Karakum Desert (Turkmenistan) & mountains, the natural border between Iran & Turkmenistan. Photo by Madelyn Given.

The Silk Road: Central Asia: Introduction

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.

Yzmykshir Fortress- on the crossroads of the Northern & Southern routes of the Silk Road. The city-sized fortress promoted trade by providing safe havens for the traders. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Yzmykshir Fortress- on the crossroads of the Northern & Southern routes of the Silk Road. The city-sized fortress promoted trade by providing safe havens for the traders. Photo by Madelyn Given.

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)

A "tree" in memory of Hugo Chavez, in Managua, Nicaragua. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Managua, Nicaragua

The time came to leave Granada, with the old Central Plaza, and my hotel with lovely tropical trees and flowering gardens. On the outskirts of Granada I could see Mombacho, a volcano that had erupted in Granada 2,000 years ago, creating this area and the largest lake in Central America.

Patricio had hired a local guide for the day. Henri (Tiki) had a deep, rough voice, and he directed us to a high hill outside Mayasa. It had been an old fortress, but during the revolution of 1979 it became a political prison and place of torture. Tiki took a flashlight and we went inside down into the center of this hill. The prison was all underground.

We went down a ramp and stairs, several stories in the dark, and encountered several bats. There was solitary confinement, torture chambers, and cells where as many as 200 men were confined in a single cell. When the dictator was gone, they released the prisoners and burned the area to cover up evidence. Nevertheless, to this day blood remains on the walls, and the deepest level is still too unhealthy to go there. It was an education to see some of these places. I was glad to leave; outside, I could see Mayasa, the active volcano, with a red river of lava belching smoke and fumes.

My guide mentioned the gas prices when we stopped for gas at $3.70 a gallon. It is now being piped from Mexico.

Giant "trees" lining the roadway in memory of Hugo Chavez, in Managua, Nicaragua. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Giant “trees” lining the roadway in memory of Hugo Chavez, in Managua, Nicaragua. Photo by Madelyn Given.

The Nicaraguan government was very friendly with Hugo Chavez; when he died, President Daniel Ortega’s wife, an artist and appointed Vice President of Nicaragua, dedicated a memorial in his honor. In bright colors are lines of modernistic sculptured trees, huge and lit up at night, in blue, green, red, yellow and purple. As we entered the capital, we saw the trees that lined the median along the central boulevard.

We went up to Tiscapa, a major viewpoint overlooking Managua, at one time the residence for the President of Nicaragua. Here in 1927, General Sandino met with the President, and as he departed the steep hill, the general was assassinated by the National Military. They never found his body. A large black shadow monument of Sandino is on the hill. He is a national hero, and there are monuments everywhere in his memory. The national airport is named after him.

Monument to General Sandino on Tiscapa, Nicaragua. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Monument to General Sandino on Tiscapa, Nicaragua. Photo by Madelyn Given.

In 1972, a huge earthquake destroyed the President’s mansion and the entire old city. Ten thousand people died and 100,000 were homeless.

F.D. Roosevelt Avenue is seen from this hill. We went to the Monument of the Sandinistas and the ruins of the cathedral. A modernistic edifice has been built on the new side of Managua. We passed the new baseball stadium; Dennis Martinez, a former pitcher for the Montreal Expos, came from here. We dropped off Tiki at a public bus stop and he went back to Granada. Patricio and I followed several walking paths, took time to go to a book store, and found several books by a Nicaraguan author.

Patricio met me the next morning to take me to the Sandino International Airport and say our farewell. Managua was my last stop in visiting Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. I was treated well by the locals and learned a lot from my guides. Travel is a great education and lifetime experience. There are highs and lows on an adventure—that is part of the experience. Central America is an amazing area of the world to visit, and I am happy to have come here.

(posted January 31, 2018)

A monkey in Granada, Nicaragua.

Central America 2017: Granada

I met Patricio, my guide, early the next day after his police encounter the afternoon before. Patricio was resigned to the way things are here in Nicaragua, and neither of us discussed it. We spent the morning walking around the old historic city and central plaza. Next, we met our city guide in a horse drawn carriage and continued to see other historic sites. Then she met up with her teenage son, who replaced her, and he took us several miles out along a boulevard running along the shoreline of Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. I soon learned it is the only lake in the world with sharks. That is easy to understand, as the continents we know came from a narrow strip of land mass, and millions of years ago there was an open ocean, teeming with sharks, when volcanoes began creating a connection between North and South America.

We saw a small boat with a captain waiting for us on a small dock, and off we went in his long, narrow motor boat. After the hot, humid weather in Leon and Granada, being on the water was refreshing. We passed small tropical islands, most privately owned, with luxury homes. Our captain pointed out one owned by the ex-president of Honduras (a woman), then another island where the largest coffee grower in Nicaragua lived. Around these islands, a few men were diving for fish. We went to another nearby island that was home to spider and cappuccino monkeys. They were used to people feeding them, and they would swing far out on low branches, waiting for treats which they took from your hand. Another island had many moetazuma oropendula, yellow tailed tropical birds. They build sock-like nests in ceiba trees. This tree has a fruit like a date, and it is used in a drink to aid the stomach.

We walked back to town, which was about five miles. It was like walking in a desert, and we were delighted to find a place in town selling cokes. Some places in Nicaragua are very warm.

I found a tiny store with a couple of hand painted postcards. I bought them, and next I set out to find a post office. Several cobble streets closer to the central plaza was the tiniest post office, with one woman sitting down, and no customers. She got up and went behind the counter, and I wrote and mailed off the postcards. Postcard writing is a tradition that is almost extinct, and I was glad to help keep it alive a little longer.

The famous "tall woman" and "small man" of Nicaragua. Photo by Madelyn Given.

The famous “small man” and “tall woman” of Nicaragua. Photo by Madelyn Given.

I was ready for a break and headed off to my air conditioned room for an hour’s rest. When I emerged, Patricio was ready to take me on another walk around Granada. We went to a cocoa museum, a hammock factory, and several churches, to study their interiors and history. That evening in particular was a fun time, as we chose an outside café for dinner, in a busy area lined with restaurants and entertainment. The musicians came to the people: there was a trumpet trio, a hip-hop group of four or five young performers, a Mariachi band, and finally, to Patricio’s delight, he was able to show me La Gigantnay and El Enano – the tall woman and small man. They are famous characters of Nicaragua, and the lady walks on stilts.

Later that evening, we stopped at the Central Plaza where a large crowd was listening to poets, and winners of the International Writers Conference were reading poetry and some music lyrics. It was a safe, well-mannered crowd.

Street music performers in Granada, Nicaragua. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Street music performers in Granada, Nicaragua. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Granada was an active, busy place for visitors, whether native or international. The resorts and hotels offered a great place to rest and relax in my free time. The cities were good places to stop and sightsee when not hiking in the mountains, which were much cooler. Diversity was good and a great educational opportunity. What a blessing it is to travel and explore new places!

(posted January 16, 2018)