Ancient Soghdian city on Silk Road from 11th century

We have now been joined by the rest of the university group for the start of the official lecture and study tour to pick up the Eastern end of the Silk Road towards Western China.

Initially we follow arid mountain ranges on both sides of the valley east of Bishkek heading towards what was once one of the most dangerous parts of the Silk Road known as Ambush Gorge where merchants who once travelled this northern route skirting the large Taklimakan desert were prey to bandits. The name is still justified today as every bend in the road seems to hide a policeman with a radar detector with road speeds often limited to 40 mph so they do a roaring trade.

Today the route is an untidy conglomeration of single storey dwellings with corrugated roofs with attached gardens of fruit trees, roadside yurts offering produce, accommodation or services with looming sandy-coloured and treeless mountains providing the border with Kazakhstan 100 miles to the north.

Everywhere there are signs ancient civilisations, like the ancient ninth century settlement of Balasagun with its partially destroyed minaret, mausoleums, grave markers, as well as the nearby UNESCO site of petroglyphs carved into 5,000 rocks strewn across an area more than two thousand years ago, images of horses, horsemen, wolves, deer and rituals of pastoral peoples in ancient times that have survived a harsh climate in recognisable forms.

In Kyrgyzstan today it seems that the first thing you do when having a home built is to construct a three-sided boundary like the walls in a game of Majhong. If there is actual building within the plot, it will be half-finished and looking like a junkyard. Status obviously comes from your plot size only.

The night-stop is on the northern shore of the huge lake called Issyk-kul nearly 200 kilometres long, 60 kilometres wide and up to 2,000 feet deep. We looked forward to a boat trip until advised that the Russians used/use the lake as a torpedo testing site as presumably such an activity requires targets. The way the crew twisted around quite violently suggested that they might have been attempting avoid anything skimming the waves towards them.

Tomorrow we head south to freeze at almost 12,000 feet above sea level in conditions that Silk Road travellers would have experienced. Little did the public of the time appreciate the challenges involved in getting bales of silk to Europe 500 years ago.

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