Words by Justin Fox Pictures by David Visagie and Yue Chi
Every year, a Canadian-South African company offers a threemonth, self-drive trip in Land Rovers along the Silk Road. The tours are led by an intrepid Chinese woman, Yue Chi, who somehow manages to thread her way through the complexity of border crossings, customs, tetchy police and Byzantine bureaucracy across the length of Asia.
Yue’s husband, David Visagie from Durban, looks after the vehicles and logistics. Some guests do the whole journey; others fly in for sections. I’ve joined these remarkable expeditions on two occasions: once to travel through the Stan countries at the very centre of Asia’s Silk Road, and once to drive the length of China.
‘Drive the Silk Road’ is a company that tries to give travellers a cultural and historical taste of this ancient route. For countless centuries, traders, pilgrims and warriors travelled along the Silk Road from the Mediterranean to China. Cultures spread through interaction between merchants, travellers and conquerors.
Yue and David’s annual adventure usually starts from a European city and ends in a Chinese city – this year the route is from Zurich to Hong Kong. The three-month journey traverses 16 countries and covers more than 20 000 kilometres. Clients can opt to do the whole trip, or one of the four sections. The first leg of a typical journey will take in the Balkan states as far as Istanbul. Leg two is from Turkey to Azerbaijan; leg three covers the Stan countries of the former Soviet Union, and the last leg encompasses a lengthy traverse of China.
My first experience of ‘Drive the Silk Road’ saw me flying to Beijing and doing the Chinese leg. We visited ancient Xian, home to the famed terracotta warriors, toured the Great Wall, and crossed the Gobi Desert to the Kyrgyzstan border.
China was utterly absorbing, but my second, and most captivating experience, saw me joining Yue for the ‘Soviet’ leg. I flew into the weird Islamic city of Ashgabat in Turkmenistan, where I joined up with the Land Rovers.
Turkmenistan is a wealthy nation that made the transition from Soviet Republic to autocracy under the leadership of Turkmenbashi, the self-styled ‘leader of the Turkmen’. He ruled from 1985 until his death in 2006, and created a personality cult, building a bizarre capital and filling it with statues of himself.