a traditional Uzbek yellow and red coat hanging on branches and swaying in the wind

On the Ancient Silk Road, a Walk Shadowed by a Mystery

As his journey around the world continues, writer Paul Salopek encounters the enduring spirits of one of history’s great trade routes.

A traditional sheepskin coat blows in the wind in Turtkul, Uzbekistan, on a highway that follows the ancient Silk Road. It wasn’t a single road but a network of commercial routes that once traversed much of the Eastern Hemisphere.
This story appears in the December 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Water. Clean, fresh, drinkable water.

For more than three years I have struggled to find it. I am crossing the world on foot. I am retracing the vanished trails of the first human beings who explored the planet in the Stone Age. At my journey’s starting line in Ethiopia, I walked from camel watering hole to muddy salt seep. I have plodded from oasis to oasis in the Hejaz desert of Arabia. In the winter peaks of the Caucasus, I have grown thirsty surrounded by tons of water—the vital liquid frozen to rock-hard ice.

But never before have I encountered this: Someone has dug up and looted my resupply cache. A shallow pit that once held 15 precious gallons of water. My water. I cannot tear my eyes from the emptied jugs, rocking gently in a scorching wind.

Jinn have stolen my water in the Qizilqum.

What are jinn?

Vagrant spirits—according to steppe nomads—that haunt the incessant horizons of Central Asia, afflicting or aiding travelers in turn. Often called genies in the West, where they are usually depicted in cartoonish pop culture as turbaned demons corked inside lamps or bottles, jinn can fly hundreds of miles at night, the region’s herders say. Or: They can change themselves into snakes and wolves. Marco Polo, while traversing the Desert of Lop in western China, reported the presence of wily jinn that called out to caravans by name, “and thus shall a traveller oft-times be led astray so that he never finds his party. And in this way many have perished.”

And where is the Qizilqum?

Stretching from parts of Kazakhstan to southern Uzbekistan: an infamous desert the size of Arizona that for centuries has thinned the ranks of passing caravans on the Silk Road, the most famous trade route in history for more than 2,200 years. Even now its vast gantlet of blistering light and thorn scrub presents a formidable barrier to travel. It certainly has stopped me.

“Don’t blame the choban,” my guide Aziz Khalmuradov says, referring to local shepherds. Khalmuradov is a proud Uzbek. Yet I can tell even he is stunned. “Stealing water is a big crime here,” he says, kneeling in exhaustion beside our plundered depot. “Nobody would dare.”

But if not the shepherds, then who?

Khalmuradov and I slog up a scalding pink dune. We use a satellite phone to summon help from Buxoro, a fabled oasis city that’s a two-day walk away. We sit. We watch the burning horizons. We wait. In the eighth century a trader to the northeast of us, near a Chinese town called Turpan, paid 40 bolts of raw silk for an 11-year-old slave girl. To the southeast, a thousand years before that, Alexander the Great risked his conquering legacy when he forded the Oxus River on flimsy rafts stitched from his men’s leather tents. And today all around us, Beijing is pouring a trillion dollars into rebuilding a modern Silk Road trade network across Eurasia. How much would I give for a mouthful of water? How old is this Silk Road moment?

The sun sets in a chrome sky. Long after midnight an iota of light winks into existence in the matte darkness of the Qizilqum. It begins to circle us, first close, then far, then close again. A taunting lodestar. “Our rescue car is lost,” Khalmuradov rasps. He waves his headlamp frantically at the light. But I know better. I keep my cotton-dry mouth shut. It’s jinn.

A few useful addenda to some standard Silk Road myths:

It wasn’t a road.

Less a highway, it was a diffuse web, a shifting skein of thousands of camel trails, mountain-pass bottlenecks, turreted caravansaries, river bazaars, seaports, and lonely desert cairns (spaced eyeshot apart for navigation) that bound together the two great economic centers of the classical world, Han China and the Roman Mediterranean. At its geographic crossroads in Central Asia, where kingdoms of middlemen grew rich, the Silk Road’s goods flowed radially in all directions. North to the Russian principalities. South to Persia and the Indus. West to Constantinople. East to Xian. This network of commerce linked tens of millions of lives as far away as Africa and Southeast Asia. The Silk Road wasn’t a camel rut worn in the steppe. It was an idea: the prototype for globalization.

Larger-than-life murals of historical Kazakh political figures adorn apartment buildings in Aqtau, on the shore of the Caspian Sea. From left to right: Ablai Khan, Tole Biy, Kazybek Biy.
Larger-than-life murals of historical Kazakh political figures adorn apartment buildings in Aqtau, on the shore of the Caspian Sea. From left to right: Ablai Khan, Tole Biy, Kazybek Biy.

Silk was only its brand.

A thousand and one other products swayed on camelback along the Silk Road’s sprawling distribution system. Chinese gunpowder. Venetian glass. Samarqand paper. Snow leopard skins. Porcelain. Levantine gold. Exotic animals. (A khan of Khiwa once ordered two water buffalo from Persia to be goaded across the Central Asian deserts to his walled city.) And of course God: Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam each coursed along the Silk Road. So did revolutionary innovations such as algebra. So did the bubonic plague. (Scholars think the Black Death first infected Europe at the siege of Kaffa; Mongols catapulted the poxed corpses of their own soldiers over the walls of the Crimean city.) Still it is mostly the silk we remember: an ethereal fabric that ripples like moonlight on water. This Chinese invention so entranced Roman elites that they nearly bankrupted their empire to buy it. Some things never change.

There is little truly “old” about the old Silk Road.

Today Muslim Central Asia—the main backdrop of Silk Road history—may seem like a forgotten backwater in the current of global news. Lightly populated, underdeveloped, and mostly authoritarian, the former Soviet republics that straddle the Silk Road’s antique caravan trails—Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan—attract little outside attention. Their visitors are nostalgia tourists, romantics drawn to Silk Road glories that faded before Columbus. But this musty reputation is deceptive. Just as powerful empires fought for control of the Silk Road’s riches centuries ago, Asia’s fulcrum remains a cockpit of 21st-century geopolitics. The United States, China, and Russia each jockey for their interests in the strategic region: fighting Islamic terrorism, opening lucrative trade corridors, tapping energy reserves.

As for jinn, they have bewitched landscapes of Central Asia since before silk was spun. In Islamic tradition, angels were created from light, humans from clay, and jinn from smokeless fire. Jinn have their own kings, towns, and caravans. They are invisible until they aren’t. They don’t like iron. They squat in empty houses. (Don’t sleep there.) A few have converted to Islam and are peaceable, but most wish us harm. If you encounter a strange herder on the steppe, look down: If his feet are on backward, he’s a jinni.

My walk across Central Asia starts at the Caspian port of Aqtau, Kazakhstan. Two improbable guides join me. Daulet Begendikov, a former Kazakh judge, fires a starting pistol at the stars every night to ward off steppe wolves (and jinn). Talgat Omarov, a halal butcher–shop owner, is so devout he refuses to be photographed. He hides behind the packhorse whenever I finger a camera. (Conservative interpretations of the Quran prohibit graven images.)

In May the Kazakh steppe is distilled to a diptych: a band of chlorophyll seamed against a sky of lapis. We wade leglessly from sunup to sundown through a pale green mist. This is a half million square miles of ripening grass. We rake our opened fingers through its shining seed stalks. Wild stallions charge our tired cargo animal. We peer into our useless mobile phones, hoping for messages of love. And from day one we begin bumping into the Silk Road’s new silk: hydrocarbons.

Kazakhstan is the world’s 15th largest crude oil producer and a major supplier of natural gas. Thousands of miles of pipelines craze its western grasslands. These steel conduits cannot be crossed. So they offer our shambling caravan a binary choice: turn left or turn right. In this way, pivoting at sharp angles, we are eventually funneled toward the eerily unattended pumps, well pads, collecting stations, and gas flares of an automated oil field.

The brief history of the Karakuduk oil patch describes in miniature the economic future of Central Asia.

Explored and developed after the fall of the Soviet Union by the American firm Chaparral Resources, the prospect—surreally remote, an industrial complex marooned in an ocean of grass—was acquired by Lukoil, the Russian oil giant, before ending up in the hands of the Chinese company Sinopec. Washington may have troops in Afghanistan, and Moscow may be hoping to reaffirm its grip on the region with its Eurasian Economic Union. But it is China, the original Silk Road engine, that is emerging as the ultimate power broker in Central Asia. Oil fields aside, Beijing is investing in the largest infrastructure project in the world—the Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to build ports, railways, superhighways, and telecommunications systems uniting a colossal Old World consumer market touching 60 countries. The new Silk Road is Chinese.

“How did you get here?” asks a Mr. Liu, the startled Sinopec boss in the oil field’s control room. “And would you like tea?”

But Mr. Liu is not thinking about tea. Nor is he concerned with how much chicken loaf, mashed potatoes, plum juice, and apple cake is being consumed by the three filthy wild men who have invaded his canteen. (For me the micro-lawns and containerized buildings at Karakuduk shimmer like Coleridge’s fantasy khanate of Xanadu: Its hot showers and air-conditioning are “a miracle of rare device, / A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!”) No. Mr. Liu is worried about safety. We have somehow breached the oil field’s 10-mile-wide security core without tripping elaborate rings of motion sensors.

A company guard escorts us politely off the property. He stands beside his car for a long time, staring us back into the glistening Kazakh plain. Cumulonimbi are dragging their purple skirts of rain through a yellow sunset.

To the overalled inmates of Karakuduk, we are jinn.

Marco Polo gets star treatment. But many others walked the old Silk Road.

Ibn Battuta, the tireless Arab traveler, spent three decades roaming the East from Morocco along branches of the trade route. Hindu warriors attacked him in India. He survived, though stripped of his fine robes.

Xuanzang, a seventh-century Chinese Buddhist monk, walked thousands of miles of the Silk Road, crossing the Hindu Kush where few modern climbers dare. He noted the vibrant multiethnicity of its market cities, such as Kashgar, where he spotted people with “blue eyes” and “yellow hair,” perhaps Sogdians. The Iranian-stock Sogdians were the ultimate deal closers of the Silk Road. Sogdian mothers spooned sugar into their babies’ mouths to sweeten their tongues for future bazaar haggling.

Then there is the American archaeologist Langdon Warner. In 1904 as a swashbuckling Harvard graduate, he left a dig in Turkmenistan and bluffed his way through Russian-controlled Central Asia, carrying in his saddlebags only “a change of underclothing, a toothbrush, and a revolver.” As an adviser to the U.S. Army during World War II, Warner is credited with persuading the U.S. military not to firebomb ancient Japanese cities like Kyoto. That claim has been challenged. So has the idea that he partly inspired the film character Indiana Jones.

We plod on.

The sun melts a white hole in the sky. The summer steppe is sweltering. Cloudless. Windless. We create our own paltry wind by walking.

To a remote Kazakh village: An inventive woman named Adiana Mairambayeva mixes her koumiss—the nomad elixir of fermented mare’s milk—in a shiny Chinese washing machine.

To countless chaikhanas: The mom-and-pop teahouses are dropped like dusty boots beside a new Silk Road highway roved by truckers from Turkey and Iran.

To a border checkpoint goodbye: A man with a gun there barely glances at my visa and doesn’t touch my rucksack but growls menacingly, “Are you carrying any religious literature? A Quran?”

Uzbekistan’s police state is a fortress against jihadism in Central Asia. Its ABCD-arium of security agencies patrols against men with Islamic beards and assigns spies to every mosque. Its religious paranoia is notorious. But the neighborhood is tough. Afghanistan rumbles next door, attracting Uzbek recruits to fight alongside the Taliban. Uzbek fighters have flocked to the Islamic State in faraway Syria. And even while walking in relatively placid Kazakhstan, I hear rumors of evil jinn influencing human affairs: Islamist militants attacking a national guard base and gun shops to seize weapons in the name of divine revolution.

The paradox of Islamic extremism today is that the historical caliphate that jihadists so desperately wish to resurrect would likely repel them. At the height of its power in the Middle Ages, the Muslim world flourished precisely because it wasn’t fundamentalist—it was tolerant, open, inquiring. The freewheeling and polyglot spirit of the Silk Road was one key to this. “Central Asia was a major center of learning at that time,” says Shakhzukhmilzzo Ismailov, a historian at the Khorezm Mamun Academy museum in Uzbekistan. “We produced many world-class scientists.”

Surrounded by gift-giving friends and relatives, five-year-old Beknur Bakhtiarov has just undergone a traditional circumcision at his home in Khiwa, Uzbekistan. The day began with a formal community gathering and ended with a party.
Surrounded by gift-giving friends and relatives, five-year-old Beknur Bakhtiarov has just undergone a traditional circumcision at his home in Khiwa, Uzbekistan. The day began with a formal community gathering and ended with a party.

I meet Ismailov after trekking a lonely rail line for 24 days across the desolate Ustyurt Plateau to Khiwa.


If this name conjures anything for outsiders, it is not cosmopolitanism, scholarship, or broad-mindedness. Instead the city evokes the slow decline of the fabulous Silk Road world, when European shipping broke the monopolies of Central Asian traders, dooming oasis stops like Khiwa to exotic backwardness. By the early 19th century the mud-walled outpost had decayed back into medieval stasis. British and Russian secret agents jockeyed for favor with its xenophobic, head-chopping khans in a colonial struggle for dominance in Central Asia called the Great Game.

But my interest in the region stretches back earlier—to a period spanning the eighth to 15th centuries. At that time Silk Road entrepôts in Uzbekistan such as Khiwa, Buxoro, and Samarqand rivaled or even outstripped Europe in intellectual achievement. This was the Arab Golden Age of science, art, and culture, when Baghdad hosted an influx of sages from the far-eastern rim of the caliphate—from what are today the “stans” of Central Asia and parts of Iran.

One Silk Road genius, Al-Khwarizmi—the word “algorithm” is a Latin garbling of his name—helped invent algebra. He calculated the length of the Mediterranean (correcting Ptolemy). The Central Asian polymath Al-Biruni wrote more than a hundred books, among them a detailed anthropology of India and a study titled The Exhaustive Treatise on Shadows. (Al-Biruni observed that jinn were “the impure parts of the erring souls, after they have been separated from their bodies, who [the souls] are prevented from reaching their primal origin, because they did not find the knowledge of the truth, but were living in confusion and stupefaction.” Which sounds plausible to me.)

The Silk Road’s noisy bazaars of alien products and ideas—Renaissance European, ancient Greek, Indian, Persian, Chinese—stoked this intellectual explosion. So did a new school of religious thought called Mutazilism, which injected rationalism and logic into Islamic religious doctrine, fanning scientific inquiry. “There were practical reasons too,” Gavkhar Jurdieva, an architect in Khiwa, tells me. “To survive in this desert you need farming. And to farm, you need to understand irrigation, and that requires engineering. We used math to feed ourselves.”

Ultimately it couldn’t hold. Weakened by dynastic struggles, the caliphate began to crack at the edges. A purifying movement called Asharism took root against “outside elements” of thought: This smothered most fields of scholarly research beyond religious study. The Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258. The light of a gilded era blinked out.

Busloads of tourists now ogle Khiwa’s relict palaces, madrassas, minarets. The Uzbek government has bottled the Silk Road’s faded glories into an open-air museum. I park two cargo donkeys in a nearby village. I sit sunburned and lip cracked in a posh café. The cappuccino machine hisses like jinn. Sipping its magic, I think about how few people in the world today know how a light bulb works. About the willful ignorance behind climate change denial. About the closing of the public imagination in the West and the resurgence of populism, of tribal nativism. It is an instructive time to be rambling the Silk Road. I imagine the marble lions outside the New York Public Library preserved one day as artifacts under glass, much like Khiwa.

Kublai Khan to Marco Polo: Is what you see always behind you? … Does your journey take place only in the past?
Narrator: Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches.
—From Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities

I am stopped by police 34 times while walking the hinterlands of authoritarian Uzbekistan.

Along the steamy Amu Darya—the modern name for the Oxus River—villagers sometimes turn my micro-caravan away from their doorways, apricot orchards, melon fields. They apologize: They want no problems with the security forces. Most surrender to their natural hospitality as I walk away. They send out their children with armfuls of non—disks of warm, delicious, mud-oven-baked bread.

I once asked a Kazakh wolf hunter, Karim Junelbekov, what to do if approached by jinn on the Silk Road. “No matter what it does, no matter how frightening it is, don’t panic or show emotion,” Junelbekov said. “Just sit down on a rock and wait. It will lose interest. It will go away.” This seems good advice in cultures of fear everywhere.

The planet creaks underfoot, carrying me forever east, toward sunrise.

I circumvent the dying Aral Sea, depleted in Soviet times for “white gold”—cotton. I walk past the last traditional papermaking mill in Turkic conqueror Tamerlane’s capital, Samarqand. (The earliest evidence of paper in Central Asia dates to the fourth century. It consists of a bundle of letters a wife wrote to her wandering husband, perhaps a trader. “I would rather be a dog’s or a pig’s wife than yours,” she wrote. It appears that the 1,700-year-old Dear John note was never sent.) And in November 2016 I climb an outlier of the Tian Shan range and roll through blowing snow into the Fergana Valley, into Margilon.

Margilon: the only silkmaking town remaining in Uzbekistan.

“We must find the loose ends and unravel them,” says Inoyatkhan Okhunova, a grandmotherly silkmaker who has worked for more than 30 years at the Yodgorlik silk mill. “It is best not to break them. This takes practice.”

Okhunova is referring to the thousands of moth cocoons that are unspooled one arm’s length at a time in large, dented tin basins of soapy water. The miracle of silk comes from fibers spun by the caterpillar of Bombyx mori, a sightless, flightless, hairy insect. Each cocoon holds roughly half a mile of filament that is about .00039 inch in diameter. Such is the fragility of the lustrous thread that bankrupted Rome. That built thousands of caravansaries across Central Asia, where traders sipped clean water from faucets while London’s unwashed citizens waded through ankle-deep slops. That once bound the world together: east and west, north and south. No jinni’s sorcery is more powerful than this.

The Fergana sky is waxy, overcast, and cold. The sun hangs dully in it, a pale cocoon. On the frozen road ahead strides Tolik Bekniyazov, my lanky donkey driver. A taciturn nomad. At some old trailside camp he noticed me squinting with book-ruined eyes, toiling to spear a licked thread through the eye of a needle, perhaps while mending my coat. Soon we will part ways at a new border. I will discover many days later, shaking my head in wonder, that he has threaded and knotted every needle in my sewing kit.

We are all weavers. This is the only lasting lesson of the Silk Road.

Society Grant Your National Geographic Society membership helps fund the Out of Eden Walk project.
Discover the Silk Road’s ancient roots at natgeo.com/history/silk-road.

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