Silk Road Dreams

Kevin Brolley

Maps and coffee are a heady combination.

The study this morning is lit by a single lamp trying to lighten the storm pushing in, and the pre-dawn thunder is threatening a house still asleep. It is a good time to brood over charts and atlases and to bring the turbulent world a little closer. Here, in the near dark, I am intoxicated by place names. 

Awoken by lightning, my wife Ann is coming down the stairs. Still sleepy, she peers in knowingly.

“Really? Where to now?”

“Not sure yet. I’m only getting started, but I’m thinking big. I’ll keep you posted.” 

“I’m sure you will,” she mutters, shaking her head. She knows that many of the most vivid chapters in my life have been planned during these ethereal, heavily caffeinated sessions.

From colorful maps spread across the desk and floor, interdimensional portals rise and open, sucking me in and whisking me to far away places. Possibilities of the future, the next journey, and the journeys beyond that, lure me and ignite my imagination. Mountains, deserts, oceans, rivers, churches, libraries, mosques and yurts – I want to see them all and to smell and touch them. I want to feel far away and to absorb the “otherness.” I want to be in awe.

As a kid, I owned a cheap globe and, on rainy days, I would sit for hours and spin it. I’d close my eyes and stick my finger out to stop it. In an old encyclopedia, I would read about the strange place my finger had landed. Two lasting ideas were implanted during those sessions: foreign place names have a strong narcotic effect on me that pull me closer and closer, and I have always associated rainy days with map reading.

This morning’s rain is fortuitous. Lately, it has been weighing on my mind that there is no upcoming adventure on my schedule. For some, idle hands lead to the devil’s work; for me, it is an empty calendar. The years have taught me that life works best when there is a specific point to research, to exercise, and to the daydreams of deep anticipation. By the end of the day, I hope to have the outlines of my next project.

In recent years, a few friends and I have become fond of bicycle touring unusual places. Hard, physical riding – 50 to 100 miles a day – delivers an intense, tactile intimacy with the land. Feeling in our legs the contours of the hills and mountains, or breathing the aridity of high plateaus, or smelling the moisture of the lush tropical bush, all of this inspires a deeper sense of where we are. It provides texture and clarity to the random part of the earth in which we find ourselves. We come away with a richer, more satisfying understanding of place. This morning is about where we might go next.

The process of developing a trip, or better yet an expedition, is somewhat like sculpting: it is a process of taking away rather than adding. It is a process of whittling down. The raw block upon which my work begins is The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, a gorgeous, and humongous, repository of human knowledge about the natural world. It deserves a place in the library of any serious traveler as much as The Oxford English Dictionary might be suggested for a man of letters. Later, when the broad outlines of this project are taking shape, I will move to smaller scale maps for the finer, more local work, but not yet. For now, I will mold this trip from the big atlas. And its index of 200,000 place names will get me very drunk.

Irrational it may be, but a trip has to sound good to get me energized. Literally, I have to like the way the names of places roll off my tongue. Like good magic, they should conjure suspense and entail a hint of unreality. Research then will bolster and correct my own often unfounded impressions of a potential destination before it passes muster, but it all starts with the resonance I feel when I pronounce the name of the place . . . it must be alluring. It must have fascination, and it should be captivating. Hearing this, is it surprising that I have an intense desire to travel to a strange place called Turkmenbashi on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea? Or to Ulan Bator in Mongolia? Or that I want to spend time in Kashgar, the ancient market town at the junction of several branches of the old Silk Road in westernmost China? These are enchanted ideas!

There are others, though, that sadly need to be eliminated no matter how attractive they sound. It would be nearly impossible, for example, to traverse The Empty Quarter by bicycle. No matter how enthralled I am with the idea of the Hindu Kush and its warlords, I will have to save that place for safer times. Ditto for the great cities of Damascus and Tehran and for the land of the Marsh Arabs between the Tigris and Euphrates. As intriguing as they are, I do not have the courage to travel in the wild borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the region known mysteriously as “The Tribal Areas.” But, no worries, much of the rest of the world remains open!

The Silk Road is both a pleasing sound to my ear, and a concept that has always fascinated me. Long ago, it was a complex of trade routes that carried goods, ideas, and people from eastern China to Rome, Venice, and beyond. It traversed lands that have been the womb for all manners of wars, religions, and cultures. Yet, as important as it once was in bringing civilizations closer, it no longer exists. It has become a memory. Colin Thubron, in Shadow of the Silk Road, describes it thus:

“… to follow the Silk Road is to follow a ghost. It flows through the heart of Asia, but it has officially vanished, leaving behind it the pattern of restlessness: counterfeit borders, unmapped peoples. The road forks and wanders wherever you are. It is not a single way, but many: a web of choices.”

A pattern of restlessness indeed!

Here, in my increasingly caffeinated state, I am taken by the idea. The mystic portals on these maps have opened, and my soul is wandering through time, space, and history. I am held aloft by these strange sounding names, names full of the great and the dead. I hear the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer through the centuries, and I walk amidst bustling markets where hard men drive hard bargains while living rough lives. Here in my study, I decide on the spot that if there is a way to make it work, then I will travel this ancient road by bicycle.

Such a trip would offer an acute sense of exotica and historical significance that will easily fire us up. It would also fill in a large segment of a grander plan that has been in my mind for a while now.

Last summer, we rode from Istanbul eastward across Turkey, along the southern coast of the Black Sea, and on to Tbilisi in Georgia. I had hoped that perhaps it would be the first installment of an epic ride across Asia, from the western edge of the continent at the shores of the Bosporus, across deserts and mountains, and ultimately to Beijing or Shanghai. Starting then where we left off, and continuing eastward, the Silk Road should become a part of this grand design.

To work then!

Back in the atlas and starting in Tbilisi, I gauge it is about 350 miles, broadly downhill, to Baku in Azerbaijan. Google tells me that there are ferries crossing the Caspian that offer stunning sunsets, but with irregular departures. Perfect! Baku is a bizarre marvel of too much oil money accumulated too quickly and is easily worth an extra day or two.

Turkmenbashi, on the eastern shore, means ”the source of the Turkmen” and is not to be confused with THE Turkmenbashi – the autocratic megalomaniac presently ruling Turkmenistan who has taken this title as the self-proclaimed “father of the Turkmen.” From the coast to the capital, Ashgabat, it is another 350 miles, and the way is relatively flat. One caveat: this route is almost entirely within the Karakum Desert, and that will require careful planning when moving from the atlas (1:5 million-scale) to the specific country map (1:1.3 million) where I will chisel the finer lines of this sculpture that is slowly emerging. There will need to be enough small towns along the route that we can replenish food and water and find shelter at night. Ashgabat to Mary is another 200 miles, and that will be a good endpoint for the second installment of this Trans-Asian journey.

Mary, formerly known as Merv, was one of the great cities of the ancient Islamic world; a center of Muslim scholarship and it is where we will join the Silk Road that is coming northward from Iran. As with most cities in these parts, the great peoples of this region conquered Mary regularly: Alexander is rumored to have taken it, the Arabs, Persians and Mongols almost certainly did, and eventually it wound up in the empire of Tamerlane. It has been said that Tolui, the son of Genghis Khan, took the city and promptly massacred all but a few fortunate artisans. Our conquering of Mary will be more peaceful and, after almost a thousand miles of riding from Tbilisi, we will fly home. But the way forward for future trips is now visible.

The next installment should also be nigh on a thousand miles and much more mountainous. From Mary, we can follow the Silk Road northeast through Uzbekistan to Samarkand and Tashkent, gaining altitude all the way. Then our route will be east-southeast through Osh in Kyrgyzstan and on to Kashgar in China. This segment will take us to great altitudes above 13,000 feet, over the northern reaches of the Karakoram Range in the western Himalayas. Good hard riding that will be the most demanding we’ve ever attempted. We will finish in Kashgar.

It is in Kashgar that the northern and southern routes of the Silk Road converged. A place where merchants and traders from as far afield as Delhi, Baghdad, Syria, and China gathered to sell spices, porcelain, and all sorts of sundry goods and fabrics – among them, of course, silk. Old Kashgar is, unfortunately, being demolished by the Chinese government for some nefarious reasons only they can comprehend, but it is hoped that some unquenchable heart of the old place will remain. We will linger in Kashgar and look for it while we eat goats and drink tea.

Subsequent trips will take us from Kashgar along the southern edge of the formidable Taklimakan Desert and eastward to cover the three thousand miles to the Chinese coast at Shanghai. Many more trips will be needed to finish this epic, and that will require much more planning, but I can handle no more coffee this day.

Late afternoon now, the storm has passed, and the tempest in my head is subsiding. It was a good day’s work. I have traveled widely and ranged far through time and space. My appetite is whet, honed even, and I am eager to get the outline of this trip to my cycling buddies. I hope it is raining and that the coffee is on when they get it.

“Ann!” I shout, wherever she is, “We should talk.”


About the Author

Kevin Brolley is a graduate of the University of Florida and Trinity College, Dublin. He has been both a spectacularly failed philosopher and a yawningly successful investment banker. When not traveling, he lives in south Florida where he rides his bike a lot and goes fishing whenever he has the chance.