High up in the mountains of southern Kyrgyzstan, not far from the mountain pass that leads into China, lies Tash Rabat. Precisely the kind of place I really love, it is an old stone fortified “caravanserai“, standing cold in the high, remote mountains, full of ghosts. Not all ghosts are bad, as I would discover. On a cold night, this place takes you back to the Silk Road five or ten centuries ago.
The old lady, draped in so much black she could have been a nun, looked at the paper in my hand. I held it out, crumpled and covered in scribbles, a mess of blue ink that represented the last hour’s efforts. “Map”, I said, not knowing the Russian or Kirgis word. She pulled it to her face, squinting. “Karta!” Ah, same as in German. “Da”, I said, using one third of my Russian. “Da, da, karta”. She grinned and replied “Good karta, good karta!” Then she asked me a question: “Good caravanserai?”
Tash Rabat is better. It’s a great caravanserai.
Getting there takes a bit of effort. It’s a long way from anywhere, really, but the nearest center is Naryn, a not-much-going-for-it regional capital just about smack in the middle of the country.
A lonely place, Tash-Rabat is 3,200 meters above sea level, and home to alpine grass, a few cows, and lots of marmots. Our driver liked nothing more than pointing at them as we sped along the dirt road in his ratty old Lada, then honking the horn loudly as we got nearer. They deftly scrambled across the short grass and disappeared down the holes, to his immense and smiling amusement. One hand on the wheel, barely keeping the Lada on the dirt as we careened along the valley, he grinned at me as if to say “did ya see it, did ya see it”?
Tash Rabat is one of those places you want to see, then um-and-ah about it because it’s a little expensive and out of the way. But when you get there, you’re instantly glad you did. It sits, or squats, on a gentle slope on the side of a lovely alpine valley, blue sky soaring far above.
It is believed to have been built some time in the 10th to 12th century,* though other sources say it was more like the 1500s. Either way, it was used as a stopover for caravans on the Silk Road. And what a stopover it must have been – even in summer, the mountain route between here and China would have been cold, windy and dangerous.
The caravanserai would have been a very welcome sight to anyone coming down over that pass; or a last comfort for those facing that daunting climb. It has a large main chamber, with a huge domed ceiling, and then a range of smaller chambers coming off several long corridors that connect to the main room. These, it’s believed, were variously living quarters, kitchens, storerooms, and possibly even stables for horses or camels. It must have had a very distinct aroma, but on the other hand, that may well have been welcomingly warm after weeks out in the harsh and risky wilderness.
The Dumbest Kid in Kyrgyzstan
I watched as a young guy, perhaps in his very early 20s, and clad head to toe in white, sauntered up to the back of the stone dome. With a cigarette stuck cockily into his mouth, he scratched his name into the ancient stone using a chunk of a lighter-coloured stone. At this point, Yon joined me and we watched as he took a cellphone selfy of his face and his handiwork.
My own outrage tends to manifest philosophically, but Yon’s is much more practical. While I was still contemplating the shameful act – defacing a UNESCO site with the equivalent of “Ding Jinhao was here” – Yon was down the hill explaining it all to the woman in black. “Nyet!”, the woman exclaimed. “No, no!”. Defying her age, she shuffled briskly up onto the roof of the building and, one can only conclude, ripped this kid a new one. His cockiness drained from him like he was wetting his pants; you could feel it from 30 meters away. She stood there while he scratched over the whole name using the same stone, much as you’d scratch out a doodle with the same biro you drew it with. When she was finally satisfied, she dismissed him. He looked around, to see who had seen (just us and a few locals, who tut-tutted disapprovingly), then stalked off and was never seen again.
Tash Rabat – Ghosts of the Silk Road
We overnighted here, staying in a fixed yurt and sleeping on thick mats on the lawn that was the floor. Yon had a great idea to lie on the ground looking at the very bright sky. So we took our sleeping bags out into the clearing and stared into deep space.
On the light wind, we heard locals singing and laughing from nearby yurts. In amongst it was the occasional snort of a cow. It was easy to imagine we’d somehow drifted back in time, or that the ghosts of those times were still around, drifting on the wind, singing songs about the hardships of the Silk Road.
Reaching Tash Rabat after crossing the mountains from China, probably having started in Kashgar, would have been an epic achievement in the 12th century. Doing it overland today would be tough enough. There’d have been plenty to sing about and drink to if you made it.
It was time for sleep, so we retreated to the yurt. The ghosts kept singing.
*Lebigre, P., Tash Rabat and Gardaneh-ye-Nir: Two Remarkable Caravanserais, paper for 4th Congress of the Asia and Pacific Network, September 2011.