Posted by: acooksca | 04/02/2009

Silk Route Crossing – Part One, Kashgar to Kirgizstan

kashgar-2In a brief and innocent time post Soviet Central Asia and pre-Sept. 11 you could once again travel The Silk Route. This is the first of a two part recollection of such a crossing from Kashgar in the East to Samarkand in the West.

What remains of the eternal Silk Route in this modern era? What cultures are left after the hasty retreat of the last invading horde, the Russians?  Can a traveler still find the heart of Central Asia and experience a land of mysterious cities such as Bukhara and Samarkand, of mystics like Gurjeiff and Rumi and of roasted lamb kebabs with yogurt? In the last year before the millennium I was part of a small group that ventured overland from Kashgar in Western China through Kirghizstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and into the Karakorum mountains following thousand year old routes that connected the middle of the world.

Kashgar: Because of our late night arrival I had no sense of Kashgar until a braying donkey awoke me at sunrise. The streets were clouded with dust kicked up by ambling men in dark coats and the hooves of beasts going to market. The donkey was being coaxed to pull a tumbled load of hay in a cart under my hotel window to the straw market.

The Kashgar Sunday market sprawls for acres displaying cheap Chinese goods, Russian fur hats, bootlegged C.D.’s, vegetables sold by the hands that grew them, hand painted wood cradles and farm implements. Fresh food stalls sell flat breads and lamb dumplings in broth. Buzzing activity emanates from a live animal market of prancing ponies and long eyelash camels. Kashgar looks every bit its title as the Middle of Central Asia and it is a place so fascinating I would make the arduous trek there again.

Crossing the Chinese-Kirgiz border was straight from Cold War Hell with the posturing of Chinese officials …“ the official with the exit stamp to leave China went home… come back tomorrow” and Russian border guards …“no one leaves the bus until we know why this one passport says South Africa on it, there’s something irregular here…”. 

We traded frustration for relief when finally were allowed to crossed the stunning and isolated 12,300’ Tougart Pass into Kirghizstan. It was spring and the valleys we descended into offered orchards in bloom, clusters of camels and cattle and tiny houses bordering deeply hued lakes. Well after dark our group finally reached Naryn village where our guest house had patiently awaited us with a welcome dinner and waiting beds.

The next day we set out for the Northeastern corner of Kirgizstan. At the center of nowhere and 1,000 miles from everywhere Lake Issyk-Kul had once been important to the USSR. The greatest explorer of nineteenth century Russia, Nickolai  Przhevalsky, caught typhus on it’s shores and died there. His impressive memorial stands on a bluff overlooking the remnants of the soviet submarine testing base in the lake.

Who knows how they ever got submarines in or out of this remote place. The main mountain roads are in gritty shape. Post-USSR Kirgizstan has to keep up its own infrastructure, such as roads, hotels and telephones lines, and there is not so much as an extra Som to do that.

kashgar-2aRinged in spectacular mountains, Lake Issyk-Kul was also used as a retreat, a summer camp for Soviet officials and their families. Surrounding the lake are shoddily built Soviet towns in decay. The inhabitants struggle for a post-soviet livelihood, now that the Russians have gone. Some yurt dwelling nomadic herders still move their families seasonally, returning to a life-style the Soviets nearly eradicated by 75 years of forced village life.

From horseback young men managed herds of cattle. Uyghurs, the indigenous Turkic peoples of the Silk Route, share their villages with exiles from the Soviet era. We stopped to talk to a third generation Kirgiz who identified himself as Ukrainian. Four women in head scarves offered samples of chewy flat bread from a communal outdoor oven. Nearby a cluster of oddly Bavarian looking homes are inhabited by the descendants of a group expelled from Germany during WW1.

Ancient traders and invaders used camel, horse and human feet to conquer these same Kirgiz mountain passes on their journey from exotic China in the East to fertile plains in the West. We jostled and bounced over poorly maintained roads in a Kama 200HP, 60 liter diesel cab pulling a Soviet troop carrier. Peering out from our vehicle’s scarred windows we had an unhurried view of verdant alpine valleys speckled with sheep, goats and herders.

Where the continental divide sends rivers dashing in opposite directions we set out a picnic lunch beneath dark crags of the Kirghiskiy Khrebet. Crossing Kirgizstan in a jarringly slow manner we watched the semi-nomadic ways of the mountains yield to a more modern life on the plains of western Kirgizstan.

Blessed with rivers and sunshine, the intensely green plains of Central Asia begin here and roll west for hundreds of miles. They have forever been the source of fortunes and misfortunes. Wild ponies of the Fergana Valley drew the fierce Mongol hoards. Orchards, grapes, fat tailed sheep and silk worms were all prized and fought for.

We celebrated our arrival into this bounty by devouring our own splendid lunch under thick shade trees. The restaurant served spring salads of tomatoes and cucumbers, grated carrots with herbs, legume soup with yogurt, flatbreads and platters of shash-lik; grilled lamb skewers seasoned with cumin, salt and pepper, a splash of white vinegar and sprinkled with grated radish and dill. kirgyzstan-2

The Fergana Valley, part of the very fertile Karakalpak steppe, is one of the oldest civilized areas in the world. It is divided between several “Stans” with Kirgizstan owning just a tiny corner. We rested there from our journey in the border town of Osh, posting letters, visiting local sights and checking out the bazaar.

Some of us ventured the 541 steps up a bluff known as Sulyman’s Throne where a Mullah (holy elder) chanted blessings from the Koran. While crossing their country the gentle Kirgiz had extended a warmth and hospitality that I felt truly was a blessing. Bidding farewell to our guides and drivers we crossed the border into Uzbekistan and a much more modern world.


Originally published in Farmstead Cheese News by Karen Bolla, edited for A Cook’s California (A Cook’s CA)  by Karen Bolla.


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