Two thousand years ago royal envoys, evangelists and traders on camel caravans laden with silks and spices and mirrors and jewels could take up to a year or more to trudge across China and Central Asia and on to Europe. Today, travelers can journey in comfort and safety along China’s 4600-km portion of the Silk Road in a few all-too-short weeks.
This odyssey beyond imagination begins in Xian in Shaanxi Province, proceeds past Lanzhou and Dunhuang in Gansu Province and continues on northwest to Turpan, Urumqi and Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
Aided by numerous world-class attractions – the most significant being the terracotta army and horses of China’s first emperor of the Qin Dynasty – Xian is already an established player on the China’s tourist circuit. Lanzhou, the capital of neighboring Gansu Province, is not although this 2000-year-old town once functioned as a military post of strategic importance on the Silk Road.
Lanzhou’s trump card is its location at the meeting point of two plateaus on the Yellow River. For a panoramic perspective, we climbed countless steps to the top of the city’s 1700 meter high landmark, White Pagoda Mountain.
The sweeping view from a delightful latticed pavilion encompassed ornate pagodas, concrete office towers and old teahouses on the riverbank as well as a green domed mosque, a 500 year old water wheel from the Ming Dynasty and speed boats swishing through the muddy waters of the Yellow River.
These same waters flow past one of the wonders of China, the Bingling Si Caves. It was around 420 AD that reclusive Buddhist monks began carving the first of 183 caves into the solid rock face of a secluded canyon on the northern bank of the Yellow River.
While the interior of each cave was in turn embellished with statues or murals the star attraction at Bingling Si is a 27 meter seated Buddha During Silk Road times caravans crossed the river here and proceeded northwest to Dunhuang.
During our two-hour jet flight between Lanzhou and Dunhuang the predominant color of the mainly flat landscape morphed from field green to desert brown. Nearly smothered by the brown, pebble-strewn Gobi Desert the jade green oasis of Dunhuang still has the aura of a frontier town.
Palms and other hearty trees line dusty streets. Donkey carts slowly plod alongside cyclists and pedal-powered three-wheeled taxis. No one seems to be in much of a hurry except time-tight tourists who generally stay only one night in this dune-backdropped outpost.
Skyscraping sand dunes complete with obligatory camels, a picturesque crescent-shaped spring, souvenir hawkers and food vendors selling strange looking and far stranger smelling concoctions lures of Dunhuang. The World Heritage-listed Mogao Grottoes are an even more significant attraction.
A half-hour drive on a well-constructed desert highway brought us to what’s considered to be the oldest, richest, largest and most valuable treasure house of Buddhist grotto art in the world. Beginning in the 4th century AD nearly 500 caves were hand carved out of a 1600 meter long sandstone cliff face of Mingsha Mountain.
Then the hard work began as the inside of each cave was decorated with frescoes – some 45,000 square meters of artwork – or sculpture. In ancient times travelers journeying along the Silk Road would stop at the grottoes for a blessing from the Buddhist monks and then obtain water from the small oasis nearby.
There’s a lace curtained express train that takes 13 hours to speed between Dunhuang and Turpan, an oasis with a difference. The Turpan Basin at the foot of the Flaming Mountains is the lowest place in China and the second lowest in the world, next only to the Dead Sea.
Because of the low elevation temperatures are extreme ranging from a bone chilling -40°C in January to a searing but dry +50°C in July. Though it’s oven hot from April to August this is the prime tourist season. It’s also the prime time for growing cereals, cotton, oil-bearing plants, melons and even grapes.
Thanks to abundant sunshine, rich soil and a plentiful water supply from the nearby mountains Turpan City is at the heart of China’s burgeoning wine industry.
In the vine-accented Golden Grape Valley outside the town we walked past stallkeepers selling sultanas and raisins and stopped at a wine kiosk. A reasonable red, “You Go”, and a Riesling-like, “Lou Lan”, were available to sample at $1 a glass.
From late August to late September this year the quaint town will again host swarms of tourists eager to savor the cultural and gastronomic delights of the “Grape Festival and Grape Sightseeing Month”.
While there are some 81,000 hectares under vines today grapes have been grown in the Turpan Basin for some 2000 years. Even older is Gao Chang. Built in the 1st century BC all that’s left today of this ancient center near Turpan is a bone-dry cityscape of the rammed earth ruins of monasteries, palaces and living quarters for monks.
From Turpan it’s a half-day, 200-km drive to Urumqi. The modern national highway is a fitting introduction to the increasing sophistication of the capital of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Over breakfast at the Holiday Inn Urumqi we met with several Australians who were engaged in developing infrastructure in this business and commercial center of northwest China.
For many travelers this large industrial and commercial city is the end of their Silk Road odyssey. After wandering through the city’s fascinating ethnic markets and making excursions to the lovely Heavenly Lake and the exquisite waterfalls in the Valley of the White Poplars they fly back to Beijing or Guangzhou and connect with overseas flights home.
Located at the edge of the even more desolate Taklamakan Desert – second only to the Sahara as a sandy wasteland – much of Kashgar retains the atmosphere of a medieval trading post.
While the town abounds in magnificent monuments, mosques and mausoleums the most memorable experience is to simply stroll its time-honored streets where you instantly become part of a bygone era.
Families in ethnic costume use donkey carts to transport their goods to the bazaar. Chefs at roadside stalls smile as they offer a shish kebab sample while artisans noisily hammer brass and copper into household goods. Nearby a white-bearded Muslim vendor wearing a white cap sits before his stock of decorated knives, a souvenir specialty.
With only a little stretch of the imagination it’s easy to believe that you have transversed time and gone back 1000 years to the hey day of the fabled Silk Road.