Silk Road Travel is a transformative, transportive experience. You can close your eyes almost anywhere along the historic route through Central Asia and turn back the clock a thousand years. In the corners of your mind you see camel and horse caravans inching towards the horizon, heaving with silks, precious stones, and spices as they amble towards Europe. All around you, terra cotta domes, mosques, and dizzying mosaics vie for your attention.
For many years I had yearned to see the sights for myself. My ancestors came from this part of the world, and I grew up hearing tales of Mongols, Genghis Khan, and wild hordes marching across Eurasia. Finally realizing my Silk Road travel dreams last year was a case of sensory overload at its finest. From blazes of color to harmony of shape, Central Asia’s monuments are wrapped in an aura of intrigue so thick, you can almost smell the incense and cardamom in the air.
Uncovering the History of Silk Road Travel
Much of the Silk Road’s history remains shrouded in mystery. Its length cannot be measured accurately because there wasn’t just one Silk Road, but many trade routes fanning out like fingers from China towards the West. Some of these routes cut across the north through Kazakhstan, while others ran further south through Turkmenistan, stretching anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 miles. The merchants who plied the Silk Road in medieval times served to stitch together two distant civilizations, delivering merchandise and technologies—printing, winemaking, gunpowder—in both directions.
Nor can anyone confirm the Silk Road’s lifespan. The first trade routes through Central Asia appeared to emerge around the third century before the Christian Era (BCE). And yet Chinese silk was found on Egyptian mummies as early as the 10th century BCE. We do know that the Silk Road routes eventually fell into disuse around the 16th century, when shipping routes replaced overland journeys. But it wasn’t even known as the Silk Road until the mid-1800s, when a German scholar coined the term “Seidenstrasse,” centuries after the caravans had disappeared.
For decades, this part of the world was sealed by the vagaries of the Soviet regime and mostly off-limits to western travelers. The fall of the Soviet empire and subsequent independence of Central Asia’s states threw open the doors to the West, whose curiosity about this fascinating part of the world is only now being satisfied by companies specializing in Silk Road travel.
The contrasts resulting from this tumultuous past are vivid: Soviet-era buildings sit within sight of yurts. Statues of Lenin elbow Tamerlane aside for space. A modern post-Soviet society seeks its place amid such ancient traditions as eagle hunting and nomadism.
Kyrgyzstan: Stepping Out of China
The caravans leaving China might well have started their journey by traveling across the spectacular Tien Shan Mountains and into Kyrgyzstan on the first leg of their journey. Anxious to trade their goods—the further they ranged from the source in China, the more they could charge—they might have stopped briefly on their westward journey in what was once known as Balasagun, a former commercial center near today’s Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.
Just a single monument remains here: At 1,000 years old, the Burana Tower is one of Central Asia’s most ancient minaret-style buildings and one of the few watchtowers left standing from the Silk Road days. Time and earthquakes have gradually eroded the ruins; but archaeological digs around the tower uncovered a large walled town which once housed religious buildings, bazaars, shops, water pipes, and a fortress. Today the site is an open-air museum that includes the tower, a small museum, and a cemetery with ancient balbal statues (a type of local headstone or totem).
From the top of the tower, after a narrow, unlit climb, you can look out and see the snowcapped Ala-Too mountain range to the south. If you turn northwards, you’ll be facing Kazakhstan, the next step along the Silk Road.
Cementing the Silk Road Travel Route: Kazakhstan
Somewhere around the 10th century, Almaty—Kazakhstan’s former capital and one of Central Asia’s most ancient cities—became part of the Silk Road travel route. As traders pushed outwards, oases sprang up throughout southern Kazakhstan, in Almaty, and several nearby towns of this highly populated region. Today the city boasts landmarks ranging from Zenkov Cathedral (a masterpiece of nail-less wooden construction from the tsarist era) to the Museum of Kazakh Musical Instruments.
One key stop along the Kazakh portion of the Silk Road was the city of Taraz (which is known as the City of Merchants), whose famous bustling market continues to this day. Shymkent was another significant stopover, and its various markets perpetuate the traditions of trade born so many centuries ago. The city is positioned at the turnoff for Uzbekistan, which many historians consider the backbone of Silk Road civilization and architecture.
Uzbekistan, The Heart of the Silk Road
Three Uzbek cities—Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva—are considered synonymous with the Silk Road travel route. Each of them is extraordinary and utterly different from the other.
Samarkand, founded in the 7th century BCE, is one of the world’s oldest cities. It was conquered by both Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan and hosts the tomb of Tamerlane, a 14th-century Mongol warrior and national hero.
Some historians consider the Gur Emir mausoleum to be Samarkand’s most outstanding building: Its tiled columns and half-moon dome are intricately designed, with a delicacy more reminiscent of filigree than of mosaic. It’s no surprise to learn that it later served as a model for the Taj Mahal.
Stunning in a different way is the Registan complex, a trio of madrassas whose size and purity thrust boldly into the city’s skies. Only by standing next to it can you truly comprehend the power and the glory of the civilization that built it. The Registan on its own would satisfy the most demanding visitor, but Samarkand is full of other buildings whose restorations are so intricate, they may have actually improved on the original.
Bukhara, a major crossroads for caravans traveling between Samarkand and Afghanistan or Turkmenistan, was once the religious capital of Central Asia. With more than 100 preserved buildings, the city is a living, breathing remnant of an ancient civilization where, if you wander away from the main street, it seems like little has changed.
Exploring Bukhara on foot should be a slow, meandering experience, allowing its myriad treasures to appear unannounced. While its individual buildings are exquisite, UNESCO protects the city as a whole, calling it “the most complete example of a medieval city in Central Asia.”
It’s easy to see why when you visit the Poi Kalyan minaret (with its intricate brickwork), the Lyabi Khauz complex just outside the old town, and the Abdulaziz Khan madrassa (whose vivid entrance almost appeared to have multicolored fluttering butterflies clinging to the ceiling).
Khiva is a smaller town, but preserved in its entirety. It feels like an outdoor museum in which every building is a work of art and every street hoards its legends. Khiva has been fought over by Arabs, Mongols, and seemingly everyone else, but has survived every destruction.
Its Ichan Kala (or inner town) is surrounded by fortress walls which protect iconic monuments such as the Kalta Minar, a stubby blue-brick minaret that was never quite finished. Khiva’s madrassas, palaces, and mosques have been rebuilt and dusted off after years of Soviet occupation, when they were used as offices, warehouses, and even nightclubs.
The city’s winding streets, which are perfectly pleasant in daytime, are filled with mystery when the sun goes down. You could easily think you’d stepped into an earlier century by mistake.
Turkmenistan: A Worthy Rival
On their way westward, some caravans took a branch of the Silk Road through Turkmenistan. They would spend a night in the town of Kunya Urgench, which once competed with Bukhara in terms of importance to the region. The city was only settled for a few centuries, but when Tamerlane forced out the locals, they left behind monuments that would eventually influence architecture in Afghanistan, India, and Iran.
The stories of an empire’s rise and fall can be seen clearly in Merv, an oasis reputed to be the world’s largest city in the 13th century. It was home to a population of over a million people before it was destroyed by Genghis Khan. Visiting today, you’ll need some imagination to visualize its history. Merv is one of the oldest settlements in Central Asia, and one of the most intriguing in Turkmenistan. While the town is being slowly restored, there is a certain appeal in the ruins of once-great buildings, of which only crumbling brick remains.
All throughout the ‘Stans, workers are painstakingly recreating the monuments of their past and reclaiming their storied Silk Road history. Their excavations, renovations, and restorations are bringing back the glory of Silk Road travel, rebuilding the links between East and West through tourism, train travel, and modern trade.
Leyla Giray Alyanak is a former foreign correspondent and diplomat who blogs about people and places from a woman’s perspective at Women on the Road. Born in Paris, she grew up in Spain, Switzerland and Canada—and calls all of these home.