31st October 2016
“Travelling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller”
Our crossing from Iran into Turkey went very well; we climbed the hill towards the border control and were soon ushered into another world, where a Duty Free shop greeted us and the ladies in our caravan whisked off their restrictive headscarves, daringly showed their forearms, and gave a whoop of delight at their freedom. At the border area we passed hundreds of articulated trucks waiting to go through. The Silk Road it still is, but the means of transporting the goods has changed as has their contents; containers full of dishwashers, nylon bedding and plastic buckets seem to have replaced the fabled silks, spices and jewels of yore.
The weather changed. From the heat of past weeks, we were plunged into icy winds – and snow! Wrapping up warmly and lunging out into it like excited children (well, I was; I hadn’t seen snow for over ten years) we visited the ruined medieval Armenian city of Ani (960 –1045), a fascinating ghost city of palaces, religious buildings and massive fortifications.
Ani was an important location on several Silk Road routes that fed into the area. The Church of the Apostles, built in 1031 was later used as a caravanserai when the Seljuk Turks came to dominate the area. We didn’t stay there – sadly it has no roof and what walls remain look about to tumble.
We moved on, but not by the old Silk Road bridge that once spanned the river in the gorge below, for now it delineates the closed border between Turkey and Armenia. Little visited, Anatolia proved to be a feast to the eyes; stunning scenery of mountains, high pastures, deep ravines where turbulent waters gushed (we wondered how many travellers had met their end in such confines).
And now, our Journey to the West is complete. Amid feelings of elation, sadness, triumph we looked from our boat upon Istanbul. We’ve crossed the Oxus, Euphrates, and Bosporus and, on seeing the endless sea, felt as if we had reached the end of the world.
Across six countries we’ve wandered, covering 12,000 kilometres, and with each step of the voyage we’ve seen and learned so much. We’ve gazed upon 5,000 years old objects – from majestic stone-carved monuments to miniscule pieces of golden jewellery, exquisitely worked and of great beauty.
We’ve gasped at extraordinary devotional works of art in caves, churches, temples and mosques. We’ve witnessed holy festivals where men have whipped themselves with metal chains, and wedding parties of smartly be-suited young men, and demure young women cosseted in sparkly, frothy white dresses.
Our physical appetites have been sated by dishes of unimaginable variety, from the Peking Duck of Beijing to the freshly-caught fish of Istanbul, with fresh pomegranate juice, pistachio and saffron ice cream, dates stuffed with walnuts, moon cakes and mulberries to name but a few culinary delights – in between. People young and old, of all nations and walks of life, have greeted us with good cheer and offered unprecedented hospitality.
We settled down in Istanbul for a while, trading a few wares (and buying more) as Silk Road travellers are wont to do. Those Nestorian Monks! Very excited to be in Istanbul, they spruced themselves up and headed off to see Justinian I, the Byzantine (East Roman) Emperor. He’d apparently sent them off to find the highly guarded source of silk and - lo and behold – what have they been carrying in their bamboo walking sticks since we set off from China but silkworm cocoons! The secret is out!
The Master of the Caravan is sad to see the band of merry, fellow travellers go; for that is what they have been; good company, stalwart friends. Stein & Heden have gone off to the Mediterranean – something about a ‘bridge’ (and a coffee shop or three), Ibn Batutta, itchy feet as ever, has gone to the southeast while Clavijo and Richthofen have gone southwest. The Nestorian Monks have headed to the other side of the known world; on another secret mission, one wonders? Who knows what they’ll bring back next time! Never comfortable far from their homeland, Zhang Qian and Xuanzang have scuttled off to their Emperor, to report on all their findings, while Ella drifted off, solo once more (although she did enjoy having company on this journey). Mildred, Francesca and Eva will, I suspect, keep travelling – it’s in their blood.
And the Master? Sitting in silence, listening to the birds singing in the garden, taking stock of the journey of a lifetime and awaiting the next assembly of inspired adventurers, archaeologists, geologists, merchants, missionaries, emissaries, explorers… to join me on a journey, to who knows where?