Silk Road: A lace of silk and splendour, stained by strife

It was an offer I couldn’t refuse: a chance to explore a fascinating corner of the Near East at this momentous time in its history. Every August, a Canadian-South African company conducts a three-month self-drive journey in Land Rovers along the Silk Road from Europe to China. 

The trip is led by an intrepid Chinese woman, Yue Chi, who manages to thread her way through the complexity of border crossings, tetchy police and opaque bureaucracy across the length of Asia.

Some guests do the whole journey, others fly in for sections. I was most interested in the western end: the silky road from Turkey to Azerbaijan. It’s an awkward time to be travelling in these parts, particularly with a tidal wave of refugees heading west, PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) rebels operating in the hills and Islamic State insurgents along the borders. We would be avoiding strife-torn areas, but the shadow cast by conflicts old and new would prove a defining feature of our journey.

I flew into eastern Turkey, where I met the group as it passed through the city of Van. Hot off the plane from South Africa, Yue whisked me straight to a boat for a ride to Akdamar Island, a yellow lump in the waters of Lake Van. A 10th-century Armenian cathedral stood atop a promontory, painted in rosy light.

We climbed its steps to view the bas-relief carvings of biblical scenes on its walls and waited for the sun to set. Ringed by stark mountains and pewter water, the church looked like a lost Christian ark in a Muslim sea.

As is often the case in these parts, the church was vandalised by Turkish forces during World War I. And after the genocide of 1915­ to 1917, Armenians lost a large tract of their homeland to Turkey, including Lake Van. The borders between the two countries remain closed.

A Muslim bride arrived by boat to have her photograph taken beside the funny old building. As she lifted her skirts to mount the stairs, I noticed the Nike running shoes under her perfectly white dress.

Ani is a ruined medieval caravanserai. (Justin Fox)

North we drove, through honeyed Kurdish lands tense with recent conflict and brewing rebellion. We passed half a dozen burnt-out trucks, attacked and torched by PKK rebels. “The vehicles were carrying military cargo,” said our local guide. “It’s as though the Turks are an occupying force in their own country. Kurds are restless for autonomy.”

A godly landscape
The hills were dotted with watchtowers, police posts ringed with barbed wire, sandbags and armoured cars. “Things are very complicated in this zone where Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Armenia come together,” explained Yue. “And in the middle of it all are the Kurds, who have no homeland. [The Islamic State] is sometimes supported by Turkey against the Kurds, Syria’s Assad is backed by Russia and Iran, the United States is bombing [the Islamic State] as well as supporting the Kurds, and Iraq … let’s not even talk about Iraq. It’s a mess.”

Tanks, military bases, then a mountain-top pasha’s palace with 17th-century central heating, a harem, a library, a hamam (Turkish bath) and a fountain that once gushed water and milk from separate spouts. Not a bad pad, even for a pasha.

Next came a godly landscape prickled by poplar trees and minarets. Mount Ararat, where Noah is said to have grounded his ark, dominated the scene. Its snow-capped cone towers 5?137m above the plain. Once an Armenian mountain, it’s now part of Turkey – a symbol of all that Armenia has lost in the wars of the early 20th century.

Nearing the border, we came to the walled city of Ani. Once a Silk Road hub and home to dozens of fine churches, it now lies in ruins. Only a handful of shattered buildings remain. The vandalised murals of one church tell the story of St Gregory bringing Christianity to this region.

Swallows glided through gaps that once held stained glass windows, a dome that now holds only sky. Across a narrow gorge stood Armenian watchtowers. The signboards along the river were punctured with bullet holes. Ancient animosities were clear and present.

We skirted the border to enter Armenia through Georgia. “In the past, the Silk Road followed many different routes,” said Yue. “The caravans were constantly making detours to avoid wars or bandits. It’s just the same today.”

The Turkish foe
Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, was a revelation: a stylish city with tree-lined boulevards, neoclassical architecture, dog parlours and fabulous restaurants. Confident young women looked like ramp models as they strutted down avenues lined with every couturier and designer shop under the sun.

But on a hill overlooking the city stood a vast, grey genocide memorial – much tended and much revered – to remind the citizens of protracted hates. And Mount Ararat sat brooding on the horizon, taken by the Turkish foe a century ago: in itself a call to arms, if ever one were needed.

We drove southeast through the rugged Caucasus to visit a series of churches, cave chapels and monasteries, some of them dating from the fourth century. Unadorned interiors were lit by candles. The devout poured through cavernous spaces that echoed with the chanting of priests. Faith seemed most fervent here, a bulwark against Islamic Azerbaijan, just a grenade’s throw away.

At times, the road followed the frontier and we drove behind an earthen dyke, built to protect vehicles from sniper fire. This area regularly sees border clashes, with Azerbaijan claiming that Armenia stole vast swaths of its homeland. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, old fracture lines between Christian and Islamic Asia flare up regularly.

We headed over the northern frontier and into Georgia, where national flags bearing the five red crosses of St George flew everywhere, proclaiming this Christian territory. We meandered through a land of castles, each hill and bridge defended. This Silk Road corridor was a rich prize and in each stronghold’s battlements were caravanserais (inns for caravans), mosques and churches for the wandering merchants.

A city drunk on the spoils of oil
I looked east from a medieval rampart and imagined a caravan heading out of the mountains, laden with trade goods, the thick-haired Bactrian camels straining forward at the prospect of water and rest. Tonight, man and beast would take their ease in the walls. I imagined, too, the clash of sword on scimitar, the rumble of cannons, as warriors vied for control of this precious route through the Caucasus.

Heading north, the architecture grew more Russian, with Soviet-style apartment blocks encircling the bigger towns. We crossed the bridge of 100?000 martyrs – where Christians were massacred by yet another invading sultan – and entered the centre of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital.

It has a lovely medieval heart of cobbled lanes, fretwork wooden buildings, a rambling fortress and some bizarre modern architecture tossed into the mix.

East we drove, through fertile plains in late-summer harvest, and over another limb of the Caucasus. Before reaching the Azerbaijan border post, we destroyed anything purchased in Armenia, even our Lonely Planet guide and bottles of Armenian water. Such is the hatred between neighbours.

We stopped at the Silk Road way point of Sheki, where restored caravanserais still dominate the town. Their massive doors once allowed the camels inside on cold nights. Then it was onward across the desert wastes of Azerbaijan, past mud volcanoes, derelict Soviet factories and rigs sucking black gold from the ground. Finally we reached Baku, a city drunk on the spoils of oil, with grand civic architecture to match and mansions of oligarch kitsch along a shoreline blackened by pollution.

Mud volcanoes bubble between oil fields on the western shores of the Caspian Sea. (Justin Fox)

More blood, more hatred
On a ridge overlooking the old centre stand modern glass buildings of outrageous shapes and proportions. At dusk, their facades are lit to resemble flames, burning like strange omens above the beautiful-ugly city. Out in the Caspian Sea, I could make out oil rigs, working round the clock. 

Smaller rigs in the city drilled the earth like oversized hadedas. Beside me stood the martyrs’ memorials, dedicated to those killed by the Bolsheviks and by the Nazis and by Mikhail Gorbachev’s army in 1990 and, in another genocide (it is claimed), by Armenians and Bolsheviks in 1918. More blood, more hatred.

An orange moon, full and fiery, rose out of the Caspian. My Silk Road had come to an end. During the journey, I’d tried and failed to understand the complicated histories that inform this ancient road. 

So many individuals and powers have vied for control: kings and bandits, tsars and Ottomans, Muslims and Christians, and nowadays Vladimir Putin, Nato and a host of modern warlords. Old divisions and animosities are kept alive. Indeed, they are a kind of lifeblood in themselves, able to inflame a populace in a heartbeat.

And yet the land is breathtakingly beautiful, the architecture sublime and the people a mess of complicated charms. I’d been appalled, fascinated, enthralled. It had been a journey like no other.

Justin Fox was hosted by Drive the Silk Road, a fully catered, guided driving adventure from Europe to China. The trip is undertaken from August to November using Land Rovers provided by the company: three months, 16 countries, 20?000km and no more than a dozen travellers. Phone +1866?564?1226, email [email protected], or visit

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