In spite of the brashness of contemporary China, it is still possible to feel very close to the ancient Silk Road as we found on our recent trip across the north west of the country.
Like travellers of old, we stood dwarfed and awed by the scale of Xian’s ancient walls rising before us in the early grey morning rain. Walking along the broad parapet, the huge watch towers and golden roofs of the Lama temple stood in stark relief against the backdrop of row upon row of modern skyscrapers. The Muslim Quarter bombarded our senses with the sights, smells and sounds of merchants selling every manner of culinary treat imaginable – from succulent kebabs, honeyed sesame brittle and fresh pomegranate juice to roasted lotus seeds and deep-fried squid. We squeezed our way through the maze of narrow streets bursting with throngs of people, drinking in the huge variety of foodstuffs, the noisy banter and the thousands of competing neon lights.
The next morning, passing the giant statue of Zhang Qian, the Han Dynasty imperial envoy credited with establishing the original Silk Road, we began our journey proper at the 21st century railway station where one of China’s newest bullet trains would whisk us south to Lanzhou at speeds of up to 247 km per hour.
Rising before dawn, we joined groups of pilgrims to the great Buddhist monastery of Labrang, high on the Tibetan Plateau. In the cold, thin morning air of this high plateau, we walked with them on their perambulation of the perimeter of the monastery, spinning some of the thousand brightly painted prayer wheels as we walked. A few hours later, we joined hundreds of monks in their morning prayers. The dark temple twinkled with the light of butter lamps and the deep sound of male chanting accompanied at intervals by drums, horns and cymbals, seemed as ancient as the Silk Road on which we were still travelling today.
Clambering into small boats on the shore of a huge lake, its mirrorlike stillness only punctuated by occasional fishermen and seabirds, we peered with curiosity at the far-off shore, wondering about the Bingling Buddhist caves we had been told were out there somewhere.
As the lake merged into the mighty Yellow River, the towering pinnacles of gnarled sandstone which lined the banks, took our breath away. Once again on dry land, we followed the route of the old Silk Road on foot into a long, narrow gorge. The high sides of the gorge were crowded with every manner of cave and niche, revealing brightly painted murals and statues of the Buddha and his followers. These had been donated by grateful travellers on the ancient Silk Road or those hoping for a safe passage on the next leg of their journey. None of these though could rival the enormous 27-metre-high statue of the Buddha which totally dominated the head of the valley or the large peaceful, reclining Buddha on the far side of the bank.
The first sight of the mighty sand dunes at Dunhuang must have filled weary Silk Road travellers of old with trepidation. It is easy to see why the small oasis of the Crescent Moon Lake and its pagoda, hidden between towering dunes, must have given rise to relief and joy. Our emotions were no less – many of us had travelled with the Crescent Moon Lake as one of the goals on our own modern journey along China’s Silk Road – but the trepidation we felt was caused, not by the scale of the dunes and the isolation of the place but rather by the thousands of domestic tourists looking for the perfect selfie, queueing to toboggan down a dune or lining up to ride one of the hundreds of camels waiting patiently at the large, gaudy entrance gate to the site.
High on the cliffs, surrounded on all sides by the river, stands the once great city of Yar. Today, passing through the remains of its Southern Gate, there is nothing but silence. Walking along streets which must have once rung with the sounds of vendors, animals and citizens going about their daily business, today there are only the stumps of crumbling pressed earth and the remnants of residences, shops and civic buildings as far as the eye can see. In the bright midday sun, we peered hard as we tried to identify what would once have been doorways, staircases and niches. The massive temples with stupas which dominated the skyline are still impressive but are only a shadow of what they must once have been with their bright frescoes and statues, bustling centres of faith for residents, pilgrims and travellers alike.
After 3000 kilometres of travel by bullet train, sleeper train, boat, along sleek new highways and even a short camel ride on the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert, we arrived at our ultimate destination, the legendary Kashgar. The town (now city) which has been at the convergence of various strands of the Silk Road for centuries, is today a modern metropolis with a carefully rebuilt old town and a great many surveillance and security checks.
Still, like eternal travellers to this desert oasis, we revelled in exploring its back streets, buying souvenirs before our journey home, sampling some of the many dishes on offer from stalls by the roadside and soaking up the spectacular scenery of its surroundings with high mountain passes tantalisingly leading to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kazakhstan. The bustling livestock market on the outskirts of the city reminded us of those ancient travellers and traders who congregated here to buy and sell animals or maybe to find a good camel and companions for the next step of the journey.