The Great Silk Road has been called one of the most significant accomplishments in world history. These roads were caravan routes which connected Europe and Asia as far east as China and became the major means of commerce between the East and the West. Caravans that transported silk from China, spices and semi-precious stones from India, and silver products from Iran passed through the deserts to new markets that were previously unknown.
These trade routes survived and even flourished from their beginnings during the third century B.C. until the 16th century. The Greek word for China is “Seres,” which literally means “the land of silk.” But the term “Silk Road” did not appear until 1877, when a German geographer first used it to describe these avenues of trade. In fact, many historians now prefer the term “Silk Routes” because it more accurately reflects that there were many different routes as opposed to a single thoroughfare.
Silk was not the only treasure to travel these ancient trade routes because the Silk Road actually opened up cultural dialogue between far-flung cultures in the West and in the East. Of course this promoted better relations between regions that had heretofore had only minimal contact. Ideas began to flow along these routes which some have called the original information superhighway. Among these ideas, and perhaps the most influential, was the spread of Buddhism.
The most extensive of these passed through the territories of Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan, where I began my drive along the Silk Road in the summer of 2008. June 22 of that year was a major red-letter day in my life because it marked the completion of my more than 27 years of service as senior minister at Sharpsburg Baptist Church. To celebrate my new status as a “retired” person, I scheduled a long-dreamed-of-trip along the Silk Road through the deserts of Asia all the way to China. So just four days into retirement I arrived in Moscow where I changed planes for the four-hour flight to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. I spent two days in this lovely old-world town recuperating from jet-leg and enjoying some of the sights. I also spent several hours with a Bishkek travel agent whom I had corresponded with for almost a year arranging every detail of this trip along the Silk Road. The agent provided me with all the documents, permits, and passes that I would need to make my journey along this historic route.
The Great Silk Road has played a pivotal role in the historical fate of the peoples of Central Asia. Its name is derived from one of the main items transported along it – silk which was the signature commodity of Chinese merchants. Westerners did not possess the technology for its manufacture. The longest of the several different Silk Roads was more than 4,300 miles and it required almost three years to traverse it from end to end.
I began my trek eastward along the Silk Road from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. In ancient times the territory and its people were at the very epicenter of this great economic and cultural phenomenon. Kyrgyzstan occupied a favorable geographical position on the trade and formed a kind of bridge between the East and the West. Three branches of the ancient Silk Road passed through this territory; I chose to travel along the route which continues into China at the Torugart Pass.
My car and driver picked me up on June 29 and so began this incredible journey. The first stop was at a small town called Naryn, the capital of Kyrgyzstan’s largest province. Its main road was part of the Silk Road and runs south through the sparsely settled central Kyrgyz highlands to the Torugart Pass and on into China. This area, the most traditional part of Kyrgyzstan, has retained its original, cultural past and is characterized by picturesque mountains where shepherds guide their herds, by beautiful fresh-water lakes, by horses that run free and by those round-shaped tents called yurts. Naryn is located along the banks of the Naryn River, the longest river in Kyrgyzstan. Nearby are dramatic cliffs beyond which lie an untouched wilderness.
I spent the night in Naryn, and the next morning I met yet another car and driver and we set off along the Silk Road. The Silk Road! I was finally here! In no time the car left the city and crossed a series of foot-hills before entering into a desert ringed by distant mountains many of which were snow capped. The road is incredibly flat and in the course of a couple of hours there were only a handful cars in either direction. I imagined caravans packed with everything from spices, silver and gold, even exotic birds and animals for sale to Europeans traveling right along this very road.
Some caravans were small with fewer than 25 camels. Others were very large consisting of several hundred camels. Regardless of their size, these “trade expeditions” often carried luxurious and lucrative items such gold, jade, and jewelry, they were prime targets for roving gangs of bandits.
Soon the valuable goods moving along the Silk Road came to the attention of the tribal rulers who controlled many of the desert areas through which the route passed. These chieftains began to construct roadside comfort stations called “caravanserais” that provided basic services such as information, sleeping rooms, baths, food for both humans and animals, and supplies. Most of these roadside inns were square or rectangular in shape with a single entrance way wide enough to permit large and heavily laden beasts to enter. The courtyard was almost always open to the sky, and the inside walls of the enclosure were outfitted with animal stalls, bays, niches. or chambers to accommodate merchants and their servants, animals, and merchandise.
Around mid-afternoon I approached the border post near the Torugart Pass. Crossing into China here requires a special permit in addition to a Chinese Visa. Beyond that, crossing is allowed only IF a Chinese tour guide meets you at the Pass with transportation to the Chinese immigration facility 68 miles on into China. The Torugart Pass closes often, for reasons such as snowfalls, holidays on either side, or too much traffic! To avoid the horrendous amounts of snow the guide books suggest crossing between late May and the end of September. Once you reach the Kyrgyz border proper, you must produce written proof that you have arranged transport with an approved and legitimate Chinese tour agency for travel into China. Before leaving the USA I had read online accounts of horror stories by travelers who were stranded at this tiny outpost – waiting for days for a Chinese tour guide to appear!
Obviously, I was more than a little apprehensive when I arrived at the Kyrgyzstan side of the barrier because the Chinese deem Torugart Pass to be a “special” crossing. This designation means that there are extra layers of security here: e.g., you cannot cross into the no man’s land past the Kyrgyz customs by yourself, and only Kyrgyz drivers with a special permit from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can drive you there. I entered the shed and presented all of my documents and permits. After what seemed an interminably long wait, the officer stamped my documents and I was cleared to be driven by my “special-permit driver” to cross the four mile stretch of “no man’s land.” This area is at the highest point of Torugart Pass and terminates at the spot where I was to be transferred to a Chinese vehicle – IF it had arrived.
I got out of the vehicle and stood at the highest point along this route of the Silk Road through the Tian Mountain range – well over 12,000 feet up. My mind raced as I imagined the unending stream of caravans that crossed here centuries before. During this moment of intense reflection as the wind howled through the break in the surrounding mountains, my thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the blast of a horn. I turned and saw a small van idling a few meters away. My Chinese transport, by some miracle, had arrived, and I was off for the 90 minute journey to the Chinese immigration station.
In my travels I have made my share of difficult border crossings, but I must confess this one would be at the top of that list. That being said, I can tell you this: my journey was an enriching experience and one of the many highlights in my travel-life that has made an indelible imprint upon my memory.
Next time: “Cape Coast Castles: A Blight upon Human History”