Tash Rabat caravanserai, Kyrgyzstan
The lands of Central Asia seem so empty these days. Driving along, I see the grass plains stretch out with the only movement herds of grazing horses grazing or long grass bending from the wind.
Towns are far between and sometimes they’re so small that you only realise you’re in them as you’re leaving.
Mountains often provide either a backdrop or a foreground – beautiful but foreboding. Especially when you think about how many people have passed through this region throughout history.
For centuries, these lands connecting China, the Middle East and Europe, through countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, were the superhighway of international trade.
Caravans of goods travelled in all directions, carrying wares to be traded. Necessities or luxuries, they created a moving market that entire economies relied on.
And to support these traders, settlements sprung up. Some became cities that still exist today. Others have disappeared completely. And some are in ruins.
One of these is Tash Rabat, a mysterious site in Kyrgyzstan.
Visiting Tash Rabat
Tash Rabat is what is known as a ‘caravanserai’, the name given to a sort of roadside inn where travellers could stop for the night or a few days to rest.
They catered for both the humans and the animals that were travelling along the Silk Road and, as well as having accommodation and food facilities, often provided some opportunities for trade and religious rituals.
What makes Tash Rabat slightly mysterious is that its layout is unusual for this kind of caravanserai.
What’s left is a single structure that looks like a blend between a castle and a temple. Built of hefty stone, it stands out against the mountainous backdrop and vast nothingness.
It’s bright outside with the sun at full force but step inside and suddenly everything is dark. And cool. And quiet.
There are no other tourists here and the rooms inside are all empty. Doorways in different directions beckon me.
I walk through one, into a small stone room. It’s not clear what it was once used for. I think the same thing in the next and then the next.
There are about 30 rooms in total inside but it’s not clear exactly how the Tash Rabat caravanserai would have operated.
Archaeologists don’t know for sure either. They believe the location was used as a resting place for traders from about the 1400s but there’s also evidence that a Christian monastery may have been there from as early as the 900s.
That could explain the odd layout – perhaps the travelling merchants just adapted an existing structure.
In the centre of the caravanserai is a large domed room – clearly the most important part of the building.
If this was once a religious haven then this would have been where the ceremonies would have taken place – possibly by candlelight in the middle of nowhere.
During the peak of the Silk Road era, it’s easy to imagine people gathering here to eat, drink and trade.
There’s an incredible feeling, standing inside, with the grandeur of a world of travel centuries old captured within the walls. That it’s so empty now makes it even more special to see.
Staying at Tash Rabat
These days, the Tash Rabat caravanserai is in the middle of nowhere Kyrgyzstan and, it’s so empty around, it’s hard to imagine a thoroughfare of commerce passing through here once upon a time. You have to really go out of your way to get here.
The nearest main city is Naryn but even that is more than two hours drive. To get to the site, you also have to turn off the highway and go along a side track for half an hour – I see no other vehicles on this stretch.
Although I think Tash Rabat is a beautiful and fascinating site, I do wonder whether it would be worth all the effort to drive out here just to see it if you didn’t have other things planned in the area. But, having said, there is a good reason to spend a bit more time at the location.
The setting in a valley is some of the finest landscapes you’ll see in this part of Kyrgyzstan. On the drive in, you’ll see some dramatic rock formations.
Once you’re at the site, there are some great hikes you can do or, if you prefer, you can go horse riding.
The keepers of the archaeological site also run a small tourist business where you can rent a horse (for about US$3 an hour) or go on a longer guided tour to some of the area’s natural highlights.
There are also yurts here that you stay in for the night. Bed and breakfast will cost about US$7 and it’s about US$4 for lunch or dinner as well.
Unfortunately I didn’t have the time to do this but I would love to have experienced a day or two with these views.
Travellers are not nearly as common these days as they were when the Silk Road was in full operation. But don’t let that put you off. The Silk Road is still alive, just in a different way here at Tash Rabat.