THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JAMES A. BONDOUX

THE SILK ROAD BY RAIL

The sand dunes

The sand dunes of the Takla Makan desert.

the grottoes

Some of the Longmen Buddhist grottoes along the Yi River.

Merv

Fluted Wall in the Lost City of Merv.

Mausoleum Row

Shahr-I-Zindah: The Avenue of Mausoleums in Samarkand.

Nisa

Excavated buildings in the Lost City of Nisa.

Turkmen

An older Turkmen.

Stalingrad Monument

Changing of the Guard at the Battle of Stalingrad Monument.

Grape arbor

The grapevines in Turfan provide shade throughout the city.

TerraCotta

Checking the mustaches of the Terra Cotta warriors, close and personal.

Jiaoghe

The garrison at Jiaoghe is thought to have abandoned the premises when the Mongols were headed their way.

Mausoleum

Intricate brickwork on the stunning Samanid Mausoleum in Bukhara.

Bokara's Wall

The fortress of the emirs of Bukhara, reknown for their cruelty and corrupt ways.

Khiva busybody

Uzbek attendant minding the monuments of Khiva.

street friends in Khiva

Kathryn is always a magnet for kids. It was no different in Khiva, Uzbekistan.

"These are the sweetest raisins I've ever tasted!" We had bought a pound bag of assorted raisins in the market outside the wall of the Emin Minaret in Turfan. Turfan is the hottest city in China, centered in the Turfan Depression, below sea level, and claims to be further away from the ocean than any other place on earth. We are definitely Lost Cruisers!

The main streets of Turfan are shaded by grapevine treillises, irrigated via a system of underground canals tapping the water in distant mountains. Hence the grapes, and the raisins which are dried in special structures in the furnace-like heat.

This was a few days into our exploration by by private train of the old Silk Road. We started in Beijing, and ended in Moscow, riding the rails for 16 days and nights, covering more than 7,000 miles. The rail line follows the ancient Silk Road, starting in the city of Xian, and crossing a series of most inhospitable deserts.

Map

Route Map: 7,100 Miles by rail.

First was the Gobi, and then the totally parched Takla Makan (called the desert of "irrevocable death"), on through the Dzungarian Gap through which the Mongol hordes erupted into inner Asia. From there we clackety-clacked onto the very, very old city of Samarkand, then across the Kyzyl Kum desert, to the walled oases of Bokhara and Khiva, and then across the vast Kara Kum desert.

We parted from the Silk Road at the Caspian Sea to head north to Volgograd, Moscow, and home.

The Silk Road meanders all the way to Europe, and for a thousand years carried fabled caravans of camels loaded with silk, jade, ceramics, spices, gold, ivory, lacquer, precious stones and just about any commodity with a high value-to-weight ratio. This was also the path through which Buddhism, and then Islam, spread throughout Asia.

The traders had to contend not only with the threatening natural elements, but also with bandits. We had no such concerns: the weather in October is fairly balanced, the trains are air-conditioned, and law and order seems to prevail pretty much everywhere.

Astounding achitectural wonders appeared at every stop along the way, including lost cities in the desert, hundreds of Buddhist shrines in caves, mausoleums, minarets, madrassas, mosques, and an oil-financed imitation of Las Vegas in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, a stone's throw from the border with Iran.

Tom and Peggy Simons

Tom and Peggy Simons checking the history of the Buddhist cave shrines.

Tom Simons, former US Ambassador to Pakistan, led out group and illuminated the trip with history lectures covering ancient China, the Silk Road, the development of Islam, the Great Game as it evolved between Britain and Russia during the 19th century, and current geopolitics in the countries we crossed (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, in addtion to China and Russia).

We were fortunate to enjoy twinned compartments on the China Orient Express, although the ergonomics are tailored to Asian physiques and definitely short on what we consider "vital space". Our accommodations on the Russian Silk Road Express were most comfortable and up-to-date, as the cars were borrowed from the Trans-Siberian Railway.

At the end of the trip, We were really, really ready to come home, as the wall-to-wall sightseeing program, the lecture series, the constant motion at night, and a wide sampling of cuisines challaenged both our stamina and our digestive tracts.