The world is full of fascinating places and I am invited to travel on an ancient trade route -- the spellbinding Silk Road. I drive from Astrakhan in Russia to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. I am a part of the Silk Road 2013 Expedition organised by Land Rover Experience Germany. We are 11 vehicles in all, with two persons per vehicle.
Walk down Silk Road
You might as well ask, why a German Expedition on the Silk Road? Well though trade on this road is said to have begun in (202 BC-AD 220 in the first and second centuries AD), the name ‘The Great Silk Road’ was only given in the 12th century by German geographer and geologist Ferdinand Von Richthofen.
Stretching some 10,000 kilometres, the Silk Road gets its name from the lucrative trade of Chinese and Indian silk. Along with silk, many other goods were traded and various technologies, religions and philosophies, cultural practices, languages, recipes and cuisine along with tales and disease also travelled via the Silk Road.
This trade route got a big boost after the conquests of Alexander the Great. Once Alexander came over the Khyber Pass, direct trade links were developed by merchants from Greece, Egypt and Rome with the princely kingdoms of Hindustan (as India was known then).
The fine Indian silk reached China mainly through Tibet via what is now known as the Hindustan Tibet Road. Another route was the Nubra Valley in Ladakh. The Indian silk and famous ‘gold zari’ work or embroidery became most popular with foreign royal families. What’s also fascinating is that Indian silk was used as a protection for soldiers. It was worn under the armour, as it had the unique ability to help pull out arrowheads from a warriors body! Indian spices were also in great demand but it was the silk from Hindustan that undoubtedly played an important role in the development of the Silk Road.
The Silk Road went through China and the Central Asia region and the Bactrian double-humped camel was the main pack animal for the caravans, because of its ability to withstand cold, drought, and high altitudes. It carried supplies of up to 250 kgs and travelled 50 kms a day. And thanks to the Silk Road, some Bactrian camels are still found in the Nubra Valley in Ladakh.
The Silk Road also had a big influence on our history. Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire in India also came from the Central Asian region. He was born in 1483 in the city of Andijan, in contemporary Uzbekistan. In 1504, he crossed the Hindu Kush Mountains and captured Kabul. He then went over the Khyber Pass to battle with Ibrahim Lodi, the Afghan who ruled the Delhi Sultanate then. The Battle of Panipat was fought in April 1526, and Ibrahim Lodi was killed and his army defeated. Babur (father of Humayun and grandfather of Akbar) became ruler of both Delhi and Agra and thus began the Mughal Dynasty in India.
The Silk Road eventually faded from prominence because Portuguese explorers like Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India and landed in Calicut (now Kozhikode) in 1498. In 1513, the first European trading ship reached the coasts of China, and this was the beginning of the end of the historic Silk Road.
Barren and beautiful
One of the highlights of our expedition is the drive across Kazakhstan. Their roads are far worse than ours, but what Indians will find fascinating is how sparsely populated Kazakhstan is. It’s the ninth largest country in the world, but with just 17 million people, its population is only the 62nd largest. What’s even more significant is that its population density is less than six people per square kilometre! Compare this with India. Ours is the seventh-largest country and the second-most populous one with over 1.27 billion people (by a recent estimate). But more importantly, the population density is almost 400 people per square km! Which means that when you travel across a country like Kazakhstan, you wonder where the people are. In between cities, you have vast stretches of desert flatlands and steppe grasslands with not a soul to be seen anywhere. You can drive for 500 kilometres and not see even five people. In fact, we see more camels than people. Simply unbelievable.
Surprisingly, we do not see a single tree in Kazakhstan and no land being cultivated either. But we do see some horses and horsemen herding sheep. This desert land is barren and bare, but still beautiful. After we cross into Uzbekistan, the ‘land of the Uzbeks’, we begin to see few more people, but even here the population density is just 67 people per square kilometre.
While travelling along the Silk Road, we also visit the Aral Sea, which was once one of the four largest lakes in the world with an area of 68,000 sq kms. Since the 1960s, it’s been shrinking rapidly because the rivers that fed it were diverted by the Soviet government for irrigation projects. By 2007, the Aral Sea had become 10 per cent of its original size. This is ‘one of the worst environmental disasters’ that’s resulted in the creation of a desert on the former lake bed. Fishing boats now lie scattered on the dry land and it’s actually a very depressing sight. Fortunately, everything else we see in Uzbekistan is beautiful.
The historic cities of Khiva, Samarkand and Bukhara are simply spectacular. Along with Bukhara, Samarkand is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. Interestingly, Khiva and Samarkand are both on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, and Bukhara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The minarets, mosques, markets, mausoleums and madrassas, etc, all have a distinctive architectural style with decorations highlighted in shades of turquoise. Bukhara also has the oldest surviving mosque in Central Asia -- the Maghoki-Attar, dating back to the 12th century. Built in 1807, the Chor-Minor or Four Minarets, (we have one in Hyderabad too), is a little building full of character. It consists of four turrets with small turquoise cupolas and a square domed house between them.
Everything is cared for and kept very clean -- something we Indians surely need to learn. Even though many foreign tourists visit these historic cities, I do not come across a single tout or beggar and not harassed even once, which again is such a welcome change from our country. We are greeted with warm smiles everywhere, but what is strange is that when asked where I am from; if I say India -- it evokes hardly any response. But when I say Hindustan, there is instant recognition and I am often greeted with a ‘Namaste’. In fact a local FM station also plays Hindi film songs on a show called Namaste Hindustan. Many words used in Uzbekistan are familiar too. They call their sandy places or deserts, registan. We also refer to our deserts as -- registan. Shops are known as dukaan, gardens as bagh, mother as maa, etc. Uzbek women too wear a dress known as salwar which is identical to our salwar kameez.
Tradition and food
The food in Uzbekistan is fantastic and familiar too such as kebabs, naan, pilaf (similiar to pulao), and somsa (baked samosa). Yes, samosas are almost always baked in Central Asia and never fried. They are baked in round clay tandoors and sold on the streets as a hot snack. All the food is truly delectable and I particularly enjoy the kebabs which are served with raw onions and a much thicker version of the naan, than what we eat in India. The naan in Uzbekistan is like thick pita bread and sold all over. It’s rarely eaten hot and interestingly, the naan bread is considered to be holy for the Uzbek people. According to their tradition, when someone leaves home, he bites a small piece of Obi -- non (naan) and it is kept until the traveller comes back and eats the whole bread. The origin of kebabs is also equally charming. Uzbeks say it was born out of shortage of cooking fuel and the dish was invented by medieval Persian soldiers who used their swords to grill meat over open-field fires!
One of the most popular desserts in Uzbekistan is Halva. It’s sweet and delicious and considered a must at weddings. In fact during courtship, it’s customary for an Uzbek youth to bring halva for his fiancée. When a baby girl is born into an Uzbek family, she is also referred to as ‘halva’. They also have many chai khana’s (tea-houses), where you are served a pyali of chai! The Silk Road has truly helped connect countries, cultures and people in the most incredible manner and this makes my overland expedition on it even more memorable.