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Published: December 4th 2009
Xi'an: the Bell Tower
In the heart of the city, in the middle of a roundabout.
These days you don't have to be an adventurer like Marco Polo to travel China's Silk Road. It is a chain of cities and towns linked by road, rail and sometimes air services. But it is still and adventure to travel it. I spent two weeks on just one of its many routes, from Xi'an in the east, to Kashgar in the west.
The plan was simple: from Hong Kong take a bus to Shenzhen, fly to Xi'an, take a train to Tianshui, Lanzhou, Zhangye, Jiayuguan, and Turpan, take a bus to Urumqi, and then fly to Kashgar, and after Kashgar fly to Beijing to play with the Hong Kong Dragons in the Aussie Rules China Cup.
Like all good adventures, it was a journey away from the familiar. Western food and English language basically ended in Xi'an. I got by on deficient Mandarin skills only through the patience and tolerance of the people I met, who were uniformly friendly and welcoming. But even Mandarin was no use way out west, in parts of Urumqi and most of Kashgar, where many of the people are ethnic Uighurs. In Kashgar my only word of Turkish, Mahaba (a polite but basic
greeting), received claps and cheers from a school group that came to say 'hello'. And therein lays the most rewarding part of travelling along the Silk Road - the change in human faces, language, and religion as you move from China's heartland to the furthest reaches of its empire. The change in landscape is also dramatic, from fertile valleys and forested hills, to barren mountains, broad rivers and deserts. But the other, well known sights are also remarkable, and I've tried, inadequately, to describe some of them below.
Xi'an is a great place to start a trip along the Silk Road. Although it is predominantly a modern city, with all the blandness that entails, it retains delightful links with the past and evidence of China as a remarkable historical empire. The city (Ming Dynasty) walls and watchtowers are wonderful to walk around; the Bell Tower and Drum Tower are beautiful to see, and the Muslim Quarter, where many of the people look more Turkish than Han Chinese, reflects an historic link across the continents that is rich with the communities that have resulted. Outside of Xi'an, the Terracotta Warriors give silent testimony of an incredible civilisation (210 BC). It
is easy to awed by the undertaking involved in creating this terracotta world designed to keep the Emperor company in the afterlife - 60,000 individually crafted figures, complete with weapons. The main burial site of the Emperor is yet to be excavated, but it is believed to have been even more lavish than the pits uncovered so far.
Near Tianshui, the Majishan Grottoes contain thousands of Buddhas cut into the side of the mountain. It seems that pious Buddhists hung by ropes along the sheer face of the mountain to carve these marvels that, even with the benefit of the modern but dodgy steps and railing, are an effort to get to and see. But once you're there, it is wonderfully worth it. There's great diversity among the sculptures, and although the brightly coloured paints and dyes have faded, the sculptures themselves are well preserved.
Zhangye has perhaps the worst hotels I encountered, with the hotel of choice being the least awful. But there was a lot to see in the city, and sleeping was not such a priority. One of my favourites was the reclining Buddha of over 30 feet in length. Buddhas are often serene looking,
Xi'an: The Muslim Quarter
BBQ beef squewers, just like I used to eat in Pakistan.
but to see a giant Buddha lying down is one of the most peaceful sights I've seen. It seems to radiate calm. Sitting in the evening with a view of the Drum Tower was also a delight.
However, Jiayuguan is hard to beat for Silk Road spectacle. The Great Wall, recently rebuilt in parts, snakes across the edge of the Gobi desert and winds its way up a mountain before ending abruptly on a desolate and inhospitable peak. It was the end of China's empire in the Ming Dynasty - the final outpost of civilisation. To keep the barbarians out there's a fort with gates (three of them inside the fortification) that control east - west movement.
Turpan, a potentially pleasant city of broad avenues and omnipresent grapevines, deserves more than the few days I spent there. A 3km stroll from my hotel, along a busy city road that soon turned into a country lane lined with poplars, is the Emin Mosque. Its simple lines are elegant and dignified. The entrance invites you in, and once inside it is hard to resist the tranquillity. Outside of Turpan there's a number of other remarkable sights, such as Flaming Mountain,
which at the right time of day and with the aid of mind-altering substances, flames can be imagined to dance along the reddish mountain side; the Bezeklik Tombs, once impressively decorated caves for the dead, are now bare thanks to German archaeologists who cut and shipped the reliefs to Europe; and Jiaohe, a city built 2,000 years ago that is now in need of a major refit.
Two hours by bus from Turpan is Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang province and home to some disgruntled Uighurs. Riots earlier this year resulted in a significant military presence, with armed soldiers patrolling streets in an incongruous, robotic and unmistakably menacing way. Urumqi would be ugly were it not for a large park in the middle of the city, which even in late autumn with weak sun and bare trees, was a delightful place to stroll and sit and look over the trees and historic buildings to Urumqi's modern skyline. Outside of Urumqi, at 2000 metres above sea level, is Tianchi, a lake surrounded by snow-covered mountains and pine forests. The lake's water is dark and cold, but the blue sky and the shimmering golden path laid on the water's surface by the
sun give it a pristine beauty.
Arriving at Kashgar airport was a bit disconcerting. The mob of taxi drivers waiting outside scratched their heads and made it clear they didn't know the hotel I wanted to go to. This was surprising to me, as the hotel's name is "the Kashgar Hotel" and in addition to treating them to my idiosyncratic but improving Chinese, I showed them the name of the hotel in English and Chinese characters. Fortunately, a voice in the background said in Chinese "I know it", and I happily took his cab. And then I realised, the other taxi drivers did not understand or read Chinese. Most of the signs in Kashgar are in both Chinese characters and Arabic script. The Xinhua book shop has as many beginner readers for Chinese as Arabic script, and Chinese gets you nowhere in the interesting parts of the city near the Id Gah Mosque. But this added to Kashgar's charm, and I spent a few days strolling around its old city taking in the sights of craftsmen and their shops that would be equally at home in the Middle East.
The adventure ended too quickly, and I was soon
on a flight to Beijing. Fortunately, trading backpacking hotels for the Hilton in Beijing was a consolation, as was playing football the next day against Beijing. We (the Hong Kong Dragons) won, meaning the China Cup is now at home in Hong Kong. Seeing my friend and former language tutor Jenny (Zhou Jing) was also a treat. In retrospect, finishing a Silk Road trip in Beijing is fitting - it radiates a sense of power and empire. China is huge and diverse. Controlling it is no easy matter. No wonder the contemporary communist regime draws so much on the traditions of the Emperors.
I arrived home after midnight on a Monday morning that was the start of a busy week at work. Simone and I exchanged news of the previous weeks and I got to bed at 2am. Byron joined us in bed before 6am. Simone was trying to settle him and put him on a pillow between us. He soon realised I was home, and enthusiastically started smacking me on the head. We wanted him to sleep, so I pretended to be sleeping, but the whacks got stronger and his little squeals of delight grew louder, so I
eventually opened my eyes. Filling my vision was Byron's happy grin, and on meeting my eyes he gave me one more smack of greeting. It was a lovely welcome, and that was soon followed by Georgia waking, and all of us moving to the dining room, where both of them gave me hugs under a sign saying "welcome home dad".
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