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Discovery Central Asia #29
Discovery Central Asia

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by Ian Claytor
Some tours which travel along the Silk Road are advertised as being “… in the footsteps of Marco Polo”.

Marco Polo (1254 -1324) published an account of his journey,  (“Il Milone - Le divisament dou monde” - "The description of the world" - ” better known in English as “The Travels of Marco Polo”), which he dictated to a fellow prisoner in 1298-9, whilst he was a captive of the Genoese.  It was a great success and widely read.  Many people, however, could not believe some of the 'fantastic' descriptions of animals, places, events and so forth.  Indeed there is still some about whether Marco Polo actually made the epic journey that are described in his memoirs.

Silk Road travelers who pass through Kyrgyzstan may not, however, actually be following in the footsteps of Marco Polo … he seems to traveled further South and got only as far North as Kashgar, which he described as an Eastern Cairo, with mountains of goods and the people as busy as bees. 

The Polos were not the first, and certainly not the only people to have travelled the Silk Road.  Several famous travelers have traveled through what is now the Kyrgyz Republic and left us fascinating accounts of their journeys.  Here are just some of them:

There was Chang Ch'ien, (138-116 BC), a Chinese general and envoy who is generally credited with opening the Silk Road. He made two epic journeys from the Chinese capital into Central Asia. His first trip, (138-125 BC), was a diplomatic mission from the Han Emperor Wudi to recruit allies to form an alliance against the Xiongnu peoples who were marauding his empire from the North. He began his travels accompanied by a party of 100 men  but only 2 of them were to return. It wasn't an easy journey. Captured and held captive for ten years, he was married to a Xiongnu bride and fathered a son.  He escaped, and continued his journey.  Traveling into the Ferghana (where he encountered the legendary Celestial Horses) and then to Bactria, only to discover that the potential allies he was seeking were more interested in trade than making war  the great Chinese empire was just too far away. On his return journey he was captured again  and escaped again … His missions were a failure in that he failed to find allies for the Chinese court  but he brought back with him something, perhaps, much more valuable - information about the geography, peoples and culture of the lands to West - - information about some 36 separate kingdoms  and led to the formalization of trade, especially the silk trade, between China and Persia.

Another famous, ancient, Chine-se traveler was Hsuan Tsang (602-664), who reached as far as Tashkent, Samar-kand and Bactria before turning south to India between 629 and 644.  His route took him over the Bedel Pass from Ak Suu in present day China, skirting Lake Issyk Kul before visiting Tokmok and then through the Talas valley.  The account of his travels which covered over 10000 miles (16000km) over difficult terrain and lasted 17 years throughout the region includes a description of the traumatic experience crossing the Bedel Pass, (... heavy snows had delayed his departure from Ak Suu, a portent of worse to come, in a 40 mile stretch, (about 65km), he lost a third of his companions and animals); his reception by the local Khan at a feat in Tokmok and some detailed descriptions of Samarkand as it appeared in his day.

Genghis Khan (1162-1227) and Tamerlane both passed through at the head of massive armies on their military campaigns of conquest.  Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde travelled westwards, and passed the ancient city of Balasugin, just outside modern-day Tokmok.  The citizens ensured that it of was one of the few that escaped devastation at their hands by surrendering, earning for city the new name of Gobalik  “Good City”.  Unfortunately, it was just a postponement as two hundred years later the city had disappeared and little remains apart from the Burana Tower.
There are several stories associated with Tamerlane's (1336-1405) presence in the country: how he is supposed to imprisoned noble families in a fortress prison on an island in the middle of Lake Issyk Kul  which has since sunk beneath the surface as the lake waters have risen; and how, on his march into China, he made his soldiers each deposit a stone from the lake shore at the San Tash pass, intending that they retrieve them on their successful return … but unfortunately the campaign was not successful, and the mound of stones at San Tash bears witness, to this day, of the many lives that were lost.
Babur (1483-1530), the founder of the Moghul Empire that ruled India from 1526 to 1857, was born in the Ferghana valley and left interesting descriptions of the region, including of Osh  where he lived for a time, and built a small mosque.

Perhaps the one person who did most to open this region to the outside world was the Russian explorer, Pyotor Petrovich Semyenov (1827-1914).  In August 1856, he arrived in Almaty  known at that time by the name Vernoe  as a little known member of the Russian Geographical Society and with an armed group of Cossacks; he crossed the Kungei Ala Too mountain range over the San Tash Pass on camels and entered the Issyk Kul hollow from the East. He mapped the lake, which he described as “A blue emerald set in a frame of silvery mountains.” Later he approached the lake through Boom Gorge and discovered that the Chui River did not flow through the lake as everyone had previously assumed. He returned to Almaty and spent the winter studying the rock samples and plant specimens  many of which were later to be named after him  which he had collected. He returned in 1857, as a renowned and famous scholar. This time he proceeded further into the Tien Shan Mountains at the head of a small army of 1500 men. He was particularly interested in discovering more about the peak of Khan Tengri  at that time thought to be the highest point of the Tien Shan, based on information gathered from Byzantine missionaries and ancient Chinese sources.  His accounts of his travels throughout the region, the numerous specimens he collected, the new species he identified, all contributed to his being awarded the honorific title of Tienshanky by the Tsar.

One of the greatest Russian explorers in Asia was Nikolay Mikha-lovich Prezhevalsky (1839—1888), who has been called the Russian equivalent of Living-stone.  His four main expeditions took him throughout Western Chi-na and into Tibet.  His fourth journey in 1885 saw him return from China over the Bedel Pass to Lake Issyk Kul, and thence onto Tokmok (at that time the regional administrative centre).  He was to return in 1888 and Karakol was to be the starting point for yet another expedition  but unfortunately it turned out to be his final resting place as he contracted Typhoid and passed away overlooking his beloved Issyk Kul.

The German explorer Gottfried Merzbacher(1843-1926), having been inspired by the accounts of Semyenov's expeditions, led two expeditions to the Central Tien Shan in 1902 and 1907, and discovered an extraordinary geographical phenomenon  today known as the Merzbacher Lakes in his honour.  In 1903, the first expedition came across a clear lake, 3500 meters above sea level, trapped between the two branches of the glacier, with the surface studded by floating icebergs. When the group descended again, they were surprised to see that it was empty. When he returned again on his second expedition … it was full once more. It was an enigma which he could not explain and it was many years before an explanation of the mystery was finally found.

The Swedish explorer Sven Hedin (1865-1952) began his journeys of exploration when he accepted a post Baku, Azerbaijan, and travelled for three months on horseback through Persia.  He is best remembered for his discoveries in Western China.  On his visit to the region, for example, in 1890, he travelled  from Tashkent and visited the city of Osh before crossing the mountainous border to Kashgar. Returning over the Torugart Pass, he visited Naryn, the Nor-thern shores of Lake Issyk Kul and the city of Prezhervalsk, where he visited the tomb of the famous Russian explo-rer, before travelling back to Tashkent via Tokmok and Pishkek (Bishkek).  His journals give a wide range of insights into life in this little known region at that time.

In 1906, Carl Gustav Mannerheim (1867-1951) , the future Marshall of Finland received a special commission by the General Staff - which meant travelling on for two years on horseback over 14000km through Russian Turkestan to Beijing. Taking with him only a few men, he was to investigate the mountain and desert regions.  In Kyrgyzstan he travelled on horseback, (making extensive notes in his journal, writing in Swedish, (not in Russian), to hide the fact the he was also on an intelligence mission for the army), from Osh (where he spent time talking with and photographing the local Sarts in the bazaar), to Gulcha through the Taldyk Pass and then through the Alai Valley to the Irkeshtam Pass. He studied the customs, languages, ethnic traits and of the tribes that he encountered, as well as archaeology in the region and collecting artefacts and taking photographs. His purchases included a number of everyday articles. From a beggar he bought a complete outfit of clothing. He also visited Kurmanjan Datka, the Queen of the Alai and left photographs and drawings as well as photographs as a record of his meeting with her, and her sons.

The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 brought some upheaval to the Russian Empire.  In Tashkent the following, year there was an abortive uprising against the new authorities was led by Paul Nazaroff.  After the failure, Nazaroff managed to escape from prison and went “on the run”, eventually escaping through the Chui valley and the Central Tien Shan to Kashgar.  In 1932 his account of his adventures was published, entitled: “Hunted through Central Asia  On the run from Lenin's Secret Police”.

Once the new government had established its authority a young, enterprising, Swiss journalist called Ella Maillard (1903-1997) travelled on horse-back though the mountain ran-ges which encircle Lake Issyk-Kul.  Her account (“Turkestan Solo”) was published in Europe and became a great success.  

The section of Turkestan Solo which describes her return through Uzbekistan recounts how she unexpectedly met a black African American who was one of a party helping the Soviets to develop their cotton industry  which was to become one of the main industries in the region.  Langston Hughes (1902 - 1967), one of the group, wrote an account of his impressions called “An American Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia” which was heavily censored and published by the Foreign Language Press in Moscow and provides an interesting insight into the life and times of this turbulent period of history.


Discovery Central Asia #23

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