In the wilds of Central Asia, the pleasures of the former Russian consulate in Kashgar can hardly be overstated. 

A century ago the old consulate was one of the stages of the Great Game, as the Russians and the British vied for influence in Chinese Turkestan. In those glamorous days, servants were double agents, houseguests were presumed to be spies, and dinner parties, much enlivened by Russian vodka, were peppered with assassinations.

These days the consulate has settled into a sedate retirement as a ramshackle hotel, unaccountably called the Hotel Semen. Service might not be what it was in the heyday of Colonel Petrovsky, the 19th-century Russian agent and “militant Anglophobe”, but the atmosphere is marvellously Chekhovian. Birch trees line the drive. Samovars steam in the lobby. Red velvet curtains hang over the doorways, giving arrivals and departures a sense of theatre. Most splendid of all is the Colonel’s bath, a colossal edifice where weary travellers can soak away the dust of the Silk Road.

I had been following the Silk Road out of China, from Xian into the great western region of Xinjiang or Chinese Turkestan. The Chinese do not share the Western attachment to what Freya Stark called “the oldest, the longest, the most romantic of all the chequered streams of trade”. For them the road to the west is a melancholy journey beyond the comforting embrace of the Great Wall, a passage from order into chaos, from light into darkness. Xinjiang is exactly what the Chinese traditionally feared – an untamed region where their ideas of order hold little sway. Across its arid distances the old road follows a string of dusty oases around the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert before coming to Kashgar at the end of China. Its population of Muslim Uighurs, traditionally the middlemen of the Silk Road, are resentful and uneasy under Chinese rule.

When the Roman geographer Ptolemy included Kashgar in his map of the world in the 2nd Century AD, he placed it in the same neighbourhood as Horse-Eating Scyths, Cannibals and Terra Incognita, as if the city was mere speculation, a destination of rumour, somewhere on the outer fringes of the imagination. Centuries on, little had changed. Writing of the town in the late 19th Century, Peter Hopkirk described it as “one of the loneliest and most inaccessible places on Earth”. As late as the 1930s, the 4,000km journey to Beijing was still measured in months.

In this remote region, the nations and mountains of Central Asia collide. To the west the Pamirs shoulder past the Hindu Kush, riding through Afghanistan. To the north the Tian Shan – the Mountains of Heaven – border the republic of Tadjikistan. To the east the Kunlun Shan march out of China and Tibet towards India and the Himalayas. South lie the Karakorams, the colour of thunder, along Pakistan’s borders. One of the great way stations on the Silk Road, Kashgar might seem remote from both China and the lands of the West, but among these mountains the town stands for Civilisation. In its Sunday market, the traditions of the Silk Road are alive and well.

Long before dawn the roads into town were clogged with horse and donkey carts on their way to one of the last of the great Central Asian bazaars. Everyone arrived en famille, unmarried daughters and shrunken grannies riding atop the donkey fodder, among the chickens and the sacks of produce. Young men in a hurry overtook in the fast lane like charioteers. Horsemen and camel riders avoided the crush by riding through other people’s cornfields.

In the alleys of the bazaar everyone was in a good mood and a hat: Uzbeks with flat faces and narrow trilbys; ruddy Kazakhs with utilitarian flat caps; hawk-faced Tadjiks in frock coats and turbans; Uighurs in pretty pillbox hats; Kirghiz booted like storm troopers beneath sheepskin bonnets. In these crowds, the Han Chinese stood out not so much for their lack of swagger as for the lack of a decent hat.

The bazaar offered all of life’s essentials – seed corn, roof rafters, horseshoes, horses, cradles, wardrobes, spittoons, cures for asthma. Lines of dour-faced apothecaries presided over little sacks of mysterious powders and twisted roots. Tailors gave al fresco fittings of marvellous waistcoats. Barbers shaved the heads of bearded patriarchs who then hurried off to admire the latest wares in Hat Alley. Round the corner in the underwear department, women in veils and orthopaedic stockings bargained for pink negligées with daring necklines.

The most sought-after goods in the bazaar were among the most worthless. Pakistani traders were selling cheap costume jewellery, and the fever of the local women for these baubles was a thing to behold. They fought to get their hands on them, almost tearing the traders limb from limb. It was common to see the Pakistanis pursued through the bazaar by gangs of veiled women.

I found one hiding in the timber yard. “Business is brisk,” I said. He shrugged. “What is common in one place becomes a great rarity in another.” Marco Polo couldn’t have put it better. It might have been the motto of the Silk Road.

The Pakistani traders were the direct heirs of Marco Polo, the end of the great tradition – commercial travellers on the Silk Road. Carrying amorphous sacks, they passed back and forth over the heights of the Karakoram, along routes known to generations of Silk Road travellers, to trade in the remote oasis towns of Xinjiang. They came and went on the twice-weekly bus that ran between Kashgar and Sust in Pakistan.

I am usually as itinerant as these traders, but during my stay in Kashgar, there was a moment when the charm of settled life suddenly undermined the lure of the road. It was autumn in the wide oasis of Kashgaria, and in those weeks the great mountains were hidden behind veils of haze. I cycled into the surrounding countryside. In the yellow fields women were winnowing while children bundled and stacked the sheaves of maize. A man rattled past in a donkey cart, one hand holding the reins, the other holding a tiny baby. I envied him. In the late afternoons, as the last light filtered through the trees and the last figures herded sheep homeward, I envied them all, their attachment to these fields, their sense of belonging.  

Then one day the haze lifted and I saw the Pamirs for the first time. I was smitten. They bestrode the southern horizons, snow-capped and voluptuous and spectacular. I forgot immediately about the little cottages on the edge of the fields, the smiling girls in their headscarves. The mountains were calling.  

I hustled along to the booking office and bought a ticket for the last charabanc on the Silk Road.

The bus to Pakistan follows the Karakoram Highway south over the mountain passes. The road took 20 years to build, and is said to have claimed one life for every mile of its 810-mile length. Completed in 1979, it was one of the great engineering feats of the age, crossing some of the most difficult mountain terrain on Earth.

From Kashgar it followed the valley of the Ghez into the mountains. Meandering in a wilderness of boulders, the river was stone-coloured. Scarred foothills converged on the floodplain where villages were marked by the yellow blaze of poplars. We stopped for lunch at Upal, where a travelling magician was sticking skewers up his nose and swallowing golf balls before an enraptured audience.

By late afternoon the valley had narrowed dramatically. Nibbling at the edges of the asphalt, the river pressed the road against red cliffs so that at times the rock faces seemed to scrape the windows. When the sun went off the road, temperatures plummeted, and we felt ourselves in the grip of a bleaker, colder world.

Later we emerged in a high, wide valley, monochrome, treeless and silent. An ashen river pooled in slate-coloured lakes. Charcoal clouds were piling above the mountain summits to the south. Few people live in these remote valleys; those that do – Kirghiz and Tadjik nomads – are forever on the move, migrating with the seasons. Marco Polo described them as “out and out bad.”

I had decided to spend a few days among these degenerates at Karakol, a remote lake in the lap of the Pamirs where I had heard one could rent a yurt. I arrived at twilight. The bus stopped and I got down into a biting wind. The Pakistanis pleaded with me to stay on the bus. “You can’t sleep here,” they cried, peering out through the grimy windows at the empty, darkening landscapes. “Come to Pakistan.” I waved goodbye and the bus bumped away, its taillights winking a farewell as it disappeared beyond the shoulder of the snow-capped Mount Muztagh.

On the shores of the lake, I found three bedraggled yurts, a kind of primitive motel, waiting for guests. Finding no one about, I let myself into one of them, ate a dinner of instant noodles and brandy, then settled onto a cot under five quilts. I tried to read but the wind crept under the skirts of the yurt and blew my candle out. I tried to sleep but the cold kept me awake. I got up and put on another sweater, a coat and a pair of gloves, then dragged the carpet off the floor and flung it over my quilts. Marco Polo had slept at Karakul, en route to Cathay. He too had complained of the cold and the capricious winds.

In the morning a Kirghiz horsemen appeared outside my yurt, materialising from the early mists to invite me to a wedding. He wore a splendid silver hat, like an upturned jelly mould, and carried a shotgun over his shoulder. “Come anytime,” he barked. “The festivities last three days.”

I was delighted to accept. My social calendar in the Chinese Pamirs was still relatively empty.

In the afternoon, I dug a hat out the depths of my pack, by way of formal attire, and I set off for the wedding. It was in a summer encampment on the far side of the lake beyond wild pastures littered with camels, yaks, sheep and water courses.

On the way I passed three amorous donkeys. The love life of donkeys always merits notice. In this ménage à trois there was the usual uncertainty about who was doing what to whom, but once things were in full swing it was a remarkable affair. Two yaks looked on with expressions that probably pass, in the yak world, for unabashed admiration.

On the lakeshore the wedding guests milled about between the yurts in their finest outfits, swapping salutations and gossip. The married women wore silver jewellery, white wimples, and gold teeth. The unmarried women had all turned up in the same outfit – red jackets, crimson skirts, and scarlet headscarves – as happily uniform as a party of stock brokers. The men’s clothes were more eclectic: Mao suits, tweed jackets, and overcoats that would have cut a dash in a Chicago speakeasy were accompanied by colourful silk sashes, tall boots and the spectacular jelly mould hats. Their faces were whiskery and shrewd and dark as walnuts.

An elderly patriarch beckoned me to follow him. A game of buzkashi was underway on a stretch of open ground beyond the yurts. The ancestor of polo, this traditional game of horsemen is played with a dead goat rather than a ball. There are no rules and no teams; it is every man for himself. With their whips in their teeth, the riders try to manoeuvre their mounts through the scrum of horses, leaning down among the stamping hooves to pluck the carcass from the ground. When one succeeds in lifting it, the chase is on. Wild galloping charges sweep back and forth across the plain as riders try to wrest the carcass from one another. Players “score” by dropping the goat into a circle of stones – the goal. Originally the game was played with a dead man, a prisoner of war or someone equally dispensable. Older enthusiasts bemoan the substitution of a goat carcass the way elderly members might decry the one day game in the Long Room at Lords.

Back on the lakeshore the speeches were underway. At Kirghiz weddings they have the novelty of being sung. Flanked by two attendants, the groom was singing his way towards married life – a dirge-like tune – as he slowly approached the bride’s tent surrounded by the wedding party. He was a bit of a heartthrob, tall and bashfully handsome. His cashmere overcoat and tall boots marked him out as a man who was not short of a sheep or two.

It was more difficult to form an opinion of the bride. She emerged from the family yurt under a red blanket like an accused prisoner. Her attendants ushered her forward to stand beside her betrothed while the best man made his peroration from the back of a donkey cart. This was sung as well, with improvised verses about the groom that had the crowds slapping their thighs. When it was over, the bride was hustled away again, still under her blanket. Later someone told me that the groom had paid a bride price of ten camels and twenty goats for his mystery woman, a figure that was considered dangerously inflationary.

Later in one of the yurts I sat in a cross-legged circle with a group of guests eating balls of rancid yak butter. Everyone was in high spirits. Someone asked if we played buzkashi in my country. I tried to explain about polo but they quickly recognised it as a game for wimps. From sport the conversation turned to geopolitics. They were unsure of England’s whereabouts but agreed it must lie somewhere to the north of Kashgar. Did England too belong to China, they wanted to know. I said it didn’t but that parts of China had once belonged to England. An embarrassed silence fell over the yurt. The other guests glanced at each other out of the corner of their eyes. I was clearly a braggart and a fool.

Later, after several bowls of fermented yak’s milk, we staggered outside for the dancing. Night had fallen and constellations floated between ghostly snow peaks. While musicians played three-stringed lutes and whining flutes, men and women danced in segregated lines, their arms round one another’s shoulders. Round midnight antique trucks arrived to carry the revellers home to outlying encampments, their headlights dancing away into the darkness while I made my way back to my cold yurt past the lake brimming with moonlight.

No one at Karakol was sure when the next Pakistan-bound bus was due, but in the stillness of this place I heard it long before it appeared: a distant whine among silent mountains. I packed my bag and trudged up the slope to the road where I flagged it down as it came into view. Karakol was the last request stop in the Chinese Pamirs.

It took another two days to Pakistan. We spent a night at Tashkurgan on the Chinese side of the pass. Ptolemy rightly identified the town as the gateway to Seres, the Land of Silk. It was a ramshackle sort of place that can’t have changed much in the intervening centuries. Tea houses and blacksmiths lined the single street. Horses were hitched to the telephone poles and the suburbs were tents. The population, chiefly Tadjiks, were watched over by an uneasy Chinese garrison.

Beyond the town we climbed toward the Khunjerab Pass. We passed a caravanserai said to contain the skeletons of an unknown army. The bus startled a herd of yaks who stampeded off the road like sheep as we approached. A caravan of laden camels came down the pass, treading as softly as birds with their big padded feet. Afghanistan lay a few miles to the west. In the vast expanses yurts sheltered here and there in hollows.

The great Asian explorer, Sir Auriel Stein, called the Khunjerab Pass “an excursion for ladies.” Stein must have known some impressive women. Khunjerab means Bloody Valley, which may refer to the Wakhi and Hunza bandits who used to prey on caravans here or to the muleteers’ habit of stabbing the muzzles of their horses with spikes to ease their breathing in this rarefied atmosphere. At the peak of the pass, some 4,733m, the Karakoram Highway becomes one of the highest public roads in the world.

On the far side we tumbled into Pakistan as into a deep well. Heart-stopping switchbacks plummeted downwards between dark cliffs into a gorge cut by the Khunjerab River. I craned my neck at the window, trying in vain to catch a glimpse of the peaks far above us.

At Sust we filed out of the bus to have our passports checked. In the Customs shed a smart officer in pressed flannels, green military sweater and beret greeted me warmly, pumping my hand. “How do you do, sir,” he said. “Delighted to see you.’”

I had crossed one of Asia’s great frontiers, from the wide Pamir of western China to the deep valleys of northern Pakistan. It marked a cultural and ethnic shift as profound as the geographical boundary. I had been some months in China. For a European, China always has a strange otherworldliness. The language, the script, the food, the manners, the history – few things bear much resemblance to our world. Now, in the course of a day’s drive, I found myself suddenly among people who spoke immaculate English, had cousins in Birmingham, took milk in their tea and knew all the latest cricket scores.

A week later I was aboard a steam train on a branch railway line from Rawalpindi. I was heading for the ruins of Taxila. Ptolemy had no qualms about this city. He might have placed Kashgar among Cannibals of Terra Incognita, but Taxila appears in his geographies without such reservation. It was already one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, well known to both East and West, and a great way station of the Silk Road. Asoka, the renowned unifier of India, was Viceroy here in the 3rd Century BC. Alexander garrisoned the city with Macedonians. Arrian, Strabo and Plutarch wrote of its beauty and its wealth. St Thomas turned up to preach the gospel, while Chinese pilgrims, following the route that I had taken over the Khunjerab Pass, came looking for Buddhist scriptures. Few cities in Asia so represented the great cultural currents that crossed and re-crossed the continent along the Silk Road.

The ruins now inhabit a swathe of delightful countryside. In lanes of white dust, I met a party of schoolboys, boisterous and good-natured, their wooden writing boards hanging from their belts. At the centre of the group was a blind boy, as alert and as slight as a gazelle. Pushing forward, he seized my hand and without a word led me along the paths, never hesitating in his darkness, to the ruined Buddhist monastery of Mohra Moradu nestling in a gorge between hills, hidden from the wider valley.

Neither barbarian invasions nor the long centuries had disturbed the sense of sanctuary in the old monastery. The lines of grey stone, the birdsong, the stillness, the lengthening shadows were still a refuge. The boy inhabited this place like a reincarnate monk, a sprite flitting between the fallen arches, beneath the vanished porticoes. He vanished into the monks’ cells and reappeared around one of the stupas, running his hand over the carved figures that have made this place so famous.

Taxila was part of the Gandharan kingdom, which flourished from the 1st to the 5th Centuries AD. It was a rare city that belonged to both ends of the Silk Road. Its cultural influences, its religious establishments, even its political mechanisms were a remarkable amalgam of Eastern and Western traditions carried here along trade routes from Greece, Persia, Syria, India and China. Taxila is the place where the twain of East and West did actually meet. The treasures that have been excavated here – like the carved stone figures that were entrancing the boy – are emblematic of this union. Buddhas are portrayed with Western features, their bodies draped in classical robes. Hellenistic themes and figures mix easily Eastern motifs. Much sought-after by collectors and museums, these pieces are the Silk Road in stone.  

Taxila was already in ruins when Marco Polo passed this way. His Chinese equivalent, the indomitable Xuan Zhang, who arrived here from the other end of the Silk Road in the 7th Century, mourned the destruction wrought by the White Huns. Zhang’s journey to the west, along what Europeans called the Silk Road, tells us much about Chinese attitudes.

Europeans braved the distances of Asia for commercial reasons. They wanted to trade; they were entranced by Eastern goods and commodities; the heroes of our Silk Road were salesmen. The Chinese, feeling themselves more or less self-sufficient in material matters, had less interest in commerce. There was certainly nothing in Europe or the Middle East that would merit an 13,000km round-trip. Few Chinese ventured westward along the Silk Road and those that did, like Zhang, had very different motives.

I had seen a portrait of Zhang in a pagoda in Xian, the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, more than 3,220km to the east. Carved in grey stone, the great Chinese traveller looked like the kind of chap who would have difficulty running to catch a bus. He had the flabby face and pot belly one might expect of a court eunuch, and wore a rather fetching frock as well as an antique backpack – presumably another early Chinese invention. From an overhang above his head, a small lantern was suspended to light his way.

Religion prompted Zhang’s journey to Taxila. Buddhism had flowed along the Silk Road and taken root in China. But religious studies there had been much handicapped by confusion about texts, as meanings and translations had, over the course of centuries, suffered from a kind of Chinese whispers. So Zhang, an ardent Buddhist, had set off along what we know as the Silk Road, to purchase original texts to bring them home for careful translation. Eventually he would return to China with a caravan of 22 laden horses.

I love Zhang, the plump monk. He is my hero of the Silk Road. He had come the way I had, from Xian, 1,600km westward down the Gansu corridor between the wastes of the Gobi and the cold heights of the Qilian Shan. Then he had trudged from oasis to oasis round the Taklamakan Desert to Kashgar. He had too had slept at Karakol and crossed the Karakoram, without the benefit of a Pakistani bus. I felt an affinity with Zhang. His business was mine: words. He had crossed half of Asia, not for gold or for conquest, not for trade or for empire, but to buy several crates of second-hand books.