architecture.

Columns of wood smoke snake into the indigo sky and horned cows mooch back to their owners’ compounds

The pièce de résistance is Registan Square. I wander to the very back of Ulugh Beg — the oldest of the three madrassas lining it — and peruse stalls set up inside. Amid the plethora of pottery, scarves and tiles I come across a sparse table scattered with a few antique keys, necklaces and pipes. It’s simple and honest. A tall teenage boy pokes his head out of the doorway and smiles shyly. “How much for the necklace?” He types a number into a battered Casio calculator. It’s too expensive.

“Any books?” I ask. His eyes light up and he motions for me to follow him into the cool shade of the shop. Stacked in the far corner is a small pile of dusty volumes. “I’m a collector,” he says, fingering the spines tenderly and proudly. “Me too,” I say with a smile, in confidence. “Any poetry?” He moves to the bottom of the stack and extracts a dog-eared tome. “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” he whispers. “It’s handwritten and rare — over 100 years old.”

He hands it to me and together we trace our fingers across the yellowing pages. “Normally, I wouldn’t sell it, but my father needs money for the dentist; he’s having his last gold teeth put in.” Right on cue, his father ducks into the shop and beams at me revealing a gappy grin.

I exit with my purchase carefully wrapped in cloth and make my way back to the main square. I seat myself on the steps opposite Ulugh Beg and watch a bride and her solemn groom pose for photos on the brick square. Starlings streak above like a flock of black arrows and I can spy the day’s final customers bartering in the doorways of shops.

No fewer than five portraits of the president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, greet us on arrival at the Turkmenistan border. And the unnerving feeling of being watched doesn’t dissipate. Entering the capital, Ashgabat — aka the City of White Marble — is like being admitted into a totalitarian theme park, with its Las Vegas-style Palace of Happiness for weddings, neon lights and militant rows of residential apartments, white and shiny as molars.

On the tour the city is sold as a utopia where “all secondary school students are supplied with iPads”. I crack a joke to lighten the mood. “Emma, you have a nice smile,” says the guide. “You should marry my nephew, he herds camels. You could make camel-milk ice cream together.” But blocked from social media I feel suffocated and after four days I’m ready for Iran.

Here, I’d expected the veil to be drawn even higher, especially because our arrival coincided with Ashura, one of the holiest days in the Shia religious calendar. It mourns Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who was killed in the Battle of Karbala in AD680. On Isfahan’s Unesco-listed Naqsh-e Jahan Square crowds of men hammer their hands to their hearts in unison in a series of rhythmic slaps that echo through me. Some flagellate themselves with chain whips. Intimidated and feeling shy, I move to watch from the stoop of a shop.

After a short while a woman, encased in her chador (full-body cloak), sits beside me with her husband and young sons, and starts speaking Farsi. “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m from the UK,” I reply. Her face cracks open with a toothy smile. Her name is Tayebeh and she’s studying to become an engineer. “I’m only wearing the full outfit now because it’s a religious day. Tomorrow I’ll wear bright colours.”

Our final country calls and, after a cursory glance at our passports, we’re fed through a gated channel into eastern Turkey. A conical cloud-capped Mount Ararat — where Noah’s Ark is said to have come to rest — looms over land dotted with sheep.

We pass through Kars, Ani, Sivas and Ankara until I’m standing on the edge of a continent. Across the blue Bosphorus lies Europe. As we chug past freewheeling seagulls and duck-diving cormorants, I set my sights on a skyline that Silk Road merchants would still recognise, from the almighty dome of Hagia Sophia to the medieval candlestick of Galata Tower.

I spend our last afternoon meandering through Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, open for trading since the 15th century. I pass patterned carpets piled like pancakes. “Each has its own story,” says the salesman, noticing my glance. I smile and move on.

It hits home how flimsy geographical borders really are; how connected we are by our ideas, inventions and idiosyncrasies

Our Silk Road odyssey resembles a rug, each knot an encounter that may not mean much until you stand back and survey the finished weaving, which shows something more meaningful, vibrant and everlasting. Sure, I’d accumulated a camel-load of souvenirs (like a good merchant) along the way, but what extended journeys such as these really reveal is a slow metamorphosis of facial features, foods and scenery, until it hits home how flimsy geographical borders really are; how connected we are by our ideas, inventions and idiosyncrasies.

Back home, I think of Mirbek calling to his cattle across the Kyrgyz steppe and wonder if that Kazak woman was granted her wish of a baby. I think of the camel herder in Turkmenistan waiting for a wife with whom to make camel-milk ice cream, and of my book-loving Uzbek friend and his father’s new gold teeth. And I think of Tayebeh in Isfahan covering her long ebony hair each morning with a scarf of colourful silk. A tangle of lives and cultures that left each of us richer.
Need to know Emma Thomson was a guest of Wild Frontiers (wildfrontierstravel.com), which runs a new 47-day journey that costs from £9,950pp, excluding flights and visas

From horse trekking in Mongolia to hiking in North Korea, choose your trip


Giant pandas in China

Explore Sichuan, China
Wendy Wu’s escorted Sichuan Explorer trip includes panda encounters, above, at the Dujiangyan refuge, the famed Grand Buddha in Leshan, the forests and lakes of the Nine Village Valleys, time with the Qiang ethnic minority group, and the region’s fiery food.
Details
Fifteen days’ full board costs from £2,490pp, including flights and transfers (0800 1445600, wendywutours.co.uk). Groups of up to 24 leave in April, May, September and October

Unesco sites in Persia
Prosperous, cultured and sophisticated Persia was a key stop on the Silk Route, and with Travel The Unknown’s new trip to modern Iran you can visit all of the country’s 21 Unesco sites, from Persepolis and Masjed-e Jame of Isfahan, to some of the lesser-known sites, such as Lut Desert and the Persian Qanat.
DetailsTwenty-five nights’ B&B costs from £5,895pp, including flights and all entrance fees (020 7183 6371, traveltheunknown.com). Departures are in April and October, with groups of up to 12

Tour North Korea
The Regent Holidays tour not only takes in the capital, Pyongyang, and the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the former residence of Kim Il Sung and now the Mausoleum for Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, but also the beautiful Mount Myohyang and hikes in the Kumgang mountains.
DetailsThirteen days’ full board in September costs from £2,750pp, excluding flights to Beijing, which cost from £500, (020 7666 1244, regent-holidays.co.uk). The maximum group size is 16

Cruise South East Asia
Tauck’s comprehensive tour of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam includes cruises through Bangkok’s klongs, the perfume River in Hue, and on Siem Riep’s Tonie Sap Lake, a visit to Angkor Wat, the hill tribes north of Chiang Mai, a tour of the Jim Thompson house, and time at a beach resort in Vietnam.
Details
A 16-day trip in September costs from £5,370pp, including most meals and internal air travel, but not international flights to Hanoi, which cost from £455 (0800 8108020, tauck.co.uk). Groups of up to 36

Magical Mongolia
Abercrombie & Kent’s group tour, guided by author and photographer Palani Mohan, coincides with the Golden Eagle Festival, where Kazakh horsemen demonstrate their skills. It also includes hikes through rugged gorges, exploring sand dunes on Bactrian camels and witnessing herds of wild Mongolian horses.
Details An 11-night trip in September costs from £7,555pp, including flights, most meals and all activities (01242 547760, ambercrombiekent.co.uk). Groups of up to 18

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