Monday, 23 June 2008

Journey on the Silk Road

For more than 30 years I have been travelling the Silk Road in Central Asia, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan trying to connect all the feeder roads, passes, mountains, rivers, valleys, tribes,people and trails. Earlier this year I connected all the main feeders to the silk road and only recently, have found time to reflect a little.

A pretty Kazakh lady at Turkestan

The Dhaula Dhar mountain range in Himachal Pradesh is my favourite and Anuj and I spend time here each year at his home from where I have based many of my trips.

It had become an obsession to unravel the mysteries of the Silk Road. In February this year, I visited two remaining places with strong connections to the great game and the silk road, the Chamba and Parvati valleys in Himachal Pradesh. From Dalhousie and in the Chamba Valley, I was able to study the western passes of the Pir Panjal. In 2004 I crossed the Rohtang La which marks the eastern end of the Pir Panjal.

Why had it become an obessions ? Coincidentally my work for Red Cross took me to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia and imperceptibly, my holidays were spent stitching it together. The history fascinated me and I often lay awake at night dreaming of the peaks, passes and rivers. Eventually I married a wonderful Kazakh women of proud nomadic stock whose ancestors plied the silk road, and many still live by it.

The western end of the Pir Panjal range from Dalhousie

So what is the Silk Road ? On the eastern and western sides of the continent, the civilisations of China and the West developed. The western end of the trade route appears to have developed earlier than the eastern end, principally because of the development of the the empires in the west, and the easier terrain of Persia and Syria. The Iranian empire of Persia was in control of a large area of the Middle East, extending as far as the Indian Kingdoms to the east. Trade between these two neighbours was already starting to influence the cultures of these regions.
This region was taken over by Alexander the Great of Macedon, who finally conquered the Iranian empire, and colonised the area in about 330 B.C., superimposing the culture of the Greeks.

The Tienshan mountains or Celestial mountains as they were known to the Chinese had to be crossed a number of times

Although he only ruled the area until 325 B.C., the effect of the Greek invasion was quite considerable. The Greek language was brought to the area, and Greek mythology was introduced. The aesthetics of Greek sculpture were merged with the ideas developed from the Indian kingdoms, and a separate local school of art emerged. By the third century B.C., the area had already become a crossroads of Asia, where Persian, Indian and Greek ideas met. It is believed that the residents of the Hunza valley in the Karakorum are the direct descendents of the army of Alexander; this valley is now followed by the Karakorum Highway, on its way from Pakistan over to Kashgar, and indicates how close to the Taklimakan Alexander may have got.

Making silk in ancient China

This `crossroads' region, covering the area to the south of the Hindu Kush and Karakorum ranges, now Pakistan and Afghanistan, was overrun by a number of different peoples. After the Greeks, the tribes from Palmyra, in Syria, and then Parthia, to the east of the Mediterranean, took over the region. These peoples were less sophisticated than the Greeks, and adopted the Greek language and coin system in this region, introducing their own influences in the fields of sculpture and art.

Close on the heels of the Parthians came the Yuezhi people from the Northern borders of the Taklimakan. They had been driven from their traditional homeland by the Xiongnu tribe (who later became the Huns and transfered their attentions towards Europe), and settled in Northern India.

A caravan of camels on the Silk Road

Their descendents became the Kushan people, and in the first century A.D. they moved into this crossroads area, bringing their adopted Buddhist religion with them. Like the other tribes before them, they adopted much of the Greek system that existed in the region. The product of this marriage of cultures was the Gandhara culture, based in what is now the Peshawar region of northwest Pakistan. This fused Greek and Buddhist art into a unique form, many of the sculptures of Buddhist deities bearing strong resemblances to the Greek mythological figure Heracles. The Kushan people were the first to show Buddha in human form, as before this time artists had preferred symbols such as the footprint, stupa or tree of enlightenment, either out of a sense of sacrilege or simply to avoid persecution. The history goes on and on with Chenghis Khan, Timur (Tamerlane) and then the great Moguls, followed by the Great game, a term coined between the positioning of Russia and Great Britain in regards to India.

Early morning parathas for breakfast with Anuj Bahri (right) en route to Sidbahri, nestled under the Himalaya in Himachal Pradesh

Having visited all places mentioned below and connected the road from Calcutta (Kolkotta) through Benares, Bodgaya, Delhi. Agra. Amritsar, Lahore, Taxilla, Peshawar, Kabul, Bamiyan, Herat, Balkh, Termez, Samakand, Tashkent, Shymkent, Turkestan, Ak Su, Taraz, Talass, Tokmak, Bishkek, Issyk Kul, Naryn, Kara Su through to the Chinese border at Torugat, following fairly much the route and, places made famous by Hsuan Tsan the Chinese Buddhist Monk who travelled this way on his marathon journeys from 627 -643 AD.

The Silk Road
I had earlier travelled and connected the above route from Herat to Meshad, Bukhara, and from Tashkent the more southern route through Khokand, Feghana, Andijan, Osh to Kashgar, The other from Kabul, through the Khyber Pass to Gilgit and Karakoram pass into China, or the more difficult one from Kabul to Faizabad, Ishkashim, cross the Amu Darya to Khorog, Murghab, and over the 4,655 metre pass of the Pamirs, down to Lake Karakul at 3,914 metre, and then into China.

A Lake in the Pamir mountains, Tajikistan.

It was also a pleasure on my trip last year (July 2007) to connect the route from Taskkent, Shymkent, Turkestan and to discover that the road from Turkestan to Kyzl Orda, where I spent time in 1997, ‘is a strategic place where the caravan roads from Tashkent, Bukhara and Khiva along Atbasar to Western Siberia and over Torgay to Troizk and Orenberg came together’. (Exploring Kazakhstan, Dagmar Schreiber, Caspian Publishing House, Almaty 2006)

the Silk Road was not a trade route that existed solely for the purpose of trading in silk; many other commodities were also traded, from gold and ivory to exotic animals and plants. Of all the precious goods crossing this area, silk was perhaps the most remarkable for the people of the West. It is often thought that the Romans had first encountered silk in one of their campaigns against the Parthians in 53 B.C, and realised that it could not have been produced by this relatively unsophisticated people. They reputedly learnt from Parthian prisoners that it came from a mysterious tribe in the east, who they came to refer to as the silk people, `Seres'. In practice, it is likely that silk and other goods were beginning to filter into Europe before this time, though only in very small quantities. The Romans obtained samples of this new material, and it quickly became very popular in Rome, for its soft texture and attractiveness. The Parthians quickly realised that there was money to be made from trading the material, and sent trade missions towards the east.

Honey sellers on the silk road is a trade which is more than two thousand years old. A young woman selling honey near Taraz in Kazahkstan.

The Romans also sent their own agents out to explore the route, and to try to obtain silk at a lower price than that set by the Parthians. For this reason, the trade route to the East was seen by the Romans as a route for silk rather than the other goods that were traded. The name `Silk Road' itself does not originate from the Romans, however, but is a nineteenth century term, coined by the German scholar, von Richthofen.

In addition to silk, the route carried many other precious commodities. Caravans heading towards China carried gold and other precious metals, ivory, precious stones, and glass, which was not manufactured in China until the fifth century. In the opposite direction furs, ceramics, jade, bronze objects, lacquer and iron were carried. Many of these goods were bartered for others along the way, and objects often changed hands several times. There are no records of Roman traders being seen in Changan, nor Chinese merchants in Rome, though their goods were appreciated in both places. This would obviously have been in the interests of the Parthians and other middlemen, who took as large a profit from the change of hands as they could.

An oasis at Pragpur, Himachal Pradesh

Having crossed the Pamirs, Tienshan, Karakoram, Himalaya, Pir Panjal, Dhaula Dhar mountain ranges and crossed and recrossed countless times the great rivers of Syr Daria (Jaxartes), Amu Daris (Oxus),and the Zevershan, Ili, Chu, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Megna, the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej, Beas, Indus ( the rivers of the Punjab) and camped by Lakes Issyk Kul, Karakul, Dal, Kagar and the Aral Sea, it helps somewhat to understand the hardship and deprivations the early conquerors, explorers, pilgrims and traders endured. Alexander the Great lost over 30,000 men on a surprise winter crossing of the Hindu Kush by the Khawak Pass. In summer the ascent from the Panjsher Valley is a grind, but to foot soldiers carrying armour it is inconceivable a mighty army crossed this pass in winter. Similarly, the Khardun La at over 18,200 feet in Ladakh,, a salt route from Lahdak in India to Tibet is a daunting challenge by car today, but a crossing by mule, horse or on foot makes the mind boggle.

When I worked in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, I was fascinated by the mountain river systems. With partition, these mighty rivers had international boundaries pushed on them. Punjab - the land of five rivers were originally referred to as the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas, but with partition, the Beas flows only in India, so to keep the name Punjab correct, Pakistan added a fifth river to replace the Beas, the Indus.

Young ladies walking the bazaar in Pragpur, Himachal Pradesh

Many trips I have set out on, have been to connect ranges, rivers, passes and valleys that don’t quite make sense on the map. I spent many months in a place named Sidhbari, under the Daula Dhar mountains and close to Dharamsala. Somehow, the town down the road, Kangra, was the most fascinating as it appears on many ancient maps and later became an important feeder to the Silk Road and, some centuries on, to players in the Great Game.

Two young girls near Sidhbari, Himachal Pradesh.

From Kangra. in 2004, I was able to connect the Kangra valley, with the Kullu, Lahaul and Spiti valleys.

The Dhaular Dhar and the magnificent Pir Panjal, both ranges are the two lesser ranges either protecting, or enticing you to the greater Himalayas

Crossing the two great passes crossed by Alexander Gardiner and Moorcroft, the Kunzum La and the Rohtang La and seeing the mighty Himalayas and the majestic Pir Panjal was inspiring and to note that virtually all the people are of Tibetan stock, and they have preserved the Tibetan way of life remarkably well.

Buskashi, a game with roots in Mongolia that spread throughout Central Asia, and is a national sport in Afghanistan.

So during the last 30 years,I have visited one by one, these famous places trod by Alexander the Great, Hsuan Tsang,Timur (Tamerlane) Chengis Khan, Admiral Raisa Ali (the 16th century Turkish Admiral), Marco Polo, and later all those great, and many notorious players in the Great Game. It has been an enriching experience.

Sunset in the Pamirs taken from Kzyl Art Pass at 4655 m.


Marja said...

What can I say. You are an explorer and adventurer. Thanks for sharing I have never even heard of most places.
I experienced some of it through the stories and pictures of my brother who travelled more than a year through asia. So i get a bit of armchair travelling.
My grandfather would have loved to see the picture with the honey. He was a very passionate beekeeper.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
I feel humbled reading of your adventures and journies. Particularly in the shadows of all those historical names - what that must have been like crossing a winter mountain pass in brutally primitive gear, your mates dropping like flies, 30,000 of them, yet still an acceptable sacrifice to Alexander.
I am just finishing re reading Mountain Solitudes, and have so enjoyed it, and will relish having it on my book shelf. I was going to save it for my upcoming Ruahine July foray, but couldn't resist. I
feel pumped now, though it is a freezing winters day here, a warm hut, a good book, a wee dram....
I was pleased to see the good Doctors name mentioned in the passage with Charlie Douglas, and also the name McKerrow, as in a hut and a mountain I think, any connection to you? Cheers Bob.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Kia Ora Marja

Sorry about the Netherlands football team. I was hoping they would win.

Pleased you enjoyed reading the story and those exotic but unknown places. I have lived 28 years in Asia so have had a lot of chances to explore the Silk Road and environs.

Am really looking to spending 3 weeks in NZ next month and seeing my beloved mountains.

Warm regards


Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Kia Ora Robb

Yeh, those early conquerors and explorers such as Alexander the Great were amazing men. Driven, unforgiving and relentless. For me, it has been an amazing experience for over 30 years or more to retrace those famous footprints.

Enjoy Mountain Solitudes. Aat's meeting with Charlie Douglas in the hot pools at Welcome flats is such a wonderful piece of writing.

I am in Bangkok for planning meetings and will return to Jakarta tomorrow.

Enjoy the cold blast and the beauty the snow will bring to your Ruahines.


Unknown said...

Kia ora Bob,

Really enjoyed this post, will make sure to reread sometime when I have a good atlas sitting in front of me.

Just came home and had a quick read on McBride, debendox, Nichol, Ramos Horta and iconoclasm following up your last reply to me. Its a fine line between flawed hero and villian.

Our Indonesian travels start on the 9th of July in Batam. The rough plan is to get to Medan then take the central route through Sumatra up towards Banda Aceh then island hop back towards Nias then Pulau Telo by August. Expecting plenty of heat and jungle and setbacks, should be awesome.

Will keep in touch would love to meet you sometime and hear some stories in person.

Take care


Pushan Banerjee said...

Lovely lovely photos. Beautiful! I just visited Himachal Pradesh and reminds me of the place even more.

Gollum said...


Saw an article on Keith Murdoch in yesterday's NZ Herald along with a video on the play - story never goes away.

From memory there is a McKerrow glacier at the head of the Landsborough. I had a hell of an epic up there many years ago - one of a number of Landsborough epics that I was involved in. One hell of a river that always gave us a hard time.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Thanks Jamie

Good you followed up on Nicol, McBride and Horta. It is always hard to tell who is villian or hero in this world.

Good to read your Indonesian adventures are soon to start. Safe travels and let's keep in touch,



Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Pushans

Glad you enjoyed Himachal Pradesh. It is my favouite part of the whole Himalayan chain as the Dhaula Dhar and Pir Panjal are like entrees to the main Himalaya.

Thanks for your feedback.


Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Gollum

Keith Murdoch was a larger than life character and have such fond memories of playing second grade rugby with him for Zingari in Dunedin. I am sure we will hear more about this gentkle giant.
Yes, there is a McKerrow glacier at the head of the Landsborough and it certainly rough country up there. Old Charlie Douglas spent a lot of time surveying and sketching up there. It was named after my Great Grandfather who was Surveyor General of NZ. I have a blog on him. I would like to read more of your stories. Do you have a blog ?

Have a good weekend Gollum

Unknown said...

I used to live near the Silk Road in Japan that starts from Yokohama, a biggest port, to Hachioji city, my hometown and a famouse city of the world of Silk and Kimono. Well, I did not know the real Silk Road such a long road and beautuful stories are around.
You must be very very busy..please take care of yourself.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Thanks Maki

It is always refreshing to read your thoughtful comments. In many respects the Silk Roas has no actual beginning or end, except it connected East to West thousands of years ago. Its feeder roads are many and yes, I am sure your home town connected with the Silk Road in China via road to Yokohama and then by sea to China. So are you inviting me to your home town to explore the Silk Road even more ?

have a good weekend.


Marja said...

I've got an award for you. When you have time pick it up.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Wow Marja. An award !É I am back in Ch Ch around 18 July so will catch up then. Currently in Aceh province in the far north of Indonesia. Take care.


golfersaurus said...

absolutely fantastic devotion to a project and congratulations on your success . It has ben my pleasure to view your site. In 1100 AD my ancestor travelled through the Khyber pass to immerse his wifes' ashes in the Ganges a journey that took 6 months each way. For me to do the same for a member of my family leaving LA or San Fransisco was a 72 hr journey ! You have travelled the routes of my ancestors along the silk road and seen the footprints of their caravans I greatly appreciate your work. My Geography teacher Gurdial Singh is a good contact for you regarding Mountaineering in the Himalayas ! FYI

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