The Old Silk Road, An Uzbekistan Odyssey

The Old Silk Road, An Uzbekistan Odyssey

» Featured Columnists | By Steve Winston | October 26, 2012 8:00 AM ET

Yes, Virginia, there is a country called Uzbekistan.
The name itself is exotic, redolent of a distant culture and the tremulous tides of history. It's about as tucked into the heart of Central Asia as a place could be, and enveloped in a swirl of mystical cultures. And no place is more filled with mystique than the Old Silk Road...trod by princes and slaves, armies and empires, victors and vanquished, Oriental and Middle Eastern cultures, camels and caravans (one of which apparently carried Marco Polo).
The Old Silk Road may have been the ancient world's primary commercial route, moving materials both mundane and treasured from the heart of the Orient to the shores of the Bosporus, and then sometimes on to Europe.
Uzbekistan is home to three of the most renowned Silk Road oases -- Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. And it's home, as well, to one of history's great stories...the Fergana Valley, where, legend has it, Central Asia's silk production began with two cocoons hidden in the headdress of a royal Chinese bride.
Now, you can trace the tracks of the ancients. A Seattle, Washington-based company called MIR Corporation can take you on your own Silk Road caravan, and into the heart of a Central Asia newly-opened by the fall of the Soviet Union.
A sample itinerary cooked up by MIR Corporation might include stops like this...
Tashkent, Fergana Valley - The capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent, is surprisingly modern, but nonetheless dotted with ancient landmarks like the Chorsu Bazaar, an Oriental market/bazaar/swap-shop that's an intoxicating swirl of colors, textures, sights, sounds, and aromas. From Tashkent you'll move to the fertile Fergana Valley, agricultural heartland of the country. Here, you'll stand on ground upon which once stood a city created by Alexander the Great in 329 BC. You'll visit with craftspeople who create distinctive pottery and silk weavings. And you'll enjoy a home-cooked dinner, Uzbek-style, at the home of a local family.
Samarkand, Shakhrisabze - Samarkand was the capital of the warrior Tamerlane, whose armies carved a swath across Central Asia (and took very few prisoners!). You'll see the blue-tiled ancient square called the Registan, and, in contrast, the modern observatory of Ulug Bek. Nearby is Tamerlane's hometown, called Shakhrisabze, with the remains of the "White Palace," built by another great conqueror called Timur.
Kyzyl Kum Desert - Alexander the Great was not only a great soldier, but also, apparently, a bit of an engineering whiz. He somehow constructed a system of wells in the reddish sands of the vast Kyzyl Kum Desert, most likely for use by his armies. Here - just like Marco Polo and the other ancient travelers along this road - you'll get to ride a camel. You'll spend the night in a yurt camp, where the residents will bake you the traditional round bread of Central Asia. And you'll enjoy it by a campfire with a canopy of stars made absolutely brilliant by the lack of ground light.
Bukhara, Khiva, Nukus - In the ancient trade center of Bukhara, the bazaars and homes and mosques, such as the Kalon Mosque and Minaret, are thousand-year-old mud structures, and the painstakingly-crafted oriental rugs are among the finest in the world. You'll stop in Khiva, the last great oasis on the northern part of the Silk Road. Then you'll move on to Nukus, known for a superb collection of Russian art that the Uzbeks somehow managed to hide from the Soviets when the latter pulled out in the early-90's.
Some places stay with you forever. The Old Silk Road is so unusual, so foreign, so astoundingly different, that it may well be the adventure of a lifetime.

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