Stories from the Old Silk Road - Kazakhstan
Dateline: August/September 2008
First Connection .... Kazakhstan.
Our first ever meeting with the Old Silk Road came about more by accident than design.
We had departed Moscow after leaving England eight weeks before on the second major leg of our around-the-world travels after travelling through Africa the year before. The Aral Sea beckoned, not for any real reason but purely because we had heard of this decimated inland waterway and wanted to see it for ourselves. And to tell the truth we were already sick of the forested country that had been engulfing us - part of the vast taiga that circles the globe in the far north of the northern hemisphere. It had smothered us in its greenery as we had travelled through Norway, Finland and into northern Russia; now we were heading into desert country, or at least into a semi-arid landscape, where we Aussies were much more at home. .
As we left the small, poor decimated village of Aral'sk, with its lifeless cranes overlooking wharves that hadn't seen a ship in decades and rusting fishing hulks sprawled across a dried up sea bed, we pushed south paralleling the Syr Darya River. This once great stream had fed (along with the Amu Darya) the Aral Sea, but the Russians, during the USSR colonisation of the region, dammed there waters for vast irrigation projects, turning the Aral Sea into a couple of ever-shrinking lakes, that are still ever dwindling to this day. However, as we were to learn later in our travels through Central Asia, the environmental nightmare that some say is the Aral Sea, has another, more positive side.
In years gone by though the Syr Darya was one of the rivers followed by the ancient camel caravans following the northern route of the Silk Road. From Turfan and Urumqi in China the course of these cavalcades was along the northern edge of the Tian Shan Mountains, before following this great river to and around the Aral Sea and onto the Black Sea and Europe.
That was also when we really understood that the Silk Road was never just one trodden path from China to Europe, but rather a network of trade routes between the two. Which course was used though was dependent on who was travelling it, the time of year, engulfing wars, the activities of villains and thieves, and which great warlord was in power and where his power extended.
Our first great taste of the monuments and heritage of the ancient Silk Road was when we arrived in the city of Turkestan, (not to be confused with the country of the same name a little further south), on the banks of the Syr Darya River. Dating back to at least the 4th century, Turkestan the city became an important commercial centre after the demise of nearby Otrar, which had been sacked and plundered by Genghis Khan in 1219.
In 1390 the great emperor and conqueror of much of Central Asia, Timur (also known as Tamerlane, who you'll hear more of later), erected a magnificent tomb (Mazar)over the grave of the Khoja Akhmet Yassawi, the Sufi leader, teacher and saint of Turkestan, who lived here during the 11th Century. A large bronze cauldron in the centre of the tomb was a gift from Timur. Today the city and the tomb attract thousands of pilgrims and it is said that three journeys to Turkestan is the same as going on the Hajj to Mecca.
Not far away is a more modern monument to the great camel trains that passed this way on their way to and from Europe or China.
We followed the route of those early caravans across southern Kazakhstan, first to Almaty where an earlier Silk Road settlement had also been sacked by Genghis Khan. Following along the edge of the Tian Shan mountains, heading east, we arrived in the very area that the humble apple originated, before we got to the China border. However, China had stopped us entering, so it was to be another 10 years before we followed the Great Silk Road across that vast country.
Copyright Ron & Viv Moon