The Silk Road –The romantic term given to the fabled trade routes from China to Europe and forever associated with the pioneering travels of Marco Polo in the 13th century. He returned to Venice after 24 years of travelling in Asia and amongst many wonders, recorded having met Kubla Khan (later the subject of Coleridge’s poem, “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, A stately pleasure-dome decree…”

But it is Genghis Khan who is credited with bringing the Silk Road under the environment that facilitated increased trade between the East and West. What is less appreciated is that the famous ‘Silk Road’ doesn’t refer to just one road –the main route was disrupted by the Mongol hordes but reinvigorated by sailing ships during the later rise of the European powers. It manifests nowadays by way of sea, road and rail.

The Sweep of Scenery & the Heft of History  Asia is not a distinct place; many of the cultures, ethnic groups and societies have little in common. Asia as we know it took its name from that which the Romans gave to Turkey, later overrun by the Ottomans.  A diversified Asia stretches ahead: plateaus and deserts, boundless steppes, dense forests & soaring mountain ranges, high rolling plains & crystal lakes. The even higher snowy mountains of Kyrgyzstan eventually gives way to the rocky surfaces of the Great Gobi Desert.

Culture & Religion – Over centuries, conquering armies swept back and forth causing distinct & vibrant cultures to emerge. The nexus of the Silk Road, Central Asia embraced Chinese, Indian and Arabian literary works and in turn influenced India, Pakistan and China through its cuisine. 

Central Asia overflows with folklore and tradition, its music as vast and unique as the many peoples who live there. Specifically, it enjoys a thousand year old oral tradition that takes the form of improvisational poetry set to music. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the practice of singing the epic poems called manas, accompanied by two or three-stringed lutes or fiddles has enjoyed resurgence, to the degree that a similarity between that and modern raphas been proposed! Nomadic and city rugs, silk ikat costumes, embroidered hangings, tent bands, saddle cloths and horse trappings reflect the extremes and interactions of tribal and urban lifestyles; while splendid horse-jewellery reflects the key role of these animals in nomad life.

While the predominant religion of Central Asia is Islam, eastern philosophy and religion plays a significant role, as in HinduismTaoismConfucianismBuddhism, Taoism and Judaism.  These all co-exist in relative harmony.

Food & Drink –  As may be expected from such a landmass, there is a huge variation in the availability of foodstuffs, use of spices and cooking techniques yet a constant cross-flow of influences.

Many foods famously associated with Middle Eastern and indeed world cuisine, have their origins in Iran – such as kebabs and ice cream. Fresh green herbs are used along with fruits such as plums, pomegranates, quince, prunes, apricots, and raisins. Typical main dishes combine rice with meat – lamb, chicken, or fish- and onion, vegetables, nuts, and herbs with the characteristic Persian flavourings of saffron, dried lime and cinnamon. Uzbekistan, locally-made wine is comparatively popular. Teahouses (chaikhanas) are of general cultural importance. Tea, usually green, is taken throughout the day invariably taken, whether green or black, without milk or sugar. A typical festive meal ends with fruit or a compote of fresh or dried fruit, followed by pistachios and halvah with green tea. Traditional Kazakh cuisine revolves around horse-meat as well as the ubiquitous mutton from fat-tailed sheep. Cooking techniques and ingredients are strongly influenced by nomadic lifestyle, notable in the salting and drying of meat and a preference for soured milk. Kyrgyz cuisine is similar in many respects. Although Turkmen cuisine doesn’t generally use spices or seasonings, it is similar to that of the rest of Central Asia in its reliance on pilaf consisting of chunks of mutton, carrots and rice fried in a large cast-iron cauldron, as well as dumplings stuffed with meat, onions or pumpkin. Kebabs in the form of shashlyk are served in restaurants and in the street. Due to the extreme climate, Turkmen  cuisine primarily consists of dairy products (fermented yak-milk yogurt is said to taste delicious!) meat and animal fats, but limited vegetables and spices.

Eclectic Architecture – Central Asian architecture is a fusion of architectural traditions, from Tsarist and Soviet Russia to Islamic, Persian and Chinese, providing an unending sequence of spectacular and stately edifices and grand mosques of axial symmetry and double domes, mud cities, fortresses and palaces. The pinnacle of this art form was achieved in Samarkand, eventually giving rise to the celebrated Moghul architecture of India. Domestically, by building wind catching towers and networks of underground canals to bring water from the mountains, clever desert design kept houses cool, long before western air-conditioning.

Amazing Animals – The two-humped domesticated Bactrian camel has served as a pack animal in inner Asia since ancient times. Tolerant of cold, drought, and high altitudes, it was this animal that facilitated trade along the Silk Road. But, in contrast to the single-humped dromedary of Africa, the wild population has dwindled and is now classified as critically endangered. By contrast, many horse-related traditional national sports reflect the importance horsemanship in Kyrgyz culture. Very popular in all Central Asia, is Ulak Tartysh, a team game resembling a cross between polo and rugby in which two teams of riders wrestle for possession of the headless carcass of a goat.

Heroes & Villains – places associated with towering historical figures include – Asia Minor, Persia and Central Asia – Alexander the Great, considered one of history’s most successful commanders, defeated Darius III leading to the downfall of the Persian Empire, thereby creating a Greek empire stretching from the Adriatic to the Indus.

Iran – birthplace of the locally revered Ruhollah Khomeini, known in the West as Ayatollah Khomeini who has been described as the “virtual face of Islam in Western popular culture.”

Genghis Khan  –  By uniting the tribes of north east Asia, he founded the Mongol Empire, which later reached the doors of Vienna and occupied a substantial portion of Central Asia and China. Despite effectively using genocide as a tool of war, present-day Mongolians regard Genghis Khan as their founding father (his name is everywhere, including on bottles of vodka!). However, his grandson, Kubla Khan demonstrated that control could be achieved by showing tolerance towards his subjects.

Georgia – Week 1…
We start in the capital Tbilisi. Sat on the River Mtkvari and surrounded by mountains on three sides with a combination of modern and historic architecture, this calm and photogenic city is our base for the next couple of days.  Strolling the streets and people-watching in the many imperious squares of the city, with their mix of Russian, Classical and Soviet architecture, peppered with churches and cathedrals, is a pleasant way to spend a day.

Armenia – Week …1
Armenia, a country of just over 3 million people, the size as Belgium. In the South Caucasus; stunning mountains, rich verdant landscapes, rich and varied history, and a unique and strong sense of nationhood with an international importance that belies its small size and location, almost ‘hidden’ amongst larger neighbours in Turkey and Iran.

We head to Sevanavank, a monastery complex on the shores of Lake Sevan that dates back to the ninth century. Formerly situated on an island, following the draining of the lake as during the time of Stalin’s rule, the monastery is now sat at the end of a small peninsula and is a picturesque spot well worth a short detour.

We reach the country’s capital Yerevan. This will be our base for three nights; strolling the streets of the city’ central area the combination of Armenian and Soviet architecture shows the country’s more recent history while the nineteenth-century Blue Mosque reminds us that we are in a part of the world where Islamic influences and cultures are prevalent.

There is also the option of a day trip to view Mt Ararat a stunning snow-capped volcano to the south-west of the city. Though the volcano itself is in Turkey, we are able to see it and explore the beautiful mountainous Ararat region while still in Armenia. It is also possible to visit Yerevan’s famous brandy distillery for a tour and of course to sample the national drink.

Iran – Week 2-3
Iran; the Persia Empire is today the Islamic Republic of Iran. Though women do need a form of chador (covering) to enter Iran, it does not have to be black. A colourful scarf and trench coat are good enough……Though this country its often thought of by some westerners as an ominous anti-western state; the people are friendly; they like talking to tourists and within live many religious groups. Not everyone is actually Persian; there are; Turks, Baluchi, Arabs, Kurds, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Baha’i, Nestorians and others, all living amicably. The architecture is some of the best in the world

Highlights – Esfahan, Shiraz, Persepolis, Yazd, Great Salt Desert, Caravanserais, Mashed

From Armenia, we enter north western Iran to Tabriz. Wander through the bazaar the Blue Mosque and Elgoli Park.

To Qazvin with massive domed Cisterns, this once stored and cooled the city’s water. Relax in one of the subterranean bathhouses. Tehran is one our route; its big and smoggy. The best things to see here are the Treasury of the National Jewels with diamonds, the Peacock Throne and the Mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini

Heading south, we pass through; Qom, Kasham and Abyaneh on the way to Isfahan. Here we’ll spend a few days in the old capital of Persia – beautiful mosques, squares, the stone arched Khaju Bridge with its royal pavilion in the middle, palaces with gardens and caravanserais

Further south to Shiraz; considered to be Iran’s best city with; mausoleums, the colourful covered Vakil Bazaar. Shiraz has a large Christian and Jewish population

Just outside of town are the ruins of Persepolis; the ancient capital of Persia. It was burnt to the ground by Alexander the Great – in a typical Macedonian evening of drunken debauchery. That’s how the Macedonians behaved in ancient times

The Silk Road follows in the footsteps of Marco Polo to Yazd. The fourth largest ethnic group in Iran after Muslims, Christians and Jews are the Zoroastrians – Yazd is their hometown. Here there is a Tower of Silence and a Fire Temple, which has had its fire burning for two and a half thousand years. Zoroastrians bury their dead in the ‘sky’; leaving the bodies out in their Towers of Silence to be eaten by birds. The city is built mainly from adobe mud bricks and is the best example of old Persian architecture; with wind catching towers cooling the houses and an ancient network of underground canals bringing water to the town from mountains

We cross Dasht-e-Kavir; the almost uninhabited Great Salt Desert to Kermin and visit the castles in the desert. To the north of Iran visiting the holy city of Mashed and on to Turkmenistan

CENTRAL ASIA – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan & Kazakhstan. Horses ridden by a nations of horsemen with incredible skill on the saddle – they can ride alone by the age of five.

Turkmenistan  – Week 4…
The recently passed dictator had the capital city Ashgabat made in white marble. The rest of the country is a beautiful empty dessert, with nomads in their yurts.

Highlights – Ashgabat, Darvaza Gas Craters, Konye-Urgench

The economy is run off its vast reserves of oil and gas which lies beneath Central Asia’s largest desert; the Karakum or Black Desert. First stop the capital Ashgabat with enormous monuments and extravagant buildings made entirely of white marble.

We visit Darvaza Gas Craters, or the ‘Doors to Hell’, it’s a drilling operation gone wrong, which  opened a massive hole in the desert; from which the natural gas came out – it was lit to get rid of the dangerous gas and it’s been burning for 40 years.

Kanye-Urgench on the northern border is a ruined town, with old monuments. Is was the scene of one of the biggest massacres in human history by Genghis Khan; this start of his killings led to the death of over 70 million people; some 17% of the world population

Uzbekistan – Week …4 – 5
The heart of the ancient Silk Road

Highlights – the beautiful cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand are the main highlights not only Uzbekistan but of the whole of Central Asia

Khiva town is one of the best preserved of the in Central Asia the Old Town is within a massive mud brick fortress. Climb the towering minarets and sit in the tranquil old mosques. We cross the desert and the Amu Darya River, (known in ancient times as the Oxus), to Bukhara. Its old centre with easy to get lost in narrow winding streets, mosques, medievel royal fortress and a bazaar complex; its a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Samarkand was once the most populous city in the world; its 2,500 years of history old rivaling Rome in importance; now its attractions are  really big colourful mosques, markets and the impossibly big public square called ‘Registan’ or sandy place in Persian. This was made when public squares were for public announcements and executions. Onto the capitol Tashkent and east, transiting through Kasakhstan into Kyrgyzstan.

Kazakhstan – Week …6
One of the larger countries in Asia – it extends into Eastern Europe; the people are a mix of Mongolian and Russians. The capital Alamaty; is named after apples, which is where they first grew.

Highlights – the size of the place; the 9th largest country in the world

We cross to Kazakhstan and Aksu-Dzhabagly Nature Reserve the oldest nature reserve in Central Asia; stunning scenery of green valleys, rushing rivers and snowcapped peaks.  Look out for the Himalayan brown bear.

Kyrgyzstan – Week 7 – 8
A land of high mountain passes, grassy plains, alpine lakes & yurts, all in the Celestial Mountains. The beginning for us of a strong Chinese influence.

Highlights – High altitude Lake Song Kol and Ala Archa National Park.

As big as England with just 5 million people; there is space to wander. We visit the capitol Bishkek You can go walking and horse trekking around Lake Issyk Kul.

We visit the vast red stone cliffs in Jeti Orguz or ‘Seven Bulls’ and visit the town of Karakol with its beautiful Russian wooden houses and tree-lined streets. Nearby are the Terskay Ala Too Mountains, a wilderness with nomadic shepherds.

Continuing around the lake to Semenovskre Gorge you can go walking and follow the rivers that wind through the national reserve.

On to Ala Archa National Park; forests, glaciers and alpine streams and go camping amongst the nomads in their yurts.