Silk Route

Dancing in the Footsteps of Marco Polo

Adventures on the Silk Route

by Nuria Tahan

Over 700 years ago, Marco Polo’s tales of adventures on the Silk Route to China captured the imagination of Europe. He was not the first to make the journey. Alexander the Great conquered his way through Central Asia between 334-323 B.C.E., getting as far as modern-day Tajikistan, leaving a legacy of mixed marriages between his Macedonian soldiers and Central Asian women. Between 138 B.C.E. and 484 C.E., Chinese traders, who had previously been forbidden to export silk, had set up posts between China and Europe, trading silk, spices, jade and lacquerware for Roman glass, coins, gold, coral, and textiles. After the prophet Mohammed’s death in 632 C.E., Arab invaders carried the new religion, Islam, to Central Asia as far as Xinjiang province in China. The early thirteenth century brought Genghis Khan and his Mongolian warriors, who captured most of Asia and ruled an empire stretching from China to Turkey. In 1260 C.E., Kubilai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, was the ruler of the Mongolian Empire, and it was he who received the Polos.

Many traders and adventurers crossed the Silk Route in the centuries that followed until modern times, when most of the countries en route came under control of the Soviet Union. Tourism was strictly controlled, and foreigners were required to book a tour package with Intourist or be sponsored by some government agency to gain access to the fabled lands. The trip I made during the summer of 1994 was only made possible by the breakup of the Soviet Union. As countries became independent, but still not having their own embassies established, they left it up to the Russian Embassy as representative of the Commonwealth of Independent States (C.I.S.) to issue visas on their behalf. I managed to persuade the Russian Embassy in Abu Dhabi to give me a one month transit visa to travel from China to Turkey. The advantage of a transit visa is that I had complete freedom to travel anywhere in the countries I requested, without the shackles of Intourist.

I began my journey in Hong Kong, travelled by train to Beijing, which was known as Khanbalik in Marco Polo’s time, then flew up to Ulan Bataar, capitol of Mongolia and descendant of Genghis Khan’s people. Mongolia has only recently opened up to tourism, and was home to completely unspoiled and friendly people. Mongolia also has a brilliant folklore troupe, and I was lucky enough to catch two performances. The music was often like the film score from a Biblical epic, and the dances seemed to relate various aspects of Mongolian history. There were warrior dances, flirtatious boy meets girl dances and frightful mask dances, as well as recitals by unusual musical instruments. I sat in the back row trying to discreetly videotape the show without getting busted by the ushers. There were very few tourists, the audience was practically all Mongolian. One of the highlights of my visit was a stay in a typical “ger,” better known as a yurt. I was the only foreigner there for the first day, so I was put in a deluxe ger exquisitely furnished with hand-painted Mongolian furniture and a stove in the middle. The next day a trans-Siberian tour group showed up and was put into “economy” four-bedded gers. I joined them in hiring horses to take us on an excursion to the nomad camp nearby. We visited the families in their gers, drank salty tea (yuck!), and one of the boys in the group bravely mounted a yak and was tossed off. The nomads were quite friendly and readily invited us into their homes to see their way of life.

Uigur Dancer, Adelet; Turfan Hotel, Turkan, China. Photo: Nuria Tahan.

The next day, I flew back to Beijing and took a train for three days, crossing the Taklamakan Desert (the name means “those who enter never come out”) and finally reaching the Silk Route oasis of Turfan. I had been here before, and Turfan remains one of my favorite towns. Only a three hour bus ride from Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang province, Turfan is more like three centuries away. Horse-drawn carts still serve as taxis, bread is baked in brick kilns, and grape trellises cover the streets. Once again, I stayed at the Rufan Binguan, and was pleasantly surprised to see an old friend, Adelet. Several years ago, she taught me some basic Uigur dance. Now she was married with a son, and the dance troupe’s lead dancer. The performance was still as I remembered it (and captured on video this time). Adelet was the tea cup dancer and she invited me up to join in the grand finale. They wore graceful pink chiffon dresses with maroon vests embroidered with gold sequins, and all the girls wove fake long braids into their hair. The troupe was very professional and well -choreographed from years of giving performances for tour groups. It was a real pleasure to see them again.

Moving westward, I took a short flight from Urumqi to Almaty, capital of Kazakhistan to avoid border hassles. I heard of one traveller getting stuck in no-man’s land for a week because of some obscure fault. (The guards probably were fishing for a bribe.) I had no problems at Almaty airport, found a cheap guest house and set off to explore the town. Unfortunately, there were no dance shows, but there is a lovely little museum of national instruments where you push a button under the exhibit to hear the instrument played. After a hot, dusty walk around the bazaar, I was grateful for the opportunity to have a Turkish bath and massage. The ladies’ section had several options: steam room with birch sticks to beat yourself with, Ottoman style Turkish bath, swimming pool and massage room. My two-hour stay cost the princely sum of eight dollars, and was worth every cent.

Relaxed and refreshed, I continued on into Kirgyzistan through the spectacular Tien Shan mountains, then to Tajikistan. I stayed one night with a family I met on the train to Khodzhent. The next day, the father took me around and showed me the sights. On a lark, I bought a lotto ticket and hit the jackpot. I gleefully collected my winnings, only to realize later that it amounted to about two dollars! That was enough to buy a ticket to Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan is the most fascinating country in Central Asia. Home to fabled cities like Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara, and birthplace of Tamerlane, it is full of exquisite blue-tiled mosques, bazaars that go back to biblical times, and the world-famous Bakhor Folk Dance Troupe. Unfortunately, they were on holiday, but they do have a wonderful little Uzbek dance museum in their concert hall with costumes, dolls, instruments and posters of famous dancers. I did get to see two dance performances in Tashkent. One was at the Istanbul restaurant which featured belly dancing and snake dancing. The best show was at the Yoshlik Hotel, where I saw the premier show. There were classical Uzbek dances, the same snake dancer, a different belly dance, Russian Jazz dancers, and a popular singer who had half the audience on their feet dancing in the aisles. Absolutely brilliant!

In Samarkand, I also enjoyed a nightclub show at the Hotel Sayor. Different girls presented dances from Kazakhistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Iran and of course Uzbekistan. The clientele were mostly wealthy mafiosos who showered the girls with tips. Nobody objected to my videotaping. The finale was a wild belly dance number with all the girls dressed in Turkish costumes climbing up on tables, dragging men up on stage. I was invited, but declined, for fear of inciting a mafioso to make me an offer I couldn’t refuse! This was to be the last dance show until Istanbul.

I made my way onward through Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, with a quick side trip to Armenia. This was moderately risky, since the country was at war with Azerbaijan. There were security checks everywhere and soldiers kept waking me up on the train to check my documents. I had really been looking forward to Georgia because of its famous dance troupe, but unfortunately they were also on holiday. All the hotels were full of Abkhazian refugees, so I had to spend the night in the lobby of a cheap hotel. Restaurants had little to offer other than roast chicken and sandwiches. But Georgia is a beautiful country, and it will one day be a very popular tourist destination. At least I got there before the hordes. The next day, I took the bus direct from Tiblisi to Trabzon in Turkey. The border guards were surprised by my mega-visa which had taken me from Kazakhistan all the way across the CIS to the Turkish border. After calling several superiors who hemmed and hawed, they finally let me through, much to my relief.

Turkish buses are extremely comfortable and even the roadside bus stops have good food, heaven after the shortages in the CIS countries. An overnight bus took me to Istanbul, where I found the Laleli district near the Kapali Carsi (grand bazaar), where I usually stay, full of Russian traders. I did some shopping, bought the latest Turkish dance videos, and saw two nightclub shows. These programs are very tourist-oriented, but since I was a single lady I couldn’t go to the more Turkish cabarets. I went to the Gar Music Hall and Orient House. Each had three belly dancers, a folk dance group and popular singers. The Orient house also had an Ottoman fashion show and wedding ceremony, and they invited one female tourist from each nationality to compete in an impromptu belly dance contest. As “Miss America” I ended up in a tie with Miss Israel, Miss Russia and Miss Italy. We all got bottles of champagne as prizes and a memorable evening. It was a fitting end to my odyssey along the Silk Route.

Nuria Tahan was born and raised in Southern California. She is an inveterate traveler, having traveled to every country in the world except Libya, Lebanon, Iran and North Korea. Currently, Nuria resides in Dubai where she owns and operates Gypsy Tailoring, and designs belly dance costumes. She performs frequently in Kuwait, and plans new and exotic adventures around the world.

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