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Caravans and Conquerors

An Epic West to East Traverse of the Silk Roads of Uzbekistan, from Harsh Deserts to Dazzling Oasis Cities


The relentless desert sun beat down on the rickety old train as it rattled and swayed along the tracks. My wife and I, along with our two young kids, are sweating profusely. We were a family of four - a 3 year old boy and 1 year old girl - at the start of a grand adventure, retracing the ancient Silk Road across Uzbekistan.

The journey had started in the barren landscape of the Ustyurt Plateau. As the train departed the Caspian Sea coast in Kazakhstan, crossing the western border into Uzbekistan, the landscape of endless desert was surely one of the most barren places we’d ever seen. The train stopped at small outposts every few hours to take on more passengers, packs of locals crowding into our already crammed cabin. The heat was almost unbearable, well over 100°F, adding to the fact no air conditioning. Our children were miserable, sweaty and restless, hoping a small crack in the window could offer some relief. Gazing out at the shimmering desert, I thought of the ancient caravans who journeyed this same route hundreds of years ago. They traversed the harsh landscape on camels, stopping at oases to rest and refill their water. It surely tested their limits much as it did ours. Yet the promise of riches in trade compelled them onwards. What riches will we find in our journey?

We still had a long way to go ourselves, but finally reaching our first destination would be no small reason to celebrate.

The Heavenly Way Map_edited_edited.jpg


The train finally arrived in Nukus, the largest city in the remote region of Karakalpakstan. Stepping off onto the platform, we were met with waves of hot air and pesky taxi drivers, but the slight breeze felt heavenly. Cramming ourselves and our backpacks into an old Soviet-era taxi, we settled down into Nukus for a couple days, recovering from the 33 hour journey by train across the desert.

Nukus’ history stretches only to the Soviets, though outside the town lies some remains stretching back thousands of years. The entirety of the journey, from the city of the the dead at Mizdakhan, the tower of silence at Chilpik Dhakma, to the ruined fortresses of the Khorezm, is described our story found here: Fortresses in the Sand.

It was an eye-opening journey - a small taste of the riches to come in Uzbekistan. At the last stretch towards Khiva, with the kids sound asleep, we smiled at each other. Soon we will be in the living heart of Uzbekistan, and thus the heart of the Silk Roads.


Arriving just outside the north gate, we paid our taxi driver a generous tip, well deserved as he took us on a wild ride through some remote regions of western Uzbekistan. Settling into a quaint guesthouse was much needed, as well as wandering into the town. Entering the ornate gates of the Ichan Kala, the walled city, we entered a world lost in time. Khiva was one of the great Silk Road capitals, shaped by legendary khans. Wandering its medieval lanes, we no longer had to imagine the bustling markets and caravans of old. Here, history still lived and breathed.

Along the thousands of miles of the Silk Roads, perhaps no other place so fully evokes the faded glories of the past as this remote walled city.

Yet a dark side awaits, as these grand constructions were built by Khiva's numerous slaves - victims of a leading slave trade center in Central Asia where by the 19th century, thousands of Persians and high numbers of Russians were transported and sold through Khiva's gates. As we walked the atmospheric streets of Khiva, we had to also reflect on its dark underbelly and history of appalling cruelty - the horrors of losing one's freedom and dignity, the daily torture callously inflicted on thousands of fellow human beings. For many traveling these ancient routes, it was a brutal game of life versus death. I don’t know it fair to tell the story of the Silk Roads without reflecting on both sides of the coin.


From Khiva, we boarded a Soviet-era train to transport us further across the desert to the mirage-like city of Bukhara. For as long as historians recorded history, this dry land flanked by rivers welcomed those from far lands to offer something new. From the Persian Empire to the Golden Age of Islam even to the Russian Revolution, Bukhara grew in fame and fortune. Walking around the old streets of Bukhara today is one of the closest you can feel to living in medieval times. The ancient trading domes are still full of textiles and trinkets to dazzle foreigners, madrassas are still operated as places of Islamic study, and the untouched squares are still the focal point of leisure in evenings.

The history is front and center in town, and a point of pride for the locals. The Poi Kalon Registan and the Chor Bakr memorial complex are two of the sites that seem frozen in time. At the Registan, intricate blue and gold Islamic patterns adorn massive archways framing a central square, transporting you back centuries with just a glance. Chor Bakr houses the tombs of past saints and rulers, a sacred place still visited by those seeking blessings.

This ancient crossroads still beats as the heart of Central Asia, where past and present merge into one.


Leaving the oasis of Bukhara, we entered the vast emptiness of the Kyzylkum Desert, the barren landscape occasionally broken by lonely outposts. Here was known as the Karakum Corridor, a section of the Silk Road connecting Bukhara to Samarkand, and also south towards Merv - a stretch of dry desert with little vegetation. We stopped at the Rabat Malik Caravanserai, an ancient resting place along the silk roads where only the magnificent facade and foundations remains. Gazing across the landscape, nothing appears for miles and miles, so one can only imagine the delight of camel caravans reaching this resting spot on their long journey between oases.

At the Mausoleum of Amir Sayed Bakhram, intricate mosaics honored a 14th century ruler. The crumbling mud brick structures still standing in this harsh landscape were a testament to the hardy travelers of the past.

Reaching the outskirts of Samarkand after days crossing the desert, we were on the edge of the heartbeat of one of the world’s most powerful empires, still very much alive though destroyed hundreds of years ago. The contrast was stark, from endless sand to a sprawling city - but both had been shaped by travelers following the trade routes intersecting here.


Samarkand's history is a rich scroll as it unfolds, beginning as one of Central Asia's oldest cities and eventually prospering over the centuries due to its location along the ancient Silk Road trade route. Under Timur in the 14th century, the city became the dazzling capital of the Timurid Empire and a center of art, culture, and architecture. His empire rivales that of Genghis Khan, even considering himself a successor to the legendary conqueror. From Turkey in the west to India in the east, Timur’s empire stretched far, with exploits and riches used to transform Samarkand into one of the wonders of the world. Masterpieces such as the Registan ensemble of madrasas and the Bibi Khanym were constructed during Timur's rule, as if a mirage in the desert.

One such monument, the Bibi Khanum Mosque, remains our favorite in the city, yet also the most ironic. Built as a tribute to his beloved wife, the structure was left abandoned and unfinished soon after his death. No one is allowed inside today, as large cracks in the foundation hint that this structure is on life support. Although the outside is beautifully restored, this building is a reminder of how Timur pushed the boundaries of building techniques, and how the overly ambitious conqueror pushed the limits of even his empire too far to the brink of collapse.

The affects, 600 years later, is still a wonder to behold as the soaring minarets and intricate mosaics of Samarkand's majestic mosques and mausoleums took our breath away. This city contained treasures pilgrims traveled thousands of miles to visit even today.


Beyond Samarkand's grand city center, the outskirts revealed an intimate glimpse into the past. We followed winding lanes past mud brick houses and sat in small mausoleums, sharing tea with imams. The peaceful garden housing the tomb of the biblical prophet Daniel provides insight into the populace's devotion. Just outside the gate of this complex lies an expanse of weathered ruins, stretching as the eyes see. They are the remains of Afrasiyab, one of the Sogdians' great ancient cities.

No discussion of the Silk Road in Uzbekistan is complete without mentioning the Sogdian empire, renowned traders who thrived as middlemen between East and West at the heart of the Silk Roads. Though their storied height now seems barely believable, the rugged lands echo with their legends, making their disappearance all the more tragic. As we leave Samarkand to follow in the Sogdians' footsteps toward Tajikistan, we make a final stop - the crumbling Jartepa II temple. Once a center of worship and wealth, it now lies forgotten in a neighborhood.

These dilapidated stones offer a glimpse into the thriving mercantile success and faith of the Silk Road Sogdians nearly two thousand years ago.


From Tajikistan, we looped back into Uzbekistan and towards Tashkent, the cosmopolitan capital. Gleaming new office towers and apartments contrasted starkly with crumbling Soviet architecture. Besides weary silk caravans, the steady stream of modern traffic highlighted how this crossroads still impacts surrounding cultures - and in a sense a revitalization of Central Asia.

After retracing the ancient Silk Road's glories, Tashkent served as a stark reminder that the world persists in changing. New layers settle atop the old in an ever-evolving cycle. Though the storied past has vanished, it still lives on, influencing the present. 

The memories of our 1,600-km traverse of Uzbekistan has stayed with us - snapshots of a world both gone and still existing, continually evolving across the sands of time. The ruins tell of tales of caravans and conquerors, kingdoms long fallen, and bazaars still breathing. The Silk Road endures as a thread binding our shared humanity across centuries.

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