Many famous explorers began their journeys after reading books. The travel notes of merchants, seafarers, warriors, and minstrels are helping us reconstruct the history of the Great Silk Road. The impact of literature on the development of the tourism sector cannot be overstated. But how are such books created? OCA Magazine’s editors interviewed Nick Rowan (NR), author of two books about travelling the Silk Road, and Gareth Stamp (GS), a teacher who has travelled the world through his work.

  1. What was the reason to write a book? Why couldn’t you just travel or show your route in your social media accounts?
    NR: When I made my travels along the Silk Road in 2006, Social Media was a thing of the future. Even phones had little internet connectivity almost 20 years ago. On my travels I started to write a daily blog, as well as a diary, and I used to have to find Internet cafes in the towns and cities I visited in order to log on and update folks at home about my travels. I also posted the blog on my website that I used to promote my travels along the route. At the time it felt like we had made huge technological advances, but looking back now it all feels rather primitive compared to today. I’m glad, though, because today I would spend much longer looking at my phone rather than looking at my surroundings and interacting with the people and places I came to encounter.

Writing a book was not intentional. I had a number of sponsors who helped pay for my trip and for whom I needed to write a report about my travels. However, when I got down to writing it I quickly realised that I had so much to say about the people I met and their history that one page became ten pages, which then became ten chapters! It took me about two years to write the book and four years to edit it before my publisher told me to just let him send it out to print! That was Marat Akhmedjanov (Deputy Chairman of ECG) who was also one of the characters I encountered in my book!

GS: They say that everyone has a book in them – and I would more than agree with that! I meet so many people with interesting stories to share about their travels and experiences and I meet so many excuses for not writing ‘the book’!

I never used to think of myself as a traveller let a lone a writer but I have always been an observer, seeing the details, the absurd, the humorous and the emotional. I have always had the verbal words to tell stories weaving them into tales but it has only been later in life that I have had the courage and the encouragement to write them down and compile them into a book.

I have always taken pictures and posted them on social media but although a ‘picture can be worth a thousand words, it can’t convey the emotions, relationships and the inner most thoughts – or the times when you don’t have a camera! I am not the sort of travel writer who has a ‘journey’ to record. It is more journalism, listening and viewing people – usually ordinary people who have extraordinary tales to tell.

  1. How has the culture of the Central Asian countries impacted you? What was the most challenging thing? What impressed you the most? Tell more about your experience, please.
    NR: The culture of the Central Asian countries impacted me deeply. I fell in love with the region, but especially its people. Their traditions and culture have been moulded by millennia of trade and transfer of both religious and scientific knowledge across the Silk Road’s lengthy and winding history. Hospitality and generosity are two things that have been bestowed on the region’s culture as a result. You find it equally in the bustling cities and in the yurts in the steppes and mountain pastures. Although I travelled on my own, I never felt alone and could always find curious new friends to spend an afternoon or evening with. I often found that the people who had the least material wealth had the highest degree of kindness and generosity to strangers. It’s something that Western civilizations have tended to forget and would do well to rediscover.

In terms of challenging times, it was a difficult journey at times through some very unknown countries with a lot of bureaucracy. Officialdom often made it difficult to travel, be that at borders or having my movements closely monitored by the authorities in some places. It wasn’t always possible to just wander around as I would have liked or visit some of the really remote places. I also experienced guns pointed directly at me a couple of times in both Turkmenistan and Iran – the latter when I accidentally found myself stopped outside the Natanz nuclear facility without realising what it was!

GS: When I first arrived in Kazakhstan I felt like I was ‘home’, a deep rooted connection with the people, place and culture. There were challenges – language was the first one! But I am now an extrovert (something else Central Asia caused me to become!) and I am confident enough to shop in markets through mime and lots of pointing. There is always someone who wants to help, an innate yearning to help those in need.

Even the climate was not really a challenge – dress for it and get on with it! Why worry abut things you can’t change. This is a philosophy that has faired me well through my later travels too. My latest book (The Land of Frozen Tears) is a collection of these stories, experiences and people. There are some ‘travel’ tales – the train from Shymkent to Astana for example but the most impressive part of my experiences has been the people – resilient, determined and proud people.

  1. How do you think travelogues impact the tourist traffic? What advice can you give to people who want to follow your route?
    NR: I wrote a travelogue because I wanted to encourage people who might not immediately be so keen to travel through Central Asia to join me on my journey and see that it is a region of immense history, culture and wonder. By seeing the journey through my eyes you meet the people and places as I met them and can understand both the joys and frustrations of travelling through the countries I did at the time I did.

For any budding adventurous travellers, I’d certainly encourage them to follow my route. But the beauty of the Silk Road is that it was never one road so you can map out your own route through the countries and places that interest you and still be on the Silk Road and benefit from its rich history and wonderful people. Just make sure you grab a fistful of visas and a few words or Russian as you will get a lot more out of it if you can communicate a little with your hosts. Then come back and share your amazing stories with our community!

GS: I think travelogues are good indicators of what to do in a country but I feel that everyone has a different experience depending on the time of year, how they travel and even the mood the writer is in. I feel much happier reading stories, especially well written. I dont want to follow a map but to come across something that resonates with a tale that I have read. The photographs are enticing and gift an impetus to see it for yourself but my advice to people going to Central Asia for the first time is to go there with an open mind and an open heart. Give freely of yourself and you will receive ten times more in return from the amazing region and it’s people.