In search of the ancient Silk Road

Last modified 09.03.2022 | Published 09.06.20142010's, Kyrgyzstan, North, Central and East Asia, Travelogue, Uzbekistan

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This is about a trip on the Silk Road in the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Marco Polo was here before me.

The article is written and published shortly before I embark on a fourteen days road trip. The objective is to present my itinerary. It is a Classic – Marco Polo was here before me.


“Uzbek… Where’s that?”

Situated south of Russia and north of troubled countries like Iran and Afghanistan, these two “-stans” make up the heartland of the famous Silk Road, the ancient trade routes between East and West. In my childhood I read about Marco Polo who in the 13th century travelled the routes with his father and uncle and described the city of Samarkand as “a very large and splendid city..” The Polos also travelled to Bukhara, one of the other magnificent cities in this region.

1,500 years earlier, Alexander the Great arrived here and succeeded in conquering what became the northernmost part of his eastern empire. In between these two Europeans, the Mongols under Genghis Khan conquered the land, and even before that the Arab wind of eager Islamic missionaries swept across the region leaving faithful believers and everlasting physical remains to be admired even today. The mosques and madrassas are among the most beautiful buildings in the world, earning them acknowledgement as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.


In search of the ancient Silk Road

I will be visiting five heritage sites on this trip. I will be driving, by bus and car, across endless deserts and plains, through fertile valleys and into some of the world’s most impressive mountain ranges. After the sea routes proved more efficient, the land based connections between China and Europe were discontinued, and the central Asian countries became part of the history books and little more. And that is what intrigues visitors to the region today.


With its medieval blue-domed cities, kinetic bazaars and remote yurtstays, Central Asia encapsulates the romance of the Silk Road like nowhere else. (Lonely Planet)


For my part the Silk Road has always been a fairytale. Almost thirty years ago I stood on the Roof of the World, in Tibet and dreamt of finding a way to the northern Chinese caravanserais of Donhuang and Kashgar. (Just taste that word: Kashgar) I was not successful but I managed to get to the “official” starting point of the trade routes, the imperial city of Xian. The following year I set my feet in Istanbul and the Middle East, some 6,000 km away, at the other end of the land routes.

The Lonely Planet author continues: “From Alexander the Great to Chinggis (Genghis) Khan to Timur (Tamerlane), Central Asia’s page-turning history litters the land at every turn. Viewed from the right angle, the storied oasis caravan stops of Samarkand and Bukhara, with their exotic skylines of minarets and medressas, really do seem to be lifted directly from the heyday of Marco Polo. Share a round of kebabs with an Uzbek trader or wander an ancient caravanserai, and historical romantics will find the past and present begin to blur into one.”


Alright, that’s the sales pitch

Now to the practicalities. The Soviet legacy lies heavy on the former Soviet Union republics. I was planning a trip here five years ago but realised that the weight of red tape was too much to carry for the length of planning I had available. So I went to easy-peasy Laos and Cambodia instead. Later I have come to realise that the two Stan-countries on my present itinerary are not only the most historically significant and photogenic, but also the ones offering the least bureaucracy and traveller hassles.

In addition a group tour came up with an exciting content. It will be my first journey with a group, I am sceptical, but I have to admit it is convenient.

Basic route:

  1. Tashkent (by plane from Istanbul)
  2. Samarkand
  3. Shakhrisabz
  4. Bukhara
  5. Khiva
  6. Tashkent (by plane from Khiva)
  7. Fergana
  8. Osh
  9. Chichkan
  10. Bishkek

The total distance on road (bus and car) is 2,340 km. Equivalent distances are from Aalborg to Naples (north-south on the European continent) and from New York City to Oklahoma City in the United States.

This journey remains to be done, and the story of my journey remains to be told. (Written before the trip.)


Read more

This is part of a series of articles from a journey to the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Kyrgizstan in June 2014.

On the map below Leg 1 goes from Tashkent (A) west to Khiva (E) in Uzbekistan. Then a flight back to Tashkent (A) before Leg 2 to Bishkek (F) in Kyrgyzstan.



The chapters

(1) In search of the ancient Silk Road

(2) The monumentalism of Tashkent

(3) The road to Samarkand

(4) Shakhrisabz and the birth of a nation

(5) The Emir of Bukhara and the lost camels

(6) The magnificent oasis of Khiva

(7) The fertile Fergana Valley

(8) Nomadic life on the mountain passes of Kyrgyzstan

(9) Bishkek and the valley of Ala Archa


World Heritage Sites presented

#1230 – Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain

#0543 – Itchan Kala

#0602 – Historic Centre of Bukhara

#0885 – Historic Centre of Shakhrisyabz

#0603 – Samarkand – Crossroad of Cultures