Before we called it Turkmenistan, Western geographers used to refer to the arid, stony piece of land immediately east of the Caspian Sea as Trans-Caspia, because nobody was sure what it was. Was it Turkey? Persia? Or perhaps Mongolia? Two thousand years ago the Parthians fought off the Roman Empire from here, while in the twelfth century AD the Seljuqs of Merv turned the area into the cultural centre of the Islamic world, controlling an empire which stretched from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea.

In terms of geography though, the area only ever had one selling point: its central location on the Silk Road, providing bridges between Europe and China, Central Asia and Persia. Hence its misfortune to have been gobbled up in the nineteenth century by the Russians, who severed all bridges not leading to Moscow.

The latest owners of Trans-Caspia are the Turkmen, who unexpectedly found themselves in charge of a country in 1991, and have since set about restoring their place as the centre of the world. Last year they reopened the old border with Iran: I set out to cross this border.

At the bus station in Masshad, it was not hard to spot the travellers to Ashkabad. The male Turkmens managed to look drunk, even though this was Iran. The Turkmen women likewise seemed oblivious of local sensibilities. With bright red woollen stockings, purple, green and orange headscarves and dresses I thought they were mounting a deliberate challenge to their Iranian counterparts, every one of whom was covered in a demure shade of black.

The bus set off through the dusty landscape of Khorasan province with jagged mountains serrating the horizon. Before turning north, we made a pit-stop at a vegetable whole-sale market, where the Turkmen jumped out to buy sacks of potatoes. Reviving the Silk Road? This was the Central Asian equivalent to stacking up on duty-free beer.

The road began to climb into desolate mountains, but just after we had cleared all signs of civilisation, the bus gave a terminal groan and stopped dead in its tracks. The driver glanced into the gear-box. "It's a write- off," he announced.

My fellow passengers looked sanguine about this news considering that an icy wind was blowing and there was no traffic in sight.

What of it. This was the Silk Road. After an hour or two, taxis began showing up on the horizon like hounds on a distant scent. And I soon found myself being driven off to the border alongside a gang of Turkmen. The empty road wound through silent hills. I didn't feel that an explosion in trade was about to set the area ablaze.

As for crossing the border, this was just like penetrating the sacred frontiers of the Soviet Union. On the way up to the crossing point I was joined by four Turkmen ladies dressed like liquorice all-sorts who seemed bent on single-handedly re-enacting the entire Silk Road trade, so colossal was their collection of boxes, sacks, bags and copper kettles.

"How we love to travel," one of them tittered gaily, in a heavily nasal Russian accent. "But Iran is backward. Russia is so much more modern." And I had thought Russia was passe in these parts.

The actual border was like a Cold War thriller, a barrier gate surrounded by chill barren slopes. Armed guards from each country were loitering. I was ordered into a hut, where a large, blonde Turkmen official, who looked like a Le Carre interpretation, sat alone by a charcoal stove chewing toast.

He smiled. The hut was the cosiest place within a hundred mile radius and for a moment I considered changing my sexual orientation in order to thicken the plot. But he just sat, chewing toast and smiling.

Even after escape from the hut, it would still be hours to Ashkabat. The bus didn't roll off until nightfall. I sat squashed together in darkness with two wild men of the steppe in hats the size of sheep.

We crept down the mountain at a restrained pace that would have been remarkable had we had headlights. It was only when a dim sprinkling of lights from Ashkabad down below came into view, that the driver decided to get moving: he pointed the bus at the lights and accelerated, hopefully.

It is from such optimistic beginnings that trans-continental empires and trade routes spring.