The Ancient Silk Road

The Ancient Silk Road
June 2018

Following in the footsteps of monks, missionaries, artists and poets, Tricia Welsh joins a small group journey along the Silk Road.

Possibly no other natural feature has made such a lasting contribution to civilisation as the ancient Silk Road. Originating some 2,000 years ago, trade along the route connected remote countries and cultures, kingdoms and communities and was the main conduit between East and West.

Evocatively named by Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877, it was not only silk and other commodities that traversed its dusty tracks, but also information, innovation, ideas, art, religion, politics and even disease, such as the Black Death in the 14th century which accounted for some 25 million fatalities across Europe.

I am on the inaugural Abercrombie & Kent 10-day small group journey, The Ancient Silk Road in the remote Chinese provinces of Gansu and Xinjiang, travelling from Dunhuang to Kashgar via Turpan and the provincial capital, Urumqi. All are thriving oasis towns and exist purely because they were on the original 9,600km-long trading route from Xian in eastern China to Istanbul on the Mediterranean.

Mostly untouched by the West, the people here have little in common with the traditional Chinese of the East. The most noticeable difference is in the people themselves. Nine million of the 20 million inhabitants of Xinjiang province are Uighur Muslims whose features are more Persian, Turkic or Mongolian. They have their own Uighur language, which uses the Arabic alphabet, but to the untrained ear sounds more Turkish (it is from this family) or Russian. And their cuisine uses flavours and ingredients associated more with the Mediterranean ‒ pomegranate, dates, almonds and figs making regular appearances.

As we follow this historic route, we learn more about it every day. According to our local guide, Palida Maimaiti – herself a Uighur Muslim – the Silk Road was originally opened in 138BC when Zhang Qian, a Chinese diplomatic envoy was sent to the country’s western region to make an alliance of petty kingdoms with Imperial China. “These small kingdoms had always been threatened by the huge nomadic tribes in the area, called Xiungnu – also known as the Hun,” she explains.

Over the centuries, monks, missionaries, armies, artists, poets as well as businessmen travelled this network of roads. Mongolian warrior-ruler Genghis Khan occupied the whole region in the 12th century and later, Venetian explorer Marco Polo travelled along the Silk Road in the 13th century.

The Silk Road was shut in the 15th century during the Ming Dynasty when Emperor Yongle closed the doors to all countries, explains Palida. “The trade route was deserted, unused and almost forgotten, so the sea Silk Road started – with shipping via South China and southern Asia across the Indian Ocean,” she adds.

The modern-day Silk Road re-opened in the early 19th century – “not for trade, but for exploration.” Locals are perhaps rightly dark with adventurers such as Brit Auriel Stein, Frenchman Paul Pelliot, German Albert von Le Coq and Swede Sven Hedin among others, who drew maps of the old trade routes and helped themselves to many of the artifacts, manuscripts and scrolls. American Landen Warner even concocted a special glue to lift beautiful frescoes off cave walls without damaging them. But it was through their exploits, that the Silk Road became known to the rest of the world. “They made it an even more intoxicating real life adventure destination,” suggests Palida.

Which is how our small group, including A&K’s Managing Director, Sujata Raman, as a special host, come to find ourselves among just a handful of other fellow travellers in this relatively unknown autonomous region of China.

Following our flight from Beijing, some 2,000kms due east, our first stop is the oasis town of Dunhuang. It is ringed to the north by Mongolia, to the east by the 600m-high Mingsha sand dunes that are an extension of Mongolia’s vast Gobi Desert, to the southeast by the snow mountain Qilian, that provides the region’s vital water supply with snow melt, while 500kms to the west is the forbidding Taklamakan Desert – the second largest in the world and known as the ‘ghost’ desert, “because anyone going in, doesn’t come out.”

Dunhuang has always been an important stop on the celebrated Silk Road and today’s attractions naturally include sites that were of major importance hundreds of years ago. Significant among these are the Mogao Caves, more than 700 caves filled with painted statues and vibrant frescoes considered one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century and the best-preserved repository of Buddhist art in the world; and the little-known 11th century Buddhist Yulin Caves, whose cliff-face location above a dry river gully with shimmering poplars resembles that of an Indiana Jones movie.

Five years ago, the Mogao Caves visitors’ centre opened with a US$6 million donation from the Gates Foundation. Now with some 1.7 million visitors annually, daily visitations have been capped at 6,000.

A fun highlight is a ride into the towering Mingsha sand dunes on the backs of two-humped Bactrian camels – “the heroes of the desert,” who we learn can go for 15 days without water or food – the two humps retaining internal moisture.  We later munch on local dried green and black sultanas, pistachios and apricot kernels as the sun sets over the dunes.

It’s a two-hour drive to the new railway station at Liuyuan where we board the high-speed train for our onward journey to Turpan in Xinjiang province. Occupying 166sq kms, it is the largest Chinese province and accounts for one-sixth of the republic’s total land mass. En route, we pass battalions of wind farms whose spindly arms rotate in all directions on the endless Gobi Desert. Around the desolate townships of Hami, and further on Tuha, we see acres of solar panels, then hundreds of oil derricks see-sawing on the otherwise stony, featureless plain.  

Following the 2009 separatist riots in Urumqi, there is an obvious heightened police presence in Xinjiang. We notice this particularly in Turpan, and later in Kashgar, where there is seemingly a police station on every corner and increased personal and vehicle security checks.

In Turpan, we dine under a trellis of grapevines at the home of a local family where the community has come together to entertain us. As we arrive, musicians play classical music on traditional Uighur instruments such as the rawap – a long-necked stringed instrument, dap – a hand drum, and ghijek – a violin-like instrument.

Inside, the dining table is laden with bowls of assorted breads – including the curiously curly crispy sangza, sweet cakes, biscuits and fruit – which is all there for nibbling on but is soon removed to make way for more traditional dinner dishes such as thin-skin dumplings, a rice pilaf, goshnan – a large flat deep-fried pastry stuffed with mutton, onions and pepper, and lahman – a local staple of pulled noodles with chilli and green beans. Local dancers and singers in colourful costumes entertain us with gusto.

As is the A&K way, few dishes throughout the journey are repeated and we are fortunate enough to sample a wide range of flavours. Traditional Uighur restaurants are highly decorated with myriad bedecked archways, ornate velvet or brocade-furnished chairs and waiters in embroidered shirts wearing the signature doppa caps.

We visit markets and mosques, mausoleums and museums and discover each oasis town is known for a particular fruit: Kucha for sweet white apricots, Hami for delicious honey melons, Turpan for plump grapes and Kashgar for pomegranate and luscious figs.

A real highlight is a visit to the Sunday livestock bazaar in Kashgar that has been a lively feature of this oasis outpost in far northwest China for thousands of years. It encapsulates the little-changed lifestyle of these far-flung oasis communities that have made this harsh region their home for millennia.

We get caught up in the market melée as local farmers trade horses, cows and donkeys, drivers of bell-bedecked horse-drawn wagons tout for takers in their gay-sounding gypsy-style taxis while others spread out pretty coral beads and bells for sale. Goats line up head to tail like sardines in a tin, sheep stand patiently in pens and dozens of woolly-coated yaks await their fate. Elsewhere, crafty butchers make swift work of converting sheep on the hoof into tasty samsa – mutton-filled pastry snacks favoured by the local Uighur Muslim community – using a simple on-the-spot process of butchering, dicing, pastry-wrapping and then baking them in an open-air tandoor-style oven ready for peckish market-goers.

Strategically located on the ancient Silk Road close to the border with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and the Pamir Mountains, Kashgar has always been an important trading town in Central Asia. Despite recent rapid development where traditional mud-brick adobe houses are making way for new apartment blocks and multi-storey international hotels are opening up to cater for the increased number of tourists, it still retains its rural charm.

While our journey of discovery has helped demystify this little-known historic region a tad, we realise we’ve only just scraped the surface and the pile of bedside reading matter has now doubled.