The history of this road dates as far back as 300 BC. Many merchants, armies and nomadic caravans have traveled along this road starting from China into the heart of Europe carrying their culture, civilization and art wherever they went. Explored by adventurers and documentarists of today, the Silk Road is presented by the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States, or the Turkic Council, as a tour package comprising Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, offering me the chance to go on a journey. This promotional tour, with Turkish Airlines as the main transportation sponsor, covers nearly 7,555 kilometers from Istanbul to Bishkek in 15 days. The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, the historic caravanserai in Shaki, the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi in Turkistan, and the Tash Rabat Caravanserai at 3,500 meters on the foot of the Tenir-Too Mountains on the border with China are only a few of the historical heritage sites along the way. The events we’ll partake in include flying eagles, authentic horse games, and making yurts, the traditional Turkic tents. Our journey, during which we will be following the traces of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, begins in Istanbul.
Our first stops in Istanbul, which served as a capital to four empires, are the architectural wonder of Hagia Sophia, the Sultanahmet Mosque, one of Architect Mimar Sinan’s most impressive works, and the Basilica Cistern which has been featured in James Bond movies. During our tour around the Historical Peninsula, we pass through the Spice Bazaar, which can be described as the heir of the Silk Road with its spice sellers and herbalists, towards the Grand Bazaar. It’s hard to explore this giant market in half a day since jewelers, leather shops, carpet sellers, coppersmiths and souvenir shops abound offering us a spectrum of beauty. The Bosphorus tour at sunset helps us relax while gazing at the marvels of this city of seven hills. Our tour in the city ends at a restaurant where we are served plates heaped with delicacies of Ottoman royal cuisine.
After the Ottoman capital of Istanbul, we head towards Konya, the main city of the Seljuk Turks. The city is filled with Seljuk-era structures. We visit Karatay Medrese (Islamic school) known for its tiled dome and Ince Minaret Medrese for its wonderful stonework. We can hear Mawlana’s famous saying, “Come, come, whoever you are” ringing in our ears. After visiting the turquoise-domed Mevlana (or Rumi) Mausoleum, we attend a sema ceremony and are welcomed in the Sufi gardens. We stop by a workshop in Aksaray where the carpets of the Buckingham Palace are restored and fill our stomachs with homemade gözleme (Turkish flatbread baked with various fillings) at Sultanhanı Caravanserai. We cannot help but visit the legendary Cappadocia, renowned for its fairy chimneys and Kaymaklı, the largest of the underground cities. We watch the sunrise on a hot air balloon up in the skies of the Love Valley, awestruck by the beauty of the scenery. Next comes Göreme Open Air Museum where we are amazed by the frescoes from early Christianity in chapels carved into rocks and eat testi kebabı cooked in a sealed clay pot. Afterwards, we depart for Kayseri.
The second part of our Silk Road tour begins in Ganja, the city of poets and the birthplace of Nizami Ganjavi, the master of the ghazal poetic form who wrote Layla and Majnun. We visit the museum built to commemorate Mahsati, a female poet who once lived in the city. After relieving our fatigue in the oil baths in Naftalan, we try the region’s famous piti and end our day with the folk music of mugam.
Next comes the silk city of Shaki, the pearl of the Caucasus. We are mesmerized by the Shaki Inn Palace and Albana Havari Church of Kish which overshadows the palaces of Venice with its spectacular architecture. After catching our breath and enjoying the sherbet and walnut jam served by the locals of the neighborhood, we head towards the Shaki Caravanserai, which is a hotel now. We make sure to buy Shaki silk scarves and halva before ending our trip to this fairy tale-like city.
We leave the Caucasus Mountains for our next stop in the heart of the Paleolithic age. The 40,000-year-old rock paintings of Gobustan National Park shed light on the history of humanity while carrying the messages of our ancestors about hunting, maritime life and astronomy. We travel along the Caspian Sea to Baku, the city of winds, to visit Ateshgah, known as the religious center of the Zoroastrians who believe in the sanctity of the four elements, and Yanar Dag where natural gas creates bright sparks as it reaches the surface.
We stop by the Maiden Tower, an example of Absheron architecture, and the Palace of the Shirvanshahs in the Inner City and have ourselves a feast of local delicacies such as sturgeon with pomegranate sauce and saffron rice. We leave behind Baku’s wide baroque and gothic boulevards, opera houses, Flame Towers and the congress center by Zaha Hadid, carrying local products such as handwoven rugs and Beluga caviar as souvenirs.
We fly from Baku to Almaty and are welcomed with Sievers apples that lend their name to the city. At a restaurant that feels like a scene from the One Thousand and One Nights, we sample local dishes such as Uzbek pilaf and Uyghur lagman noodles. We head towards Alatau National Park in the south of Almaty. Resembling the Alps with its nature, the park is home to many animal species including snow leopards and offers us an opportunity to witness a performance by the Kazakhs on horseback with eagles. After seeing the tomb of the Golden Man, which is similar to the pharaoh rooms in Egyptian pyramids, at the Central State Museum in Almaty, we ride the cable car up to Kok Tobe Mountain and take the night train to Turkistan.
Our first stop in Turkistan whose highlands are trodden by horses and camels is to visit the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, who inspired Rumi. Founded during the Timur period, this sanctuary pioneered Islamic architecture in Central Asia, and since it was believed to have protective powers, people once buried the Kazakh khans here. We travel through the ancient city of Otrar, where Al-Farabi was born, to the ethnic village of Alasha. We drink kumis (fermented mare’s milk) like nomads and attend a yurt installation workshop in this peerless place in the middle of the steppes.
After spending the night at Shymkent, our bus pauses at the Mausoleum of Ayşe Bibi, built by the Kara-Khanid ruler Kara Khan after the death of his fiancée. We are touched by the story of this temple, which reminds us of the tale of Taj Mahal.
The Taraz leg of our journey stops by the city’s archaeological park and caravanserai, where we try the local delicacies including beşparmak, a dish made with horse meat. Then, we drive through the border towards Kyrgyzstan.
Here we are in Kyrgyzstan, the apple of Central Asia's eye. The country, which enjoyed endless praise in Chinghiz Aitmatov's books, is painted with all shades of green and turquoise. We drive by Bishkek and head towards Balasagun, the capital of the Kara-Khanid state. We climb the Burana Tower to observe the historic Silk Road and the Balbals, the stone stelae that resemble stylized human figures in form.
Next on our schedule is traditional horse games. We rejoice watching Kiz Kuumay in which boys chase girls, and the skilled riders of Ulak Tartış, a game that resembles polo. Our next stop is the village of Kochkor by a lake. We are welcomed by the locals who teach us to weave felt rugs called shirdak and serve us boorsok, a traditional fried dough. We enjoy the food while listening to the Manas, the world’s longest epic and the national pride of the Kyrgyz, from a traditional Manas-teller.
Driving from Kochkor to Naryn on the road to China, we can see the surrounding Tenir-Too Mountains rise above us. We experience the life of nomads by staying in a yurt camp near Naryn. We ride horses and climb the steppes to enjoy the unique nature of the region and learn about the Shaman culture. Finally, we visit the Tash Rabat Caravanserai, one of the most important trade centers of the Silk Road, on the foot of Tenir-Too Mountains on the border with China. We stop in the town of Cholpon Ata and go on a boat tour at sunset on Lake Issyk, which is likened to Lake Titikaka in South America and does not freeze even on the coldest days of winter. After visiting the Petroglyph Open Air Museum and Ruh Ordo Culture Center, we bid farewell to the Switzerland of Central Asia, inviting everyone to experience this tour for themselves.