Charly Wilder (The New York Times)
The sky over Tajikistan was a deep deoxygenated blue as we sped through the desolate mountain landscape of the eastern Pamirs. For days we had been driving one of the world’s most treacherous roads, the Pamir Highway, which snakes through the highlands of Tajikistan before turning north toward Kyrgyzstan along the border with China. We had just crossed the highest pass yet, nearly 15,000 feet above sea level with views to the Hindu Kush. Now the road stretched out, empty and endless, over a glaciated, monochrome terrain of ridges, gorges and craters.
“On a clear day, you can see 7,000 mountains from here,” said Omurbek Satarov, our Pamiri driver, gesturing toward the Himalayas.
Omurbek’s father, uncles and grandfather had all been Soviet border guards. He himself had been a counternarcotics officer pursuing drug traffickers bringing Afghan opium and heroin up toward Moscow, where it is redistributed.
“It wasn’t a pleasant job,” said Omurbek, who now works in Tajikistan’s expanding tourism sector.
My husband, Roham, and I were at the two-thirds point of a trip following a section of the Silk Road through the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
For generations, the region’s Buddhist and Zoroastrian temples, ornate mosques and madrassas, ancient bazaars and breathtaking natural landscapes were hidden behind the Iron Curtain, then enveloped by dictatorship, poverty, social turmoil and war.
But in recent years the tide has been turning as relative economic and political stability settles over the region. The death in 2016 of Uzbekistan’s brutal, long-ruling dictator Islam Karimov has led to reform and a tentative thaw: The “Uzbek Spring.”
Tajikistan has undergone remarkable reconstruction since the end in 1997 of its devastating six-year civil war, and the rioting and unrest that plagued Kyrgyzstan a decade ago are fading into the rear view.
Regional transportation has improved, in part because of China’s controversial, trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, also known as the New Silk Road, a colossal infrastructure project stretching from East Asia to Europe that aims to expand China’s political and economic influence. Only the tightly controlled police state of Turkmenistan remains closed-off.
The Journey Begins
Bypassing the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, we began the trip in the ancient holy city of Bukhara. Second only to Baghdad as an intellectual lodestar of the Islamic world, Bukhara was a center of trade, scholarship, religion and culture stretching back millennia.
The trip from Berlin had not been easy, but two days of low-cost air travel hell were forgotten the moment we stepped out at dawn into the 17th-century Lyabi-Hauz plaza. Two blue-tiled madrassas flanked a vast stone reservoir, along with a Sufi cloister and a teahouse,
all of which stood empty and blanketed in mist, silent but for the screeching of birds in the mulberry trees.
We slept for a few hours at Lyabi House Hotel, one of several bed-and-breakfasts in Bukhara housed in 19th-century Jewish merchants’ houses, and then headed for the Po-i–Kalon religious complex, the city’s architectural highlight. Located south of the ancient Ark citadel, Po-i–Kalon includes the exquisite 12th-century Kalon Minaret, one of only two buildings in the city spared by Genghis Khan. Some believe the ornate diamond patterning of its kiln-fired brickwork is the inspiration – via Marco Polo – for the Doge’s Palace on the Piazza San Marco in Venice.
We walked the town’s maze of blue-domed mosques, mosaic-tiled courtyards and former caravanserais (essentially inns where travelers could rest with their animals). We visited the Maghok–i-Attar, Central Asia’s oldest mosque and a palimpsest of Bukharan religious history: A 16th-century reconstruction of a ninth-century mosque built atop the remains of a fifth-century Zoroastrian fire temple, which was itself built on top of an earlier Buddhist temple.
Then we decamped to the 350-year-old Bozori Kord Hammam to be steamed, scrubbed, massaged and rubbed with honey and ginger by various members of the Iranian-Uzbek family that now owns it.
By sunset we had a table on the terrace of a restaurant called Minzifa, overlooking the sun-bleached domes and rooftops of Bukhara. There we made our way through a greatest-hits of Central Asian cuisine, which was shaped by diverse culinary cultures, from East Asia to the Mongolian steppe to the Persian Gulf.
A salad of Chinese cabbage, cucumber, onion and beef in a soy-sesame–chili dressing was followed by plov, or rice pilaf, the Persian-influenced Central Asian staple that probably originated in the culinary methods of the Islamic golden age, pollinating national rice dishes from Spanish paella to Indian biryani. Rice is browned with meat, then stewed in a caldron called a kazan with onions, garlic and carrots, and spiced with cumin, coriander, barberries or raisins, marigold and pepper. Minzifa’s version was delicate and flavorful, an ideal lead-in to well-charred shish kebab of lamb and beef, washed down with the ubiquitous Central Asian green tea.
Foodwise, the trip would go downhill from there. While it’s possible to find good and even great versions of plov, the East Asian-style dumpling called manty, and other dishes, I had to agree with the adage that you don’t visit Central Asia for the food.
The Treasures of Samarkand
We set out early the next day on the sleek high-speed train line that has drastically reduced travel times in the country, running all the way from Tashkent to the Silk Road city of Khiva in the west. Cotton fields flashed by in the blue of morning until we finally reached Samarkand, a city as old as Rome or Babylon, whose architectural riches surpass even Bukhara’s – many built by Timur, the Turco-Mongol conqueror of the late Middle Ages who made it his capital.
At the Ulugbek Observatory, one of the first and finest in human history, we gazed down into a trench at the remaining quadrant of the great meridian arc that allowed early astronomers to measure time and celestial objects with breathtaking accuracy.
The next morning, we took a taxi out of Samarkand and deeper into the lush Zerafshan Valley, passing cotton and wheat farms and fields of blood-red poppies, until we reached the Tajik border.
Frescoes, Hot Springs and Ruins
On the Tajik side, we caught a ride with one of the burly drivers jockeying for our business and headed for Penjikent, an ancient town just beyond the border. After stopping to look at Neolithic ruins on the outskirts, we headed to the Rudaki Museum, which is devoted to the great Persian poet but is best known for its phenomenal eighth-century Sogdian frescoes that depict court life and scenes from epic Persian literature.
We marveled at the frescoes, evidence of the great wealth and sophistication of the Sogdians, the main caravan merchants of Central Asia from the fifth to the eighth centuries, who played a major role in bringing Buddhism to China and silk to Europe.
In the morning we met a driver from a company called Roof of the World and an adventurous 29-year-old Russian coal executive whom I’d found on a message board looking to share the $1,200 cost of a driver from Dushanbe to Osh. It’s usually a six-day drive; we decided to do it in four.
It should have been grueling, but it was mostly wonderful. Dushanbe’s outskirts gave way to undulating blue-green vistas and the fantastical aquatic terrain of the Norak water reservoir.
Eventually we reached the Panj River, separating Tajikistan and Afghanistan, which we would follow for the next two days, seeing as much of Afghanistan’s untroubled rural north on the other side of the river as we did Tajikistan.
We stopped at hot springs and hiked to the ruins of Zoroastrian and Buddhist temples and fortresses that once formed a network along the Silk Road. At night we would stop to eat and sleep along the chain of homestays that links the region today. Every mountain village has a few, where hospitable Pamiris offer visitors a hot meal and a bed or a spot on the floor.
Into the Mountains
As we climbed higher and higher into the eastern Pamirs, its wild remoteness closed in around us. Great gorges and rock faces stretched across the horizon, interspersed by streaks of green – agricultural plots worked by farmers using traditional methods that languished during Soviet times.
That afternoon, we moved higher into the eastern Pamirs, stopping to marvel at the shimmering freshwater lakes of Yashil Kul and Bulunkul. In the high-Pamir town of Murgab, at 12,000 feet above sea level, we met Omurbek, who had the right papers to bring us into Kyrgyzstan.
Within little more than an hour, the blazing-white, snow-blanketed peaks of the Taldik pass gave way to the rolling green of Kyrgyzstan’s Alay Valley. Cows and horses grazed in the hills and occasionally wandered into the road.
The green turned greener still as we descended into the Fergana Valley, the lush ancient corridor between Greek, Chinese, Bactrian and Parthian civilizations, finally arriving in the Silk Road city of Osh. We were too early in the season to visit the extraordinary high mountain pastures, or jailoos, of Son-Kol, Kochkor or Karakol, so after a night we headed an hour out of town to the Kyrgyz-Ata National Park. There, we stayed in a yurt set high on a hill near the home of a shepherd and his family.
We spent our last days in Central Asia riding horses through dense juniper forests and up mountains, learning the Kyrgyz riding style, often left unattended to ride in the wilderness.
There was nothing to eat but plov and day-old manty, and a late spring snowfall battered the yurt, dripping down into the sides, leaving much of our bedding sodden. It was tortuous. We hoped it would never end.