Silk Road Riders: Today, Most People Travel the Silk Road in a Land Rover. but in 1999, Four British Women Made an 8,000-Kilometre Journey on Horseback and by Camel, One of the First Times It Had Been Attempted since the Middle Ages. in a Series of Diary Extracts, Alexandra Tolstoy Recounts Their Epic, Life-Changing Expedition

By Tolstoy, Alexandra | Geographical, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Silk Road Riders: Today, Most People Travel the Silk Road in a Land Rover. but in 1999, Four British Women Made an 8,000-Kilometre Journey on Horseback and by Camel, One of the First Times It Had Been Attempted since the Middle Ages. in a Series of Diary Extracts, Alexandra Tolstoy Recounts Their Epic, Life-Changing Expedition


Tolstoy, Alexandra, Geographical


When I resigned from my job as a stockbroker it was in the hope of a more adventurous life. But I had nothing planned other than temporary work. However, soon afterwards I met a friend from university, Sophia Cunningham, who mentioned her long-held dream of riding the Silk Road. I was captivated, by the idea and enlisted two other friends from Edinburgh University--Lucy Kelaart and Victoria Westmacott. Spurred on by a mutual hunger for adventure, we took the first steps on an arduous, two-year journey of fundraising and planning.

An established route for more than two millennia, with its origins in Sino-Western trade, the Silk Road developed into a network of routes whose wax and wane was dependent on wars, weather and local politics. Our journey took us through some of the world's least-known and most beautiful regions: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, the Taklamakan Desert and China. The road we followed echoes with some of the mightiest names in history: Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Marco Polo and the 19th-century players of the Great Game between Britain and Russia.

Romantic as the journey appeared, there were many obstacles to overcome. The difficulties began long before we left England, as it was only after much painstaking research and managing to secure some sponsorship that our dream finally began to materialise. Although the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) supported us from the outset, almost everybody we consulted was extremely negative about the likelihood of our completing such an expedition, from both a financial and a physical point of view. We had to find guides, animals and a back-up truck--not a simple task in such countries.

Sophia and I completed reconnaissance trips in China and Central Asia the year before the expedition to organise logistical details. But most challenging was fire spiralling cost of the venture (in all it cost in excess of 80,000 [pound sterling]). However, Sophia gained a Winston Churchill Memorial Fund Fellowship and the rest was covered by sponsors, who eventually came on board in return for publicity in the British press.

The first leg of our journey brought us to Ashgabat in Turkmenistan. From here we travelled by horse across the Karakum Desert and on to Uzbekistan, passing through the historic cities of Bukhara and Samarkand and then into the alpine republic of Kyrgyzstan. We exchanged our horses for camels at the border between Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang, the Uighur province now controlled by China, and then skirted the Taklamakan Desert to the south. We were the first people to do this on camels since merchants transported their wares along the trading route. The journey ended in Xi'an, the traditional terminus of the Silk Road.

During the eight months, we travelled 8,000 kilometres through varied terrain and climes, passing through deserts, steppe, hills, mountains and forests. We began in warm sun, which became increasingly hot, and then experienced rain, hailstones and even snow, followed by the searing heat and sandstorms of the desert, ending with frost and bitter winds.

The route was steeped in history, and places looked no different than they would have done to merchants in mediaeval times. It wasn't difficult to envisage the vast movements of history that rampaged through these regions. The people we encountered were descendants of the great Mongol, Tartar, Hun and Uighur tribes that swept across Central Asia, from north of the Altai in the Middle Ages. They lead remarkably similar lifestyles to their ancestors--they are either nomadic or self-sufficient farmers. Perhaps contrary to expectation, they show little or no influence from their Russian or Chinese colonists. Predominantly Moslem, they speak Turkic-based languages and Enver Pasha's idea of a vast pan-Turkic state hasn't been forgotten.

It wasn't always an easy experience. There were times when it rained unceasingly for a week: our camps became quagmires, nothing would dry, and we awoke in puddles in our tents. …

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Silk Road Riders: Today, Most People Travel the Silk Road in a Land Rover. but in 1999, Four British Women Made an 8,000-Kilometre Journey on Horseback and by Camel, One of the First Times It Had Been Attempted since the Middle Ages. in a Series of Diary Extracts, Alexandra Tolstoy Recounts Their Epic, Life-Changing Expedition
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