I spent 600 days walking the Silk Road, seeing the Caucasus and Central Asia by foot

I spent 600 days walking the Silk Road, seeing the Caucasus and Central Asia by foot
A view from Uplistsikhe, Georgia; 12 km from Gori, Stalin’s birthplace

20 October 2020
As told to: Alexandra Tyan

In August 2018, anthropology graduate Daniele Ventola left Italy to embark on the biggest adventure of his life — a journey to China along the Silk Road — on foot. The 7500 km walk was not a personal challenge, but a cultural project, aimed at demonstrating the futility of borders and the universal nature of the human being. Through images, depicting life in the most remote areas of Caucasus and Central Asia, and interviews with locals, Daniele sought to show Europeans how life can be different — while remaining fundamentally the same.

His adventure was cut short with the Covid-19 pandemic and enforced quarantine in countries across the world. For four months, he waited patiently in Osh, a city in western Kyrgyzstan, for confinement measures to be lifted. His visa to China — the final point of his trip — expired on 22 April. In August 2020, he reached the capital Bishkek on foot and took a plane to return to his home in Naples.

A Kyrgyz family in a yurt in Ala Bel Pass, Kyrgyzstan.

I was 19 when I finished the Camino de Santiago, a 780 km pilgrimage route in northwest Spain. I remember returning home with a dream to climb the Himalayas next, without money or documents. My head was full of dreams. A few years later, I set my sights on walking the route of the former Silk Road. I put it to one side, telling myself that if I really wanted to pursue it, I’d have to learn about the laws of each society. Moreover, I didn’t want it to be just a walk: I wanted it to leave a trace, make a contribution to the world.

The Silk Road was an obvious choice. Since antiquity, the Silk Road has connected people; even today, new developments like the Chinese Belt Road Initiative, continue this legacy.

I set off on 1 August 2018, one year after graduating in Anthropology from the University of Bologna. It took me approximately 12 months to adequately prepare for the trip: to understand which visas and permits to get, the roads to take, how much money I’d need, and so on. I started making a travel list on the wall of my room.

'Jailoo' means 'summer pasture' in Kyrgyz, and refers to a seasonal movement of livestock in Kyrgyzstan

The divisions in Europe had, in part, planted the seed for this walk: people no longer seemed to be speaking to each other, governments were building walls between countries, and xenophobia was everywhere. I planned to keep a journal along the way, in the hopes that it would break down these stereotypes and the hatred between people. I used social media sparingly before this project. However, it was imperative to connect with people I met along the way, and share the stories with readers.

Since August 2018, I walked through Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. In each of these countries I spoke to everyone — about everything. I interviewed historians, tourist guides, peasants, hermits, and self-proclaimed witches. I observed the mundane, simple things: the way they cook chicken, the way they make their coffee, the games their children play, what their toys look like. I tried to pay close attention to everything, always keeping in mind the goal of my trip: to study human life.

Aiday, a Kazakh woman I met on the train from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan, who fed me chicken and manty (dumplings) sold at train stops along the way

With time, the people I met and the stories they shared started shaping the very idea behind my project — from activists in Kyrgyzstan to women who live alone in the suburbs of Bulgaria. As I was nearing the end, I realised that the videos on my hard drives, the notes in my diaries, and the little keepsakes that I kept at the bottom of my backpack, all showed humans’ resistance to culture and social constructs.

I learned that small gestures can be more powerful than a shared language.

Are you cold? Let me give you a blanket. Are you hungry? Here, have some of my chicken.

A schoolgirl in Osh, Kyrgyzstan

One of the very few times I took public transport was in Uzbekistan, where through the desert was too dangerous. There, I met a woman called Lela. Our conversations were not very long because my Russian is limited. I played with her daughter, we pulled faces, and taught each other words. It’s not just language that makes communication possible. Communication is as much about intention — if two souls want to meet, they will — that’s the fundamental truth I learned on that train. It’s quite funny that, as a traveler walking for months on end, I learned these lessons in moments when I was not moving.

A market stand with sugar crystals in Osh, Kyrgyzstan

Then there was Gulnara, the woman in the desert of Uzbekistan. I was tired and I fell asleep on a small hill. At some point, I don’t know why, I suddenly woke up and climbed up the hill — and I saw this woman far away, with two bags in her hands. I thought: what is this old woman doing in the middle of a desert? I ran to her, she was frightened — I was this tanned man, with a long beard, covered in dust and sand. I said: “Salam Alaykum, kak dela? What are you doing in the desert?” She replied: “I live here. What are you doing here?” She invited me into her home, she made me tea. I met her husband — a shepherd who took care of the goats. We ate together, spoke until the night fell and ended the evening with Uzbek vodka. It was beautiful.

A Soviet wine factory in Şamaxi, Azerbaijan

You learn to be prepared: against wolves, snakes, jackals. I bought firecrackers and balloons that make the gunshot sound. When it comes to finding a place to sleep — something always comes up. I’ve always stumbled upon hills, mountains, gardens, or someone who offered a bed. Especially in Central Asia — people are so hospitable there, you can barely walk five metres before someone stops you and invites you in their house. And they feed you: between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan I put on 10 kg — which, on top of the backpack, can slow you down a lot. You also get used to leaving.

Dancing at an Uzbek wedding organised to collect money for the newlyweds

Over almost two years, the only two things that I kept in my backpack from the beginning are my passport and tablet. I’ve had three phones, five diaries, seven hard drives, winter clothes, summer clothes, and four sleeping bags. I gave away most things I no longer needed to people I met along the way.

Financing this project was difficult. Before I left Italy, I worked for months, trying to save money: I was a waiter, a painter, a teacher. I found some sponsors, too: a vegan restaurant put a dish in my name on the menu — €1 from every plate sold went towards my trip. A jewellery shop in Milan created a bracelet called “L’essenziale” (The Essential) in homage to my project — they gave me €1,200. Money wasn’t the only thing that helped me through the journey. I met a designer who created a belt for hikers, which spreads the weight of the backpack evenly, and he gave me one for free. Thanks to him I managed to walk 7000 km with 30 kg on my shoulders.

Streets of Aktau, Kazakhstan

Since I started sharing photos, interviews and bits of my travel diaries on social media, people from all around the world have supported me — both mentally and financially. As a thank you, I try to send them cards from places I pass — I have dozens of them waiting to be posted.

I don’t think I would have pursued the trip and persevered, despite all the difficulties, had I not had a background in anthropology. The subject teaches you to put your own culture aside and learn from scratch – to approach any culture without any presumptions. This approach helped me understand why certain behaviours were considered hostile in the place where I was born — and accepted somewhere else.

A tired face of a traveller in Tajikistan

At the beginning of this trip I was sceptical of social media: I saw people spending hours checking their phones, counting the number of likes, consuming megabytes of useless information. But one of the goals of this project is to show another facet of social networks — the way in which they can help spread important messages and transport you to faraway places, introduce you to faraway peoples. I believe it’s important to use social media in order to grow, as humans — and I try to share these thoughts with people that follow me.

There are old women writing to me on Facebook, asking me whether I’m eating well and taking care of myself, inviting me to pay them a visit once I’m back to Italy. Through these messages I realise how important this journey — my journey — is for those who cannot make it themselves. Those hours I spend writing my posts, describing Lela’s chicken and Gulnara’s house — they’re worth it.

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