Pearl Buck once wrote, "If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday." And so I did, along a fascinating journey to the 'Stans of Central Asia -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, in that order -- one of the most ancient corners of the globe, to explore what few Americans have seen and to return home as if from a year away at school.
Do-it-yourself travel to the Silk Road countries is not recommended -- not for any kind of inherent risk factor, but simply because of language and cultural barriers, not to mention the almost comical border crossings mired deep in old, Soviet-style bureaucracy. Those challenges would test any solo traveler's mettle and compromise what I found to be one of the most intriguing journeys to be taken in our time. (Click here or on any of the photos for more images from the writer's trek along the Silk Road.)
The region's wealth of history extends far back beyond the time of Genghis Khan and Marco Polo to the distant age of Alexander the Great and earlier still. I would have missed much of that if not for our tour company's Amsterdam-based guide, an all-around expert with a passion for the region. In addition, his ease with the Russian language regularly saved the day for our small caravan of 14 veteran adventurers.
I had signed up with Seattle-based Mir Corp. (named from the Russian word meaning "peace" and "world"), which for 27 years has been sending Americans, among others, to both obscure and much-visited parts of the former Soviet Union.
Travel to the heartland of Asia promises a remarkable adventure that can sound almost like travel fiction at times. But it delivers, and then some, in large part due to Mir. The first American tour operator to have opened an office in Uzbekistan, it boasts "connections that keep us plugged in to all the latest infrastructure improvements and opportunities, or hiccups, that take place as they happen," said Douglas Grimes, Mir's founder and president.
This is not an area of the world where you want an upstart operator organizing your travel logistics. Mir, Grimes assured me, "keeps a close eye on developments in all our destinations, and we advise our travelers accordingly."
Anticipation and raised eyebrows
I began my journey with a flight from New York on Lufthansa, connecting in Frankfurt for Almaty, the commercial capital of Kazakhstan. Before I left, any mention of my anticipated departure for the 'Stans was met with a lot of raised eyebrows.
I doubt that most, or even any, of the five independent republics we visited could be located on a map by the average American. Most friends expressed disbelief that one could -- or would even want to --travel to a part of the world widely perceived as being off limits After all, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran are steps away, and the fomenting situation in Ukraine and Crimea has many nervous travelers writing off anything that smells of Russia's periphery.
I assured my anxious friends that Almaty, the bold new face of Kazakhstan where our 21-day adventure began, lies a comfortable 2,240 miles from Odessa, Ukraine, comparable to the distance that separates New York and San Francisco. It would often feel like twice that.
The tour I had joined -- "Journey Through Central Asia: The Five 'Stans" -- has been Mir's most popular tour for years, with extra departures added each year to meet the demand.
"Already in late July 2014, we've sold out one 2015 Five 'Stans departure," Grimes told me last month.
The number of travelers to this middle-of-nowhere destination is increasing, encouraged by a slowly but steadily improving environment. Americans are no longer required to get tourist visas for Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan, but some of the other 'Stans will test your budget and patience; Mir oversees all border crossings to eliminate potential nightmares.
Borders are heavily controlled to keep neighboring Islamic extremists and drug traffickers at bay, and with much of the Middle East off limits due to regional unrest, the 'Stans are a stable and scenically spectacular destination for those seeking an alternative experience. Despite how the media portray them (or ignore them), the 'Stans are a pretty safe place to visit. On a local level, they have extremely low crime rates.
And they are welcoming: Our days were filled with random and spontaneous encounters with some of the warmest, most good-natured and genuinely gracious local people I've ever met. Of the trip's countless "who knew?" factors, that friendliness might well have been the greatest surprise, although hospitality in the heartland of Asia has been the stuff of legend since Marco Polo's time.
While each of these five newly independent nations has its own distinct ethnic and historical identity, they are firmly bound by their shared history. And it is a unique one. Attempting to grasp this little-known but strategically crucial area, which covers roughly one-seventh of the world's land mass, is no easy feat, and travelers limited by time and money would do well to single out just one: Uzbekistan.
Cradle of culture
Slightly smaller than California, Uzbekistan is the region's cradle of culture, its undeniable show-stopper and its biggest draw. Its collection of spellbinding, one-of-a-kind highlights was experienced in 11 intensive days of our comprehensive 21-day trip. In fact, Mir offers Uzbekistan as a 15-day, single-destination tour.
Surprisingly, a negligible number of Americans visit Uzbekistan each year, though official counts are hard to come by. In fact, the only Western visitors we ran into, when we ran into any at all, were Europeans.
Despite being a tightly controlled state with a dubious human rights record (a record in no way obvious to the visitor's eye), it is an oddly endearing and extremely friendly country whose brightly garbed people have a special love for Americans. Following the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., Uzbekistan won favor with Washington by allowing U.S. forces a base in Uzbekistan. Although the troops were later expelled, the rapport has, if anything, improved.
Young students approached us wanting to practice their English, asking us about Rihanna and Barack Obama, while the older folks relied on sign language, laughter and genuine smiles to make us feel welcome -- all the while insisting we take their photos. The place is a photographer's dream.
Expectations and realities
Uzbekistan had always conjured for me romantic images of fluted domes of shimmering turquoise tiles, timeless walled cities and caravanserais teeming with weary Silk Road merchants, their two-humped Bactrian camels laden with precious cargo.
Those dreamy images got put on temporary hold when we arrived in its clean and contemporary capital city, Tashkent, with its curious mix of uninspired, Soviet-era buildings and impressive modern architecture and leafy parks. Its population of 2.2 million makes it the most populous city in Central Asia's most populous country.
Mir had arranged a lunch with representatives of the U.S. Embassy, who spent a few enjoyable hours fielding all manner of questions from us and sharing the fact that many in the diplomatic world lobby for an assignment here, thanks to its highly livable and entertaining lifestyle.
It was just one of many hosted meals arranged for us throughout the 'Stans. Most others were hosted by local residents in their inviting homes or the occasional yurt, their tables spread with fresh, local homemade specialties on their best china and often accompanied by live music.
Food was seasonal, fresh, copious and interesting, built around the compulsory plov, a kind of traditional Persian rice pilaf. Before that, a tasty homemade soup of vegetables or noodles was served among an array of mezze-style salads.
Central Asia has long been predominantly Muslim, having survived the religious oppression of the Soviet era. Today these five 'Stans rank among the world's most secular Muslim countries. Many of the "four M's" that comprise its exotic skyline -- mosques, minarets, madrassas and mausoleums -- had been converted into utilitarian space such as hospitals, markets, warehouses and government offices during the Soviet years, or sat boarded up and abandoned.
Today many are being used for tourism: bazaars, B&Bs, handicraft studios and cultural centers where we visited, shopped and enjoyed dancing and singing performances that evoked something of the country's distant heritage.
Other of these buildings have reverted to their original purpose, serving the needs of a secular Islam that is both "moderate" and "relaxed" -- descriptions used by our various guides, most of whom were Muslim and some of whom were married to Russian Orthodox Christians. In addition, one finds elements of shamanism that can be traced to the not-so-distant nomadic days of this region.
Women generally dress modestly, but faces are never covered. Colorful head scarves, jewelry and the odd custom of what we called "unibrows" -- eyebrows so enhanced with makeup that the women take on a Frida Kahlo-esque appearance -- were observed everywhere. Gold-covered teeth are proudly sported by both women and men, and we saw plenty of them, as the people smile easily and genuinely.
A classroom on wheels
The educational value of a trip of this kind is immeasurable, much of it dispensed onboard our "deluxe motorcoach," a veritable classroom on wheels. It was deluxe, all right, if just for the space alone: a brand-new 40-seater to accommodate 15 of us, with air conditioning that was greatly appreciated when May afternoons reached into the 80s. In summer months, 100-plus-degree days are not unheard of, and tourism comes to a halt.
When we were not flying from one city to the next, many transfers were done by bus, some of them long rides on roads that ranged from just OK to very good, through landscapes that were sometimes dry and barren (time for a nap) and other times epic and beautiful.
Myth and history along the Silk Road
There were impromptu stops to talk with young shepherds, photo ops of grazing camels or cut-out cardboard police cars to discourage speeding. But the encyclopedic commentary by our esteemed Mir tour leader, Michel Behar, made the hours slip by. He was a whiz at separating fact from myth, and his wealth of knowledge included elaborate tales of intrigue and conquest ripped from history texts that brought the millennia alive. You can't make up that kind of stuff.
Behar's recounting of the Silk Road and its extensive reach, from the far Far East to the Mediterranean and on to all of Europe and beyond, was a fascinating story, particularly when our modern-day transport was following in the very tracks of the caravans of early merchants, traders and conquerors before us.
There was no single "Great Silk Road," rather an established network of trade routes that flourished and shifted, some say from 200 B.C. to the 15th century, though other historians suggest it began far earlier.
This historic trade infrastructure was never called the Silk Road by those who traveled it. That name was conjured in the 19th century by a German geographer who was studying the impact of the exchange of precious goods: From China came silk, jade, tea, ginger, porcelain, bronze, paper and medicinal herbs; from Europe came glass, gold, silver, lapis, ivory, gems, coral and wool.
But while the Silk Road gave rise to lucrative trade, its true legacy was the unprecedented exchange of ideas and culture: religion, art, architecture, languages, food and music.
This strategically crucial area would later become the site of the "Great Game," the term used to define the imperial rivalries and ambitions of 19th century Russia and Britain. A second round of the Great Game is unfolding today with new discoveries of oil and gas. This time the players are China, Iran, Russia and the U.S., and the Silk Road remains as relevant and coveted as ever, though the exchange between East and West today is done by lorry caravans carrying scrap metal and oil.
Uzbekistan has always been the region's heart and cradle of culture. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook (one of the few on this region and arguably the best), "If there [were] a Hall of Fame for Central Asian cities, Uzbekistan would own the top three entries: Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva."
Ancient oasis cities
The Old Towns of these three oasis cities -- all impressively restored, although at times overzealously so -- are a maze of exotic architecture, covered bazaars and gorgeous decorative arts that have all melded into a glorious blur in my memory.
Founded in the seventh century B.C., Samarkand was long known as the "Crossroads of Cultures." Its strategic location, cultural wealth and worldly riches made it an attractive target for Genghis Khan, who reduced the city to rubble in 1220.
The name and presence of Timur the Great (aka Tamerlane), the powerful conqueror born nearby a century later, is felt everywhere. It was he who rebuilt Samarkand and made it the capital of his vast empire, which once reached from Delhi to Damascus. His architectural legacy includes the Registan -- the "Jewel of Islam" -- the magnificent ensemble of three massive madrassas that flank an open, sun-drenched square, his own colossal mausoleum and the Sha-i-Zinde, a highly decorated street of royal tombs and a pilgrimage destination.
A four-hour drive west of Samarkand, and just as ancient, Bukhara was Central Asia's holiest city and boasts a quaint Old Town that is as lived-in today as it was centuries ago. Groups of high school students engaged us in talk and mutual photo-taking against a background of medieval trading domes that live on as bazaars selling today's interpretations of ancient crafts: silk scarves, silver jewelry, carpets and dolls. We enjoyed the timelessness of it all while doing some of our best shopping.
Khiva is the last of the Great Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan, a former khanate that was the last rest stop for caravans before crossing the desert into Persia. It is an atmospheric and beautifully preserved museum of a city, enclosed within mud-baked walls and rife with a dark history of cruel khans and centuries as a center of slavery. It is these architectural treasures that have earned this triad of historical oasis cities their coveted Unesco World Heritage status.
Back to the future
To experience a more contemporary chapter in Uzbekistan's long history, we continued northwest to remote Nukus, the dusty capital of the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan in northwest Uzbekistan.
Sitting at the southern end of the now-dying Aral Sea (until the mid-1960s, the world's fourth-largest inland lake) and the sole objective of a substantial detour was Central Asia's greatest art collection. The Savitsky Karakalpalstan Art Museum is home to a remarkable collection of Russian avant garde art, exceeded only by the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.
Thanks to the recent documentary "Desert of Forbidden Art," more travelers are adding this unusual museum to their bucket lists, and Mir's connections there ensured us behind-the-scenes access.
The other 'Stans
While Uzbekistan is undeniably the crowd-pleaser, our visit would not have been as memorable had it not been offset with the experience of the other four, equally distinctive 'Stans.
The first to greet us was Kazakhstan. Larger than Western Europe -- so large, in fact, that it could fit all the other 'Stans within its borders -- it enjoys Central Asia's brightest economy, thanks to enormous reservoirs of gas and oil.
The final days of our trek were spent in the mysterious and little-explored Turkmenistan. The country is most curious for the bizarre personality cult surrounding its late president-for-life, Saparmurat Niyazov. The cult survives his death in 2006, in the form of golden statues and grandiose monuments. (The stories of his successor are only marginally less peculiar.)
Offering witness to Turkmenistan's good fortune in having tapped into one of the planet's largest reservoirs of natural gas (and, to a lesser extent, oil), is its ostentatious capital city, Ashkabad. A work in progress, its wealth is lavishly displayed in the uber-modern high-rises clad in white Carrara marble, flanking sparsely traveled eight-lane boulevards.
This ambitious post-Soviet face-lift preens like an enormous vanity project that in 2013 earned the city a place in the Guinness Book of Records for having the largest concentration of marble buildings in the world. It left us speechless.
In between, we made eye-opening visits to small, vowel-challenged Kyrgyzstan, amazing for its landscape of towering, snow-peaked mountains and Lake Issyk-Kul, the world's second-largest alpine lake after Lake Titicaca in South America.
Days were filled with visits to see 4,000-year-old petroglyphs, observe a raucous traditional horse game and take an idyllic drive through the fertile Fergana Valley, whose rich earth has made this the region's food basket.
Tajikistan offered riveting, high-altitude scenery that made long bus rides a dream, and the country enjoys a growing reputation as an adventure travel destination. With so little time remaining, we put off further exploration for a return visit. But it is not a journey to be put off for long.
Mir Vice President Annie Lucas warned, "Now is the time to visit these countries, as change is on its way -- a new Silk Road paved with the foreign investment prompted by the valuable new discoveries of oil and gas."
Supported and protected by Unesco, the old Silk Road sites will be preserved for future generations, Lucas acknowledged.
"But the open and friendly attitude and the lived-in qualities of the Old Towns of this region are bound to evolve," she cautioned. "And we can't predict the future."