The Stans of Asia on the Silk Road
photo credit: Trevor Cole
by Agnes Chung
Epiphany on January 6 celebrates the baptism of Jesus and the three agi who paid homage to him at birth. One Magus traversed Taxila, an ancient Silk Road city in Pakistan on route to Bethlehem, according to Taxilan tradition said historian John of Hildesheim.
In the land of harsh landscapes, ancient cities and bustling bazaars, Asia’s stans are re-emerging with the revival of the fabled Silk Road. Stan in Persian means “land of”.
Asia’s seven stans include the former Soviet republics of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan; and South Asian countries: Afghanistan and Pakistan. They hold many fascinations being a crucial crossroads on the Silk Road.
Silk Road, a contribution of many cultures
The Silk Road is a network of ancient trade routes that connected Asia, Europe and Africa, both by land and sea. Marco Polo is perhaps the most famous Silk Road explorer.
The routes span over 5,000 miles from China via Persia to Mediterranean Europe – paving the way for global trade – cultural, scientific, technological and religious exchanges. Nestorian missionaries brought Christianity to Central Asia in the 4th century from northern Iraq.
Empires have come and gone, but the Silk Road continues to serve as a legacy of exchanges between east and west, and has shaped our interconnected world today.
You can enjoy a Silk Road experience at the inaugural Silk Road Festival (silkroadfestival.org) to be held at the Vancouver Art Gallery, North Plaza on July 6 and 7, 2019.
Land of Kazakh and Kyrgyz
Kazakh and Kyrgyz people are culturally related. The yurt is a symbol of their family and traditional hospitality. Both are nomadic herders who raised fat-tailed sheep, horses and two-humped Bactrian camels.
The fat in a sheep’s tail is reserve energy, much like the humps on a Bactrian camel – so it can endure prolonged travel without food and water. Fat-tailed sheep are mentioned in several Bible verses including Exodus 29:22.
A cousin once told me that if you love sheep fat, horse meat and fermented mare’s milk (kumis), you’ve come to the right place. No part of the animal goes to waste. Sheep heads are often served to honoured guests. Kuyrdak is a dish of roasted horse or sheep offal and fat.
Washed down with kumis, Kazakhstan’s national drink, you may be ready to leave your yurt for a horseback ride to the steppe to pick up eagle hunting skills. Or perhaps, enjoy a scenic hike at Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul Lake in the Tian Shan Mountains. Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, boasts gleaming skyscrapers, futuristic architecture and museums. Post-Soviet anachronisms abound in Almaty, and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital.
Sogdians and the Uzbek bazaars
The marketplace experience in Uzbekistan is a treat. The lively bazaars burst with colourful tapestries, rich aromas of heady spices and exotic food. You may still find Sogdian descendants among the vendors. Originally from Iran, Sogdians played a key role in facilitating trade along the Silk Road. The oasis cities of Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva conjure images of Sogdian merchants crisscrossing the desert with their camel caravans. Uzbekistan has five UNESCO world heritage sites, namely Bukhara, Shahrisabz, Itchan Kala, Samarkand and Tian Shan mountains. Airbnb recently ranked Samarkand among the top 19 destinations to visit in 2019.
Tajikistan and Turkmenistan
Sogdian communities also live in neighbouring Tajikistan – known for its scenic mountains and rivers. The country relies on Russian aid and continues to grapple with poverty and instability since becoming a republic in 1991.
In Turkmenistan the man-made Darvaza gas crater in the Karakum Desert resembles the gates of hell. Other sights include Ashgabat, the white marble city; Merv, a UNESCO heritage site noted for carpet weaving and 12th century ruins; Nissa and Margush.
Afghanistan and Pakistan
While many historic landmarks in war-torn Afghanistan are damaged, the Afghan culture persevered. Afghans love to socialize and hospitality remains their core trait. Afghan food is a fusion of Central, Eastern and South Asian cuisine with Middle Eastern flavours.
Pakistan’s attractions include the spectacular Hunza valley where the Kalash people (believed to be descendants of Alexander the Great’s soldiers) reside, Karakorum Highway and ruins at Moenjodaro in Takht-i-Bahi, Taxila and Shalamar Gardens in Lahore.
Missions and religious freedom
Being a Christian in Muslim majority stan countries runs a high risk of persecution. Aasia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row for blasphemy, highlighted the persecution believers faced for their faith.
All stan countries with the exception of Kyrgyzstan are on the Open Doors 2018 World Watch List (opendoorsca.org) for extreme to high level persecution. Afghanistan and Pakistan ranked number two and five on the list. Even owning a Bible is deemed a punishable offence in some stan countries.
Much of Eurasia is still mired in poverty, substance abuse, despair and secularism, cited missioneurasia.org. Mission Eurasia’s School Without Walls initiative trains and equips next leaders to impact the lives of those in need.
The resurgence of the legendary Silk Road is a step forward to more religious freedom in the region as tourism provides foreign dollars to government coffers. A year ago, Uzbekistan for the first time made it law for sacred books like the Bible and Koran to be placed inside hotel rooms for guest use.