Other photos of Old Silk Road


ITINERARY:  (from Thailand) Pakistan, Kashmir, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan (to India)

September/October 2000


Marco Polo's journey across the heartland of Asia from Europe to China along the old Silk Road has long been the stuff of mystery and romance. For 1500 years - until the opening of the world's sea lanes in the 16th and 17th centuries rendered it obsolete - the Silk Road teemed with camel caravans laden with silk, porcelain, tea, paper, medicinal herbs and spices that wended their way from Asia to Europe, returning with gold, silver, wool, horses, colored glass and wine.

Actually, a better name is Silk Route, as it wasn't a single road but a labyrinthine network of caravan tracks, exchange posts and bazaars linking Europe with Turkey, Persia, Central and South Asia and China. Traversing it from end-to-end took about 200 days, although no caravan went the entire distance. Rather, caravanners were short- or medium-distance haulers who met in various market towns to barter and pass along their goods. Probably the most significant effect of this route was not the exchange of goods but ideas (technologies and religions) between West and East.

Central Asia is not an easy destination for independent travelers because of visa and border hassles, security issues, and great stretches of territory where English is not spoken. Although we vastly prefer traveling on our own, we decided to take a 24-day small group adventure tour along a section of the old Silk Route. Beginning in Islamabad, Pakistan, we visited the famed Khyber Pass on the Afghan border, then followed the torturous Karakorum Highway up through northern Pakistan including western Kashmir and over the 16,000-foot Khunjerab Pass into Xinjiang, China. There we visited the ancient Silk Road bazaar in Kashgar, then went over the 12,000-foot Torugart Pass into Kyrgyzstan. From here, we traveled through Uzbekistan - visiting the blue-domed mosques of the fabled Silk Route cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand.

It's tempting to describe our Silk Road journey as simply another exciting travel experience full of exotic sights, smells and flavors. But the underside of the story is sinister - and threatening to world peace. The last part of this travelogue is a discussion of the Taliban and militant Islamic fundamentalism, including the problems of heroin, weapons, oil fields, power politics and terrorism.

(Note: We visited Central Asia in September 2000 - one year before the attacks on America - and wrote this travelogue soon after the trip. Since then, the Taliban has been toppled in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq; but security issues for travelers to the area are more serious now.)


ITINERARY: Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Taxila, Peshawar, Khyber Pass, Karakorum Highway, Swat and Hunza Valleys, Gilgit, Gulmit (to China via Khunjerab Pass)



Brightly-painted trucks and buses are Pakistan's modern-day equivalent of the camel caravan. Almost all transport vehicles are completely covered with outrageously psychedelic colors and designs - including roof-top racks that resemble the tiara and howdah (seat) of a maharajah's elephant. A child's shoe or black streamers are often dangled from vehicles to ward off the "evil eye." (Below left is the door to the truck's cab.)


Pakistan is a very poor country, controlled by a military regime that keeps the Kashmir conflict with India at flashpoint and supports the religious terrorism of neighboring Afghanistan. Our journey began in Rawalpindi, from which we visited the nearby cities of Islamabad (Pakistan's capital) and Peshawar - where Lou bought carpet number three: a small, square 70-year-old tribal rug from Uzbekistan. He insists, however, that he tried VERY hard to convince the fifth-generation rug dealer (see his photo in SHOPPING) that the carpet was far too good to sell for the miserable price Lou was prepared to pay but was too embarrassed to mention! The dealer quoted $1200; Lou reluctantly offered $200 and obviously was willing to leave without the carpet. After much hand-wringing, the dealer finally let Lou have it for $200. In Morocco he had earned the nickname "Berber-man Lou" when he purchased carpet #1 at 19% of the opening price; here in Pakistan he got the carpet #3 for a mere 17% of the initial offer. He then PROMISED to stop buying carpets, although he claims he did not buy this one - it was "forced" on him! Economists everywhere are laughing at that statement. Joan is laughing, too, because he later bought a carpet in Thailand and ANOTHER one in Turkey.) .

After going up to fearsome Khyber Pass under armed guard (see account below) to peer down into Afghanistan, we bumped onto the Grand Trunk Highway and headed north through verdant valleys and spectacular snow-capped mountains. We visited the stupas and monasteries of Taxila - once a major center of Buddhist culture. While there, we also explored the ruins of a Greek city with Corinthian features, and a tiny museum filled with ancient Greek and Buddhist artifacts. Imagine Buddhas draped in Grecian robes!

The fertile Peshawer Valley was bursting with corn fields, olive groves, vegetable patches, grazing goats and cattle, village bazaars, nomadic settlements and cricket games. Along the way, we passed two caravans of haughty Bactrian (two-humped) camels, laden with burlap bags of grain. Swat Valley was another rural paradise with its apple, plum and persimmon orchards, rice fields and irrigation ditches filled with ecstatic little boys cooling off in the hot, dusty afternoon.

After checking into the Serena Hotel in Saidu Sharif (formerly the home of the Sultan of Swat - yes, there was a ruler by that name before Babe Ruth), the two of us took an early evening stroll. A man hailed us from his rooftop and invited us up for mint tea. He told us about his upper middle class life and showed us photos of the departure of the British from Swat in 1941. His small son served us the tea - no women were in evidence. All of the many photographs in the living room were of men, so Lou asked to see a photo of his wife and daughters but quickly realized this was taboo. When the muezzin began calling the faithful to evening prayers at a nearby mosque, our host excused himself. We watched this elegant, educated man in his soft tan shalwar kameeze (loose, pajama-like clothing worn throughout Pakistan) walk out into the twilight - and shuddered at the strictures his fierce religion puts on females.

The few women on the streets of rural Pakistan were heavily veiled. In one very traditional village a woman was supposed to go outside her house only three times in her adult life - when she married, if she needed to go to a hospital, and when she died. We spotted the father and daughter below in a market stall, and thought about her future as a Muslim woman in an increasingly fundamentalist society. The girl was young enough that Lou could photograph her with her proud father's permission. We later mailed this photo back to him - perhaps the only photo he would have of her.


After spending the night in Besham at an inn next to the Indus River, we headed north on the narrow, twisting Karakorum Highway. This so-called "highway" - too primitive even to be considered a decent road - follows the path of what was once an important branch of the old Silk Route, taking goods from Europe and China into what is present-day Pakistan and India. The highway passes through a stark and barren river valley with nearly vertical mountain faces.


The roiling Indus River rushes head-long through this deep gorge from Tibet down to the Arabian Sea. The construction of the highway was a joint venture by Pakistan and China, but obviously not an economically viable one as the traffic along it is minimal. It was intended by China as a gesture of friendship with Pakistan - or, more precisely, a slap in the face at its old rival, India. The road took 20 years to build (1959-79) and cost one life for every 1.5 kilometers of its 1300-kilometer length from Rawalpindi, Pakistan to Kashgar, China. 

Along the way, the highway cuts through the three highest mountain ranges in the world: the Hindu Kush, Karakorum and Himalaya. Occasionally, 28,000-foot Nanga Parbat (the eighth highest mountain in the world) was visible along the way, but the taller K-2 was tucked out of sight behind foothills. Rocks occasionally crashed down near our small bus and the Pakistani guide said that the year before a tour group had been delayed a full week by a landslide. At one bend we passed a crowd peering over the edge. Slowing down, we saw a truck that had gone over the cliff a few minutes before and come to rest on its roof. Scary. Remnants of the ancient caravan trail and trading stations were intermittently visible along our way. We can imagine how fearsome this journey must have been centuries ago, when this "modern" one-and-a-half lane rocky roadbed was merely a camel trail hugging steep hillsides where robbers lurked.

The town of Gilgit lies up against the Kashmir border, and was once an important "listening post" in the Great Game (see below). A military presence is still very much evident here. The two of us wandered around the village, where Lou stopped to photograph a spice seller whose beard was henna-dyed bright orange. This is the Central Asian way of letting the ladies know that a gray-haired gent is still sexually active!


Leaving Gilgit, we rode up into the gorgeous Hunza Valley - our favorite area of the entire Silk Road journey. We could see 25,600-foot Mount Rakaposhi among the many peaks. During the ride, our guide told us of a recent men's soccer match between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The visiting Pakistani team showed up for the game in their usual uniforms - to the great consternation of the militant Muslims who rule Afghanistan, where shorts are strictly forbidden. After the game, the ruling Taliban had the heads of the entire Pakistani soccer team forcibly shaved as punishment! Afghanistan is now outlawed from all international sports, including the Olympics.

We stayed at the Darbar Hunza in the town of Karimabad. This huge, two-year-old hotel had dim lights, bland food, lukewarm water - and one of the world's most magnificent views from its rooftop deck. From it you can turn around 360 degrees to see a ring of jagged-peaked mountains - punctuated by the Tibetan-style Baltit Fort, said to be the inspiration for James Hilton's novel "Lost Horizons." We rode in creaky jeeps up the long road to this 13th century fort, and explored its wonderful heavy-beamed architecture and sweeping views. Lunch was at the Eagle's Nest, a vine-covered terrace cafe that served us delicious chicken soup and vegetable curries, washed down by cold beer. We opted to walk back down the dusty road, stopping along the way to try to communicate with women harvesting potatoes and pumpkins, and with a group of school children - whom we enticed to sing an Urdu folksong. In return, one of our group sang "Itsy Bitsy Spider" to the children's delight.

Because Pakistan's ruler, General Musharif, and his retinue were to take over the entire hotel the next day, we were kicked out - but found a charming small guesthouse (Gulmit Tourist Inn) a half-hour up the highway in the town of Gulmit. From our simple room overlooking an apricot orchard we could see the spectacular Cathedral Peaks in the distance. (Lou remembers this room vividly because a naked Joan almost went out into the hallway in the middle of the night - thinking it was the door to our bathroom!) Musharif's visit was occasioned by a special "Silk Road Festival" held on the Gulmit polo field, where we watched a vigorously fought tug-of-war, a stirring sword dance and several satirical skits. We couldn't understand the Urdu, but the hilarious "hippie tourist" satire needed no translation! The Chinese ambassador's speech, however, put us to sleep.


Following the festival, the two of us rambled through the narrow alleys of the old part of Gulmit. The deserted, mud-wall-linked buildings seemed to be a mirage from a much earlier time. Around the bend in one alley we encountered an unkempt man who invited us into his home. We ducked through the low doorway and found ourselves in one of the smokiest, dirtiest, shabbiest hovels we've entered. The single room had a clay floor and two clay alcoves lined with ragged, filthy quilts. In the center a woman stood stirring a pot on the smoky clay stove, while holding a snot-nosed baby to her breast. We were given a shabby quilt to sit on and (in the man's 10-15 words of English) offered something to eat - which turned out to be burnt rice on a dirty tin plate! Greatly conflicted between wanting to be gracious guests and fears for our mostly trouble-free tourist tummies, we managed to choke down a few morsels. (We suffered no ill effects, but that was probably because we had sense enough to turn down the water offered us that a son had brought in from a nearby ditch.)

The man showed us his army discharge papers; he'd been a mess cook. It was a good thing he couldn't read English, as the discharge papers indicated he was "unfit to be a soldier." Unemployed, he and his family depended on the charity of his more prosperous brother. We were due to head into China the next day, so Joan pressed our remaining Pakistani rupees (about $3 worth) into the woman's hand "for the baby" and was rewarded with a warm hug from the shy woman. Lou took some photographs of the family, and wrote down the hovel's "address" so we could send photos later. Feeling privileged to have penetrated beyond the usual tourist experience, we left them, greatly sobered by the vast gulf between their lives and ours.

Our drive over the 16,000-foot Khunjerab Pass was spectacular - starkly barren cliffs, a few autumnal yellow poplars and the braided Hunza River below. After some bureaucratic paperwork at the pass, the Chinese immigration officials let us through into Xinjiang Province. The hills here - more subtle than the mountains we'd crossed - are populated with yurts, Bactrian camels and curve-horned, shaggy yaks.

The majority of people in the area are Tajik, and there is considerable ethnic unrest along this sensitive border. Chinese border guards checked our passports several times along the way, and didn't allow us to stop or take photographs in the area.



ITINERARY: Tashkurghen, Tajik Country, Kashgar, Torugart Pass

The guide warned us in advance about the crummy Pamir Hotel in Tashkurghen  (the best of a sorry lot of lodgings); we endured it for one night, then headed along the border with Tajikistan toward the old Silk Route city of Kashgar. Along the way, we stopped at a very modest mud-and-stone hut to visit a Tajik family, whose bare-bottomed two-year-old daughter wore a ragged and dirty party dress. Toddlers who are not potty-trained wear no underwear throughout Central Asia, avoiding the whole diaper issue! She squatted happily to pee on the goat dung laid out to dry for fuel. (Tajik toddler; Joan with dung piles.)


Relatively well-off, this family owns a small tractor and a herd of goats. The pretty wife was wearing the bright red clothing seen on married Tajik women, her cap festooned with several long strips of cloth sewn with rows of plastic buttons, in lieu of the silver medallions that married women traditionally wear.

Later in the day, we spotted a picnic along the roadside: a Tajik goatherd and his family were enjoying smoky tea, rounds of flatbread, yogurt and globs of yak cheese. (We later learned you can't get cheese from a yak, which is male. Strictly speaking, this was nak cheese.) The family shared its repast with us and we shared some of our dried apricot kernels.

Next we stopped at a yurt about to be dismantled because the family was taking its herd of goats down from summer pasture. These Tajiks would spend the winter in a rock house at a lower elevation. The yurt was constructed of curved sticks overlaid with dirty wool, giving it a ratty appearance on the outside.


The interior, however, was ablaze with the deep reds of the richly-patterned carpets covering the walls and piled on the floor.



Once a major trading bazaar of the Silk Route, Kashgar still holds its famous market every Sunday. Some 50,000 local people gather here to trade everything from fur caps to dried apricots, from hand-woven silk carpets to gaudy synthetic fabrics, from braying donkeys to bawling sheep. Joan narrowly avoided being hit by a large blue truck loaded with steers - which brushed her backwards onto a tractor-drawn goat wagon that promptly took off with her aboard! Lou grabbed her quickly, and we crowded into the livestock area to find this charming row of sheep rears! 

Id Kah is the largest and oldest (1442) mosque in China. Its 36 teaching rooms are now empty due to the anti-religious communist government's strict control over Koran teaching on the site. This sharply contrasts with Pakistan, where Islam is the state religion. Most rooms in Pakistan provide an arrow on the furniture indicating the westerly direction toward Mecca in which to pray; without the arrows, Chinese hotel rooms were somewhat disorienting.


After the market we went to the outskirts of Kashgar to stroll through a poplar-tree lined, mud-walled village of middle-class homes accompanied by a giggling entourage of curious Uyghur children. Pulsating music drew us to one home, and the host came out to invite us to visit a party to celebrate his son's wedding. (The bride wasn't there - she was back in her childhood home celebrating with her own relatives!) Our group joined the brightly-dressed crowd in the courtyard of the home, where men danced sensuously to live Turkish-style music, while women and children gathered around to laugh and clap. One by one, the men danced up to males in our group, and enticingly beckoned them to join in the dance. Even the shy weren't exempt! Clearly, only men dance in public here, but they eventually got up the courage to ask us women to dance. Being "neuter" (in much of the world, Western females are accepted as outside of gender roles), we ladies happily danced - to the great amusement of the locals. When we left, the father of the groom said that he was both happy and unhappy - happy that we had come, and unhappy that we could not stay for dinner!

Marriages are still arranged in Xinjiang, but the arrangement is nowadays a parental suggestion over which the son or daughter usually has veto power. The wedding party lasts three extravagant days with many festivities and gift exchanges. The actual wedding is performed by a Muslim imam at the bride's home, after which she moves in with the groom's family. There is no honeymoon - probably because by now everyone is broke.

Crossing the 12,000-foot Torugart Pass from China into Kyrgyzstan was as exasperating as Lonely Planet's guide to Central Asia warned it would be. The arrogant Chinese border guards stalled us in the bare cement immigration building for some three-and-a-half hours, saying we were missing an exit permit! Maybe our tour leader eventually capitulated and paid them some backsheesh (bribe money). At any rate, the officials finally let us escape from China.


ITINERARY: Naryn, Dolan Pass, Lake Issyk-Kul, Bishkek


After leaving Xinjiang, we drove down through the mountains into Kyrgyzstan. Its vast spaces, punctuated by small herds of camels and yaks, evoked an aura of mystery. Occasionally, we'd pass a Moslem cemetery with tiny house-like tombs topped with crescent moons. 

With few natural resources and virtually no tourist attractions, desperately poor Kyrgyzstan is the only one of the former Soviet Bloc states in Central Asia to have a nascent democracy and the only one to allow private ownership of land. Formerly nomadic, the Kyrgyz tend to be rather casual Muslims, and detest and fear the Taliban. They also tend to dislike and distrust the Chinese and Uzbekis, but admire the Russians. It is reasonable to believe that in the future they might join a loose federation with Russia.

The hospitable Kyrgyz people have a saying: "The guest is higher than God." One day, as we passed through a village, we asked our wonderful guide Ulan if we could visit a middle-class home. He immediately stopped the bus and knocked on a door at random. A young man graciously opened the door wide to his unexpected foreign guests. His wife was in the hospital with their just-born first child, his mom was leaving for her job at the tax office and his father was in Bishkek running the family macaroni factory, but he graciously spread the table cloth, put on a kettle and brought out homemade bread and excellent homemade apricot and wild berry jams. Our guide did not pay him any money for his generous hospitality. We tried to imagine our reaction if we had been called to our front door back in Hawaii and asked by an unknown tour guide, "Can my busload of Japanese tourists come in for tea?"


At Dolon Pass, we stopped at the yurt compound of a three-generation Uyghur family, where we talked with a couple of tanned, toothless old-timers and watched a woman milk horses.

After she quickly swept out her yurt home, she invited us in to watch her prepare kumys (below) - the national drink. Kumys is made by churning mare's milk in a barrel with a large stick, then smoking it over a grass fire and letting it ferment overnight into a slightly alcoholic drink. It tasted like smoked lemon milk. Lou claimed to like it, but Joan noticed that he only drank one sip. We also sampled some horse cheese. Not too bad - only slightly stranger than the nak cheese of a couple of days before. There's no telling what these people will milk next!

Afterwards, as we passed through another town, we asked to visit a school, Ulan obligingly went into an elementary school and asked the principal if we could come in. He introduced us to an English class of a dozen 12-year-old girls. (A large, framed American flag was hung at the front of the classroom - upside down! We were too polite to mention it.) After a couple of awkwardly shy moments, the children actively engaged us in conversation in their halting English. These were bright and ambitious girls, especially the Russians. "What do you want to do after you have finished your schooling?" Lou asked one girl. "I want to be a minister." "Do you mean like a priest or a preacher?" "No - a government minister." Bravo, we thought. May she make it to a cabinet-level position in the Krygyz government!

In Kyrgyzstan, as in Xinjiang, the parents arrange for their children to marry. But, the Kyrgyz have an alternative called "hijacking." A boy and his friend kidnap the girl, perhaps while she is out working in the field, and take her to the boy's parents. They then contact the girl's parents, who figure out how much it has cost them to raise the girl from birth and present a billing for this amount to the boy's parents. The payment, called a kalyn, can be made in livestock and/or money. Hijackings are sometimes foiled by other boys' parents, who bid a higher kalyn for particularly attractive girls. It's an inducement for the girl's parents to sell their girl to the highest bidder. (Hmmm.....do we hear any offers for our daughter Shanna?)

This poor little country of five million is not getting richer. Once Kyrgyzstan had a decent manufacturing sector with glass, electronics, leather, milling, pencils and even television set assembly. Now, most of these firms (joint ventures with other countries) have been closed. Although it is illegal, people are dismantling the silent factories, and smuggling the salvageable parts into China. All we could see in operation were small concrete plants and flourmills. Bishkek, the capital city of one million, is filled with depressing, dirty, gray, under-maintained Soviet architecture. Weeds grow everywhere and at night feral dogs run in yelping packs until you grope for your earplugs. The country is actually rich in minerals, but foreign investment has not taken off - partly because the public sector has refused to privatize these resources. (Economics editorial by Lou.)



ITINERARY:  Tashkent, Urganch (Khiva), Bukhoro (Bukhara), Samarqand (Samarkand), Tashkent (to India)



From Bishkek we flew to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. We were distracted from worrying about the decrepit Russian plane by the incredible vistas below us. The terrain is so barren that it seems like the face of the moon - completely without vegetation or man-made features. The sun was low on the horizon, creating rippled orange shadows across the eroded landscape.


The capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent is a modern city of 2.5 million - largely rebuilt since a devastating earthquake in 1966. We found it too new and blandly Western to be of interest, and the Uzbeki people more glum and stolid than any nationality we've ever met. The contrast between our experience of the people of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan was startling. Is it because the charming, friendly Kyrgyz are a recently nomadic Mongoloid people, while the dour Uzbekis are a long-settled Turkic people? Lou thinks that nationality was not the primary explanation, but that our experience was determined by the fact that our contact with the Kyrgyz - unlike our contact with the Uzbekis - was in non-urban, non-tourist areas. Joan, on the other hand, remembers our Dutch tour guide's aversion to the Uzbeki people; he has traveled all over the world and never has found such gloomy, unfriendly people.  It may be, Joan thinks, that the backgrounds and traditions of the Turkic people led them to feel more oppressed by the Soviets than did the Kyrgyz people, and the Uzbekis responded to this oppression with a grim attitude. A comparison of the attitudes of former Soviet satellite peoples is probably already a doctoral dissertation somewhere!


After a day in Tashkent, we flew eastward to Urgench, our base for visiting nearby Khiva. This glorious walled city is about 2500 years old, and contains 60 medressas (theological schools), 90 mosques and a lot of minarets and rib-domed mausoleums. Most of the standing structures date from the 15th and 16th centuries. The minaret towers are not only decorative, but also serve as heights from which muezzins call Muslims to prayer; in earlier times they also were used as lookouts to watch for brigands. One of the most interesting buildings was the khan's (prince's) harem of three courtyards and 163 rooms. Some khans had 200 concubines, in addition to the four wives allowed by Islam. The last khan was deposed by the Russians around 1920.

Craftspeople are allowed to work and sell in many of these awesome architectural gems, provided they pay taxes to help maintain the city. There was an alarming commotion in one medressa where we were examining tapestries and paintings for sale. The taxman had been spotted on his way to collect. Several vendors nearly knocked us over in their scramble to gather up their goods and hide in the back rooms!

Tilework is the outstanding feature of Khiva's architecture. From a distance, the brilliant cobalt and turquoise colors glisten against the sky.

Up close, the intricate details of the designs - geometric, calligraphic or floral abstractions in accord with the Islamic taboo on the representation of living creatures - are equally impressive. Surprisingly, the esthetically-challenged Soviets managed a sensitive restoration of many buildings in Khiva.

Our drive towards Bukhara took us through a region of intensive farming in Uzbekistan and even across one corner of Turkmenistan. 80 percent of this area is planted in cotton and 80 percent of the cotton is handpicked. The Russians built irrigation systems and forced this specialization in cotton, which continues today - despite the fact that it's an unsustainable crop for the area. Much of Uzbekistan is an environmental disaster because cotton is a thirsty crop and the depleted soil eventually blows away.


Another grand 2500-year-old Silk Route city, Bukhara played an important role in the 19th century's "Great Game" between Britain and Russia. We visited Zindon, the prison where the famed British spies Stoddart and Conolly were held by the depraved Nasrullah Khan (the "Butcher") and Registan Square where he had them beheaded. We stood in awe of the intricate brickwork of Bukhara's tallest minaret. Ghengis Khan destroyed much of the original minaret in the 13th century; it was rebuilt in the 16th. The khans used to have their enemies dragged up this tower in bags, and thrown screaming from the top.

Magoki Atori was one of our favorite mosques. This charming structure was built in the 12th century, though it was a place of worship as far back as the 5th. Its history is remarkable. Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Muslims and Jews all have worshipped here. Timur actually divided the building into two halves - one part mosque and the other synagogue. If only the current conflict in the Middle East could be resolved as sanely!


By the time we arrived in Timur's great capital city of Samarkand, we were becoming rather jaded by gorgeous Islamic architecture. As we neared the end of our Silk Road journey, the fatigue factor had set in; even so, some of the sights here were truly inspiring. We also stood in awe at the immense ruins of the shapely Bibi Khanym mosque and were moved by the ancient street of tombs called Shahr-i-Zindah. And the Registan was overwhelming - the city's piece d' resistance and an ensemble of three enormous tilting (because built in a hurry) medressas, dating back to 1420. 

Tashkent Airport provided an unexpected adventure as we departed Uzbekistan. We were totally crushed at its narrow front door, through which airport security guards were (apparently) trying to keep anyone from entering. At last, they waved us in. There was almost a stampede, as everyone held tickets aloft, shouting and shoving. We got stuck in the doorway, until the powerful press of people finally rammed us inside, where we all milled around like loaded mules - wearing stuffed backpacks next to large Uzbeki women carrying huge bundles of fabric and clothing to sell in Delhi. We pushed and fought our way through the incredibly jammed X-ray "line" (jumbled X-ray mess) and again through the check-in "line."

After reaching our seats on the Uzbekistan Airways plane, we felt even less comfortable. It was stripped of anything familiar except seats and windows. No exit signs were evident - nor any exits, either! The overhead "bins" were uncovered shelves with heavy bundles perched precariously over our heads. The stewardess mumbled something in Uzbek and repeated it in some unknown version of English. (It surely had nothing to do with safety as that obviously was not a concern!) Then we lurched into the air - with some seats still reclining, tray tables open and seat belts dangling. We were relieved to bounce down onto the ground at the New Delhi airport.


The Khyber Pass combines in one place all the strands of the tapestry we encountered along the Old Silk Road - trade, war, religion, gender politics and multi-national intrigue.

We rode up to Khyber Pass under armed guard. Before going there, our group stopped at the Khyber Agency in Peshawer to ask police permission to venture as far as the Khyber Pass, located near the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. We waited anxious minutes to find out if the situation was calm enough for us to be allowed to visit. Finally, our guide returned to the minibus accompanied by two slender, fierce-looking young men wearing shabby uniforms and toting Kalashnikov automatic rifles.


Only under armed guard would we be allowed to travel into the "tribal territories" - a virtual no-man's-land between the two countries. The Pakistan Army controls just the highway and about ten feet on either side of it; the rest of the territory is under continual dispute among some 70 ethnic tribes, who have fought each other and all comers for centuries. Both the British and the Russians have tried in vain to subdue this area. Indeed, the British army considers the Pathans (along with the Ghurkas of Nepal) to be the finest warriors they have ever fought. To be allowed into this volatile area, we had to agree not to stop anywhere but on top of Khyber Pass, and not to take any photographs until we arrived there.

We drove out of Peshawer past miles of crowded mud-brick villages, whose thatch-roofed houses were connected by protective mud walls. For the past 20 years these villages have been the "temporary" home of  200,000 Afghani refugees. 30,000 more Afghani refugees fled into Pakistan in a single month about the time of our visit, causing Pakistan to close its border on November 11, 2000. With Afghanistan's other Central Asian borders also sealed, Afghani people maltreated by the militant Taliban regime were trapped. 

We passed scores of gun shops along the highway and from the bus window we could see that most men carried rifles as they shopped in the local bazaars. How were all these people surviving in such a stark land - a land void of crops, grazing or mining? The answer was simple. They're smugglers. That is, they follow the time-honored Silk Road tradition of trading, but without paying the usual tariffs. Typically, goods are shipped from China to Karachi, a port town in southern Pakistan. By agreement between the Pakistan and Afghanistan governments, trucks carry goods labeled for direct shipment to land-locked Afghanistan directly across the border. The tools, synthetic silks, electronics etc. are then transferred to other trucks (or to cars and bikes) and brought tariff-free back into Pakistan for consumption. We watched brand-new, plastic-wrapped Chinese bicycles being ridden back over the pass; other goods are smuggled along the myriad trails through the mountains.

The winding road and endless bottlenecks around the Khyber Pass must have terrified armies advancing against some of the world's best sharpshooters. We looked down into Afghanistan through field glasses and could see rows of large containers waiting to transport contraband goods. It was amusing to see the old Silk Road in its contemporary form - until we learned the darker truth. Far more sinister than the mere breaking of tariff laws is the massive heroin/arms trade. 75% of the world's supply of heroin is smuggled from Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass; returning trucks carry weapons back in. The underlying political situation may eventually jeopardize world peace. (Again, this was written a year before 9/11.)


Before we went on this trip, we read a number of fascinating accounts of the "Great Game" - the term for all the espionage and counter-espionage of the 19th century that was focused on Central Asia. Great Britain was anxious to protect its control of India, while Russia wanted to expand its southern border and perhaps even take India for itself. The face-off between the two powers was classic Cold War maneuvering. Spies disguised as traders sometimes ended up thrown by the local khans into wells, dropped off towers or simply beheaded. 

Eventually, the Tsar of Russia took over Central Asia, and - after 1917 - the Bolsheviks tightened Russian control. With the exception of Afghanistan and Xinjiang, the Central Asian countries are the arbitrary creations of Russia, which drew boundary lines intended to fragment and scatter the many ethnic groups to prevent nationalistic uprisings. Since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., these former Soviet Bloc countries are struggling to survive as independent nations.


An Islamic fundamentalist group called the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996. Its stated objective was to return the country to the time of the Prophet Mohammed - i.e. return it to the 7th century. (While the following account was written before the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, America's intervention in Afghanistan and the fall of the Taliban government, it's interesting in hindsight to see that nearly all of it might have been predicted from what we learned on this tour.)

The Taliban's "Department to Propagate Virtue and Eliminate Vice" forcibly confines all women - including doctors, lawyers and teachers - to their homes. Women are flogged if they leave their houses without being completely veiled and accompanied by a male relative. They are not allowed to work or attend school. Women who wear nail polish have their thumbs chopped off. Women are not allowed medical care by male doctors, so they have had no medical care until very recently - when a few female doctors (under close supervision) were allowed to return to work. Men must wear beards (a sign of being a devout Muslim) at least as long as a fist, or they are jailed until that length is reached. Men who do not "control" their womenfolk are beaten. Kabul's sports stadium is crowded (men only) every Friday afternoon, when thieves have limbs surgically removed (under anesthetic), female adulterers are stoned to death (without anesthetic) and murderers are beheaded. Television, music, videos, card playing, dancing, singing, and having photographs or paintings on the walls of homes are forbidden throughout the country. 

Our well-educated guide Waheed was born in Afghanistan and brought to Pakistan by his refugee parents when he was a year old. We expressed to him our extreme repugnance at the Taliban's brutal repression. Waheed's response was sobering: "Much of the fault lies with the West - particularly the United States," He claimed that the U.S. (through the CIA) had given a covert $700 million a year (including weapons) to support Afghanistan in its conflict with the U.S.S.R.. With the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, he said, the U.S. lost interest in the area and abruptly pulled out without first helping to stabilize the situation. The ensuing power vacuum resulted in years of devastating civil war, in which 1.5 million Afghanis were killed. Feudal warlords ruled big sections of the country - raping, killing and looting at will. Most of the educated people fled the country. 

Finally, a group of reactionary Islamic students (Talib means student of Islam) successfully led a military conquest of 95% of Afghanistan. (Fighting goes on in one northeastern valley.) At first, the Taliban's control was a welcome relief after a period of extreme lawlessness and the United States and its allies supported it. It has become obvious, however, that the Taliban's leaders - uneducated except for religious texts - have no concept of their country's history and culture, and no interest in establishing a viable nation state. Their sole aim is to create the world's purest Islamic country.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan's 50,000 war widows are not allowed to work and must beg for food for their families. Several United Nations food truck convoys rumbled past us when we were at the Khyber Pass. Unfortunately, such humanitarian aid to the drought-stricken, starving Afghani population simply relieves the government of feeding its own people and allows it to spend that much more money on arms. The Taliban's successful jihad (holy war) in Afghanistan has sent shock waves across Central Asia. Some experts fear that Pakistan may be the next country to fall to militant Islamic fundamentalists. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are also being infiltrated. India and Russia are very worried about the potential for the entire area being controlled by Taliban governments, and have rushed to shore up border defenses against Muslim terrorists. To complicate matters further, the world's largest untapped supplies of gas and oil have been discovered in the Caspian Sea and Central Asia. The best route for an 800-mile pipeline is across Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. A "New Great Game" is being played out between American, Chinese, Japanese, British, Argentinean and Russian oil interests. All of these countries have been guilty of trying to grab their share by placating and romancing the Taliban in order to lay a pipeline. The old Silk Road has been transformed from a silk, spices and porcelain route into a heroin, weapons and (potentially) oil highway. 

In the United States, we tend to elect our presidents based on their stand on domestic issues (the economy, education, Social Security, abortion rights, etc.) often forgetting that the president usually has more impact on foreign than domestic policy. As the world's dominant "game player", the U.S. president must be capable of dealing astutely with a tangled web of conflicting international interests. Hmmmmm...

Other photos of the Old Silk Road

The Silk Road tour concluded in New Delhi, INDIA



GUIDEBOOK:  Central Asia (Lonely Planet)

BACKGROUND READING:  Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid. (The author is a Pakistani who, for 21 years, has reported on Afghanistan for the BBC and CNN.) Also good: The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron; and Kim by Rudyard Kipling

(2000 Prices)

ELDERTREKS 24-DAY SILK ROAD TOUR:  $4915 per person, not including air travel to and from Central Asia nor cost of visas. Based in Toronto, Canada, this tour company specializes in small group adventure tours for travelers 50 and older. This firm (not to be confused with Elderhostel) also offers small group trips to other exotic areas around the world.  Ph:(800) 741-7956   www.eldertreks.com

RAWALPINDI (Pakistan): Shalimar Hotel. Fax: 011-92-51-566061

SWAT VALLEY (Pakistan):  Swat Serena Hotel, Fax: 011-92-936-710402

GILGIT (Pakistan):  Serena Hotel, Fax: 011-92-572-77106

KASHGAR (China):  Qinbagh Hotel, Fax: 011-86-998-2823842




Joan and Lou Rose     joanandlou@ramblingroses.net