Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Silk Road

Seeing as we've been on so much of it now, I thought I'd give it a proper mention. The "silk road" refers to the old overland trading route between China and Europe or the Middle East. Though the silk road was technically many routes that changed with time and politics (trade was already flourishing 2000 years ago), and covered the entire route from Xi'an, China to the shores of the Mediterranean or as far as Istanbul, the true spirit and legend of the silk road was/is in the middle, Uzbekistan. It is, for the most part, the only real history and reason for existance that central asia had. It was the string of oasis and crossroad towns that held it all together in a region of temperature extremes and harsh terrain, including some of the world's highest mountain passes and meanest deserts. The area around Uzbekistan was the center of it all, the junction between China, Persia, India and Europe and even today evidence of this can easily be seen. The architectural styles are an interesting fusion of the others and even the people look like a thorough blend of the rest. I'd say a Mongolian/Persian cross is most dominant but blue eyes are common too, coming from Aryan or even Greek influences from Alexander the Great's time. Archaeological digs have found the remains of every major religion (and a lot of minor ones too) all living in harmony (wouldn't it be nice to have that again!) and numerous languages all being used. As almost all traders were short or medium range haulers, the cities in the middle (here) effectively functioned as huge markets where goods were swapped and provisions restocked. Tea, silk, spices, paper and porcelain went west while gold, silver, ivory, wood and wool went east. Very wealthy and beautiful cities like Samarkand and Bukhara were created, only to be completely destroyed ~1220 for insulting Genghis Khan.
150 years later Timur (Tamerlane) created his own empire in the area and smashed them all again. He did a lot of building after though and the whole region is full of the blue domes and amazing tilework popularized at the time. You'll have to look at the photos when we get some up (don't hold your breath though) as some of these sites are awesome. Uzbekistan seems to be the only country in central asia with package tours and tourists too (we've seen a lot lately) so you have no excuse and have to come out here some time.
With major increases in the instability of the region and sea trade developments a few hundred years ago, the silk road went into decline, never to relive it's glory years. Small waring Khanates (kingdoms), infamous for their brutality and slave trading, or nomadism took over until the Russians eventually annexed the region. With the Soviets in charge, the entire region might as well've been wiped off the globe for all anyone ever saw of it. They did, however, do quite a bit of restoration as general decay and earthquakes had managed to knock almost everything down.
We've been to Samarkand and Bukhara now, both full of fantastic history and architecture. The streets are so quiet and clean though that we are all a little disturbed. Quite a few bus loads of tourists kicking around so there is a lot of tourist trap souvenir atmosphere as well. But overall it's been great. Accomodation out here is private B+B's with rooms around very relaxing courtyards and finally some edible food. They run at about $8/night with breakfast (more than we can eat). It's still really hot out here (35C) but we're quite used to all of that now. It's just the intensity and avoiding sunburns that we worry about now. It is also ridiculously windy too.
Tomorrow we take off further west to see the last of Uzbekistan's great silk road cities, Khiva.

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