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An American traveler in Central Asia then and now: from travel log to travel blog

(The following is a post by Joan Weeks, head of the Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

Journeys to Central Asia retracing the ancient Silk Road routes from China to Istanbul captivated American travelers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as they do today’s tourists. With the advent of photography and emerging travel by train, these explorers chronicled vast areas traversed by the ancient caravans. Let’s explore how travel to these regions has changed in the past hundred years.

In a quest to procure samples of the rare sheep, Ovis poli, described by Marco Polo in his travels in Central Asia, William James Morden (1886-1958), a field associate for the Department of Mammalogy, and James L. Clark (1883-1969), a well-known scientist and the assistant director of the at American Museum of Natural History in New York City organized a Morden-Clark Asiatic Expedition to the Pamir Mountains, in present-day Tajikistan, in 1926. A comparison of the maps below shows the Pamir Mountains as well as cities, such as Tashkent, in what was considered Turkestan in 1926, and is now the capital of modern day Uzbekistan.


Morden-Clark map of their expedition p.390.

Map of Central Asia, United States. Central Intelligence Agency. The Caucasus and Central Asia. [Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency, 2003]

By traveling to this natural habitat of the Ovis poli, the expedition was highly successful in filming the herds and collecting specimens. They also recorded the use of falcons in nomadic hunting that continues today.

Morden-Clark p 262.

Krygyz hunter in desert near Grigoevka Gorge photo by Joan Weeks.

Morden and Clark photographed the local inhabitants whom they recruited as guides and porters along the way.

Market day in Kasgar. Morden and Clark p. 118.

In contrast, local inhabitants today are “tourists” along with American travelers at major ancient Silk Road attractions.

Uzbek women celebrating “Eid al-Fitr” with visit to Shaki Zinda Necropolis near Samrkand. Exchanging iPhones to take pictures is a very frequent occurrence. Photo by an Uzbek woman.

In the last century, photographic equipment has undergone major advancements that extend far beyond black and white photos to full color digital images. Films in cameras, carried over mountainous terrain, waited months before they could be developed and printed back in New York labs. In Central Asia then, only local inhabitants hired by Morden and Clark had access to cameras.

Morden and Clark photo p.94.

Today images captured on smartphones and tablets are shared instantly around the world. Everyone has them.

Photo by Joan Weeks.

Travel transportation, in the Morden and Clark expedition, varied from horse drawn carts where roads existed, to camels used as pack animals, over rougher terrain, led by local inhabitants guiding the expedition.

Morden and Clark p.263.

Morden and Clark p. 320.

Today tourists travel in air-conditioned coaches with roller bags stowed underneath in baggage compartments. Travel that took weeks now takes a few hours.

Photo by Joan Weeks.

Travelers in Mordan and Clark’s time stayed in yurts which took under 30 minutes to assemble then and could be packed and taken to the next site.

Morden and Clark p.46.

Today yurts can be found throughout Central Asia but many function as tourist shops or restaurants while travelers stay in modern hotels with all the amenities.

Yurt along the highway from Almaty to Bishkek. Photo by Joan Weeks.

Handicrafts for sale inside the yurt. Photo by Joan Weeks.

Restaurant inside a yurt. In Ashgabat Turkmenistan
Photo via Joan Weeks.

Yildiz Hotel in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, shaped like a yurt. Photo by Joan Weeks.

You may enjoy reading and learning more about American travelers in Central Asia from the past century. Saule Satayeva, vice director of the Kazakh Central State Archive of Cinema/Photo Documents in Almaty, Kazakistan, was a Fulbright scholar in Washington in 2016, and studied American travelers through their visual documents. She presented her research at the Library of Congress during a noontime lecture entitled “Analysis & Curation of American Travelers’ Visual Documents on Central Asian Nomadic Culture.”

In this webcast she describes the travel of Eugene Schuyler (1840-1890), an American scholar, diplomat and explorer, to Saint Petersburg in 1875. There he met Prince Tchinghiz, a decendant of Tchingiz Khan Gubaydolla Zhangirvo (1840-1909), who helped him visit the Mausoleum of Hodzha Akhmet Yassay in Turkistan. Schuyler wrote that “the whole area carries itself the traces of the ancient cultivation. It is obvious there was [sic.] existed a vast settlement of the people…” (33:58 on Satayeva film).

The Library houses the treasure trove of Central Asian travel logs in the papers of George Kennan (1845-1924), an American explorer. This archive covering his journey through Siberia and Kazakhstan 1885 – 1886 is accessible in the Manuscript Reading Room. His photographs are housed in the Prints and Photographs Division.

Today’s travelers rely on the writings of ancient as well as modern chroniclers as they travel the Silk Road and visit ancient ruins and existent archeological sites, and then record their experiences in travel blogs such as this one.

Turkmen guide in Old Merv Gyz Gala. Photo by Joan Weeks.

Additional reading:

Morden, William J. (William James), 1886-1958. “Across Asia’s snows and deserts / by William J. Morden ; with an introduction by Roy Chapman Andrews.” New York : Putnam, 1927.


  1. Arden
    September 19, 2018 at 3:36 pm

    I enjoyed seeing the contrasts and similarities between the historical and contemporary photographs. Thanks for the interesting post!

  2. Mary Jane Deeb
    October 18, 2018 at 10:45 pm

    Great blog! Thanks for sharing your photos!

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