Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan – the Central Asian countries between Russia, China and Iran, have throughout history, captivated traders and travelers alike.
Once part of the fabled Silk Road, these territories were at one time filled with caravansarie and the comings and goings of merchants, traders and spies from East to West and back again. Extending 4,000 miles, the Silk Road was named for the lucrative trade in Chinese Silk, carried out along its length, beginning with the Han Dynasty in 206 BCE.
The Central Asian sections of the trade route were expanded in 114 BCE by the Han Dynasty, when the Chinese also extended the Great Wall to ensure the protection of the Silk Road, which was a vital tributary between East and West, not only for the exchange of merchandise but also as a means for transporting information regarding news, culture and the exchange of philosophical and religious ideologies.
Buddhism made its way along the Silk Road from India to China.
Genghis Khan planned to conquer the entire Silk Road but quickly realized that the military power of the Mongols would make it impossible to control all the routes for long, so instead he focused on methodically destroying Arabian and Turkic cities on the southern route to stop the commodity exchange that was beyond his control. The demise of the Silk Road also had much to do with to the development of the silk route by sea. It was becoming easier and safer to transport goods by water rather than overland.
Renewed interest in the Silk Road emerged among Western scholars toward the end of the 19th Century.
The British were bent on consolidating the land north of their Indian territories and began conducting surveys of the region. A trade delegation was sent to Kashgar in 1863 and soon after, a consulate was opened. The British saw the presence of Russia (who were also making inroads from the North, in the area) as a threat to the trade developing between Kashgar and India and the power struggle between these two Empires came to be known as “The Great Game.” The power struggle continued for some time and eventually much of the region fell under Russian/Soviet control.
Ella Maillart was a French-speaking Swiss adventurer, travel writer and photographer who wrote a book about her journey to Central Asia in 1932. Turkestan Solo, describes her journey from the Tien Shan Mountains of Mongolia on horseback and camel to the far region of Bokhara. Her vivid and compelling account of this mysterious region and its people – including the timeless nomads inhabiting the steppes of Central Asia, was the inspiration for Elizabeth Burns’ journey and subsequent book, The Silken Thread.
Liz has lived in Taos for a long time and in her book, she talks about her life prior to coming here and up until she made the trip that culminated in her writing about her own life and journey to Central Asia.
An intrepid traveler and talented photographer herself, Liz made the solo journey to Central Asia in 2008. Her trip began in Moscow and was fueled by a complicated breakup and simultaneous love affair gone wrong, that made her determined to do something for herself – she had long dreamed of writing a book, and this seemed to be the perfect subject along with the timing.
Following in Ella’s footsteps, she discovered straight away how much the world – even this vast and still largely unknown region has changed. Modern life with all of its annoying conveniences is everywhere.
The romance of the Silk Road exists in some ancient, still standing structures and the market places that remain central to these communities, and although a few traditional people still follow the seasonal rounds in the mountainous regions, the younger townsfolk, (many of whom, we learn from this book are very well educated) busy on their cell phones, dressed in jeans, nike’s and cheesy t-shirts, could be from anywhere.
As she continues on her journey, the book becomes an inner exploration of what brought her this far from home in the first place. She bares herself and soul in her process of discovery. As she comes to realize that Ella’s Central Asia no longer exists and a Century later, all the world has changed and as Ancient Cultures collide with Modernity, there is no geographical cure for heartbreak, only the courage to look at oneself with total honesty and make the changes needed for a fulfilling life.
In the end, Liz got both; a well written and entertaining account of a woman traveling solo through regions many men would fear to go to alone, and upon her return to Taos, a new relationship that continues to flourish six years later. She had done the work and taken the most important journey of all. The journey to the longing in her own heart.
The Silken Thread is an important document of a region that now finds itself embroiled in religious and territorial conflicts, a region that is changing faster than ever. One hundred years from now, the people and places Liz captured on the page and through her camera lens will be nothing but a romantic memory, a remnant of a time forgotten.
The Silken Thread by Elizabeth Burns is available from Amazon. Please click on the link below to order a copy.
All photographs by Elizabeth Burns (except for Liz on the camel)