Departing from Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, our train set off with a sharp lurch heading westwards along the traces of the legendary Silk Route: a network of age-old trade routes between Xian and Constantinople, Baghdad and Rome, on which, thousands of years ago, the great peoples of the East and West first came into contact with one another to exchange wares.
In just a few hours we will reach the border of Uzbekistan as it is today, where the once powerful trade centres of Buchara, Chiwa and Samarqand rivalled one another in wealth, beauty and splendour. Even more than 600 years ago silk, tea, paper, porcelain, sealing wax and spices from the East were exchanged for gold and silver, wool, ivory, walnuts and glass. So, as the happily treasured secret of the silkworm and its wonderful shimmering, light threads remained a mystery to the Europeans for a long time, so too did the Asians marvel at green, red and yellow glass and consequently paid a high price.
It was the shift of trade to the faster and safer sea route that first signified the end of the large caravans that previously had to venture over the snow passes of the Ala-Tau Mountains, as well as through the dangerous Kyzylkum Desert, where scorching heat and deadly bandits awaited the travellers before the Chiwa Oasis. In around 1220, the Mongolian hordes naturally brought a powerful setback, Dschingis Khan, who once in a "sermon" from the pulpit in Buchara referred to himself as the "scourge of God."
Today, the roads of the Silk Route in Central Asia are becoming important again. Not only due to tourism, but also because of the affiliated groups concerned with natural gas and crude oil, because many of the former Soviet Republics of the region are rich in these natural resources and, despite all of the political problems, amongst others, an 8000 kilometre long pipeline that would reach as far as China and Japan is being considered. The building of this new "Silk Route Pipeline" is seen by many critics as the real reason for the generous act by the USA in freeing Afghanistan from the Taliban.
While the train rolls past herds of sheep in the corridors of the Ala-Tau Mountains, the passengers taste various local vodkas in both of the restaurants. Pepper Vodka, Nut Vodka and a shot of the best on offer, helped along with bread, pickles and herrings with onions.
We receive instructions from the tour guide on how to deal with the Uzbekistani passport control: "Step out of your compartment, look the inspector in the eye, and allow the soldiers to check underneath your bed for smuggled people. – No one looks for blind passengers. Actually the officials are very friendly, and just want to have a quick look in the attractively furnished two- and four-bed compartments and exchange a few words, in order to demonstrate their knowledge of English.
Perfumes and odours from the Samarqand Bazaar are carried by the wind. Anybody who has anything to sell comes here: one man has two sacks full of wine grapes; another has a wheelbarrow of melons. A young boy balances a trayful of fresh Sesame Flatbread on his head. Curry hangs in the air, followed by the scent of roasted apricot stones and ground nuts. Enterprising tea-traders attempt to drown out the loud-speaker used by the cassette vendors, who in turn wage a musical duel with those roasting shish kebabs on the roadside. Mountains of glistening rock candy are on offer, and right next door Kurtob-balls: a hand-rolled, dried fresh cheese that is mixed with chilli and ends up in Uzbekistan soup. A favourite dish of the Uzbekistanis is "Pluv", a pot of rice with mutton, fish or chicken, onions, garlic and tomatoes, sweetened with raisins, pears, apples or pomegranate seeds.
Central Asia is also the land of Turkish domes. The minaret Tscharr Minar and the Ark of Emir in Buchara, the "Tile Turbans" in the palatial old town of Chiva, the imposing Registan square in Samarqand: They all used to glow a turquoise blue colour at the time of Sultan Timur Leng and Nasreddin Hodja, the "Till Eulenspiegel" of the East. Alongside the legendary fairytales from 1001 Nights, the humorous anecdotes of the scholar riding a donkey also reached Europe. In Buchara there is even a monument erected after Hodja.
This special train journey along the Silk Route is a unique, convenient and safe opportunity to visit Central Asia, if you can consider the little things (such as a trickling shower on the train) as part and parcel of oriental adventure. A tip for undisturbed sleep on board: take ear plugs!! The railway system and the noise insulation on the "flying carpets" are not as good as ours.