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The phenomenon of just "being there"

Ponder for a moment the fact that, for more than a millennium, the Silk Road was no less than the first and only link between East and West. That’s the fact which encapsulates its enormous historic relevance……the only link; or rather a chain of such links, so tortuous that commerce was simply between one link and the next. Merchandise only occasionally travelled the entire distance, men far more rarely and ideas concepts and values entirely on the wings of fable and legend and through the gossip and rumour of the bazaar.

Silk manufacture was the guarded secret of Xian (gossamer from webs spun by rare spiders was an encouraged rumour), but the caravan’s manifest was an Aladdin’s cave of everything that could be sold for more than it was bought – tolls and the appeasement of marauding hordes to be costed-in.

The ‘ship of the desert’, the Bactrian camel, trademark of the trade route, predates caravels by a thousand years, the era between the rise of Rome and da Gama’s rounding of the Cape of Good Hope. Then spices were to replace silk as the affluent Westerners’ definitive exotic oriental luxury as the first ships of the yet-to-be colonists were to hove-to off Goa, Amboyna and Macao.

It was always an ancient land through which the Silk Route passed, old like Australia’s Red Centre and, as your train travels dead West into a setting sun out of Xian - level as the Nullabor and telegraph poles every 17 seconds - the feeling is not of being in the back of beyond but of heading there. There is little point knowing exactly where you are though river-beds crossed and station names in English orient you. But what is awesome is the bigger map, the bigger picture; to the South the Taklamakan Desert, both hottest and coldest place outside Polar regions, scoped out to help build the Himalaya leaving a depression below sea-level. Snatches of The Great Wall to the North, The Gobi beyond and the pine-clad ‘Rockies’ of the Altai Mountains. Then the Mongolian Steppe that was to breed the men and the horses that were Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde that was to leave other people’s blood on battlefields and in cities from here to Moscow.

The current-day states of Central Asia are a fiasco of territories where the notion of the modern nation-state, its borders, its pompous contrived sovereignty, is anathema to all that the vast spaces speak of. At least however they take their names from the tribes, so clearly so racially distinct who have met but not mingled here. Kazak-stan, Kyrgyz-stan, Tajiki-stan, Uzbeki-stan, Turkmeni-stan; a simple song like
the duet sung by the rails and the train.

Some of this goes some way to explaining why, strategically positioned between brilliant civilizations at either end of the World’s largest landmass, in the midst of them it yet stayed isolated from both - and then later, in Islam, how, and why, it was to find an utterly distinct and powerful generic definition of itself.

You were either welcome or you were not. If you brought trade then forthright bargaining or barter would strike a win-win outcome. If however your motives or conduct are suspicious to minds programmed to suspect then you’d better have a quick-to-implement exit strategy. How Russian and British players of the ‘Great Game’ were time and again to out-smart each other only to be trumped by the local potentate. How suspicion of each other’s territorial ambitions caused then to be such objects of suspicion while their ‘Boys Own’ adventures in the service of Queen- Empress or Tsar took them to places of wildest imaginings and into exploits of truly Victorian derring-do.

From others for whom travel is a passion one learns that it is not comparison between places but contrasts that excite, not comfort zone familiarities but ‘the edge of the envelope’ stuff and culture shock therapy that stimulates, motivates, inspires. And I myself have learned from decades of overlanding that travel is more than the dictionary’s ‘act of moving from one place to another’. Not only is it about getting
there, not only about doing the ‘must-do’ things, it is too simply about just being there. Let the guides and the guide-books show you, tell you, all they want, but might I please proffer one gem – for most of you merely a reminder I’m sure – find the moment just to be there.

For an example, in Bukhara, find one of those little squares with its pond, its shady places, its old men,
philosopher-poets all, rooted in tradition older than Omar Khyam. And let the pervasive magic take over;
let yourself just be there. Your thoughts might then meander like mine have.

Tony Jones