The flow of knowledge and ideas along the Silk Road was often disrupted, but it was incredibly powerful. Buddhism and Islam both reached China and took root. Science and technology flowed both east and west. From China, the west received the compass, gunpowder, paper-making and printing. The transfer of knowledge wasn’t quick – the first known printed book, The Diamond Sutra, discovered in Dunhuang, preceded Gutenberg by nearly 600 years. Gunpowder spread more quickly, helped by a certain Genghis Khan who learnt of it from China and used it in his conquest of all places west.
As we travel from west to east along this ancient route, we will in our own small way be carrying on this tradition. It’s an exciting thought. It is likely that we will receive more knowledge than we transmit, but in our encounters along the way, there will be exchanges that are unexpected and unpredictable in their consequences. For all the commodification of modern tourism, with tourists sealed away in a sort of mutually protective bubble from the real life of the places they pass through, conversations do take place and brief connections are made.
As a language teacher who has spent large chunks of my life in Asia, I find this the most exciting aspect of our coming trip.
Even though we are doing it in an fairly organised way, this trip feels more like exploration than most of our recent travels. To go from one side of Asia to the other feels almost like embarking on a sea voyage where the little known lands are an ocean marked by island-like towns and separated by towering seas of mountains or waves of dunes.
Istanbul to Beijing. I know Istanbul from long ago and it’s reassuring to start from the known, even if my knowledge is nearly 40 years out of date. But from there we plunge into the unknown: Central Asia and Western China. We Brits have never known much about those places. Our empire never stretched that far, for all the valiant efforts of the players of the Great Game – which were mainly defensive: trying to foil the Ruskys from extending their empire down into India. They mapped the mountain passes, but none of that made much impact on the public’s lack of awareness of – or interest in – the region. It was all so very far away.
Then the Ruskys did extend their empire and the ‘-stans’ were invented, but that was all behind an iron curtain which only lifted 25 years ago. The shutters came down on Iran, then Afghanistan, then much of Pakistan, but a new region opened up to travellers in Central Asia. One of the few genuine new frontiers for the intrepid, it seemed. So, off we go!
Our appetites have been whetted by a smart maroon file which arrived from Wild Frontiers, containing our itinerary and other information about the trip. It’s both reassuring to have it and just a little bit disappointing – because it reminds me that this is a very safe sort of adventure where everything has been pre-planned – just as any twenty-first century tourist would expect.
Nevertheless, seeing Alan Brown’s breath-taking photos* of the night sky at Tash Rabat in Kyrgyzstan reminds me that there will be many places where the plans will seem quite distant – and probably flimsy!
* Published by Wild Frontiers on Facebook.