Central Asia, in comparison with most other places in the world, is a region that fewer tourists visit. It is mainly mountain ranges and vast deserts. There are tribes still living in the same regions that have been here for generations, continuing with the same language, customs, and patterns of life: grazing large herds of sheep and goats. There are seven “stans” that make up most of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan—and the people from these five “stans” want the world to know that the last two, Afghanistan and Pakistan, stand by themselves. Iran, part of Turkey, Russia, and India are also part of Central Asia.
The USSR, before the states dissolved in 1991, used the deserts to test nuclear bombs and as a place to launch the space center into the atmosphere. There are few roads or railroads in many areas, but airports are being built. Life centers along the few rivers and oases in the regions. Lack of water is a big issue. Massive canal systems were built to grow cotton, and now the Aral Sea is nearly dry. The climate has long, hot summers and cold winters. It is a land of fat-tailed sheep, goats, camels, and horses.
I came here because this is an area of ancient history. Seven thousand years before the Silk Road, there was trade from Khotan to China. Jade was transported and is still traded today. Much of Central Asia was ruled by Persian empires. In the 1st century AD, Pliny wrote in his book about Central Asia, explaining that east of the Caspian Sea was dangerous and uninhabitable. Qin, Emperor Shi in 221 BC was familiar with stories of Rome. This emperor is buried outside of Xian, at the massive site of soldiers and horses unearthed in more recent times.
Central Asia was conquered by Alexander the Great in 334 BC. Along the way, there were many battles including elephant brigades. Alexander’s troops attacked with 18 foot spikes and aimed for the elephants trunks. In great pain, the elephants were panic-stricken and went every which way and trampled their own troops.
Alexander also set up the first coinage system. My guide would point out to me a person with fair skin and blue eyes and say, “She (or he) is from Alexander the Great.” The troops of Alexander the Great were fair skinned, with blue eyes, and they left descendants wherever they conquered.
The Silk Road departed from Xian, China in 206 BC, through the western part of the Great Wall of China to Dunhuang on the eastern end of the lop Desert and the southern end of the Gobi Desert, through the great Taklamakan, and eventually to Rome. Rome wanted silk. It was dangerous, difficult, and a long distance, and few travelers went the entire way. This all began when the Xiongnu nomads kept invading China and broke though the Great Wall. The Chinese Emperor Han set up a trade deal to keep peace with the Xiongnu. As time went on the nomads wanted more and Han’s Dynasty sent royal sons and princesses with caravans of silk, 10% of his revenue, rice, and alcohol, never to return home but to marry, remain, and keep peace. He sent the Heavenly Horses that sweated blood from their chests—again, a token to keep peace. There were 3,000 of these rare horses and special grass to feed the horses. No expense was spared by the emperor to maintain peace with the nomads.
Trade was reinstated during the Tang dynasty in 618, and it continued for another 300 years, when China had an outward cosmopolitan period. The trade included Changan, Turks, Uighurs, Tocharians, Sogdians, Arabs and Persians. Sea trade routes and the Silk Road were both used at this time.
(posted February 14, 2018)