Cental Asian Expedition was a historic expedition in more ways than one.
It retraced the ancient routes of overland communication and paved the
way to renewed socio-cultural relations between Central Asian countries,
China and India; in a manner made meaningful in today's context. Passing
through some of the most formidable terrain in the world, the Central
Asian Expedition covered approximately 12,000 km and traversed the ancient
'Silk and Jade Route'. The team comprised of 17 members driving in five
vehicles along with four Chinese members.
We air-freighted our five Armada vehicles to Tashkent. Once an oasis on the border of the settled and nomadic communities, it sprang up as an important trade centre on the Silk Route. Caravans from Central Asia, India, China and Europe had passed through Tashkent. In the Uzbek capital we saw a country in transition. Proud statues of Karl Marx and Lenin promising the world a socialist paradise were being replaced by Emir Timur, who, in Central Asian politics, has made more comebacks than Muhammad Ali.
The Old Bazaar is now in tune with the modem times. A huge dome keeps the sun off about three acres of fruit, vegetables and meat. There are sheep's guts by the metre and the usual abundance of nuts, dried fruit, fresh herbs, unlabelled spices and The Buran Tower in Kirghistan amid poppy fields hallucinogens and Belgian carpets of Turkish designs. Crowds quarrelled for Chinese-made shoes while the idle and the chatterboxes retired to the chaikhanas for green tea. Indian and Pakistani traders were looking for Uzbeks who had short-changed them. New mosques were sprouting up everyday and madrassas were working over- time to meet the rising demand for mullahs. We drove on a dark, moonless night along the four-lane highway from Tashkent to Samarkand, where we were put up in a dacha inside the compound of the downtown Government Guest House.
Driving on the rim of the flat, pale, reddish-brown expanse of the Kizil Kum-the Red Sands-we reached Bukhara-e-Sharief, Bukhara means 'noble' and 'Muqaddar Shehr', a town of destiny. With its 360 mosques and 80 madrassas, it is the holiest city in Central Asia. Alexander had conquered it in 329 B.C. on his way to India. It had also been under the Kushan rule for a while. Its name is said to be derived from vihara (Sanskrit for monastery). Uzbek and Indian traders have had active relations for several centuries. Kashmiri shawls were the most popular item of trade. Sheep loaded with shawls did a 56-day march over the mountain route to Bukhara. There was also the desert route, which took 70 days, but traders preferred the mountain route. The sheep also served as 'meal on hooves' for they could be put to the butcher's knife in event of a food crisis. Bukhara was dotted with caravanserais. There were two Hindu serais exclusively for Indians - one housed 70 and the other 36. Indians were reasonable in their pricing. Goods bought in Kashmir would be sold at twice their price in Bukhara.From Bukhara the goods would be transported on camels and horses to other markets, generally of western countries.
Driving out of Bukhara and 30 km before Shahresabz the Zerfashan ranges came into view. The peaks had a hint of snow. The road was lined with Russian poplar trees with white flowers. The land became more fertile with a vast expanse of wheat fields and mulberry, apricot and apple orchards and scenic villages with mud-walled houses and thatched roofs. We drove straight to the crumbling remains of the Ak-Saray Palace, the fabled residence of Timur. It used to cover an area the size of an Olympic stadium, an expanse now taken over by stray donkeys, parked cars and graves of dead soldiers. It took 20 years, from 1380 to 1405, to build the palace and it was still not complete when Timur died.The ceiling was entirely of gold work and the walls were panelled with gold and blue tiles. All that exists of the palace is parts of the main entrance arch, still awesome in size.
The road from Shahresabz to Samarkand is till today called the Silk Road. Till recently, Kazakhstan, like the rest of the Central Asian states, was a Russion colony; and a pretty large colony it was, too. The size of India, nine-tenths of the country is steppe, limitless grass which has attracted nomads from across its borders. We entered Kazakhstan on a lovely, bright day. Giant white clouds loomed large on a clear blue sky that merged into the vast expanses of rolling green land, a grand sweep of elevations and depressions as far as the eye could see, a limitless range of a grassy carpet dotted with grazing horses. Even to this day I can feel the thrill of the wild sense of freedom I experienced driving through the Kazakh steppe. Poppy cultivation is the fastest- growing business in Kirghistan today. Opium, extracted from the poppy flower, has made a comeback and people are consuming it like candy. It has become the star of the Silk Route, awakening history's most famous trade highway from its centuries of slumber. The Smack Road would be a more apt description today.
drive through thousands of miles of dreary stretches of great deserts
of Kizil Kum, Taklamakan and the Gobi, their bare and sterile landscape
sometimes interrupted by remarkably fertile and well-cultivated villages;
the storms that raged with undiminished violence; the copious downpour
of unexpected rain; the traverse through famous mountain ranges: the Zerfashans,
Kirghiz Ala Tau, Tien Shan, Kun Lun and the Greater Himalayas; the genuine
warmth and affection showered on us in abundant measure by the people
of central Asia-are memories that will linger within us for life. Gratified
that we had relived the adventures of great scholars and travellers like
Fa-hsien, Huang Tsang and Marco Polo, we returned, after 65 days and 12,000
km of driving.