Account of a seven weeks journey in the summer of 1998, following the Silk Road west from Xi’an in China to the oases in the Taklamakan Desert, and across the Karakorum Highway into Pakistan. Note that the photos have been scanned from slides, and some do need some improvement still.
(1) The Silk Road: a plan: A rough description of the geography of the Silk Road
One of the most fascinating journeys one can make is following the Silk Road, or Silk Route, that ancient trading route capturing the imagination of so many. In fact, it is not one road, but a network of trails and tracks that led from Xi’an – ancient Chang’An, China’s capital -, west through a narrow corridor between the Tibetan plateau to the South and Qing Shan mountains to the North to Dunhuang, at the edge of the Taklamakan Desert. From here, the Silk Route branched into a northern and southern arm, along the edges of the desert, to converge again at the other end, in Kashgar.
(2) Start in Xi’an: The beginning of the Silk Road was in Xi ‘an, the place known for its Terracotta Army, and its old mosque.
The Silk Road starts at Xi’an, the capital of China in the time that silk was traded. Xi’an’s history goes back to some 200 years BC, when it was founded by Qin Shi Huang, who for the first time united China as a single empire – the name China may even be a corruption of his name. He died soon afterwards, but left his marks, not only politically but also culturally: Xi’an has established its place in the world as the home of the Terracotta army, the only army that never moved anywhere.
(3) Travel to Tianshui: By train from Xi’an to Tianshui, a fairly slow, but comfortable way of traveling in ‘soft sleeper’ class.
As we had a train to catch, we did not linger around too long in Xi’an, and made our way to the railway station. We had purchased ‘soft sleeper’ tickets to our next destination, a place called Tianshui, about seven hours from Xi’an. China being a socialist country there are no classes, not even on the train.
(4) In Tianshui (1): The workings of a modern Chinese three-star hotel explained.
We arrived in Tianshui after dark, so we did not see much of the place that evening. As it turned out, there was not much to see, either, at least not in Beidao, the district where we had selected our hotel. Within minutes of us arriving in the hotel the English-speaking chamber maid was mobilised, who, within even fewer minutes, ran out of English vocabulary.
(5) In Tianshui (2): Spectacular setting of the Majishan Grottos, a Buddhist cave complex.
The reason for coming to Tianshui was the Maijishan Grottoes, Buddhist caves located some 35 km south of the Beidao district. So the next morning we got ourselves a taxi outside the hotel. Our female taxi driver was dressed in a tight black miniskirt and a black laced blouse, only the high-heeled shoes were missing…
(6) In Tianshui (3): A walk through an average Chinese city, with hutongs and temples, markets and street food.
In the afternoon we went to the other half of town, called Qincheng, which is some 20 km from Beidao. Pick up any bus that goes west, and you will be dumped in Qincheng, very simple. Next to the drop-off point was, unexpectedly, the market. Only later during our journey we began to appreciate that…
(7) Lanzhou: Sunday entertainment in Langzhou, from beach chairs and fortune tellers along the Langzou Riviera to cable cars and karaoke on White Pagoda Hill.
Entry into Lanzhou by train is depressing. It was the end of the afternoon, beautiful low sun light, but this could not compensate for the drab scenes of worn-out apartment buildings surrounding old, almost derelict factories that still manage to exhume huge plumes of dense, foul-smelling and foul looking smoke.
(8) Linxia and Bingling Si: An excursion to the Bingling Si Buddhist cave complex and the sleepy Muslim town of Linxia.
The next day we went to Bingling Si, touted as one of the four most important Chinese Buddhist cave complexes (many more than four complexes are touted as one of the most important four…). The caves are located in a spectacular setting, up a steep river valley of one of the tributaries of the Yellow River.
(9) Xiahe: About bus travel, and a visit to the Labrang Monastery in Little Tibet.
In Linxia we connected with transport to Xiahe, home of the most famous Tibetan Monastery outside Tibet, the Labrang Monastery. We missed the 09.00 am bus, the next morning, so we got on the 09.30. There is an advantage of being early, on Chinese buses, as you can choose you seat. However, when we left the bus station, we were only with six passengers, and we had the uneasy feeling…
(10) Travel to Zhanye: By train from Lanzhou to Zhanye, with views from the train window, and from our fellow passengers.
Returning to Lanzhou, we booked into a hotel near the railway station, as we planned an earlier departure the next day. As so often in Chinese hotels, we got numerous calls during the night, with offers of massage. Now there are genuine massage people in China, but when they call you at eleven at night, you can bet that you are dealing with prostitutes.
(11) In Zhanye: Some local attractions in the town of Zhanye, and an excursion to the temple and Buddhist caves of Mati Si.
We arrive in the evening in Zhanye, a mud pit after the rain, distinctly unattractive, but the next day it had cleared up, allowing a wonderful view over the snow-peaked mountains of the Tibetan Plateau. Although Zhanye has some tourist attractions of its own, the real reason to stop off here is to get to Mati Si, a small and little visited Buddhist Monastery perched against the mountains, some 60 km south of Zhanye.
(12) Jiayuguan: Jiayaguan sports the end of the Great Wall, or rather the Great Mud Ramp, and it also seems to be the last fortress of Chinese communism.
We were pleased to find ourselves in a deluxe train the next day, on the way to Jiayuguan, our next target. The carriage was adorned with carpets, curtains, and very comfortable chairs, and every so often somebody came along with drinks or food for sale. The scenery became more and more desolate, desert dominated, although occasionally we would still pass a small settlement, where people had managed to cultivate the soil around them. But beyond every green enclave the desert would be back, and the further west we went, the more ferocious the desert looked.
(13) Origins of the Silk Road: From the hunt for horses, 2000 years ago, to the hunt for treasures, a 100 years ago.
The Great Wall was built in 221 BC, to keep the barbarians out, every Chinese history book will tell you so. The Hsiung-nu – people who also gained eternal fame in Europe as the Huns, indeed symbol of destruction and barbarism -, had been attacking the Chinese for hundreds of years already. In order to find allies for his battle with the Huns, the Emperor at the time sent an envoy west, the first time somebody was to explore beyond the wall.
(14) Travel to Dunhuang: Entrepreneurship revisited, back on the tourist trail in Dunhuang.
The bus to Dunhuang, the site of China’s most famous Buddhist caves, was different from the buses we had taken so far. This was a long-distance bus, relatively spacious, and with numbered seats, although Chinese are clearly not used to that, and it took some convincing to get them out of our seats.
(15) Dunhuang (1): The first 20th century explorers, and the great manuscript robbery.
The last place on the way out for Chinese travelers that could be counted in some way to China, even though it is way beyond the end of the Great Wall – and the first on the way back – is Dunhuang. It is here that the Silk Road bifurcates in a northern and a southern branch, skirting the Taklamakan desert. All travelers left through the Jade Gate, leaving behind what they considered the last traces of civilization, also the relative security, for an uncertain future full of natural and man-made dangers
(16) Dunhuang (2): A dune landscape and the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang
The tourist attractions in Dunhuang are the local sand dune scenery and the Mogao caves, reputedly the most beautiful Buddhist caves in China. The dunes, some 200-300 m high and just outside town, have also been high-jacked by the local tourist industry, who have erected a gate, which in China is sufficient to start charging entry.
(17) Travel to Urumchi: A local flight from Dunhuang to Urumchi, and a spectacular view of the Tianshan Mountains.
On the next leg of our journey we lost the credibility of the entire back packer community. We cheated, and instead of taking the train via Hami to Urumchi, an 18 hour trip which is described in the guide books as a particularly uninteresting stretch through the desert, with absolutely nothing to see right nor left, we decided to fly. This reduced our travel time to two hours, and provided us with much more attractive views from the plane that we would have got from anywhere along the train tracks.
(18) In Urumchi: A stroll through this Uygur town; a tale of markets and minorities.
Arriving in Urumchi is arriving in a different world, somehow. The town was not a prominent station on the Silk Route, it is located too far north, but it was established as capital and administrative centre of Xinjiang Autonomous Region in the 1960s. The big boost came in 1963, with the completion of the railway link from Lanzhou, connecting the rest of China. But in atmosphere it is not China anymore, it is Xinjiang, distinctly different.
(19) Excursion to Tianchi: Yurts, lakes and Chinese tourists: one of those three doesn’t belong in the concept of peaceful unspoiled nature.
Just outside Urumchi, high in the mountains, is Tianchi, or Heavenly Lake. When we visited, on a day tour from Urumchi, the weather was cloudy, obscuring the snowy peaks that no doubt surround the lake. We had hoped to spend a day in peaceful natural surroundings, but, as every tourist attraction goes in China, Heavenly Lake is heavily developed.
(20) Travel to Turpan: The first leg of the journey to Kashgar: more about bus travel and Chinese road discipline.
From Urumchi one has several options for travel to Kashgar. Easiest is, of course, to take a plane, but that did not suit our plans. After all, we had come to see this part of the world, and which better way, if not necessarily comfortable, is there than overland. There are direct buses between Urumchi and Kashgar, which travel day and night and take some 30 to 36 hours, if one is lucky. However, 60 hours on this trip is also not uncommon. Having a dislike for night travel, especially in China, we opted for the slow way, stopping off in towns in between.
(21) Desert Cities around Turpan: There are many ancient ruins of buried desert cities around Turpan, as well as Buddhist caves, but little is left after early 20th century archaeological exploration removed most of the frescoes.
All around the Taklamakan desert, and even right in the middle of it, existed oases, that played an important role from the 3rd to 10th century in facilitating the trade along the Silk Route. Some of these town were just garrison towns, established to house the Chinese army which tried to protect the Silk Road, others were individual kingdoms with varying degrees of autonomy. Many were home to large Buddhist monasteries.
(22) In Turpan: Chinese road traffic rules explained, during a tour of Turpan’s main attractions, its mosques and minarets, its market and its grape-covered courtyards
Turpan today is a nice little Uygur town, with a range of touristic spots around. To see it all we rented a Miandi, a Chinese version of a mini-bus, real mini, with a friendly, English and Japanese speaking Uygur driver.
(23) To Korla and Kuqa: To a disappointing lake, a modern Chinese oil town and on to Kuqa, with plenty of entrepreneurship again.
The road to Korla, especially the mountain crossings, is beautiful, but ultimately becomes monotonous. Progress was slow, traffic was heavy, and in places the road was in bad condition And the much heralded Bosten Lake, expected to be the highlight of this stretch, was outright disappointing. After a much longer detour than expected we arrived at the shores of this lake, situated in the middle of the desert.
(24) In Kuqa: An exciting market town, and a lot less exciting ruins.
Kuqa then. Kuqa is divided in a new city part, by which I have mentioned everything there is to say about this part, and an old part. And here is where it really happens. The reason for pushing for progress the last few days was to be in Kuqa on Friday, the day of the weekly market, and a warming-up for Kashgar’s Sunday market. One does not need to ask for directions, just follow the crowds.
(25) Exploration around Kuqa: Discoveries near Kuqa triggered the treasure hunt some 100 years ago: the merits of theft, or otherwise.
The Kuqa area is another area that is rich in ancient desert cities and caves, and perhaps the origin of the Western interest of the early 20th century. It was here that local treasure hunters found a couple of ancient manuscripts while digging for gold and silver. The manuscripts ended up in the hands of the local elite, who, through a chance encounter, sold them on to a British officer
(26) Aksu: To a distinctly Chinese town along the Silk Road, and an uncomfortable experience.
When we went to the bus station, to purchase our tickets to Aksu for the next day, we found the ticket counter abandoned. After some investigation, we noticed an uniformed lady, playing cards with the attendants of the refreshments shop, which was therefore also temporarily closed.
(27) Hotan: A visit to a silk factory and more ancient ruins, in an overall tense atmosphere.
We flew out of Aksu the next morning, in bright sunshine, which allowed us a view of the magnificent, snow-capped mountains to the west, towards the border with Kazachstan. But the weather in Hotan was miserable, overcast, it even rained, an unusual prospect in the desert. Hotan is the centre of jade, silk and Chinese carpets. To visit a silk factory, outside town, we took a local bus. We got off right in front of the factory, and walked through a gate without being stopped
(28) Exploration around Hotan: The story of the famous manuscript forgeries.
Hotan, also referred to as Khotan, was one of the towns where the 20th century exploration began, partly because the first explorers came across the mountains from India, and Khotan was the first of the Taklamakan oases on their way backtracking the Silk Road. A second reason for initial interest in Khotan, however, was that from here originated several early manuscripts that had been purchased by early British travellers
(29) Travel to Kashgar: Another long bus ride, and the local Kashgar hotel scene.
The final leg to Kashgar was supposed to take ten hours by bus, but turned out to be much longer, due to the usual attempt to overload the bus with passengers and luggage. When we finally reached the desert again we both sighted, at least no more stops for a while. That was right, but we had not counted on the sandstorm that crossed our path.
(30) In Kashgar: A look around Kashgar, an attractive town, with possibly the biggest market in the world.
The old town of Kashgar is very picturesque, somewhat elevated, with winding streets, lined with two and three story buildings, decorated with arched balconies, all very un-Chinese. The atmosphere is reminiscent of the Middle East, with small shops selling gold jewelry, embroidered prayer hats, flat breads and kebabs. Metal workers produce kettles in all shapes and forms. The only problem is the smell
(31) Across the Karakoram Highway: The ultimate mountain crossing, the Himalayas, awesome! And the lovely Hunza Valley in Pakistan.
The bus to Pakistan departs around noon, for a two day trip over the Karakoram Highway. The bus is mainly populated with foreign tourists and Pakistani traders, and for the first time during our travels contained only very few Chinese. At the end of the first day the bus reaches Tashkurgan, the last town on the Chinese side of the border.