“To follow the Silk Road is to follow a ghost. It flows through the heart of Asia, but it has officially vanished leaving behind the pattern of its restlessness: counterfeit borders, unmapped peoples. The road forks and wanders wherever you are. It is not a single way, but many: a web of choices.”
-Colin Thubron, Shadow of the Silk Road
Tucked between brooding mountains, the historic site of Tash Rabat, in Kyrgyzstan, is a hundred kilometers from the nearest city. The squat stone structure remains largely mute about its own past, leaving scholars and travel guidebooks to argue about its age and purpose. However, there is no disputing that Tash Rabat is one of the most atmospheric Silk Road relics on the continent.
Getting to Tash Rabat can be an adventure in and of itself. The nearest town of any note, Naryn, is a rather dreary city in central Kyrgyzstan that serves as most people’s springboard for Tash Rabat. Naryn is a typical Kyrgyz city, with a bombastic war memorial, unappealing food choices (there’s a tradition of eating clay dirt in Naryn - highlighted here - which may say it all) and a “Lenin Street” serving as its main thoroughfare. The natural world that enfolds Naryn, however, is spectacular and the drive south to Tash Rabat is beautiful.
The highway is basically the only paved road in the region, no doubt owing to its use as the main thoroughfare between Kyrgyzstan and China. It’s two lanes the whole way, except for a single short portion that was built extra wide in case Soviet planes needed to use it as a landing strip in the event of a Chinese invasion. The highway ends at the Torugart Pass, notorious as one of the most unpredictable and logistically demanding border crossings in the world; there are at least five separate checkpoints between the Kyrygz and Chinese lines and the border closes randomly and without notice.
For those keen on visiting Tash Rabat, however, the turn off is before the Torugart Pass. Shortly before you leave pavement to take the dirt road to Tash Rabat, there are the ruins of Koshoy Korgon. Kyrgyzstan, by contrast to neighbouring Uzbekistan (you can read our Uzbekistan posts here), has very little left from its Silk Road past, or for that matter, any of its past. This is in part due to the traditional nomadism of its people and in part due to the waves of destruction that washed over it about eight hundred years ago. In addition, much of Kyrgyzstan was forbidden to foreigners during Soviet times.
As a result, very little scholarly exploration has been done of Kyrgyzstan’s history. While any historic site in Europe has probably been the star of half a dozen academic papers, it’s difficult to find any reliable info on a Kyrgyz historic site. As a result, sites like Koshoy Korgon leave lots of room for your imagination to blossom. Originally built in the 10th (or maybe 12th, or maybe 13th) century, this was a big fortress that stood guard over a central route of the Silk Road. It’s interesting that this is still a crucial trade corridor today, with heavy trucks carrying cheap Chinese goods west to the bazaars of Central Asia. Little is left of Koshoy Korgon but the crumbling remains of its thick defensive walls, silent and forgotten.
Leaving Koshoy Korgon behind, there are a few forlorn cemeteries in the distinctive Kyrgyz style and then the scenery reverts back to wide emptiness. Grassy hills become mountains and high altitude desert fills the spaces in between. There are no signs (meaning we basically made up our own speed limit and prayed no cops were around), no gas stations and not a single tree to be found. When the turnoff for Tash Rabat snuck up on us we ground to a halt, shifted into four wheel drive and began the short drive (by Kyrgyz standards) to Tash Rabat.
The dirt road snakes its way over rivers and through craggy limestone canyons. At more than 3500 meters high, the air is weak and cold and the only vegetation are short grasses that sway and whisper in the wind. After rounding one corner, the first encampment of yurts appear. Savvy herders have realized that there is more money to be made in housing a passing tourist in their yurt than there is in chasing livestock from mountain pasture to mountain pasture, so Tash Rabat has a handful of yurt camps that operate all summer (winter temperatures up here plunge to -40 Celsius).
Curving around another mountain, the road spits out into a u-shaped bowl that opens between the mountains; slanted into a grassy hillside is the stone building of Tash Rabat. Why was a structure built here, in the middle of nowhere, at what must have been a great cost in money and labour? No one knows for sure; no one can even agree on whether a building has been located here for 500 or 1000 years. One theory is that it was originally intended to be a monastery for Nestorian monks, who belonged to a branch of Christianity that at one point was prevalent throughout Central Asia.
It’s generally agreed upon though that Tash Rabat eventually served as a “caravanserai” during the time of the Silk Road. Caravanserais acted somewhat similar to highway motels for Silk Road merchants, travellers and pilgrims. Dotting the main roads of the Silk Road, these buildings would shelter traders from the elements, protect them from wolves and bandits, and serve as places to wash up and rest from a grinding journey. The vast majority of caravanserais along the Silk Road did not survive long after the decline of the Silk Road (which happened when sailors discovered quicker and cheaper maritime routes for getting oriental luxuries to deep-pocketed European buyers), so Tash Rabat’s existence is even more special.
Sunken into the slope behind it, the building is partly above ground and partly below, with small openings in the roof allowing beams of light to skewer the quiet darkness of the interior. There are around thirty rooms within, far more than you’d expect looking at the outside of the building. Some sources say they were cells and prayer rooms, while others say they were warehouses to store the goods and pack animals of traders who were staying the night. Allegedly, there is a tunnel that connects Tash Rabat to a watchpost on another mountain though we didn’t see any sign of this. It’s really enjoyable to poke around the passageways and chambers of Tash Rabat, imagining how it would have felt to arrive at such a place after an arduous journey from China over rugged peaks and scorching desert. For many traders, this may have been the first permanent structure they had seen in weeks and would no doubt have been a welcome relief.
Emerging from the subterranean blackness, squinting in the harsh mountain light, visitors can trudge up one of the surrounding mountains to get a more comprehensive view of the caravanserai. The splendid isolation of Tash Rabat, literally at the end of the dirt road, becomes even more apparent from up high. Clumps of yurts represent the only accommodation for hours around and that is where we overnighted when we visited, bundled up warmly under thick blankets as millions of stars began to shine in the frigid sky above.