I I took the trip of my dreams from London to Beijing in the happy days of 2019. It is a trip that today seems unimaginable. Traveling by land, I wanted to experience transitions between cultures, to understand more about what connects us. I was also interested in seeing the legacy of exchange along the Silk Road trade routes that once linked China to the west.
My first major stop was Venice. The city is full of influences brought by its many and varied visitors, especially those from the east. You can see them in the domes of St. Mark’s Cathedral, which evoke the medieval minarets of Cairo, and in the Renaissance masterpieces with their brilliant blue pigments, produced from lapis lazuli mined 4,000 miles away in northern Afghanistan. and brought to Venice along the Silk Road.
From Venice, I crossed the Adriatic to Pula and rented a car to travel southeast along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia to Montenegro via Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was in Mostar where I first heard azan, the Muslim call to prayer. The domes and minarets of Ottoman-era mosques pierce the city’s skyline.
To get to Istanbul, I zigzagged across the Balkans on three consecutive 10-hour train rides. The first of them, from Podgorica to Belgrade, crosses 435 bridges and passes through 254 tunnels.
Old men playing cards, young women feeding seagulls, fishermen waiting for a catch, women walking arm in arm, dogs and cats roaming the streets. There is so much life in Istanbul, so much to drink.
After crossing the Bosphorus into Asia, I hired the services of Tours in eastern Turkey, which transported me throughout Turkey: past the resting place of the Islamic mystic Rumi in Konya, through the lunar landscape of Cappadocia, along the Syrian border, around Mount Ararat and finally to the Iranian border. On the way, we pass caravanserai dating from the 13th century. These were the original travel lodges, where the Silk Road merchants rested, washed, prayed, shared gossip, and quarantined themselves before entering the cities to prevent them from transmitting the plague.
Given the diplomatic tensions in the Strait of Hormuz at the time, he was eager to enter Iran. However, my fears were soon dispelled by the relaxed air of my friendly guide.
We drove through Iran in 20 days, passing through Tabriz, home to one of the largest covered bazaars in the world; Isfahan and its fascinating mosques; the Lut desert, one of the hottest places on Earth; and the holy city of Mashhad, where visitors come to search for the tomb of Imam Reza. Its golden dome blinds the midday sun. Thousands of pilgrims pray in the large courtyards that surround it. Women in black chadors openly cry upon seeing the shrine, whispering prayers as men tenderly kiss the doors leading to it. My guide, a local mullah, closed the tour by reciting a verse from the Qur’an while a man at a nearby megaphone mourned the martyrdom of the fifth Imam, Baqir. Then came Turkmenistan.
Eight of us, Turkmens, Iranians, an Uzbek and I, got on a beaten bus and headed to the center of a bridge that separates Iran from Turkmenistan. Here, they told us to get down and wait. Several minutes later, a minibus came from the Turkmen side to pick us up. It seemed like a spy trading routine from the movies.
My journey through Turkmenistan took me from the ancient city of Merv to the white marble clad capital of another world of Ashgabat, through the Karakum desert and to the border with Uzbekistan. Emerging from the desert, Khiva is the Silk Road city of your imagination, a treasure trove of palaces, mosques and madrasahs clad in blue tiles that sparkle in the evening light.
Some 300 people were waiting to cross the border between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. I calculated a six hour wait. But, as in other parts of Central Asia, as soon as they saw me, a tourist, they sent me to the front of the line, a level of hospitality that I did not feel worthy of. Unlike arid Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan is mountainous, lush and green, a nation of vast, peaceful and wide valleys. The white yurts of semi-nomadic communities dot these landscapes, as do their herds of horses, yaks and camels. The feeling of space, under the huge dome of the blue sky, is profound.
To get to Tajikistan, I took the Kyzyl-Art pass. My driver took me to the military checkpoint and fired me. He did not know that there were 12 miles of no-man’s-land between the borders, connected by a rocky mountain road that would rise to 4,200 meters. After dragging my bags for several kilometers and getting away from an aggressive mountain dog, I took a ride with two German motorcyclists to reach the Tajik side.
The far east of Tajikistan is dry, dusty, and lunar. The air is thin. A short walk took my breath away. Unlike the rockier Pamir to the west, which sprouts from the Earth’s surface in dark browns and deep ocher, the mountains here look soft and glow purple, pink, and blue. I arranged a guide to take me to the top of Khorog peak, from where I could see Afghanistan across the Panj River. I was hoping to cross the border and then travel a short distance to Pakistan, but my proposed trip was restricted for security reasons. Instead, I had to take a detour of several thousand miles through Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe and Dubai.
Once I reached the mountainous north of Pakistan, I rested for a few days at the Khaplu Palace. Restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and converted into a heritage hotel, the palace has Tibetan, Kashmiri, Ladakhi, Balti and Central Asian influences from the regions it borders. There are few better places to enjoy the grandeur of the Himalayan and Karakoram mountains.
The trip to Gilgit took me through Deosai, a vast national park at 4,114 meters above sea level. After a steep climb, the path opens onto a verdant platform of wildflowers, gentle rivers, and crystal clear streams, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. In the distance, I saw the nomads of Kashmir with herds of cattle and goats.
After many miles of rocky roads, I reached the Karakoram Highway, the main artery connecting Pakistan with China. My traumatized spine was grateful to be back on the smooth asphalt. On the opposite side of the valley I could see a thin path that hung from the mountainside, an original stretch of the Silk Road. The owner of the hotel I stayed in recalled seeing merchants on horseback and camels carrying silk and other items on this road before the Karakoram Highway was built.
Beyond Hunza and Fort Baltit, which dates back to the 8th century, lies the border with China. The last stop was the remote border town of Sost. Shops, houses and hotels line its main street like in an old western town. Billboards proclaimed the friendship between Pakistan and China: “Brotherhood is loving and diplomacy is eternal,” read one.
From Sost it was five hours by minibus to the Khunjerab pass, the highest paved border crossing in the world. I sat hunched in the front seat with an old man wearing a traditional Pakol hat. I shared my stash of dried apricots with him. At nearly 4,700 meters, the Chinese border came into view in the form of a giant marble-clad portal adorned with fluttering red five-star flags. In this remote desert on the roof of the world, nothing could have been more incongruous.
Few places evoke the myths and legends of the Silk Road quite like Kashgar. At the western end of Xinjiang province, the city was the gateway for Chinese merchants heading to Central Asian markets and an essential stopover for those traveling in the opposite direction. The legacy of this mercantile exchange is a surprisingly diverse population. There are more than 30 nationalities in the Kashgar area, but the diversity of the region is threatened. In April, British MPs voted to declare that human rights abuses by the Chinese state against the Uighur people in Xinjiang amount to genocide.
Near the city center, I saw the old man I had sat with in the minibus: he was selling antiques from his suitcase to a Uyghur merchant. You could tell they knew each other well, but they only communicated with hand gestures. I realized that I was still going back and forth across the border and selling goods in the same way that they had been doing along the Silk Road for thousands of years. When the trade was over, I patted him on the shoulder. He stared at me for a moment, and then his face lit up with a smile and he hugged me like a bear.
My next stop was Ürümqi, an 18-hour train ride across the northern tip of the Taklamakan Desert. The word Taklamakan translates to “what goes in does not come out.” Many have lost their lives trying to cross it, but those days are mostly in the past. My train, though slow, brought me safely to my destination.
Where the Taklamakan Desert ends, the Gobi Desert begins. Now I was on the final leg of my journey, heading east on China’s high-speed rail network. It took about 10 days to cross China and reach Beijing. For four months, he had traveled 25,000 miles by car, bus, train, boat, horse, camel, and, yes, two flights, across 16 countries. My dream of crossing Eurasia came true. He had 50,000 photos to edit and an exhibition to develop. That exhibition is already open. I hope you enjoy the trip.
The silk road: a living history, an outdoor photography exhibition of Christopher Wilton-Steer and presented by the Aga Khan Foundation, is open in Granary Square, King’s Cross, London, until June 16, 2021
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism