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Remembering My Travels on the Silk Road

What a delight to come across this interview from 2013, just after my book had been published. I can't recall if it was ever published, so if not here it is for the first time!

Picture: From dinner in Shiraz, Iran, with a group of students who I met that afternoon at one of the city's monuments. They embodied the Iranian spirit of hospitality and kindness.


1. Whose idea was to travel along the Silk Road?

It was my idea. It all came about after I had finished university and wanted to travel. I love travelling, I love meeting people and seeing new things. At the time I was looking at a large map of the world and considering all the options. One of the things I wanted to do was to go from North America to South America. Then I thought maybe I could do a road trip across America. But when I started to look more closely at the map and I saw an area I’d never heard of called Central Asia. Places called Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan. “Where on Earth are these places?” I thought to myself. I’d heard of Pakistan and Afghanistan, but they were dangerous. So I read more about it and suddenly started to read all about the Silk Road. And the history was so rich and vibrant. It is Central Asia that connects the East and the West. And this was when the idea came. Why don’t I start in Venice, which is where Marco Polo started from, and travel all the way, as far east as I can get, to Xi’an and to Beijing? I wanted to see how long it would take, who I would meet and see what happens. Is it really as dangerous as people think?

2. How long did it take to travel the whole route?

It took me about 6 months, from start to finish. And I went very much at my own pace. Sometimes, if I wanted to leave a place, I would leave the next day, sometimes if I wanted to spend a week there, I spent I week. But I had to worry about having enough money to do it, so I had to be a little bit conscious of time.

3. What was the worst thing during your travel or thing that you didn’t expect?

Although I was never in any real danger, there have been many interesting situations. One of the things I had to get used to was Central Asian timing. I've sat on many buses, and drivers were telling me 1 o’clock was time to go, but then it could be 6 o’clock in the evening and we hadn’t left. So, that was maybe the worst thing.

Also, I spent three days on a ship crossing from Baku to Turkmenistan. And we were effectively locked up on this ship. Three days later I turned up in Turkmenistan, and I was fed up. The ship was just a cargo ship, there was nothing to do on it. You could just sleep and eat. Once we finally arrived, I got out of the cargo ship to stretch my legs on the new territory, only to find men with guns coming and ordering me to get back on the ship. I told them I had just been on the ship for three days and wanted to walk around before facing immigration. I was told that I wasn’t allowed into Turkmenistan until I had had my health checked with a doctor first so I was at risk of contaminating the territory!

When people read the book they often say, “I can't believe how wonderfully nice people were." But it was like that. Most people I met were very nice. Maybe except the taxi drivers, they were a nightmare, always trying to rip me off. But generally I met who really wanted to help and allow me into their lives. My research started as a history book but ended up being more of a travel book, more about people. I really wanted to leave a message that this is not a far away land full of megalomaniacs.

It was very much a real surprise, and maybe I was naive and should have known, but it was a very pleasant surprise.

4. Where did you stay?

I started off in hotels, as in a new country, I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know where to go. Looking at the guidebook you say, “well, I’m gonna stay in this hotel”. And most of the hotels were not very good. Very quickly I started meeting new people, and they said, “don’t stay in a hotel, come and stay with me!” In Europe for example, people are very distrusting, you would never go into the street and say, “hey, you’re a lonely tourist, come and stay with me, come to my brother’s wedding, or whatever”. I found people often saying come and stay with me, or my aunt and she has a couple of beds, so you can stay there. You do always try to pay something if you can because it is polite, or you buy some food, or some flowers, or something. But it was a real surprise how open people were. And the guest always came first. That is something we have lost in Europe. We really have lost the art of being hospitable. And that’s why I think people need to understand Central Asia, which had the Soviet veil of being hidden in the past, but it is now becoming open with great vibrancy. And I think people should come and explore.

5. Could you please tell us about the national dishes. Did you try them and how were they?

Yes, my favourite is lagman. I have to say, I’m not a big fan of plov, because I find it very greasy. I’m a big shashlyk fan, and I also like shurpa. But it’s funny because there are lot of things like Korean carrot salad, which is from Korea, yet you can find it everywhere in Central Asia. And I thought to myself, why are there Korean influences? And then I find out there are Korean people who came to live in Uzbekistan, so I could understand. This is what I call a real mixture of people. And it has to be, because it the days of a silk road you had people from the West and the East, North and South, all coming and meeting in this part of the world and making it really rich and vibrant.

6. How many countries did you visit?

13, from Venice all the way to China.

7. How did you prepare for your trip?

Not well! You have to prepare visas, save money, but after that there was no plan, you just turn up, you meet people, and they say, oh, you must go there. I had 10 lessons of Russian, because although my Russian is terrible, it was enough to say, can I have a hotel room, and in the taxi – can you take me here, that sort of stuff. Just enough to make conversation for 15 mins of taxi driver conversation. Where are you from, family, children, where do you work, etc. I think it is better to do a little preparation, because then your mind is more open to explore further.

8. You work in different industries, in the oil industry and as editor-in-chief of Central Asia Magazine, how can you work in such completely different areas?

It’s funny because Central Asia became a passion and when you have a passion it is like a hobby - you just want to do it. Obviously, you have to earn a living, so in the oil industry I spend a lot of time working! And the beauty of it is now I’m moving to Moscow in three months’ time, and I’ll be overseeing the Central Asian region for my company. So, suddenly all my passions come together at once. I can’t explain, for me it’s not work. When you love something it’s not work. And I’m very passionate about the region.

9. What books about CA have you read recently?

The most recent that I read was Dead Lake which has just come out. It's by Khamid Ismailov, who I think is the best living Uzbek author. I've read a couple of his books like The Railway and so on too.

Some of the old books can be very difficult to read, and I can’t get into Manas, it’s too difficult! This is my real aim with working to bring the Open Central Asia Book Forum and Literature Festival to life. We are trying to discover new writers, modern writers from Central Asia or who are passionate about Central Asia, because unless you’ve been published in English, it seems as though the rest of the world has forgotten you. English is the most widely spoken language, so it’d be really nice to have more books being translated into it from Central Asian authors, and to bring a really different viewpoint to the same old western eyes. That’s why we are here.

You can come and touch the monument and feel the history, but I think you need people to bring it to life.

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