Istanbul – Calcutta: Aug.-Oct. ’11
Istanbul-Calcutta. No big deal, you might say. It’s easy enough to fly between these two cities…takes only a matter of hours. True enough, I’d reply, but if we had flown, I would have missed the fascinating things in between. Like smoking a narghile in a Tehran cafe, surrounded by the chic and friendly people of Iran. Or being blinded by the marble and gold city of Ashgebad on the edge of the Kara Kum (Black Desert). Sipping mare’s milk at the tent of a Tajik nomad is right up there with best memories, along with our homestay along the high and desolate Pamir Highway, ringed by snowy peaks.
That’s why we drove, to see 9400 miles-worth of remote places and interesting peoples, spectacular high mountains, perhaps even one of the elusive snow leopards that populate Afghanistan’s remote Wakhan Valley. Which reminds me: Let’s not forget to include Everest Base Camp, Tibet side, an all-time trip high, both literally and figuratively.
Our drive took us along the route that captivated and was the ruin of many a soldier and spy in the second half of the 19th century. This was the period of The Great Game played out between Queen Victoria’s agents, especially those charged with expanding and protecting her Indian empire, and the generals and soldiers of the Russian Tsars. The territory in which The Great Game took place was all of Central Asia, at the time a harsh land heavily divided and fiercely protected by rival Khanates. Take a few moments to look at the route details here.
Why did Great Britain and Russia connive and battle so relentlessly for so many decades? For one, there was the lure of the mighty, 1,500-mile Oxus River (today’s Amu Darya) and the richly fertile arable land that bounded it on its course from the high Pamirs to the Aral Sea. There was the strategic stronghold of Khiva, which could provide Russia with a launching point eastward toward Britain’s domain. But to get to it, the Russians had to cross the formidable Karakum Desert, which makes up 70% of today’s Turkmenistan, a desert so bleakly hot in summer, so buried in snows and battered by blizzards in winter, that it claimed the lives of tens of thousands of troops and camels during Russia’s multiple attempts to secure Khiva for themselves. And there was, of course, Afghanistan, which already in the 19th century was a pawn for the West, each side trying to make their preferred puppet the ruler, and each successively failing, at the cost of thousands more lives (sound familiar?).
Our route took us through eleven countries: Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Tibet (yes, I count Tibet as a country), Nepal and India. I’ve never entered and exited so many countries in one trip. I could write a book about border crossings. Hey, that’s a great idea! For the moment though, I’ve written plenty of dispatches from the road, which, along with photos, will bring you right along with me as I search for camel pad in a Chinese market or contort myself to the size of a trolodyte in Cappadocia.
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You can also take a look at my husband Bernard’s gorgeous photos from our travels. Click here to view his site.