Tag Archives: Silk Road

Mountain Passes on the Road to Khujand

This morning we left early for Khujand which is one of the oldest cities on the river Syr Darya built by Alexander the Great. The drive is spectacular.

We reach a height of 8500 feet. As we continued to climb I was in awe in that the Chinese needed horses from the Fergana Valley and in those days the caravans of horses had to go through two mountain passes to get from Fergana to Hissar and from there on to China. The passes are closed in winter due to snow and it is ever present as you can see.

This drive today made me realize how rugged this segment of the Silk Road was in those days.

We then entered a tunnel 5 kilometers long that goes under a glacier. As you can see the tunnel is an active construction site with the road unpaved. This was a first for me.


This is a Chinese construction project. My guide said that the economic sanctions against Russia have cut down the construction industry that employed many Tajiks so they could sent money home. It seems that this is a great opportunity for the development of Chinese business to not only help improve the infrastructure but also to make further investment. As he indicated unintended consequences offer new opportunities.

The villages at this elevation are very rustic as seen by this bridge.

We stopped with great frequency for photo opportunities. And of course an open air market with fresh local produce. In the tunnel there were many trucks. My guide ssid they are the modern caravan from China bringing in goods. Except for local produce all the goods in the market are Chinese.

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I was very struck by a car full of roses being transported over the mountains for sale.

The roses are local not Chinese. The country is rich in silver and gold and minerals and the Chinese are assisting in the development however one big resource they have is water. Once again there is a joint effort to develop a hydroelectrical plant that would generate income.

When the sheep appeared on the road there was immediate excitement and scrambling for cameras. I have never seen so many sheep and goats. What a sight!

We finally arrived at Istarafshan with a great bazaar with great bread and vegetables and fruit all being sold in a maze of alleys. We walked to a 16th century madrassah and mosque.


The guide said it is no longer a functioning mosque because the government closed it last year. I asked: Why? It appears that the preaching was becoming extreme like the Wahabism of Saudi Arabia. The goverment feared that this might radicalize moderate Hanafi Muslims so they shut it down. It appears that the government keeps a close watch so this Islamic radicalism not disrupt the peace achieved after a long and intense civil war between radical Muslims and moderate Muslims. I was struck that the government took such an action.

The door is original and the door handle is a work of art

The site of the ancient Sogdian citadel is simply a mound since Alexander stormed it. The entry gate was built in 2002 to celebrate the 2500th anniversary. The horse is in front of some of the ruins of the citadel wall. The site is breathtaking in that this was the gate to Fergana Valley.


We arrived at Khujand, the former Leninabad in late afternoon.

This ancient city was leveled by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. The walk through the new park was an unexpected surprise.


There are statues and monuments to their historical memory that was suppressed for 70 years under the Soviets. My guide said they are learning about that past of great poets and scientists and philosophers such as Avicenna in whom they can take great pride in the Islamic contribution to humanity. That desire to recover an honest understanding of their unique contribution to humanity affected me deeply. The children were performing traditional song and dance and so eager to interact with the American. When you are asked: where you come from? And I respond: America, they all smile and are so happy to welcome me. I feel so safe in the streets here and I find the people exceptionally respectful of the stranger and so willing to share with you from the little they have. I pray their economy continues to develop in the face of the many challenges they face and they become a strong country that can sustain the well being of their citizens.

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Into Tajikistan

This morning I begin my 2 hour drive to the border crossing from Uzbekistan to Tajikistan. As we approached the border the snow covered mountains of Tajikistan began to loom on the horizon. I looked to the north and began to anticipate my journey to Fergana valley where horses were bred which the Chinese purchased in great quantity for military purposes during the days of the silk road.

The border crossing was lengthy. Almost half of the national budget is expended to secure the Afghan border. Even though they seize almost 90% of the drugs coming in from Afghanistan, my guidebook estimates between 100 to 200 tons of heroin passes from Afghanistan.

Through Tajikistan so this 1300 km border is very porous with Afghanistan who is the world’s largest producer of opium. This is the opium highway.

Our first stop was Hissar where there are the remains of an 18th century fortress.


In front of the gate to the fortress is the madrassa and the ruins of the caravanserai.  The large area in between was where the horses brought from Fergana alley were traded then taken on to China by way of the Pamir route leading on to China.

The view from the ruins of the fortress offered great views of the Hissar Mountains.

When I arrived I was able to spend time at a local festival where I was welcomed and invited to share local foods. Everyone was so excited that I was from America. I felt like a celebrity! People wanted pictures taken. There was music and dancing and eating and laughter and a great sense of welcome.




I proceeded on to the capital Dushanbe and to the museum to view the reclining 8th century Buddha which was excavated at Ajina Teppe.
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Dushanbe was a total surprise. It is set in a valley so you have beautiful views of snowcapped mountains. The city is crisscrossed with tree lined streets edged with beautiful roses. Less than a decade ago this city was dangerous however today it is safe and pleasant with streets filled with smiling people enjoying their families.


The statue is Ismail Samanu who was the 10th century founder of the Samanid dynasty. His statue ousted that of Lenin in 1999. From there I walked down what would be like our Mall in Washington. I was stunned by its beauty that replaced where the Russians once had a military compound.

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As we toured I learned a lot from my guide. After the Soviets left, there was a civil war for most of the ’90s. The conflict was between two parties: the Wahabi Muslims from Saudi Arabia and the Salafi Muslims who wanted an Islamic republic like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan and the other party of Hanafi Muslims who wanted a democracy that was not Islamic.  When I visited the mausoleum of another Sufi holy man, I had a conversation with an imam who said those Wahabi Muslims from Saudi and the Salafi Muslims are dangerous. The Muslims do not want those other Muslims coming in and radicalizing because they do not envision themselves like Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia which are Islamic republics.

My guide said that the average person earns 100 a month. About a million people work in Russia to make money to send home and in fact my guidebook says Tajiks send back about 800 million a year from their work in Russia and this amounts to almost half of their GDP. And he said the sanctions imposed on Russia are having an adverse effect on their economic well being however the Chinese are moving in with industrial development.  Although things seem so fragile, with fears of Islamic extremism from Afghanistan, and the fact that this country is one of the world’s major drug corridors and the increasing economic challenges that lie ahead, this evening I got the feeling from listening to my guide Sorak there is a sense of hope because they are at peace.

A Palace of Tamerlane

This morning was the beginning of a long drive to Termez which is about 20 miles or so from Afghanistan. On this part of the old trade routes camels were exchanged for horses because of the mountainous terrain. We began our climb and the terrain became more and more mountainous as we approached the pass that would give way to the plain on which Termez lies.


At the highest point we stopped for a local morning market. The attraction of the market gave me the incentive to try a few things: rhubarb with salt, dried yogurt, and an assortment of nuts and other local products.

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From there we continued on the road the Shakhrisabz which was the birthplace of Tamerlane. If military might is the criterion by which the greatest of a nation is judged then Tamerlane’s empire was great.  He was a a leader with military genius and was a master strategist as well. He forged the last great nomadic empire, and was feared because of his shock and awe tactics to quell rebellion and coerce loyalty. Scholars estimated he killed about 17 million people, that is 5% of the population of the world then. Up to his reign Christianity was strong in central Asia along the trade routes however Tamerlane devastated the Christian community and reduced it to a small community confined to Iraq.

We visited the Kok Gumbaz that is the blue domed mosque.


Behind the mosque is the Dorut Tilyovat which is the burial place for his family.

There is a grave marker of black stone that is said to be of a comet. Muslims come and pour water in a small indentation on the top, then drink it to get well. Our guide said the birds are not to be disturbed because locals believe they may be ghosts. Over the past few days I have learned that a lot of local superstition was assimilated into the practice of Islam in this region. She said that although Tamerlane used Islam to unify his large empire he also practiced magic.

From there we visited Ak Satay palace of Tamerlane whose empire stretched from Egypt to Kashkar which is in China today. There is little left of this enormous palace today except the remains of the monumental gates.

These gigantic gates are 40 meters high covered with mosaics. The palace was a project of 24 years with no expenses spared. The Spanish ambassador wrote a detailed description of the palace and it was of extraordinary opulence. My guide pointed out over the gates was inscribed: If you challenge our power, look at our building. My traveling companion made a remark, “Things have not changed much in that we build taller and taller buildings to demonstrate economic power.”

Tamerlane was a military genius whose very name struck fear in the hearts of the Arabs and Europeans alike yet today look at his buildings which are now in ruins. A sober reminder of the transitory nature of earthly power. All empires and nations are not given any promise that they will remain until the end of time.

We continued our journey through this mountainous region as my thoughts turned to those merchants whose caravans crossed this difficult terrain.

Samarkand, Day 2

Although the history of Samarkand stretches back 2700 years, it reached its zenith under Tamerlane and his grandson Ulugbek in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The next stop was the tomb of Saint Daniel the prophet. How did the relics of Daniel get to Central Asia? Jewish tradition and pre-Islamic Syriac tradition held that the prophet Daniel was buried in Susa Iran. The Muslims accepted this tradition and the Muslims and Christians and Jews would pilgrimage to the site. In the 15th century Tamerlane tried to conquer Syria to no avail but according to my guide he was told that Daniel was the patron giving protection. So he took either a leg or arm and interred it at Samarkand. On that day a spring of water appeared so to this day Muslims come for the holy water and to pray at the tomb.

There is another miracle. He also brought back a pistachio tree however it died 100 years ago. Several years ago the Russian Orthodox patriarch came to venerate the tomb and brought holy water from Russia and sprinkled it on the tree. The next year it was very much alive.

Shakhi Zindi is a mausoleum complex. Shakhi Zindi means living king. On the journey the guide has shared many legends about holy men in Islamic hagiography. Muslims come to tombs of holy men to pray. This legend is that Kusan ibn Abbas who was the cousin of Mohammed was buried here. He preached Islam but was beheaded however he took his head in his arms and walked into the wall that then closed behind him so he is still living there.

The Bibi Khanym mosque was named after the wife of Tamerlane who built it in the 14th century. He had conquered parts of India so he brought back precious stones on the backs of 90 elephants. He wanted this to be the largest mosque in Central Asia however it was built is such haste that it was not well constructed so it fell into disuse.

After a long morning I enjoyed the market before a final visit to the Registon


Later in the afternoon I went back to the Registan which was the heart of ancient Samakand. I stood in awe as I gazed at the three madrassahs of the Timurid dynasty. There is no way to even begin to describe this incredible Islamic architecture. Thus I will share a few photos that try in a most inadequate way to capture such beauty.

This morning I received an email with this quote: “Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.” That quote keep echoing in my mind as I stood in awe in the presence of such architectural beauty. I thought of how much beauty is being destroyed by fanatics of today such as ISIS and of yesteryear such as Thomas Cromwell who at the time of the English Protestans destroyed almost 90% of England’s artistic heritage, and how much in years past; and yet when you encounter such beauty the human does not grow old rather beauty brings joy and youthfulness to the human spirit. Whenever I stand in awe in the presence of beauty it confirms my belief in human exceptionalism!

Samarkand: The Golden Journey

We travel not for trafficking alone
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned
For lust of knowledge what should not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

These words of the early 20th century poet James Elroy Flecker capture the magic of Samarkand that captivated Alexander the Great who spoke of Samarkand as a city with a beauty beyond imagination.

From that time on the very mention of the name of Samarkand or Marakanda as the Greeks would say, evokes the the same response as Shangri-la or Timbuktu in the mind’s imagination.

On the way to Samarkand we stopped at the Emir’s summer palace built by Russian architects in the early 20th century for the last emir. This was the first electricity that the Khanate had ever seen. From there we began a 5 to 6 hour drive that followed the old commercial trade road and stopped by a Sardoba from the 16th century which was a reservoir that provided water for the carvanserai. Across the road you can see the remains of a large caravanserai.

There has been a settlement here since the 5th century BC which was the walled capital of Sogdiana taken by Alexander in 329 BC. Samarkand was a key city on the Silk Road however it was destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1220. Timur, that is Tamerlane in 1370 made it his capital and within 35 years it was an economic and cultural center. And his grandson Ulugbek promoted its development as an intellectual center.

When I arrived I went immediately to the mausoleum of Tamerlane. The blue dome is amazing

and under the dome is the stone marker under which is his crypt. My guide remarked that on the stone of Tamerlane is inscribed: whoever opens this grave will be defeated by an enemy more fearsome than I. The Soviets opened the crypt in 1941. And the next day June 22 Hitler attached the Soviet Union.

Tomorrow I will spend more time at the Registan however to see it even if for a brief moment was like a dream.



This is thought to be the tomb of St. Daniel.


This is one of the most awe-inspiring complexes in central Asia. These three madrassas are some of the best preserved in the world.

Beautiful Bukhara

The citadel is protected by impressive walls and has been occupied from the 5th century until 1920 when it was bombed by the Communists thus destroying most of the interior.

The city has preserved and restored many of the covered and domed bazaars which are filled with craftsmen and shops. They give a flavor of the trade of yesteryear although they cater to the tourists and the local population today.

In the evening during dinner there was a performance of the various ethnic dances with the dancers in traditional costume. Wandering through the streets once again and enjoying the monuments illuminated made me think once again about how vital this city was in the medieval time not only commercially but also intellectually in the development and transmission of the ideas of such men of the stature of Avicenna.





Bukhara: the Home of Avicenna

In the 9th and 10th century, Bukhara was the capital of the Samanid state as well as a leader in religious and cultural affairs. One of its famous residents that would have an impact on the development of medieval theology and philosophy was Avicenna, that is Ibn Sini. He is thought to be one of the figures in Raphael’s painting of the philosophers in the Vatican Palace.

Although the old center has developed in such a way to attract tourists, the center remains an architectural maze of madrassas, Islamic theological schools and minarets, mosques, caravanserai and covered markets and the royal palace. These remants of the old city give an impression of the vitality of the city on the silk road.

Genghis Khan in 1220 destroyed the city and in 1370 it fell under the domination of Timur Samarkand.

In the morning I set out to enjoy the Mir Arab Madrassa and mosque from the 16th century.

Although most of the madrassas today are markets and hotels, this one is a functioning school. The tile work and double domes are striking.

The minaret built in 1127 was one of the tallest structures in central Asia at a height of 47 meters. Genhgis Kahn spared it. Notice the beautiful oramental brick work with blue tiles that would soon dominate Islamic art of Central Asia. Next to the minaret is a mosque built after Genghis Khan destroyed the earlier one. The Soviets turned it into a warehouse however in 1991 it became a functioning mosque.

These are doors to a caravanserai, that is a hotel for merchants and their carsvan animals and goods for trade

Bukhara005233The Ismail Samani mausoleum is the oldest monument in the city. It was covered with dirt so it escaped the destruction of Genghis Kahn.

This is the Chashma Ayub mausoleum built over a spring. The legend is that Job struck his staff on the gtound and a spring appeared. There is so much religious folklore which creates many places of pilgrimage.


From the market:

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Caravan from Khiva to Bukhara

This morning we began our 7 hour journey through the desert.

In the days of Marco Polo this journey from Khiva to Bukhara would have taken two weeks. They would be able to journey 30 kilometers a day. Every 30 days there was a caravanserai where the merchants could find shelter and re-provision as well as barter goods. Their camels and other animals would find food and water and rest as well. They journeyed through the night to avoid the intense heat of the desert and would navigate by the stars. As we drove through the desert, I imagined caravans of 300 camels on the horizon making the journey on this commercial highway laden with carpets, spices, jewels and other precious goods in transport from east to west and west to east.

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There was a very strong and prosperous Jewish community in Bukhara; in fact there are two synagogues. After the independence from the USSR many of the Jewish people sold their private residences which then were turned into boutique hotels like the hotel where I am staying. The interior courtyard has such charm. This hotel must have been a beautiful private residence.

This building was a 16th century Madrassah that is a Muslim school of theological study. The Madrassah in the city today are museums like this one.

Prayer niche in the direction of Mecca

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The entrance of this 16th century caravanserai gives way to a courtyard that once housed the caravan animals in the center courtyard; and the hotel rooms are artisan workshops.

Most of the old markets of the 15th and 16th century are restored and are shops of many artisans selling their goods and carpets and silks and souvenirs to travelers.

The colorful tile work on the 15th and 16th century Islamic theological schools make beautiful restaurants. One of the most impressive is now a restaurant that overlooks a large plaza with a pool that reflects the evening light.

Although there are tourists the night is alive with locals and their families with many children enjoying their city.

Khiva: A Door to the East and West

Today Khiva is an open air museum. When I walked through the gate of its inner city of homes of mud brick construction the very dull clay colored walls transport me to another era when this city was a major city on the silk road whose much wealth was obtained through slave trade.

Eastern gate market, which today is a city market, was the site of such humanity. The city was noted in the medieval period for it barbaric cruelty. My guide said for minor infractions of Islamic law you could be thrown off the high minarets to your death. For adultery the woman was tied up in a sack with wild cats who clawed her to death and then body was thrown into the river. Such cruelty persisted until it came under the Imperial Russia who put an end to this rampant barbarism and brought a greater sense of a site of such inhumanity. And Russia brought education, development of industry and electricity and many other benefits according to my guide.

The morning tour began at the palace with a climb to the top of a tower which affords great views of the city.

The Bible says the city was founded by Shem, the son of Noah, who discovered a well here.

It did not play an important role on the trade route until Timer devastated Kony Urgench and then the Uzbek Shaybanidsand made Khiva their capital in 1592 and established the major industry until almost 1900 which was the slave trade.


The turquoise minaret is the unfinished work Amin Kahn who in 1851 dreamed of building the tallest minaret in the world however he died before completion hence its fat look.

Khiva091339 Juma mosque or the Friday mosque has 218 wooden columns supporting its roof. Several of the wooden columns are from the 10th century.

Khiva093512Some of the most interesting buildings are Madrassas, that is, Islamic schools of instruction. Those in the old city are hotels and restaurants today. Notice the beautiful tile work.

Allakuli built the Tosh Hovli palace in 1832-1841 with beautiful tiles, wood and stone. My guide said the Khan executed the architect because he did not meet the deadline for completion.

The mausoleum of Pahlavon exhibits beautiful tile work. He is revered by the Muslims as a holy man. So you come and pray to him so God gives you what you request.


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More on the Unique City of Ashgabat

The city bears the artistic signature of the first president. All the buildings are of white italian marble and gold. The National Museum houses many ancient artifacts recovered on digs.

The central atrium of the Museum.

Monuments in marble and gold abound. This is the Arch of Neutrality and on top of a 12 meter high statue of the first president, Niyasov. The polished gold statue used to revolve to follow the sun.

This is Independence Square.

Turkmen2-041602The architecture defies description. Marble and gold buildings, wide boulevards and extravagant water features are everywhere. Marble apartments are everywhere and construction is everywhere as well.

Not only do the buildings glisten in the sun, they are illuminated with colored lights which change through the night. The cube shaped building is the wedding palace. One guide said the city is nicknamed Las Vegas.


This is one of the new hotels built for the asian Olympics across from the stadium. Then the hotel turns pink while the stadium changes colors. This is a far cry from the drab days of the Soviets.

Turkmen2-035039There is even a new hotel nicknamed the Dubai Hotel. My driver said it looks like a drop of water then another guide said it looks like a teardrop across from the wedding palace which dominates the cityscape.

Miles and miles of marble and gold and colored illumination gove the city a uniqueness. My guide said they made the Guiness Book of Records. Ashgabat is one of a kind.

More photos: http://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2013/06/the-city-of-white-marble-ashgabat-turkmenistan/100528/