There is so much historical context to this trade route that it would be useful to first introduce a disclaimer about the following content. The accounts that we share are basis research available at the point of time of the journey. That is, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. While we will attempt to update this as much as possible, the realm of archaeology is very much outside of our expert area.
A fine fabric, the ‘domestication’ of the silk worm is shrouded in mystery and much hearsay. Given that documentary and anthropological evidence continuously are unearthed with each new find, it is challenging to establish a date of firsts in its use. Whatever or wherever this was first adopted, it appears that the ancient Chinese were the first to use it extensively as a fabric.
The ‘silk road’ if there ever was one, definitely made its way through many parts of western China that we are now in. And this journey is sort of “backwards”, ie we are headed in a easterly direction towards Chang An (长安) rather than towards Rome.
Our journey would traverse through the “northern” section of the trade route, making stops along Turfan, Hami and Dunhuang before reaching the Hexi corridor of present day Gansu province. It was a two-week long overland adventure during which the patience of some were tested to its limits.
You would have read about our adventures riding in the foothills of the Tianshan (天山) mountain ranges around Urumuqi with the Kazakh people (read here). Well, we are now headed out to the cities that were full participants along the famed trade route. Now there is one thing about this part of the world – and that it is dry. Not quite desert (yet) but definitely not as lush. And water is thus a very critical element in where cities are sited.
And so Jiaohe (交河) was one such city. Now a crumbling ruin preserved in stone and sand, the city sat at the former confluence of two dried up rivers, hence its name given today. It is an old city, hailing definitely from
before the Han dynasty era but only recorded from that time as the Silk road was opened up by armies from the Middle Kingdom. And it served as an administrative center for the region too for that long period of time. Because it is by a steep cliff overlooking the two rivers on three sides, it does not have large city walls. Changing hands many times up till the Mongol invasions, it was only abandoned after being destroyed by Genghis Khan.
Yet another city not far from modern day Turfan is Gaochang (高昌). Unlike its neighbor just 50km away, this city was the seat of a Kingdom till the mid 600s. The political climate of central Asia has always been in a flux (as it is now).
And so it was in this part of the Silk road too with the tides of different peoples dominating at different times. But this was surprisingly the outpost of Chinese civilization for this is also where the mummified bodies of settlers can be found in large numbers. Said to number more than 1000, they have yielded a trove of knowledge (and artefacts) about how people lived in this seemingly inhospitable area.
Grottoes that remain preserved
Now not only did goods traveled along the Silk road. Along it came ideas and innovations too. And it was mainly from the west towards China. What was one of the most important ideas that were transmitted? Why religion and philosophy of course!
Nestorian Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Islam. These are the religions that made their way across the sands of the trade route, following merchants and priests seeking new adherents. And like many places in the world, the faithful demonstrated their dedication through the commissioning of the arts.
Our first encounter with such magnificent places of preserved religious art was close to Gaochang. The Bezeklik grottoes have 77 rock cut caves. While we did not take photos of the interior (which was not allowed), murals adorn the caves depicting the Buddha. Unfortunately like many other archaelogy sites around the world, it was ‘looted’ by explorers and researchers of the day. It is interesting to note the features of the Buddha figures, because they bear resemblance of Caucasian people. Truly this was a place where people of many ethnic groups interacted.
Thus, not less spectacular would be the Mogao (莫高窟) grottoes near the modern city of Dunhuang (敦煌), yet another stop along the Silk Road. It was an overnight train journey via Hami to Liuyuan before we can get there. Established in 111 BC by the Han dynasty, the city was a major military garrison.
The caverns nearby were initially said to be places for hermits to meditate, but over time as in Bezeklik, wealthy patrons began to commission fantastic art murals to be painted in the caves. And it was not spared the pillaging that damaged and led to the dispersal of a lot of the precious art around the world. Today however, there has been even more of the caves discovered as work continues on researching into these fabulous caves. When we visited we were honored to have been shown around by the curator himself, who led us to un-opened caves that were locked. It was certainly an eye opening experience! But in order to come to this, one must experience
The sandy and hot desert
How can one miss the sandy and rocky stretches of Central Asia. First, to be clear not all of Central Asia is desert. The steppes as they call it can be a mix of rolling hills and forests but the area which the Silk route took was on the edges of the deserts that lead towards the highland of Tibet to the south.
Passing through a stretch called the Huoyan (火炎山) or flaming mountains, one is reminded of a story about how the Monkey god made a pilgrimage to the west. In that spin of yarn, the Monkey god is said to have ‘borrowed’ the magical fan to put out the fires on the mountains there. Ironically it was he who had set the mountain ablaze in the first place when he created chaos in the heavens…but there is fact behind this. The mountains record a 50°C in the summer months, which is literally flaming to the human body.
Near to Dunhuang (5km) there is a stretch of mountain that looks more like sand dunes. Well, only the foothills of it apparently. Actually we could see it from our hotel. It is called Mingsha shan (鸣沙山), or loosely translated to mean “echoing sand mountain”.
While legends and stories attempt to explain the reasons for the sounds that the mountain seem to make, the scientific explanation is about how the wind cause friction as its direction changes. Sand boarding is now a sport that you can try here (just as we did in Perth), just remember it is a tough climb…
and speaking about that, we had traveled on camels – not just sit and pose on them but actually led like a caravan to a crescent shaped spring lake in the midst of these desert sands. A miracle indeed it is not smothered by the sand! That’s why there is a lush setting of an oasis.
Now this little lake is said to look like a crescent, though we did not really see it since it was really dark by the time we got there…ok reasons to return perhaps.While one is here, why not drop by a movie set that sought to re-enact a Sung dynasty town. It is replete with properties such as shops, restaurants and taverns prevailing from that period of time. Designed with city imposing city walls, the set was originally a joint production with Japan in 1987, but eventually expanded. At the time of our visit, it was merely an abandoned set where tourists stopped over on the way to Dunhuang. But today, one might run into ancient beauties shopping for perfumes or cosmetics!
Well, this conclude part one. So far, we have gone approximately 800km on the road.
The cultural insights of the trade route thus far has been quite a treat for the eyes and hears. Caravans of old would had to traverse through the same road as we, but using a mix of camels and horses. And they would have taken a lot longer and have to endure the much more of the hardship that the expanse of arid land emanated.
Next up, we are headed near to the “borders” of the traditional sphere of Chinese influence. We will find a lot more vestiges of Chinese dynastic influences the more we head east. Continue on this journey with us with Part Two here.
Our journey took place in October 1998