Kyrgyzstan Кыргызстан7

Tash Rabat Таш Рабат

In this remote valley in eastern Kyrgyzstan, not far from the border with China, lie the remains of a 15th century caravanserai called Tash Rabat. Caravanserais were hostels where travellers and traders would rest, recuperate, wash, pray, tend to their horses and camels, and share news and gossip before continuing along the old Silk Road. What makes this caravanserai unique is its isolated location.

The lonely caravanserai at Tash Rabat

In a remote valley of Naryn province in eastern Kyrgyzstan, not far from the border with China, you can find the remains of a 15th century caravanserai called Tash Rabat.

Caravanserai were where travellers and traders would rest, recuperate, wash, pray, tend to their horses and camels, share news and gossip before continuing along the old Silk Road; the network of trading routes that connected China to the Roman Empire from the 2nd century BC to around the 1500s.

What makes this caravanserai unique is how isolated it is. Usually, caravanserai were built at 30km intervals – a day’s journey – but Tash Rabat is in the middle of nowhere. The nearest town, Naryn, is 115km away; a 2.5 hour drive. Perhaps there were other caravanserai on the way that have since disappeared.

For travellers from China, Tash Rabat would have provided an opportunity to rest after crossing the treacherous Torugart Pass before taking on the next leg of the journey through the Tian Shan Mountains.

Today, Tash Rabat is a popular destination for tourists. Caretakers and their horses live in the nearby yurts. If you have the time, it is well worth a visit.

Tash Rabat is located in a remote valley in Kyrgyzstan miles away from the nearest town, Naryn. To reach it you have to take this road.
Then turn off onto this rocky road to reach the mountain valleys
And eventually the caravanserai comes into view
A view of Tash Rabat from the other direction
Horses belonging to the nearby villagers galloping through the mountains
Running free and wild
Almost taking off!
A nearby village of yurts
Getting closer to the caravanserai
And now much closer
Some nearby yurts and cow by a stream
The front of the caravanserai
Another view of the caravanserai which looks like something from Tataouine in Star Wars (and Tunisia where it was filmed)
Walking to the entrance
A nearby horse with some yurts in the background
A portrait of my driver
A nearby farmer with his cattle
A boy running after his cattle nearby to Tash Rabat
A graveyard nearby to Tash Rabat

Tash Rabat Таш Рабат

Usually, caravanserais were built a day’s journey from each other, but Tash Rabat is in the middle of nowhere. The nearest town, Naryn, is 115km away — a 2.5 hour drive. Perhaps there were other caravanserais on the way that have since disappeared. For travellers heading west from China, Tash Rabat would have provided an opportunity to rest after crossing the treacherous Torugart Pass before the next leg of the journey through the Tian Shan Mountains.

The lonely caravanserai at Tash Rabat

In a remote valley of Naryn province in eastern Kyrgyzstan, not far from the border with China, you can find the remains of a 15th century caravanserai called Tash Rabat.

Caravanserai were where travellers and traders would rest, recuperate, wash, pray, tend to their horses and camels, share news and gossip before continuing along the old Silk Road; the network of trading routes that connected China to the Roman Empire from the 2nd century BC to around the 1500s.

What makes this caravanserai unique is how isolated it is. Usually, caravanserai were built at 30km intervals – a day’s journey – but Tash Rabat is in the middle of nowhere. The nearest town, Naryn, is 115km away; a 2.5 hour drive. Perhaps there were other caravanserai on the way that have since disappeared.

For travellers from China, Tash Rabat would have provided an opportunity to rest after crossing the treacherous Torugart Pass before taking on the next leg of the journey through the Tian Shan Mountains.

Today, Tash Rabat is a popular destination for tourists. Caretakers and their horses live in the nearby yurts. If you have the time, it is well worth a visit.

Tash Rabat is located in a remote valley in Kyrgyzstan miles away from the nearest town, Naryn. To reach it you have to take this road.
Then turn off onto this rocky road to reach the mountain valleys
And eventually the caravanserai comes into view
A view of Tash Rabat from the other direction
Horses belonging to the nearby villagers galloping through the mountains
Running free and wild
Almost taking off!
A nearby village of yurts
Getting closer to the caravanserai
And now much closer
Some nearby yurts and cow by a stream
The front of the caravanserai
Another view of the caravanserai which looks like something from Tataouine in Star Wars (and Tunisia where it was filmed)
Walking to the entrance
A nearby horse with some yurts in the background
A portrait of my driver
A nearby farmer with his cattle
A boy running after his cattle nearby to Tash Rabat
A graveyard nearby to Tash Rabat

Naryn Нарын

Nestled in the Tien Shan mountains, some 200km from the Chinese border, is the remote town of Naryn. Here you can find a most unexpected sight; one of the three state-of-the-art campuses that make up the University of Central Asia. UCA was founded in 2000 by the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan in partnership with the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN).

Kyrgyzstan Кыргызстан7

UCA’s mission is to help develop the region’s future leaders, promote its social and economic development and enable its communities to preserve their rich cultural heritage as assets for the future. All three campuses are located along the old Silk Road.

Kyrgyzstan Кыргызстан7

Agencies of the AKDN work across Kyrgyzstan to improve agricultural practices in the face of climate change; provide high quality healthcare; ensure children have the best possible start to life through a network of early childhood development centres.

Naryn Нарын

AKDN agencies also work to support entrepreneurs such as florists and fashion designers get their businesses off the ground; provide financial services; improve access to potable water; and help raise the quality of primary and secondary education.

Son Kul Сон Кул

Son Kul, a lake at the centre of an enormous plateau atop the Tien Shan mountain range. Thousands of horses, sheep, cows, yak and camel graze here. They belong to the semi-nomadic communities who bring them here during the summer months.

The lost world of Son Kul

At the heart of Central Asia, sandwiched between Kazakhstan, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan lies the mountainous, landlocked and sparsely populated country of Kyrgyzstan.

It is a nation of vast, gentle and sweeping valleys and appears, in places, still a land before time.

The sense of space, under the huge dome of the blue sky, is profound and almost spiritual. I’ve visited very few places on earth that feel like genuine wildernesses, this is one of them.

Nowhere was this more keenly felt than at Son Kul, a lake at the centre of an enormous plateau atop the Tien Shan mountain range. To reach it you must drive about two hours south from the growing university town of Naryn and then up winding roads into the mountains.

Eventually the road flattens out and the shimmering blue lake of Son Kul appears over the horizon. Thousands of horses, sheep, cows, yak and even camel dot the landscape. They are herded by men on horses, wearing traditional Kyrgyz Kalpak hats.

White yurts, the homes of these semi nomads, can be seen in distant valleys; their impact on the environment negligible and ephemeral. The sense of isolation here is magnificent. My colleagues and I spent the day walking, each of us in a different direction. This sublime landscape is best enjoyed alone and the experience is meditative.

Sunset turns the sky, land and lake brilliant oranges and pinks. Grazing horses cast long shadows. At night it is very cold. After hot soup and a plate of Lagman (noodles with beef), I went to bed in my yurt. Even in my clothes, a sleeping bag, and wrapped in a duvet, I felt the chill. A man arrived at 6am to fire up my stove. Through blurry eyes, I watched his face glow and the fire grow. Warmth, at last, returned.

I spent the early morning taking more photographs and horse-riding in this magnificent landscape. By early afternoon it was time to drive back. Our car, normally full of chatter, was silent for most of the journey. Each of us in our own world. The spell that Son Kul had cast was not yet broken.

After a couple of hours the sound of incoming text messages and phone notifications punctured the silence. We had phone reception again. I had barely noticed we had been without it.

To reach Son Kul from Naryn eventually you need to leave the man road and head into the mountains on this track
The landscapes look pre-historic
A rider rounding up his horses
Son Kul comes into view. ‘Kul’ in Kyrgyz means lake.
Another rider herding his sheep
That rider up close
A young foal
Yak, goats, camels and horses can be seen grazing in the mid-ground, the lake beyond them
Tiny white yurts in the distance
Our yurts for the night
My colleagues Aisuluu and Zahra showcase the yurts
The dining yurt
Swing time
Our camp from above
The view from our camp
A nearby camp
As evening approaches I went out to photograph the numerous horses grazing nearby
A grazing horse with the sun setting
A full horse eclipse here! My favourite shot. I probably took 100 of these and chose this one eventually.
Another camp not far from ours
This guy just turned up. He looks like a skinny Irish setter but that can’t be right?! (I’ve since been informed that he’s a is a breed of sighthound from Kyrgyzstan called a Taigan)
He had a crazy silhouette, spider like!
The sunset was something to behold
Almost spiritual
Early the following morning after a few hours sleep I went to go and photograph some more and capture that morning light
A breakfast spot with a view
Early morning grazers
Water slowly makes its way from the mountains to the lake
A nearby camp from above
Our camp in the foreground from above
I couldn’t resist a ride
Grazing horses
This one’s really in the moment
A young foal learning the ropes
A young rider
Here he is again, living the nomadic life
Some landscape shots from the car as we depart
A rider came to say hi
He’s wearing a traditional Kalpak hat
A yak makes way as we drive back to Naryn leaving this magical world behind

Son Kul Сон Кул

Yurts provide mobile shelter, a place to cook, eat and sleep. Recognising the continued importance of nomadic traditions, the Aga Khan Foundation works with communities to improve access to education through the creation of mobile libraries and kindergartens in yurts.

The lost world of Son Kul

At the heart of Central Asia, sandwiched between Kazakhstan, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan lies the mountainous, landlocked and sparsely populated country of Kyrgyzstan.

It is a nation of vast, gentle and sweeping valleys and appears, in places, still a land before time.

The sense of space, under the huge dome of the blue sky, is profound and almost spiritual. I’ve visited very few places on earth that feel like genuine wildernesses, this is one of them.

Nowhere was this more keenly felt than at Son Kul, a lake at the centre of an enormous plateau atop the Tien Shan mountain range. To reach it you must drive about two hours south from the growing university town of Naryn and then up winding roads into the mountains.

Eventually the road flattens out and the shimmering blue lake of Son Kul appears over the horizon. Thousands of horses, sheep, cows, yak and even camel dot the landscape. They are herded by men on horses, wearing traditional Kyrgyz Kalpak hats.

White yurts, the homes of these semi nomads, can be seen in distant valleys; their impact on the environment negligible and ephemeral. The sense of isolation here is magnificent. My colleagues and I spent the day walking, each of us in a different direction. This sublime landscape is best enjoyed alone and the experience is meditative.

Sunset turns the sky, land and lake brilliant oranges and pinks. Grazing horses cast long shadows. At night it is very cold. After hot soup and a plate of Lagman (noodles with beef), I went to bed in my yurt. Even in my clothes, a sleeping bag, and wrapped in a duvet, I felt the chill. A man arrived at 6am to fire up my stove. Through blurry eyes, I watched his face glow and the fire grow. Warmth, at last, returned.

I spent the early morning taking more photographs and horse-riding in this magnificent landscape. By early afternoon it was time to drive back. Our car, normally full of chatter, was silent for most of the journey. Each of us in our own world. The spell that Son Kul had cast was not yet broken.

After a couple of hours the sound of incoming text messages and phone notifications punctured the silence. We had phone reception again. I had barely noticed we had been without it.

To reach Son Kul from Naryn eventually you need to leave the man road and head into the mountains on this track
The landscapes look pre-historic
A rider rounding up his horses
Son Kul comes into view. ‘Kul’ in Kyrgyz means lake.
Another rider herding his sheep
That rider up close
A young foal
Yak, goats, camels and horses can be seen grazing in the mid-ground, the lake beyond them
Tiny white yurts in the distance
Our yurts for the night
My colleagues Aisuluu and Zahra showcase the yurts
The dining yurt
Swing time
Our camp from above
The view from our camp
A nearby camp
As evening approaches I went out to photograph the numerous horses grazing nearby
A grazing horse with the sun setting
A full horse eclipse here! My favourite shot. I probably took 100 of these and chose this one eventually.
Another camp not far from ours
This guy just turned up. He looks like a skinny Irish setter but that can’t be right?! (I’ve since been informed that he’s a is a breed of sighthound from Kyrgyzstan called a Taigan)
He had a crazy silhouette, spider like!
The sunset was something to behold
Almost spiritual
Early the following morning after a few hours sleep I went to go and photograph some more and capture that morning light
A breakfast spot with a view
Early morning grazers
Water slowly makes its way from the mountains to the lake
A nearby camp from above
Our camp in the foreground from above
I couldn’t resist a ride
Grazing horses
This one’s really in the moment
A young foal learning the ropes
A young rider
Here he is again, living the nomadic life
Some landscape shots from the car as we depart
A rider came to say hi
He’s wearing a traditional Kalpak hat
A yak makes way as we drive back to Naryn leaving this magical world behind

Son Kul Сон Кул

Horse-riding in this region dates back thousands of years. Babies still learn to sit in the saddle before they can walk and by their late teens these children will have developed advanced skills.

The lost world of Son Kul

At the heart of Central Asia, sandwiched between Kazakhstan, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan lies the mountainous, landlocked and sparsely populated country of Kyrgyzstan.

It is a nation of vast, gentle and sweeping valleys and appears, in places, still a land before time.

The sense of space, under the huge dome of the blue sky, is profound and almost spiritual. I’ve visited very few places on earth that feel like genuine wildernesses, this is one of them.

Nowhere was this more keenly felt than at Son Kul, a lake at the centre of an enormous plateau atop the Tien Shan mountain range. To reach it you must drive about two hours south from the growing university town of Naryn and then up winding roads into the mountains.

Eventually the road flattens out and the shimmering blue lake of Son Kul appears over the horizon. Thousands of horses, sheep, cows, yak and even camel dot the landscape. They are herded by men on horses, wearing traditional Kyrgyz Kalpak hats.

White yurts, the homes of these semi nomads, can be seen in distant valleys; their impact on the environment negligible and ephemeral. The sense of isolation here is magnificent. My colleagues and I spent the day walking, each of us in a different direction. This sublime landscape is best enjoyed alone and the experience is meditative.

Sunset turns the sky, land and lake brilliant oranges and pinks. Grazing horses cast long shadows. At night it is very cold. After hot soup and a plate of Lagman (noodles with beef), I went to bed in my yurt. Even in my clothes, a sleeping bag, and wrapped in a duvet, I felt the chill. A man arrived at 6am to fire up my stove. Through blurry eyes, I watched his face glow and the fire grow. Warmth, at last, returned.

I spent the early morning taking more photographs and horse-riding in this magnificent landscape. By early afternoon it was time to drive back. Our car, normally full of chatter, was silent for most of the journey. Each of us in our own world. The spell that Son Kul had cast was not yet broken.

After a couple of hours the sound of incoming text messages and phone notifications punctured the silence. We had phone reception again. I had barely noticed we had been without it.

To reach Son Kul from Naryn eventually you need to leave the man road and head into the mountains on this track
The landscapes look pre-historic
A rider rounding up his horses
Son Kul comes into view. ‘Kul’ in Kyrgyz means lake.
Another rider herding his sheep
That rider up close
A young foal
Yak, goats, camels and horses can be seen grazing in the mid-ground, the lake beyond them
Tiny white yurts in the distance
Our yurts for the night
My colleagues Aisuluu and Zahra showcase the yurts
The dining yurt
Swing time
Our camp from above
The view from our camp
A nearby camp
As evening approaches I went out to photograph the numerous horses grazing nearby
A grazing horse with the sun setting
A full horse eclipse here! My favourite shot. I probably took 100 of these and chose this one eventually.
Another camp not far from ours
This guy just turned up. He looks like a skinny Irish setter but that can’t be right?! (I’ve since been informed that he’s a is a breed of sighthound from Kyrgyzstan called a Taigan)
He had a crazy silhouette, spider like!
The sunset was something to behold
Almost spiritual
Early the following morning after a few hours sleep I went to go and photograph some more and capture that morning light
A breakfast spot with a view
Early morning grazers
Water slowly makes its way from the mountains to the lake
A nearby camp from above
Our camp in the foreground from above
I couldn’t resist a ride
Grazing horses
This one’s really in the moment
A young foal learning the ropes
A young rider
Here he is again, living the nomadic life
Some landscape shots from the car as we depart
A rider came to say hi
He’s wearing a traditional Kalpak hat
A yak makes way as we drive back to Naryn leaving this magical world behind

Son Kul Сон Кул

A horse grazes at sunset on Son Kul.

The lost world of Son Kul

At the heart of Central Asia, sandwiched between Kazakhstan, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan lies the mountainous, landlocked and sparsely populated country of Kyrgyzstan.

It is a nation of vast, gentle and sweeping valleys and appears, in places, still a land before time.

The sense of space, under the huge dome of the blue sky, is profound and almost spiritual. I’ve visited very few places on earth that feel like genuine wildernesses, this is one of them.

Nowhere was this more keenly felt than at Son Kul, a lake at the centre of an enormous plateau atop the Tien Shan mountain range. To reach it you must drive about two hours south from the growing university town of Naryn and then up winding roads into the mountains.

Eventually the road flattens out and the shimmering blue lake of Son Kul appears over the horizon. Thousands of horses, sheep, cows, yak and even camel dot the landscape. They are herded by men on horses, wearing traditional Kyrgyz Kalpak hats.

White yurts, the homes of these semi nomads, can be seen in distant valleys; their impact on the environment negligible and ephemeral. The sense of isolation here is magnificent. My colleagues and I spent the day walking, each of us in a different direction. This sublime landscape is best enjoyed alone and the experience is meditative.

Sunset turns the sky, land and lake brilliant oranges and pinks. Grazing horses cast long shadows. At night it is very cold. After hot soup and a plate of Lagman (noodles with beef), I went to bed in my yurt. Even in my clothes, a sleeping bag, and wrapped in a duvet, I felt the chill. A man arrived at 6am to fire up my stove. Through blurry eyes, I watched his face glow and the fire grow. Warmth, at last, returned.

I spent the early morning taking more photographs and horse-riding in this magnificent landscape. By early afternoon it was time to drive back. Our car, normally full of chatter, was silent for most of the journey. Each of us in our own world. The spell that Son Kul had cast was not yet broken.

After a couple of hours the sound of incoming text messages and phone notifications punctured the silence. We had phone reception again. I had barely noticed we had been without it.

To reach Son Kul from Naryn eventually you need to leave the man road and head into the mountains on this track
The landscapes look pre-historic
A rider rounding up his horses
Son Kul comes into view. ‘Kul’ in Kyrgyz means lake.
Another rider herding his sheep
That rider up close
A young foal
Yak, goats, camels and horses can be seen grazing in the mid-ground, the lake beyond them
Tiny white yurts in the distance
Our yurts for the night
My colleagues Aisuluu and Zahra showcase the yurts
The dining yurt
Swing time
Our camp from above
The view from our camp
A nearby camp
As evening approaches I went out to photograph the numerous horses grazing nearby
A grazing horse with the sun setting
A full horse eclipse here! My favourite shot. I probably took 100 of these and chose this one eventually.
Another camp not far from ours
This guy just turned up. He looks like a skinny Irish setter but that can’t be right?! (I’ve since been informed that he’s a is a breed of sighthound from Kyrgyzstan called a Taigan)
He had a crazy silhouette, spider like!
The sunset was something to behold
Almost spiritual
Early the following morning after a few hours sleep I went to go and photograph some more and capture that morning light
A breakfast spot with a view
Early morning grazers
Water slowly makes its way from the mountains to the lake
A nearby camp from above
Our camp in the foreground from above
I couldn’t resist a ride
Grazing horses
This one’s really in the moment
A young foal learning the ropes
A young rider
Here he is again, living the nomadic life
Some landscape shots from the car as we depart
A rider came to say hi
He’s wearing a traditional Kalpak hat
A yak makes way as we drive back to Naryn leaving this magical world behind

The Silk Road

In 138 BCE, General Zhang Qian of China’s Han Dynasty was sent on a diplomatic mission to develop economic and cultural links with the peoples of Central Asia. In so doing, he set in motion the creation of a transcontinental trade route that would shape the world as we know it today.

The Silk Road, as it would later be called, is neither an actual road nor a single route. It refers to the historic network of trade routes that stretched thousands of miles across Eurasia connecting China with Europe. Grain, livestock, leather, precious stones, porcelain, wool, gold and, of course, silk were transported along its network of trading posts and markets. As a consequence, two thousand years ago affluent Romans could garb themselves in silk clothes made in China while gold coins bearing Caesar’s image were spent in spice markets in India.

It was not only goods that travelled these routes but knowledge, religions and people too. Gunpowder, the magnetic compass, the printing press, and advanced mathematics all came to Europe from China and the Islamic world. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam each found new converts in the lands that opened up to the East and West. Along these same routes, Mongol armies swept across Eurasia — as did bubonic plague, travelling with merchants and their animals.

These exchanges had a profound impact on the empires and civilisations through which they passed, giving them political, religious and cultural shape. Many of the more networked cities developed into hubs of culture and learning and, in some, the sparks of a golden age were ignited.

By the late 16th century, the Silk Road had lost its prominence to new maritime trade routes but the legacy of interconnectivity and exchange endured. Today, it is being reimagined on an unprecedented scale. Through China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Eurasia is the focus of the largest and most expensive infrastructure project in history. If realised, a massive network of roads, railways, pipelines and ports could connect as much as 65% of the world’s population and radically alter the flow of global trade. It is already beginning to reshape Eurasia, focusing world attention once again on the exchange of goods and ideas running from East to West. While these investments will bring enormous opportunities, they come with many risks, especially for Central Asia. Regional insecurity, rising inequality, cultural dislocation, resource scarcity and climate change — all these must be mediated if the new Silk Road is to deliver prosperity to all of those who live along it.

The Aga Khan Foundation & The Silk Road

The Aga Khan Foundation and agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) have been active in countries along the Silk Road for decades. AKDN is a long-term partner in the development of Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.

Alongside its partners, AKDN has channelled significant financial and human resources into economic, social and cultural development in these regions. Promoting pluralism, self-reliance and women’s empowerment have been central to those efforts. AKDN’s initiatives are wide-ranging and include agriculture and food security, climate resilience, education, energy, enterprise development, financial services, healthcare, infrastructure, telecommunications and promoting civil society. It has also restored hundreds of historical monuments, parks and gardens and supported some of Central Asia’s greatest musicians to transmit their knowledge and perform on the world’s stage. AKDN’s overarching aim is to improve the quality of life.

This exhibition

The Silk Road: A Living History invites you to take a journey from London to Beijing, encountering some of the people, places and cultures in-between. The exhibition aims to celebrate the diversity found along this route, explore how historical customs live on today, and reveal connections between what appear at first glance to be very different cultures. Ultimately, the exhibition aims to help build bridges of interest and understanding between distant places and challenge perceptions of less well-known or understood parts of the world. The exhibition was created by Christopher Wilton-Steer, a travel photographer and Head of Communications at the Aga Khan Foundation (UK).

This exhibition is not an exhaustive photographic documentation of Eurasia’s people and cultures. It is a record of some of those Christopher encountered over the course of an overland journey from London to Beijing that he undertook in 2019 and therefore reflects only a fraction of the realities of these places. It is one of an infinite number of stories that could be told.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank first and foremost the wonderful and kind people I met on my travels and who allowed me into their lives. I am grateful to Simon Norfolk, Gary Otte, Andrew Quilty, Sebastian Schutyser and Kapila Productions for allowing me to use some of their photographs of places or events I was unable to visit on my journey. I would like to acknowledge the invaluable travel advice I received from Wild Frontiers and Eastern Turkey Tours, and the support from King’s Cross Central General Partner Ltd. who have allowed for this exhibition to take place in this public space. Lastly, I would like to thank my colleagues across the Aga Khan Development Network for their support and especially the Aga Khan Foundation who shared in the vision for this exhibition.

Christopher Wilton-Steer