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Testing Boundaries On The Silk Road

Sabina Fati spent eleven weeks reporting from the Silk Road for her travel blog published by RFE/RL's Moldovan Service.
Sabina Fati spent eleven weeks reporting from the Silk Road for her travel blog published by RFE/RL's Moldovan Service.

Moldovan journalist Sabina Fati had long dreamed of experiencing the rich and vibrant history of the Silk Road for herself. This summer, that dream became a reality. With support from RFE/RL and The German Marshall Fund’s Black Sea Trust, she embarked on an eleven-week journey this May, trekking from the Black Sea through Azerbaijan, Iran, across Central Asia and on the fringes of the Gobi desert. She wrote a series of blogs for RFE/RL’s Moldovan Service. Here is one excerpt from her series.

Throughout Central Asia, the roads between countries are tough, unfriendly and are not served by buses or trains. I had to negotiate with the locals continually. In effect, they replace public transport and, in a clandestine way, keep the small traffic of the Silk Road alive. Hidden behind them, however, are the dangerous routes of drugs and weapons trafficking.

Along the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, on the Panj River, I saw how you could cross from one side to the other without any fear of border guards, who were almost totally absent. The only obstacle in the way of the traffickers is the Pamir Mountains. The trails on the Afghan side can be followed only with the help of beasts of burden, but they have served as a connecting link for hundreds of years. It’s much the same between Afghanistan and Iran, where the 900-km border runs along the middle of a desert, and is impossible to monitor.

Many of the countries I travelled across were, and had been, locked in unending disputes with their neighbors, and had cut themselves off from the Western world. I found that they cherished their isolation, and harbored no unrealistic dreams. Their leaders had long forgotten the wealth of the cities on this route, which had linked Europe to Asia, the Mediterranean to the Yellow Sea, Rome to Chang’an (today’s Xi’an), and Greece to Iran since ancient times.

Not all the borders were easy to cross. Sometimes, this was because of altitudes of over three or four thousand meters--between China to Kyrgyzstan over the Torugart Pass of 3,700 meters, or between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over the Kyzyl Art Pass 4,300 meters high--and sometimes because of the policies of self-isolation applied deliberately and systematically, like in Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan.

On my 80-day journey, I tried not only to understand the places I passed through, but also to test the borders to see to what extent the New Silk Roads, designed in the offices of the superpowers, might become a reality. These “roads” would pass through states with authoritarian regimes controlled by heavy-handed rulers who despise Western democracies, even if they sometimes chase Western money.

Can the Silk Roads be rebuilt as Hillary Clinton envisaged in 2011, as part of a new U.S. strategy for central Asia? Or in a version worked out by Beijing? Would such designs be viable on the ground? Or would the obstacles--not just the diplomatic or bureaucratic challenges--be too complex to overcome?

These questions are being deliberated by the United States, by China, and by Russia, as they maneuver towards increasing their own strategic influence in the region. Their moves are being monitored by Turkey and Iran, whose roles as masters of the Silk Road alternated throughout history.

As I was making my way from one stop to the next, travelling with my rucksack on my back, I focused on gathering information, experience, impressions and insight. I was taking notes all the way in the hope that, once back home, I would have the distance and time to reflect in depth on the journey.

I dedicate my blog to all those who made my journey possible, especially to the women who helped me with ideas and advice, to those who unfailingly supported me on my complicated journey, to those I met along the way, and to everyone who has been so extremely generous to me.

--Sabina Fati