A Millennium After the Height of Its Power, the Silk Road Draws Travelers Once Again
The very name conjures images of ancient scholars, boundless riches, and the might of empire. But what does the Silk Road look like today? A writer and photographer caravan through Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, once the epicenter of the known world, to see how their people are once again forging ties across borders — and finding new ways to understand their illustrious pasts.
Fall was already well along in Kyrgyzstan. The afternoon sky was piercingly bright, and the brisk air, made cooler by the snowy peaks of the Tian Shan, the “Heavenly Mountains,” called for a jacket. Nomadic herders along the south shore of Issyk Kul lake had already gathered their stock from alpine pastures and loosed them in a broad valley that hung between the mountains and a parallel range of hills like a rug thrown across two clotheslines. The mixed herds of cattle and sheep scattered across the unfenced range, each animal a sluggish atom on its own course, their slow dispersal local proof of cosmic entropy. Herdsmen on horseback kept them in check. At first, from where I stood in the hills, I couldn’t make out the riders: the scale of the landscape miniaturized their trotting.
When the eagle hunter arrived, he was dressed in the wardrobe of the country’s nomadic past but rode a Honda Fit, the hatchback horse of Kyrgyzstan’s 21st-century plains. His costume included a midnight-blue quilted silk coat over an amethyst corduroy waistcoat and gold-embroidered breeches; knee-high boots; and, for a belt, a heavy leather strap clenched by a steel buckle larger than his smartphone. His hat was a hunting trophy — its smoke-tipped fur quivered in the wind as if a still-living wolf — and his retinue included an assistant dressed in a similar if simpler vein, a driver in modern clothes, and two golden eagles. The assistant hoisted one of the birds on his right arm and climbed a nearby hill scabbed with rocks. At the hunter’s signal, he launched the eagle into the wind.
It circled overhead. The hunter called, and it tilted into a falling gyre that tightened and quickened in descent. The hunter ran, pulling a cord attached to a wolf-skin decoy. The eagle tucked into a dive and instantly overtook it, grappling the bloodless prey with its claws. Its reward was a chunk of raw pigeon, and it ate violently, before wiping its beak clean on the hunter’s bare hand and nuzzling his face with mammalian affection.
An apprentice eagle hunter’s rite of passage, I learned through my translator and guide, Aziza Kochkonbaeva, is to collect a wild chick from the nest and train it to hunt. By tradition and law, he will return the bird to the wild after 12 to 15 years. I asked where the hunter’s two eagles had come from — and where they would someday return, to soar to godly heights. The assistant pointed at the Tian Shan, a relentless caravan of peaks that crosses the country at Himalayan heights, and looked back at me.
“There,” he said.
Before this trip Central Asia was, for me, if not an entirely blank spot on my mental map of the world, then at most a negative space defined by the countries surrounding it: Russia, China, Afghanistan, and Iran. Within that expanse I confederated a lot of ex-Soviet -stan countries, among them Kyrgyzstan, a clot of consonants that seemingly defied English orthography, and Uzbekistan, where the cities bore names straight out of Orientalist poetry — Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand. My 10-day itinerary with photographer Frédéric Lagrange began in the former, to experience nature and nomads, and ended in the latter, for its classical Silk Road cities.
In both countries, the people I met were courteous, curious, and tolerant, traits perhaps honed by centuries of commerce with strangers at the crossroads of empire. Both countries were also multilingual and ethnically varied — true fusion cultures. Their architecture and decorative arts can be read like chapters of a great history book, recounting stories in three dimensions about the rise and fall of rulers and armies.
In Kyrgyzstan, I felt Central Asia’s genetic tether to Mongolia and China. The country’s eastern hub, Karakol, has a mosque built in 1904 by the Tungans, Muslim refugees from China, in the style of a painted pagoda. Half a mile away, a wooden cathedral topped by a gilt Orthodox cross stands amid a garden of lilacs, second only to the Stalinist apartment blocks nearby as a physical reminder of Russian influence. In Uzbekistan, sky-high minarets, my directional beacons as I wandered medieval mud-brick neighborhoods, told of lasting Turco-Persian influence. Blink and at moments you could have imagined yourself in the Middle East.
During and after the trip, I spent a lot of time looking at maps, which made me think about how they affect the imagination. In the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras, the widely published Mercator projection map of 1569 cleaved Asia into halves, tossing the amputations to either edge of the sheet. Centuries later, when the center of global power had shifted to the United States, the Robinson projection map — commissioned in 1963 by Rand McNally and still widely used — did better by placing Africa near the map’s center and keeping continents whole. But it still pushed Asia into the upper-right quadrant — way over there.
Doubtless like many Americans, I imagined Central Asia from an entirely wrong perspective. It’s not way over there. Central Asia was once the very center of the world, with populous, sophisticated cities that put to shame the backward, minor outposts of London and Paris. Its trade routes connected the great powers of China, Persia, and India. In English we tend to refer to that trade network as the Silk Road, as if it were monolithic, but we might more correctly speak of Silk Roads, plural. For a thousand years, they bound Xi’an in western China to Baghdad, Damascus, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Athens, and Alexandria. One silken strand unspooled as far as Venice, where merchant princes paid Palladio, Titian, and Tintoretto with profits from Silk Road commerce.
One northern branch of the Silk Road crossed what is now Kyrgyzstan. Caravans of Bactrian camels laden with textiles and other high-value trade goods called at Balasaghun, 50 miles east of Kyrgyzstan’s Soviet-built modern capital, Bishkek, now home to about 1 million. Before 1218, when the Mongols invaded and the fabulously rich city succumbed to pillage and centuries of earthquakes and erosion, some maps of the world placed Balasaghun at the center.
An unidentified 11th-century Turkish ruler, a recent convert to Islam, erected a 148-foot-tall minaret there known as Burana Tower from which the muezzin’s call to prayer fell over Christian, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian subjects as an inducement to join the ruler in his new faith. But the minaret, partially restored in the Soviet era, was to me less evocative of the multicultural city than the nearby 14th-century cemetery, with headstones inscribed in Turkish, Arabic, Cyrillic, and Latin scripts. A small museum displayed artifacts from the site: Islamic tiles covered with polychrome geometry; a Nestorian cross, possibly ninth century; seventh-century Buddhist stelae; a serene sphinx embossed on a ripped copper sheet.
“I always say the Silk Road was the Internet of the age,” Kochkonbaeva told me. The Internet, she explained, is where you go today to acquire information, learn a language, or buy anything you can’t find close at hand. On the Silk Road, the commerce was in ideas as much as commodities. “It’s where you would learn about Europe,” she continued, which made me think of Marco Polo, the son of a Silk Road merchant, who set out from Venice in 1271 as a 17-year-old alert to the world. While he didn’t get as far north as what is now Kyrgyzstan, he typified a new, curious generation of people found along, and perhaps even created by, the Silk Road: the world traveler.
Kochkonbaeva pointed out a vitrine filled with pierced Chinese coins from the eighth to 12th centuries. “It was the dollar of the Great Silk Road,” she said. “I recently had Chinese tourists tell me what is written on them.”
I was astonished by what Kochkonbaeva was saying: that those words, political messaging crafted by Tang dynasty rulers at a high point in Chinese civilization and stamped onto the reserve currency of the era, were still legible after the intervening centuries, during which first Europe and then America eclipsed China’s power before the Middle Kingdom rose again to contend for global dominance.
The coins read Trade, Prosperity, Peace.
Kyrgyzstan, mountainous and spectacular, offers only basic tourist infrastructure. We rode long distances over rough roads to reach simple guesthouses, sustained en route by plain food served in unadorned restaurants. Mutton and potatoes prevailed, although the breakfast table spoke a Tolstoyan language of black currant and raspberry jams.
The driving route over the next several days circled mile-high Issyk Kul, the world’s second-largest alpine lake after Titicaca in the Andes. Along the northern shore, cooler summertime temperatures and a sun-facing orientation favor beach resorts and apple trees, which were heavy with fruit during our visit. On the sparsely settled southern shore, apricot trees, inflamed with fall color when we stopped at an orchard for lunch, grew to the waterline. A spur of the Tian Shan called the “shady mountains” — shrouded in clouds, forbidding, as if the seat of unknowable gods — walled in the lake on the north, and to the south, the “sunny mountains” reflected undimmed daylight with a hard mystical clarity familiar to holy pilgrims and mountain climbers.
The mountains drew us, too. On our second morning, a cold start, a driver met us in Karakol in his repurposed Soviet-era UAZ troop carrier, a jeep built like a steel strongbox. “Everything Soviet is immortable,” Kochkonbaeva noted, coining a useful neologism for unkillable strength. The driver tested her maxim in Altyn Arashan Gorge, on the way to a guesthouse above the tree line. Not long after setting out, the rough track merged with a rocky streambed and further deteriorated as it climbed over scree slides, boulder fields, and stone ledges slimy with mud and pocked with sloshing holes. The driver was nonchalant and chatty like any other bored day-jobber, and he told us about a group of young Japanese travelers he ferried once. A panic rose among them as they bounced around the passenger compartment until one, out of her mind with fright, pushed open the door and leapt from the moving vehicle.
“What’s the secret to not getting stuck?” I asked, as the UAZ whined through mudholes and growled over rock. Kochkonbaeva laughed hard before catching her breath to translate his answer. “He said, ‘What makes him think we’d get stuck?’” In tourist season, the driver completes the round-trip twice a day.
With a one-hour morning flight from Bishkek to Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital and largest city (population: 2.4 million), we left mountains and valleys for plains and deserts, trading an atmosphere high and bright for one smoggy and sunbaked. It was a short flight between two worlds: Rural and urban. Nomads and agriculturalists. Felt dwellings and timber houses. Wool and silk. Apples and melons. We traveled by high-speed trains that arrived on the minute and one night stayed in a hotel described as “five-star,” although that spoke more to its aspiration than to its attainment of late capitalism’s luxury standards. The eating improved, too: the array of meze — pickles, dips, bright salads freshened with herbs — and the refinement of kebabs instead of bony stews.
Our guide in Uzbekistan, Kamal Yunusov, boasted that his mother was raised to speak three languages: Uzbek at home, Farsi when doing business, and Arabic for religious practice. During our time together, he was keen to convey the message that Uzbekistan, always a cosmopolitan country, is today a modern nation on the rise. In his eyes, the contrast with Kyrgyzstan could not have been clearer.
“I like Kyrgyzstan,” he said on our first meeting. “The people are still simple, open, proud, and they take care of their environment. An ex-nomad people.”
But Uzbekistan! Well, the Uzbek language was now an option on Apple’s iOS 13. And the Uzbek government had simplified visa requirements, so direct flights were arriving from Rome, Paris, and Frankfurt. Some 55 new hotels had been built to accommodate the tourists. What would be the tallest skyscraper in Uzbekistan was currently under way!
At the very least, Uzbekistan’s post-Soviet transformation reveals how capitalism is returning Central Asia to a place of global economic and strategic significance. The country’s leadership also understands the value of its historic sites as a draw for tourist dollars. Perhaps even more shrewdly, it has rallied pride around the triumphant national hero Timur, also known as the emperor Tamerlane — a red-bearded herder’s son who conquered much of the known world in the 14th century. A glorious past is being used to inspire a glorious future. At Amir Temur Square, the radial center of new Tashkent, an equestrian statue of Tamerlane rides into battle against a backdrop of modern buildings: the Modernist Hotel Uzbekistan, a Soviet relic, and a 2009 white-marble convention hall known as the Palace of International Forums.
In fact, Tamerlane was only one conquering ruler among an encyclopedia’s worth. I was drawn to the visual sophistication that he inherited from the Samanid era, when Uzbekistan had been part of Persia: it vibrated before my eyes everywhere. At Tashkent’s decorative-arts museum, which is housed in a historic mansion that was occupied by a czarist ambassador during the Great Game, when 19th-century Russia and Great Britain jostled for control of Central Asia, entire rooms were set aside for knotted rugs, carved wooden doors, filigreed screens, and jeweled daggers forged from layered Damascus steel. Afterward, our lunch likewise demonstrated the march of cultures across the region. Yunusov ordered a meat-filled pastry called somsa, which reminded him of Babur, the 16th-century conqueror descended from both Tamerlane and Genghis Khan. When Babur pushed into India to found the Mughal Empire, he left behind the pastry known there as the samosa.
Later in the afternoon we returned to the airport for a hop to Khiva, the most remote of Uzbekistan’s Silk Road cities, once an important oasis in the desert Khorezm region. Archaeological evidence dates the settlement back to some 1,500 years ago, but nothing built of mud bricks and elm wood survives exposure to weather and termites. Khiva is being remade constantly. On top of the medieval walls, first laid in the 10th century and rising to 30 feet in some places, an elevated walkway was split by hand-width fissures where rainwater had found its way to the earthen interior. Without repair, in another century or so the city would be undone.
Coming back from the ramparts, I passed ongoing reconstruction work at the Amir Tura madrassa. Billboards gave a bilingual explanation of the project in Mandarin and, in a smaller type, Uzbek. But the meaning came through the pictures: a satellite photo of Central Asia overlaid with the Silk Road routes alongside a staged diplomatic handshake between Chinese president Xi Jinping and Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s president from independence in 1991 until his death in 2016. Eventually I found a terse English explanation: “Chinese government assistance to Uzbekistan world cultural heritage restoration project.”
Chinese money is again flowing to every city along the Silk Roads. In 2013, Xi announced his Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious political and economic policy that sets out to do nothing less than build a new overland trade network from China to the Middle East and Europe. Xi has promised nearly $1 trillion in infrastructure investments to create new economic corridors along six of the ancient roads. In that context, the “Chinese government assistance” to restore the Amir Tura madrassa is a mere nicety of soft power, a ripple in a gulf stream of wealth.
China’s economic incursion into the region hasn’t gone uncontested. Turkey holds the honor of building Central Asia’s largest mosque, which opened in Bishkek in 2018. At the ribbon-cutting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed his hope that the investment would revive “the historic bonds between Anatolia and Central Asia.” The players have changed, but the Great Game continues.
From Khiva, we traveled by train across the Red Desert, a plain named for its springtime tulip bloom, to Bukhara. The city is famous for Po-i-Kalyan, a vast mosque complex pinned in place by the 150-foot Grand Minaret, but our first stop was a modest synagogue that one might have passed without noticing. The Jewish diaspora reached Bukhara as early as the eighth century, and more émigrés arrived in waves during the Crusades, after Spain’s Alhambra Decree of 1492, and in the 20th century. The flow reversed only in the 1970s, when the Soviet Union ended a ban on emigration and thousands eventually left for Israel or the United States. Today Bukhara’s Jewish population has dwindled to around 100.
As in Khiva, the city’s historic core retains its medieval labyrinth of narrow alleys and blind passageways. But in busy neighborhoods, residents who had nothing to do with the tourist industry went about their lives among the monuments — a Rome to Khiva’s Venice. At Kalyan mosque, a young man rode his bicycle the length of an interior courtyard as large as a football field; vaulted galleries three or four coves deep framed its perimeter. Inside the courtyard, a group of bearded men gathered around a bench to pursue some serious discourse. Religious attendance has plummeted by 90 percent in the past century, Yunusov explained later, and nowadays the only time Kalyan mosque fills to its capacity of 12,000 worshippers is on celebratory days such as Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan.
At the adjacent Grand Minaret, Yunusov explained how those icons of Islamic architecture had, in fact, originated among Persia’s Zoroastrians, for whom fire was sacred. At the dawn of Islam, muezzins called the faithful to prayer from rooftops, he explained. After the religion overtook Persia, they began to climb spires formerly used as inland lighthouses for desert travelers and put them to new use, retaining only the memory of fire, nar, in the word minaret. “It’s hard to say where Islam finishes and traditional beliefs start,” he mused. “The beauty of Central Asia is that each people is melted into every other.”
The next day, our last, the national parade of monuments climaxed in Samarkand, where Tamerlane rests at Gur-e Amir, an ornate mausoleum that anticipated the Mughal splendor of the Taj Mahal. The heart of the old city was the Registan, a square framed by three great madrassas erected between the 15th and 17th centuries. Though built as a monument to faith and learning, what Registan Square really memorialized, like St. Peter’s Basilica, was wealth and might. I couldn’t imagine the creative ingenuity and sheer manpower required to construct such ornaments of empire. Harder still to imagine the bewildering effect on medieval eyes undimmed by a lifetime of staring at screens.
By chance, the night before I had enjoyed a few minutes’ visit to that remote past before electricity. There was a blackout in Bukhara. I had just come back to my hotel, a caravanserai-style inn built around a central courtyard, and darkness had already overtaken its corners. When the power failed, I sat outside my room and listened: the outrage of crows, a dog noisy for attention, and then approaching footsteps. A hotel attendant brought two candles on a brass tray.
He used the occasion to practice his English on me. His name was Islom, and he asked me where I’d been in Uzbekistan. I played him a snippet of an audio recording I had made in Khiva, of a street performance. The graying instrumentalists were all men, the joyous singers a group of grandmothers who danced with such freedom and exuberance that I was moved, as when watching people dance at a wedding. They must have been playing a song about happy times. I asked Islom if he knew it.
“Of course,” he said. “It is the second-most-famous song in Uzbekistan.” It was, he explained haltingly, a song young boys and girls would sing when they liked each other very much.
“But the performers I saw were very old,” I said, teasing him, seeing if he could find the words to explain.
“Okay,” he said, ready for the challenge. “They are old, but they…” and he faltered.
“They remember?” I suggested.
“Yes!” Islom said. “They remember.”
Plan Your Silk Road Sojourn
There’s no shortcut to Central Asia. By far the easiest route to Bishkek or Tashkent is via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines, which offers service from most major U.S. cities. U.S. citizens can travel visa-free to Kyrgyzstan for up to 60 days, and Uzbekistan now offers 30-day e-visas for $20. Getting cash can be a hassle, so bring crisp new bills to exchange.
Start in Bishkek, the safe and orderly capital, where I explored Osh Bazaar and the spectacular Central Mosque. I stayed at the small, charming Navat Hotel, which serves a Turkish breakfast. Outside Bishkek, a car and driver are essential, and restaurants and guesthouses are modest. The ruins of the ancient city of Balasaghun and the petroglyphs at Cholpon Ata are worth a visit en route to the lake resorts and nomadic communities around Issyk Kul. At the lake’s eastern end, we stayed at Reina Kench, a lodge set amid apple orchards. Nearby Karakol feels like an Idaho ranching town, only dustier, but it’s the jumping-off point to scenic Altyn Arashan Gorge, surrounded by a mountain preserve with snow leopards and summertime yurt camps. On our return to Bishkek through the Kongur Olön Valley — down many miles of unpaved road — the scenery was epic.
You can’t miss the mosques, minarets, and madrassas, but make time for the markets and museums. In Tashkent, Chorsu Bazaar supplies acres of halvah, kurt (air dried cheese balls), and glorious melons; the State Museum of Applied Arts occupies a former ambassador’s mansion. I flew east from Tashkent to Urgench, the closest airport to Khiva, then worked my way back on the comfortable high-speed train. The mud-brick city of Khiva is best viewed from the top of the earthen ramparts; the comfortable hotel Malika Kheivak is within the old city walls. Bukhara was a highlight: I loved the medieval streets, vast Po-i-Kalyan mosque complex, cooling network of canals, and my lodging in a repurposed former madrassa, Hotel Minzifa. Samarkand’s main sights, Registan Square and Gur-e Amir, rank among the world’s great monuments. Hotel Platan and the adjoining restaurant are in a leafy Russian-style residential neighborhood.
T+L A-List travel advisor Jonny Bealby, who set up this trip, has been passionate about Central Asia for decades — he even wrote a book about his experience traveling the Silk Road on horseback. His company, Wild Frontiers, offers travel planning services for countries throughout the region, including Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Western China, and even Afghanistan. Similar itineraries from $3,950 per person.
A version of this story first appeared in the July 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "The High Road." Wild Frontiers provided support for the reporting of this story.