WELL before the Chinese unveiled their plans for the Belt and Road Initiative, ‘Silk Road’ conjured up exciting images of Central Asia. Areas of this region were a part of the erstwhile Soviet Union. Travelling outside Moscow, except for a few cities, was difficult. It was only from the early ’90s, when these countries became independent republics, that there was an ease of travel. While connecting Rome with China for trading, the Silk Road was known to pass through Ashkhabad, Khiva and then from Tashkent in Uzbekistan to Kashgar, from where it entered China. This route, it is understood, was also followed by Marco Polo.
It was almost three decades ago that I had an opportunity to travel through some of these exotic areas, including Khiva, a city of great antiquity. Located close to the Uzbek–Turkmenistan border, it used to be a favourite with Timur. Later, it became the capital of an independent Khanate and was the last one to be subsumed into the Soviet Union. One can reach Khiva by road from the nearest airport at Urgench. En route, we crossed the historic Amu Darya, as the river Oxus is locally known.
At Khiva, it was a treat to walk past history of over 700 years and marvel at the efforts for its preservation. The classical Central Asian design of minarets with inlay work and domes with lapis lazuli décor of 15th-century vintage were quite intact. The people appeared to be cheerful and friendly. As if on cue, the moment they saw visitors from India, they broke into broad smiles and kiosks began to play songs from Raj Kapoor’s Awara, which had retained popularity even after decades.
Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, earlier known as Frunze, reminded us of the Kashmir valley. Branches overloaded with apples almost touching the ground were a common sight. The landscape was dominated by willow and poplar trees similar to those found in Kashmir. The Epic of Manas, a poem of a few thousand verses, has enriched Kyrgyz culture. We had chosen not to fly to Bishkek; instead, we preferred a road journey of about 250 km from Almaty in Kazakhstan. Throughout our journey of about three hours, as far as one could see, it was a vast expanse of lush-green grasslands.
Being a vegetarian posed some difficulty, but there were plenty of melons and dried fruits everywhere. Having gone there at a time when the economy of the region was not doing so well left us with an interesting experience. At most places, the value of the local currency not being stable, our buying capacity showed a sudden and almost daily upgrade, so did the prices of commodities. Some of these countries were in a state of virtual infancy, but it is no surprise that today they are ready to compete with the most modern ones.
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