Trans Eurasia travel

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Cities & Towns & Places

The Great Silk Road mapThe history of Uzbekistan covers more than 2.5 millennia. During this period, various ancient states rose and fell in Central Asia, such as Bactria, Khorezm, Sogdiana, and Parthia. A number of great warriors made their name here from Alexander The Great, Gengis  Khan and Tamerlane. The region was the key point on the The Great Silk Road linking Oriental China and Europe.

In his 1913 poem The Golden Road to Samarkand, each of James Elroy Fleckers characters describes in vivid detail moonlit cities, the heat of the winds, shadows cast on the sands, and the silent air of the desert. The reader is swept along in their timeless caravan, sharing in the atmospheric journey, and, like the merchants, gives scarcely a thought for the women left behind, ignored completely, as everyone's attention is utterly transfixed by the destination of which they dream.

Uzbekistan captures the imagination like almost nowhere else. The country is virtually synonymous with the Silk Road, and three of the greatest Silk Road cities - Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva - all fall on Uzbek soil.

The ancient Silk Road began in the Chinese city of Changan (present-day Xi’an) and ran westward across deserts to oases and over mountain passes, through the great Central Asian trading cities of Samarqand, Bukhara, Khiva in modern Uzbekistan and Merv (modern Mary) in Turkmenistan to Tyre on the Mediterranean Sea.

The Silk RoadIncluding all the twists and turns, it covered about 9,600 kilometers, or a quarter of the way around the globe. Scholars have considered the Silk Road one of the most significant links connecting various peoples and cultures. The term "Silk Road," which refers to the route along which silk traveled from China to the West, is modern and was coined as late as 1877 by the German geographer  Ferdinand von Richtofen.

The earliest Chinese explorations of Central Asia began in the second century BCE, when a Chinese emperor sent an embassy  northward to negotiate with hostile tribes on the border. The embassy was headed by Zhang Qian, who was promptly taken prisoner and who, after ten years’ captivity, escaped and reported back to the emperor of the vast territories, high civilizations, and great wealth that lay beyond China.

The Silk Road caravanWhen merchants began to travel, amber, furs, and honey came to China from northern Russia and the Baltic; pottery, coral and  textiles, gold and silver, ivory, and precious stones came from Rome and elsewhere in the Mediterranean region, along with metalware from the foundries of Sidon and Tyre. In turn, China sent perfumes, silks, porcelain, tea, spices, mirrors, lacquerware, and via Samarqand the priceless gift of paper. From Central Asia came jade, cloth, and the horses of Fergana.

Chinese merchants set out on their journey to the lands of the barbarians across the Snowy Mountain, down the passes, to the fabled cities of Central Asia, to Persia (Iran), then to the cities of Antioch and Tyre on the Mediterranean coast, where their precious cargoes were shipped to Rome.

Regular caravans seldom traveled beyond the major trading centers, from which goods were transshipped by those coming from the other direction. Samarqand and Bukhara were the common endpoints for caravans arriving from Baghdad and Aleppo. Here they exchanged their cargoes with merchants from Kashgar and farther east. On the other hand, individual travelers—merchants and emissaries, pilgrims and missionaries—of necessity traversed the entire route. The Silk Road cities supplied all the needs of travelers, commercial and otherwise: camels and provisions provisions, brokers to draw up contracts and guarantee delivery, banking houses to supply credit and bills of exchange, and markets to buy and sell things of every description. Even so, the journey was not easy. Travelers’ accounts record the corpses of people and animals seen along the way. The ever-present danger of bandits was as great a threat as the menacing forces of nature. There are vivid descriptions of sandstorms, the desert’s withering heat, and the freezing winds in the high mountain passes. Away from the oases, the need for water was always pressing.

SamarkandAt the heart of the Silk Road, Central Asia linked the sedentary civilizations on its periphery - Rome, Persia, the Kushans of northern India, and China - and the fierce nomadic hordes of the steppes. From the time of Zhang Qian in the second century BCE, Chinese fortunes ebbed and flowed, checked at times by the Huns, whose dominions (in the fourth century CE) reached from Korea to the Ural Mountains, and by other nomads of the Altay Mountains and the Gobi Desert.

In the eighth century, just as the Chinese seemed about to conquer all of Central Asia, another power appeared on the scene: the Arabs, newly converted to Islam. Gradually the armies of Allah had been moving eastward, dispatching decadent rulers and spreading the word of the Prophet. The two worlds collided in Central Asia. In 751, the Arabs, along with their Turkish and Tibetan allies, defeated the Chinese at the battle of Talas River, marking forever the limits of Chinese dominions.

KhivaIn 1219, the Mongols burst out of northeastern Asia and came to rule an empire that stretched from Moscow to Beijing. Genghis Khan, a strong protector of trade and of the Silk Road between Europe and China, ensured that merchants could travel in security. Timur (Tamerlane), who presided over the last great Mongol empire, kept the route alive until the beginning of the fifteenth century.

As an increasing number of European merchants, missionaries, and adventurers traveled to the east, they returned with tales both factual and fabulous. Paradoxically, the stories of the East partly accounted for the demise of the Silk Road. Europeans who sought to gain access to the riches of the East and wanted to avoid the long and perilous land journey eventually found the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean. The importance of the Silk Road declined, and by the sixteenth century Central Asia began to fade from the horizon of history.

The constant cycle of construction and destruction has had a significant impact on what we see in Uzbekistan today. The buildings that survive, and that make the striking skylines of each and every city, are not necessarily the most modern or the mostly strongly constructed: they are the ones which, by dint of good fortune, have avoided both the attentions of marauding hordes and equally destructive natural disasters. Well into the 20th century the Soviets were levelling ancient buildings to make way for architecture that was, in its aesthetics and its function, better in keeping with their ideology. To a far lesser extent, the same is also true of the post-independence period. Restoration projects, some more sympathetic than others, have raised medieval buildings like phoenixes from the ashes, though how much of their appearance is original and how much should be attributed to artistic licence, a modern architect or a politician's idealised vision of the past, is always open to debate.

In many ways, Uzbekistan is at a crossroads. This applies, as it has always done, in a physical sense, as the country lies in the heart of Eurasia: Europe and Iran are to the west; Russia is to the north; China is to the east; and Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent spread out southwards. But it is also true culturally, economically and politically. Two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan is no longer a bedfellow of Moscow, but neither has it been able to properly integrate with markets and potential allies in the West. Fear of becoming embroiled in the political and religious turmoil of Afghanistan and Tajikistan has prevented Uzbekistan building relationships there, and though the Chinese are making in-roads in the country, particularly as investors and trading partners, they're still viewed by the Uzbeks with suspicion. Uzbekistan is not, and has never been, insular, but its future path seems currently unclear.

History has shown us that Uzbekistan is at its greatest when it has a symbiotic relationship with its neighbours, when people, ideas and goods flow back and forth, enriching every aspect of society. In this transitional period, when Uzbekistan is cautious of how to promote itself outside its borders, the world must come to Uzbekistan, visitors bringing with them the finest aspects of their own societies, and a willingness to share and learn.