As one of the journalists drumming the fanfare for Adelaide’s Crafers Highway earlier this year – a construction widely regarded as an infrastrucutral, social and economic miletone – it comes as a humbling experience to be standing only a few months later at the crossroads of history.
But just what feature of the ancient trading route that is China’s Silk Road could be confidently described as the definitive crossroads? Xi’an, Dunhuang, Turpan, Urumqi, Lanzhou? Kashgar, perhaps, at nearly the westernmost point of China? A story about the Silk Road would be such an easier one to tell if there were a zenith, a place you visited from which you could walk away saying … “well, there you go, that’s the high point of the Silk Road.”
Take Jiayuguan Pass – the “Impregnable Pass under Heaven” – for instance. Now there’s a contender for the top spot, surely? The name has such a commanding authority. The Jiayu fort at Jiayuguan Pass, which stands at the western end of the Great Wall of China, lies between the Qilian and Mazong Mountains.
Taking a camel to breakfast
… returning from the “singing sands” at Dunhuang
Traders prepare for the day ahead, Kashgar Bazaar.
It once guarded the east-west passageway in and out of China along the Silk Road route (there are three recognised Silk Road routes, north, south and central and group tours can touch on features of all three, depending on who designed the itinerary).
It takes some effort to get there, too, with an air connection from Beijing to where the Silk Road crosses the Yellow River at Lanzhou, an overnight train to Jiuquan and a coach ride of an hour or so from there. You might wonder what the armies of ancient dynasties must have thought of their careers to have been stationed there. A legend involving the throwing of a pebble against a stone in order to test your likelihood of returning suggests soldiers were glad to leave this isolated outpost.
Consisting of three inner and outer walls and several lines of defense, the now refurbished fort is an impressive testimony to the voracity with which dynastic China guarded itself. But the high point of a Silk Road tour? Naah.
Surely then, the famous Mogao Grottos near Dunhaung in Gansu Province, reputed to be the greatest store of Buddhist art in the world, would be near the top of the list. It was from Mogao where Buddhism spread south and east through China, helping to shape the religious sphere of the nation.The first cave of the Mogao Grottos was carved out of the cliff-face in 366AD. There are 492 caves spread along 1600 metres of cliffs with 2,415 statues within and 45,000 square metres of extraordinary murals adorning the cave walls and ceilings. The piece de resistance is a Buddha statue standing more than 35 metres high. Even if you have only a passing interest in Buddhist relics, the sight of this gargantuan statue is sure to carve an indelible impression on your memory.
You can’t take cameras into the caves. You will have to check them into a station before you can enter, which is just as well. The statues have retained their color through being protected from sunlight and a gazillion flashing cameras would not only pick up where the sun can not penetrate but entirely spoil the very real sense of the sacredness of this place.
At the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves (thousand as in very many, not ten hundred), further west along the Silk Road near Turpan in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, you will see how the closer proximity to India lends its influence to the Buddhist relics. The Bezeklik caves are sited within a valley of the Flaming Mountains, so called for the deeply fissured red sandstone slopes which twist heavenward like a flickering fire, as if the desert from which they spring were aflame.
Which is not far from the truth. The Turpan Basin is the lowest point in China and at Aydingkol Lake the elevation falls to 154 metres below sea level, the second lowest place in the world. In summer, the ground temperature can reach 80 degrees celsius. You don’t walk barefoot here, at least not for very long.
Mogao and Bezeklik. Surely these rate as the best the Silk Road has to offer? Well, very nearly.
Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uygur region is the next major city on the westward journey from Turpan and, like so many others in provincial China, it rises quite suddenly from the highway on which you approach it; a modern metropolis of more than 1.5 million people gathered from a diverse ethnic mix. The Han Chinese, who dominate China’s population (and for whom the one-child policy is enforced, while those of other ethnic groups may have two children) are a minority in the western region, although they account for most of Urumqui’s population.
The Khazak, Hui, Mongolian, Kirgiz, Xibe, Tajik, Uzbek, Manchu, Daur, Tartar and Russians are all represented among close to 50 nationalities in the Xinjiang region. The most populous “minority”, however, are the Uygur, a wonderfully handsome and characteristic people, numbering more than seven million (half the region’s population), who have preserved an age-old lifestyle rich in a unique culture and art.
You will encounter the Uygur at Turpan where they tend one of the richest grape and melon growing districts in China. At Kashgar (or Kashi, as it is called in eastern China), on a Sunday, you will find them at perhaps their most colorful, where they practice their love of trading in Asia’s largest bazaar. Kashgar has drawn traders from afar since before Christ was born and is the meeting point of the northern and southern ancient Silk Road routes
The Sunday bazaar, which spreads through the city over an area greater than you could comprehensively cover on foot in one day, is a phenomenon you are unlikely to experience anywhere else. Kashgar must be right up there in the top ten of Silk Road experiences.
At the eastern extremity of the Silk Road in the Shaanxi Province, very near Xi’an – a city with a 3000 year old pedigree and capital of 11 of China’s dynasties – you will find the famed terracotta warriors of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. The warriors have been labelled the “eighth wonder of the world” – a reasonable summary by any standard.
Chanced upon in 1974 by some local farmers sinking a well, the terracotta army consists of 8000 soldiers, generals, horses, chariots, archers plus other relics, each of them a unique identity, standing in a fearsome battle formation, a lasting tribute to the first Chinese emperor to unify the nation. The relics are spread through three excavation pits and command the respect of all who visit the site.
A Silk Road highlight? Given that UNESCO has placed the terracotta army, along with Qin Shi Huang’s (yet to be opened) mausoleum on the World Heritage List, it would be churlish to say the warriors are anything less than a major attraction. But the major attraction? I think not.
There’s an old Chinese proverb that says “you can’t explain the ocean to a frog” and in the same way that a pond-dwelling creature can not hope to grasp the enormity of a body of water larger than the lands which form its shores, the foreign visitor journeying along the Silk Road is challenged to pinpoint the most important features of this most famed route. This is especially true, I believe, for those of us living south of the Timor Sea, accustomed to a chapter of history spawned by only 200 years of European occupation.
There is much to see and do on this great journey, a journey first undertaken by the envoy Zhang Qian, sent by Emperor Wu Di of the Han Dynasty 2000 years ago to forge relations with China’s western neighbors. Later, the Silk Road would be travelled by a host of eminent figures, not least of which was Marco Polo.
There are a hundred names you could add to this story. At Lanzhou, for instance, you would have missed an experience were you to omit from your itinerary a climb by foot or vehicle to White Pagoda Hill, which offers commanding views of the Gansu Province capital. At Danhuang, make time for some fun at Mingsha Dunes with a camel ride and a toboggan down the “singing sands”.
In Jiuquan, be sure to stop at the Jiuquan Hotel for a banquet. The chef there is a treasure who offered our group a memorable meal, which in China is really saying something. We were told a group of ten could enjoy a banquet for 400 yuen, which amounts to about A$8 a head. The jade cups of this city are also famous.
As for museums, you are truly spoilt for choice. In Xi’an’s Shaanxi Museum of History you can see priceless antiquities in superb condition dating from 221BC and before. This museum is acclaimed as the gallery of Chinese culture and you would be hard to please if you left unimpressed.
A new and relatively unknown museum in Xi’an is the one dedicated to the Han tombs and the nearby Yinglang Mausoleum excavation is, while minor compared to the Qin Shi Huang warriors, no less fascinating. Make time, also, for visiting the museums of regional towns and cities which, with the vast riches of China’s heritage to call on, frequently feature relics of great significance.
When in Urumqi, you are likely to visit Tianchi (Heavenly Lake) in the Tianshan Mountains, a place of such beauty with snow-capped peaks and conifer forests it should come as no surprise that it is held sacred by Taoists. Along the way, you will pass encampments of the nomadic Kazhak people and perhaps stop to take a look inside one of the round-framed tents with felt coverings known as yurts which they call home. Kazhak hospitality is legendary and the only regret I carried from China is that time could not be afforded to cross Tianchi and spend a few nights living with the Kazhaks and exploring the mountains by foot or horseback. Next time… for sure.
The names you could pull from this story are only some of the parts that make up the Silk Road. And you could reasonably presume that when it comes to the world’s oldest international trading route, the sum of its parts are greater than the whole. There are so many places to see and flavors along the Silk Road that the best thing you could do before heading west of Xi’an is to undertake some careful research.
Package tours offer the best way for the first-time visitor to China to travel the Silk Road. Even for return visitors, the convenience of a guide and translator helps smooth the journey so much that you would visit as an independent traveller only if you had some mastery of the language, plenty of time to spare and a sense of adventure equalled only by your thirst for a challenge. Standard package tours take in specific Silk Road routes and structure itineraries very tightly. Decide first on exactly what you want to see based on research and then choose a package tour product that best suits your needs or, budget allowing, have an agent experienced with China tourism to tailor a tour to your needs. Above all, be aware that you don’t “enjoy” China and the Silk Road in the same way you might “enjoy” a visit to the Great Barrier Reef or some other tourism mecca. The Silk Road is a lesson in the history and cultural evolution of the world’s most populous nation and promotes a sense of awe and wonder that will leave you, too, struggling for words to describe the experience.