I’m standing by the bar at my favorite music venue in Beijing, China talking to a man in his late twenties from Minnesota about his failed plan to travel the Silk Road on foot. Over the blaring guitar of a local punk band, I struggle to hear him explain how the journey fell short. Their mission came to an abrupt halt in the Kyrgyzstani city of Bishkek due to the premature arrival of winter. Other sources have confirmed that the journey was derailed because, after walking more than 1,930 miles from the ancient trading city of Xi’an, China to the capital of Kyrgyzstan, the three exhausted and horny young men wasted away the last good months of fall fooling around with some local girls. Apparently they plan to complete their journey sometime next year. Good luck, boys.
The Silk Road is a 7,000-mile long trade route stretching through 43 countries, starting in Xi’an and terminating in the storied canals of Venice. The trade route was established during the prosperous Tang dynasty to facilitate the exchange of silk, gems, and spices between foreign lands stretching from China to the Roman empire. The Silk Road was the vector of goods, religion, and ideas between the East and West. Today, all along the route, you still can see evidence of the influence of distant empires. No wonder the Silk Road has inspired so many to retrace the legendary trek.
Unlike my new friend from Minnesota, I had no intention of traversing the length of that ancient route—not by plane, and definitely not by foot. However, I did set out on a trip last summer that coincidentally took me through parts of the Silk Road I had never known existed.
I’m in Beijing in July. I’m expressing my anxiety about being stranded in Asia without any plans to a friend over a platter of Szechuan pepper crawfish and a watered-down beer. I have all of August to kill before my study-abroad program resumes, and I refuse to go back to the US—too out of the way. Southeast Asia sounds like fun, but my friend reminds me that it’s monsoon season. Mid-complaint about how my other friends have abandoned our travel plans, he offers to go with me—under one condition: we just have to go to Uzbekistan. A few weeks, and a lot of Baidu-ing later, we scrape together a loose plan to travel to Kyrgyzstan by way of the ancient trading city, Kashgar.
You’ve most likely heard of Kashgar--a historical city in the predominantly Muslim autonomous territory of Xinjiang--in the context of the Uyghur work camps being operated there. Since my Chinese VPN was rather finicky, I was relatively unaware of the political tensions in Kashgar. Some hasty research on Baidu had led me to believe that the Silk Road trading post would rival the enchanting bazaars and streets of Marrakech.
Kashgar does have much to offer in the way of patterned mosques and shashlik so fresh that you can literally see the slaughtered head of the goat tossed in a pile by your feet. However, the tranquil, vine-covered courtyards and narrow alleys are punctuated by police-manned metal detectors; an air of suspicion pervades through the shashlik-perfumed air. While labyrinths of clay houses weave through the heart of the city, the small, preserved corner of town is dwarfed by the surrounding expanses of hastily built modern buildings--characteristic of those in young cities all over China.
We sip rose tea, cross-legged on worn Persian rugs in a tea house that once hosted travelers on the Silk Road. Elderly Uyghur men with weathered faces and embroidered caps flash us toothless grins and wordlessly extend us local breads reminiscent of New York bagels. A blind musician settles down next to us and begins to play an exotic tune on a bone-laiden string instrument. But the spell of otherworldliness is abruptly broken by the assault of dozens of camera-wielding tourists, who reduce the scene into a spectacle for their WeChat feeds.
Huddling around our hotel’s Wifi router, we plot our escape from this strange land. At the tourist office, a bored-looking Uyghur man with a lazy eye informs us indifferently that the border crossing at Osh will not open until Tuesday. It’s Sunday. Somehow, in the next two days, we manage to make a rather underwhelming visit to what I hesitate to call a desert and also lose our last remaining debit card—did I mention I lost my debit card the night before leaving Beijing?
Tuesday finally arrives, and an hour after our confirmed departure time, the van finally pulls up, marking the beginning of our journey to the Kyrgyzstani border. I peer out the dusty window, transfixed by the valleys of rainbow-colored mountains flashing by. The tune of our driver singing along to tantric hymns in an unintelligible tongue is interspersed with his loud, dry coughs. We reach the first of many border patrol checkpoints. Our driver pulls up to a nondescript building where we file into a line behind a group of tourists. I make conversation with an Australian man, showing him a feature about Chinese soldiers and their cute babies in a military propaganda magazine (the only form of entertainment provided as we wait for the guards to examine our passports). A guard starts looking through the photos on the DSLR camera of the tourist in front of me, deleting all of the photos taken within the barbed wire boundaries of the checkpoint. I slip my phone into my fanny pack to avoid a similar fate.
At the last of many checkpoints, a group of travelers approach us asking for a ride through the last stretch of territory before we reach the Kyrgyzstan border.
Eventually, a hillside adorned with the words “China Welcomes you,” spelled out in rows of withering flowers, alerts us that we have officially left China. Unfortunately, this also means that the driver must leave us here, about three miles from the nearest taxi. Our motley little group looks around, assessing the dry, mountainous landscape. My friend suggests we hitch a ride with one of the hundreds of sixteen-wheelers lined up at the border. Luckily, the tour group we encountered at the last few checkpoints is not far behind, and they agree to give us a ride to the Kyrgyzstan entry checkpoint in the back of their luggage van.
At the final security checkpoint, a group of curious guards approach us, offering to help us find a taxi to Osh, and asking whether my friend—who happens to be gay-- and I are married. At this point we have grown accustomed to just lying in light of predominantly negative cultural attitudes towards LGBTQ individuals.
The next day we wake up in our hostel, and make plans for the following week. Travelers from all over the world descend upon this lesser-known mountain town before heading out on treks in the surrounding Alay Valley. I too, had ambitious plans. After much back and forth, we agree upon a three-day trek into the jailoo. Kyrgyzstan, with the exception of its ex-Soviet capital city, is a predominantly nomadic country. Jailoo is the term for the vast open pastures where Kyrgyzstani shepherds and their families set up yurts in the spring and summer to let their sheep graze. Our plan is to spend three days trekking through the jailoo and stopping for the night at prearranged yurt stays.
When our trek is arranged to begin, it becomes obvious that we won’t be making the three day jialoo journey due to an injury I received on a practice trek the previous day. I convince my friend I’ll be fine tomorrow. We just need to get my knee checked out at the hospital, right?
Someone at the hostel tracks down the “intern,” a young Kyrgyz journalism student who agrees to translate for us at the local hospital. We arrive at a large, white building and enter through a side door. There’s no lobby, so we just flag someone down in the hallway and they lead us into an examination room. The doctor orders two nurses enjoying lunch on the examination table to leave the room. They scramble to remove their bowls and newspaper tablecloth off the table. I take a seat, and the doctor rotates my leg in a few different directions, determines I’m fine, cleans my knee with some rubbing alcohol, and finishes it off with some gauze. I ask our translator if I’m okay to ride horses, and after consulting the doctor she gives me the go-ahead. At the door our translator hesitantly suggests that we compensate the doctor—70 som, the equivalent of one US dollar. Suppressing my shock, I hand her the money and limp out of the hospital.
A van drops us at our first yurt camp on the shore of the breathtaking Song Kol lake. The body of water is nestled in a remote part of central Kyrgyzstan that is inaccessible most months of the year. It’s summer, but at the high elevation, it’s still cold and windy. Later, in the dinner tent, we dine on an assortment of bread, potato stew, and chunks of goat meat with the other travelers at the yurt camp: two Belgian girls and a group of Poles. After dinner, it grows dark and cold. We chase a stray chicken out of our yurt and settle in to prepare for our early journey.
The following morning is surprisingly warm. I’m vigorously kicking my horse trying to get him to move along, but he keeps stopping to chew on grass and pass gas. At first it’s funny, but it grows increasingly challenging to stay in good spirits amidst the swarm of flies and my horse’s worsening bowel condition. Suddenly, the weather takes a turn for the worst. Within minutes I go from complaining about heat and flies to being assailed by a violent hailstorm. Our vision quickly becomes compromised by sheets of ice falling from the sky, and the vast plain appears deserted, with nowhere to seek shelter. My friend, in a moment of desperation, launches himself off his horse and sets out running toward a distant yurt. I sit helplessly on my gassy (and now very angry) horse as our guide drags us towards cover.
We find ourselves in a yurt accompanied by ten concerned faces. The mother welcomes us in and ushers me towards the stove, where I attempt to dry off my soaking jeans. With no language in common, we turn to the universal tongue, food, and share the crackers, cheese, and cured meats we had bought for our journey. The mother arranges the snacks on the low table in the center of the room, along with some handmade sheep’s milk butter and bread. We drink tea and gesture at one another while we wait for the storm to subside. My traveling companion, whose warmest layer is a windbreaker from the Duke store, is in low spirits when we finally say farewell to our hosts.
Although the worst of the storm is over, the cold wind still cuts through our wet clothes as we ride on through the hills. When we stop for tea and to exchange my pitiful horse at a yurt camp several miles later, my friend starts begging us to turn around. Our guide, who seems completely unfazed by the whole episode, encourages him to carry on. And we do. The surrounding hills and mountains, bathed in a post-storm haze, are almost beautiful enough to distract us from the fact that most of our extremities have gone numb. When we reach the peak of the valley, our guide tells us we’re close. A sunlit valley welcomes us at the base of the steep hillside, and we’re almost too busy trying not to slide down the steep and muddy terrain to appreciate the view.
On the final day of our trek, we bathe in the golden sunlight as we make our way through picturesque valleys and along winding rivers. A few miles up from the base, we encounter another group of horse riders, and I’m instructed to exchange my horse again. Horse number three turns out to be the perfect match: a blonde, spotted mare that actually trots when I kick her. We set off at a quick pace, leaving my friend and our guide behind. When we descended on to the final plain, we take off galloping.
However, my bliss is cut short when we arrive back in town to find that my friend’s passport and wallet are nowhere to be found. We check everywhere in the van and empty every last item out of our backpacks, but we can’t find his passport or wallet anywhere. We ask to call the yurt camp, but the tour operator informs us that there’s no service on the lake. We’ll have to wait until tonight, after the driver returns from Song Kol, to find out. Stranded without money, identification, or a place to stay, we roam the town for a guesthouse that will accept payment tomorrow. The sun sets on the sleepy town, but every guest house we’ve been to is full. Once I’ve resigned to calculating the likelihood that I’ll make it through the night sleeping on the street, a host finally offers to drive us to a friend’s home where there is an extra bed.
Everything improves from there. On the drive back a call comes in from the tourism office. Our belongings have been found at the Song Kol Lake yurt camp, and we can come pick them up tomorrow morning. My friend is crying tears of joy. We decide to treat ourselves to a nice dinner with our remaining 10 dollars. We end up falling about ten cents short on the dinner bill and receive a scolding from the waiter.
A few days later, our plane descends on Uzbekistan's capital. To save money on accommodations I book an overnight slow train to Bukhara. Our sleeper cabin is small and musty. My friend steps out to use the bathroom, but hurries back claiming that he encountered someone performing felatio in the corner of the train car. Moments later, the man my friend claimed to see pops into our cabin and sheepishly offers us a bag of instant noodles. With that, I lock the door, turn out the lights, and attempt to sleep.
We arrive in Bukhara just as the sun is rising. Our taxi drives us to the perimeter of the old city, where we are instructed to walk across the ancient, car-free squares to reach our guesthouse. Bukhara, once a prominent stop on the Silk Road, is known for its hundreds of well-preserved mosques, madrassas, bazaars, and caravanserais, dating back to as early as the ninth century AD. Walking down the deserted streets, surrounded by thousand-year old mosques, I feel like I’m in some sort of time capsule. We hurry to the famous Poi Kalan mosque to take some photos before the tour groups descend upon the monument. I recline on a bench in the center of the mosque’s courtyard, shaded by a fig tree. All around me are symmetrical arches and geometric patterns of blue tiles.
While I’m initially grateful for this moment of respite, as the day bears on, the quiet town begins to feel unsettling. What was once a bustling center of commerce now feels more like an abandoned history museum. The streets are deserted, apart from a few vendors selling mass-produced trinkets and the occasional tour group. We wander for a good portion of the day, stopping in for a drink at a dilapidated tea house, sampling different ice creams, and dining at an open air restaurant overlooking dome-shaped roofs. We barely interact with anyone all day.
Night falls, and our restless souls head out to find a little fun. We walk into one of the two restaurants on the main tourist square and buy a fifth of the cheapest vodka. Several servings of mouthwatering local delicacies and many shots later, we begin to forge a friendship with a group of young Uzbek men sitting one table over. One is deep into his tenth liter of beer, and we engage in some friendly banter about our respective drinking abilities. Next thing we know, we are making the highly questionable decision of getting in one of the guys’ car to head to what they referred to as a nightclub. In reality, the venue is a sparsely decorated building with a few rooms for illicit gambling and a downstairs area with booths for dining surrounding the so-called “dancefloor”. We order a few more beers and assorted local snacks, and our new friend plugs in his phone and starts playing some songs from Russia’s top 100. When the beer and vodka finally starts to wear off, we call the absurd dance party to an end. Our gracious hosts offer to drive us back to Old Bukhara, and for lack of any alternative whatsoever, we accept. They park at the edge of the old town and accompany us for about five minutes while our now completely plastered friend blasts “Kiki Do You Love Me” from his phone speaker. Eventually, we manage to lose them and our night draws to a close.
We pass the following days in Samarkand, a city much like Bukhara, but on a grander scale. No city is more evocative, in name and appearance, of the Silk Road. The city boasts UNESCO world heritage mosques, a rich history as the center of the ancient Timurid empire, and spice markets galore. The famous registan mosque towers over our guesthouse. Children play soccer on the marble surfaces extending alongside its base, unimpressed by the magnificent structure. While Samarkand is far more lively that the previous town we had visited, it still feels like no more than a relic of its past glory.
While appreciating monuments and history are all well and good, at the end of the day, our most memorable moments occured when we least expected them-like escaping a flash hail storm in a remote yurt or having an impromptu dance party on the side of a mountain. So let’s give our friends from Minnesota a break, because great stories seldom go according to plan.