An Irishwoman's Diary
‘Did your mother not tell you never, ever get into a car with a strange man?” I asked Elise. We had wandered into a stableyard where we found some quite nice-looking horses. “Akhal Teke?” I queried the caretaker. “Niet,” came the reply. It was then that were invited to get into his car and taken to a translator where we enjoyed a great conversation about the Akhal Teke horse breed. We were in Kyrgistan in Central Asia.
The recorded history of this knot of ancient lands in the heart of the largest landmass on Earth began in the sixth century BC, when the huge Persian empire created various kingdoms. Gradually, over the years, Central Asia came under the control of other empires, and place names and cultures changed.
The transcontinental routes of the Silk Road were known to be in existence around 5,000 years ago. The road started with the transportation of salt and lapis lazuli. Using a web of routes through China, the Silk Road then came through Central Asia before wending its way westwards towards Europe. As well as silk, other commodities, such as ceramics, jade, gold and horses, were sold. Music, art, religion and ideas were exchanged.
During the late 1800s, Russia pushed its frontiers south towards the then British India, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that Stalin delineated the “stans” as we know them today. In 1991 they gained their independence – for better or for worse.
As a pair of sprightly 60-year-olds in 1998, my friend Elise and I first set foot in Central Asia. We set off from Peshawar in northern Pakistan, up the Karakorum Highway, staying several nights en route.
What an extraordinary feat of engineering is this highway. The road follows the Indus, cutting through the eastern end of the Hindu Kush, and the spiky black mass of the Karakorum Range. It felt almost claustrophobic sandwiched between towering walls of rock, constantly shifting, resulting in huge landslides.
When we finished the trip, delightedly, we crossed the Kunjerab Pass, which at over 15,000ft is the highest paved road in the world, and slid downhill into the China’s Xinjiang Province and Kashgar, the capital. Here we spent a day at the local market where you could buy anything, from a cradle to a carpet or a camel, or have a haircut while eating delicious spicy noodles.
Northwards, over the Tien Shan, or Mountains of Heaven, we made our way into Kyrgistan. Here we first met the Akhal Teke horse, went riding in the mountains and swimming in Lake IssyKul. We ended our first visit to Central Asia in Uzbekistan, probably the showplace of Central Asia with Samarkand’s fabulous Registan Square. We were enchanted by Bukhara’s elegant Labi Haus – a pool with fountains surrounded by tea houses, and the 800-year-old Kalan Minaret, surprisingly left standing by Genghis Khan so in awe of it was he.