Khiva stands out among the treasures of the Silk Road because, unlike it’s equally historical counterparts Samarkand and Bukhara where life goes on, it’s a city within which primal life has literally been stopped and preserved. To walk through the imposing gates of Ichan Qala, the old town, at night is to walk into an ancient and enchanting world lit only by flickering gas lamp.
The bulk of Tashkent’s beauty sits underground in the stations of its stunning subway system, which owe their sheer scale and grandeur to Russia, but their elegant flair and artistry to the local Muslim population. Each station is an original work of art designed to a theme and the interiors are rich in engraved metal, glass, granite, marble and smooth carved alabaster.
There’s markets and then there’s Kashgar Sunday Market, the former Silk Road meeting point where global empires still come to trade in their thousands. The barrage of personalities that sell there make it extraordinary, but most wonderful is the produce: food is sold in colourful heaps, meat in the form of live animals and a mound of manure is far more marketable than any sportswear brand.
The kindness shown to westerners along the Silk Road route will win the heart of even the most seasoned traveler. Those sun-saturated old men with gold teeth playing chess do exist and they will offer you a game; the merchants are as mesmerising as the products they sell; and your tour guide will charm you regaling tales of myth and legend.
Carpets are big business in Turkmenistan; there’s even a museum devoted to them. Original Turkmen rugs have been hand-woven for centuries by nomadic tribes using locally gathered wool and natural dye – these days their wool and dye are a little more readily available but the quality of an authentic Turkmen is obvious. Well worth buying from a local and having shipped home.
Between the 9th and 16th centuries it was common for even the smaller cities along the Silk Road route to house over two hundred mosques and to this day the skyline of almost everywhere you encounter will be punctuated by dozens of bright azure, onion-shaped domes. Prepare to be dazzled by some of the best-preserved examples of ancient Muslim architecture in the world.
There is little more evocative than the image of camel caravans crossing the forbidden desert laden with precious cargo and a camel trek along the Silk Road not only gives you perspective on the sheer undertaking that trading along the route must have been, but is also a stress-free and ultimately fun way to travel while safe in the knowledge that you won’t be pillaged for your bounty.
A defining characteristic of Silk Road architecture is the use glazed turquoise tiling in intricate geometric designs. It might be a little ambitious to recreate an entire mosque wall in your suburban semi, but you can pick up a gorgeous selection of porcelain from artisan tilemakers dotted around the route to add a little bit of Islamic flair to your own home.
There are ethical issues regarding the production of cashmere with many farming methods tailored more to short-term profit than long-term sustainability and goats being treated badly in unsuitable conditions. It’s probably best avoided, but if you do buy it make sure you’re buying it from a responsible source that benefits the locals directly.
If you’re headed to western China and you like noodles, you’re in luck, but generally the food in the Central Asian countries of the Silk Road is pretty abysmal. The basics are all there: meat (read: sheep) and rice, but the fat:meat ratio is often intolerable. If you’re a nomadic carnivore, brilliant, if you’re a vegetarian, prepare for some serious bread bloat and an awful lot of tomatoes.
Driving about within the region that you’re touring is all well and good; your guide will doubtless be behind the wheel of a hardy tour bus – pretty much the only way to tackle the Silk Road’s appalling roads. And they really are appalling: a sort of uneven tarmac with a sloping central spine and a sea of potholes lurking beneath. Explore one Silk Road region and save the rest for another visit.
Poor agricultural practices combined with a massive over-production of cotton – a material that drinks water by the bucket load and is unsuited to Central Asia’s arid climate – has led to land degradation and salination of a huge scale. Solutions are being worked on, but for now your money is better spent on a more sustainable local product.