A wonderful journey
Where does the Silk Road begin and end? Most authorities are agreed that modern Xian in China is at the eastern edge. So where does it go to at the western end? Former Constantinople was definitely a major destination and in Marco Polo’s time, Venice was his journey’s end after spending 24 years on the Silk Road. Some authorities say that traded goods went as far west as Spain and the Atlantic sea board, and in the north, to the Volga River and beyond. Krakow was one of Europe’s leading cultural centres during the last days of the Silk Road in the 14th century and no doubt benefited from the trade.
Where has our Silk Road arrived at in the west? Maurice and Anne and ourselves, together with our trusty vehicles, Bilbo and Heehaw, spent 11 ½ weeks together, 10 ½ of them on the road from Shenzhen, China to Krakow, Poland. After 16,000 kilometres on the Silk Road we have gone our separate ways as planned, the O’Reillys to Nurburg, Germany to drive in the 24 hour race later in June, and us to Martin’s family in Denmark. So for us we can say that our Silk Road trip has been completed in Krakow, though both couples will spend more time in Europe.
Has it been worth the extensive planning, the effort, the cost, the occasional discomfort, long days in the vehicles, pit toilets and all? Overwhelmingly, yes. Every bit has been a great experience. The journey can easily be divided into three sections: China, Central Asia and Europe.
China, for Martin and I, was all new territory. We are left with the strong impression of China marching economically and with its infrastructure towards the future, towards modernity and towards Central Asia and Europe. The old China, at least in the cities, will soon be gone. We hope in their rush for wealth and prosperity, there are those who will call for care of the environment, for clean air, unpolluted waterways and rubbish free surroundings. We also hope that they are able to move peacefully to a more open society, especially for their minority groups. In Uzbekistan we were told: if you are an optimist, you will learn English; if you are a pessimist you will learn Chinese. Certainly China is a huge neighbour knocking at the eastern door of Central Asia.
Climbing the rice terraces of Longsheng, biking on the city walls of Xian, shopping at the road side fruit stalls that are in every town, visiting the Mao shrine near Lanzhou, travelling through the oasis cities edging the Taklimakan desert, receiving hospitality in a home near Turpan, walking through the Kashgar livestock market – these are just some of our enduring experiences.
Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan formed our Silk Road in Central Asia. These countries have shared a similar history and suffering under the rule of the Soviet Union and are struggling to emerge from that heritage with continuing dictatorships of various hues. In spite of the curbs on freedom, the people were friendly and delightfully open in their interest in our journey.
We will long remember the beautiful architecture of Samarkand with its wonderful blue tiles and stunning domes and the restored old inner city of Bukhara where we enjoyed good plov. The roads were very poor compared with those of Europe, with many pot holes and rough surfaces and ‘cucumber’ police (named because of their green uniforms) seemed to be on every city corner. The difficulties in purchasing diesel that presented some interesting moments and the big wad of money needed in Uzbekistan will both be in our reminiscences. To see first hand the tragedy of the Aral Sea was worth the hours of bumpy travel across the desert.
When we crossed the Ural River north of the Caspian Sea we were officially in Europe, but it wasn’t until we drove into Poland that we entered the European Union and felt we were really in Europe. The toilet paper was no longer grey cardboard, the roads radically improved, ubiquitous traffic police were replaced by radar cameras, streets and villages were tidy and ordered, and accommodation and food increased in price – though not as expensive as in Denmark and Germany. The border crossings into Poland and again into Denmark were conspicuous by their absence of long queues and mayhem, after the hours at passport controls in Central Asia. It is a mark of communism and dictatorships that the citizenry must be controlled, well beyond the controls necessary for law and order. These countries provide a warning to those of us who value the democratic way of life to beware of subtle encroaching unnecessary limits on freedom. A visit to Auschwitz makes one realise that even the most educated of nations can be ensnared into the most heinous of crimes against its own citizens and neighbouring nations.
Fortunately there is much in Europe to enjoy and value. Poland is a most Christian of nations, with churches full on Sundays and a genuine devotion to the cross of Christ. The green, ordered and tidy landscape of our journey was a pleasure to travel through. Krakow and other smaller centres have beautiful old centres and that make tourism a joy.
We will spend the next couple of weeks visiting family in Denmark and then our son Jonathan and his wife Taryn will join us around Norway and Sweden before we return to New Zealand in mid-July. And what of Bilbo, our aging but strong and robust Nissan? For the moment he will stay in Denmark, while we consider his future. If there is anyone out there who would like to make a return trip through Central Asia and China, please let us know and we can negotiate a sale. You will need at least 18 months preparation time for visas and planning, so give it some thought and be in touch. You could also contact Rally Tours, New Zealand, a commercial travel group who organise trips on the Silk Road by car. www.rallytours.co.nz
Blogging is addictive! We have enjoyed your company and we hope you have enjoyed ours. Blessings, Jeanette and Martin Knudsen.