James Ruggia | November 27, 2015 4:00 AM ET
Friday Flashback: Discovering Eurasia on the Silk Road
Editor’s note: TravelPulse features an editorial column from one of our editors on a rotating daily basis. Destinations Editor James Ruggia has traditionally held the Friday spot, making it his own and sharing his views as someone who has seen nearly every point on the globe and has a story to tell about them all. With our friend Jim being under the weather, we wanted to keep his Friday spot warm for him by bringing you this March 13, 2015 column on the exotic allure and history of the famed "Silk Road". We wish our friend the best for a speedy recovery and can’t wait to hear the next story from his travels.
Let’s begin with a false fact that has been hammered so deeply into our brains that its obvious lack of truth is rarely even noticed. There are six continents not seven. The “Continent” is not a continent at all. Europe is a peninsula that extends off of the world’s largest continent, Eurasia.
Eurasia is so packed with cultural, historic and geographic diversity that it has spawned some of the globe’s most powerful mother cultures. The awareness of Eurasia as an integrated cross-pollinating land mass is growing thanks to the emergence of Central Asia both economically and as a tourism region coming into its own under the Silk Road brand being nurtured by the UNWTO.
On March 4, at the Berlin ITB, the UNWTO hosted the 2015 Silk Road Ministers' Meeting. The event focused on Silk Road tourism promotion, tourist routes, visa facilitation, collaborative approaches to marketing and cooperation with tour operators. If the ministers needed a demonstration of the importance of their mission to bring awareness to the heritage of the Silk Road, ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria provided the urgency with a widely reported destruction of cultural monuments. Iraq and Syria are both Silk Road member states.
“It is the shared history and culture of the countries along the Silk Road that links them together,” said UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai in opening the meeting. “We need to enhance these links by promoting transnational route development and facilitating travel.”
Over the years, the UNWTO has identified what it considers fair geographical boundaries to the Silk Road including some 21,000 miles of trails and some 2,500 monuments connected to Silk Road culture. Historically there were several branches of the Silk Road that basically connected the Chinese capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an) to the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Marco Polo became the popular embodiment of the perpetual passage of these ancient trade trails and their travelers. Though Polo’s account of his own heroics rival those of Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly in improbability, they never-the-less have been capturing the imagination of western travelers since they were first published.
Factual or not, Polo’s tales and the term “Silk Road” itself helped put a face on the region. At the same time they’ve also served as an essential component of the myth that Asia and Europe are separate continents. The lore of the Silk Road, with its caravans of camels and carriages dwarfed by the sprawling grandeur of the deserts and mountains being crossed, presupposes that the lands those travelers crossed were devoid of culture and life. Metaphorically that void became the missing ocean separating Europe and Asia, sustaining their status as continents.
In order to uphold the notion of the vast no-man’s land between Asia and Europe you need to reduce such countries as Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, among others, to a mere corridor. You also have to ignore some of the most powerful and influential figures and forces in history. The Mongols and the Turks who dominated that 6,000 mile long steppe that stretched from Manchuria to Hungary exerted enormous influence on such cultures as China, Germany, Hungary, India, Persia, Russia and Turkey. In fact, Turkish Airlines’ extensive Central Asian route network shows these ancient connections still live.
The brutality of the great khans and figures such as Tamerlane has been well documented. The empires they built were founded on the mastery of the northern steppe and the horses they used to fight from. Until the invention of firearms they were the most formidable military powers of their time and they raided their southern neighbors by storming through various mountain passes wielding great carnage and destruction. The Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258 is as brutal an event as any in history, leaving some 800,000 skulls piled outside the ruins of a city that had been the urban jewel of Islam.
But they were also great founders with their tastes and tactics influencing court culture from Istanbul to Delhi. The Turkic speaking nomads of the steppe saw their Ottoman and Seljuk progeny conquer Constantinople and seize Anatolia. In the 16th century it was only two epic stands at the gates of Vienna and at the walls of Malta that stopped the legacy of the tribes of Central Asia from completely taking Europe. Such Central Asian cities as Almaty, Kashgar, Samarkand and Urumqi stand as monuments to the empires of the steppe and the traders of the Silk Road.
It’s taken a while for the countries of Central Asia to shake themselves free of the old Soviet Union. The Soviet suppression of Islam and the imposition of Soviet culture briefly stripped the identity from these countries, but the Silk Road offers a way back. Kazakhstan seems to be ahead of the pack, with its capital in Almaty modernizing and even attracting such hotel brands as Best Western, InterContinental and Ritz Carlton.
Increasingly, the countries and cultures of Central Asia are emerging out of the mists on the backs of new Eurasian road and rail developments as well as the growing Silk Road brand. Right now it’s only the most intrepid travelers who are exploring the Silk Road, but even that market is evolving.
Speaking in Berlin at ITB, Christina ter Braak of Turkmenistan’s Owadan Tourism, an inbound operator, said, “In the old days Silk Road tourists were happy to skip from one UNESCO World Heritage Site to the next. Now they want to get up close and stay in villages. We’ve had to add jeeps and train guides to discuss the nature and the people, not just the history.”
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