Fabled trade route of ancient China's silk and spice caravans,
the Great Silk Road was the main artery linking the Far East to
Europe for over 1,000 years.
In reality a shifting network of desert passages, the route
nonetheless converged at great centers, giving rise to some of the
most culturally diverse cities in Asia, smack in the middle of some
of the most desolate and remote regions in the world. The
representative western cities are Dunhuang, Urumqi, Turpan and
Kashgar. Explore them all in a China tour that retraces the Silk
Road, or visit one or more as fascinating destinations in their own
One of the great points of convergence along the Silk Road,
Dunhuang is a city in three colors: an oasis of brilliant emerald
fields set amidst sweeping brown sand dunes, with snow-white peaks
towering in the distance. The tree-lined streets are picturesque
thoroughfares for Mongolian ponies and locals in traditional dress.
The city itself is a beguiling study in contrasts: ancient yet
modern, lively yet relaxed.
It's worth a visit to Dunhuang's rustic local museum, which
provides a good overview of the history of the area, as well as
nearby sections of the Great Wall. The city's market is a delight,
with colorful dried fruits-raisins in ten colors!-nuts, textiles
and steamed dumplings. For an authentic, unforgettable China travel
experience, take a camel ride at sundown through the Mingsha Dunes
in the surrounding Gobi Desert to recall a way of life that reigned
here for a millennium.
The massive Mogao Caves feature stone Buddhas large and small,
hewn from sandstone walls, housed in ornate, protective structures.
Many of the walls are adorned with elaborate, ancient frescoes. You
may also want to explore the nearby Sui, Tang and Western Thousand
Buddha Caves. Have dinner at a traditional farmhouse where a
delicious local meal may be enjoyed amidst apricot orchards.
Unbridled development in Urumqi has resulted in bellowing
smokestacks and architecture that is, to put it kindly, less than
whimsical. Still, you've got to go, because from Urumqi you can
access a truly fascinating area in China, with 13 distinct ethnic
minorities calling the area home.
The Xinjiang Museum houses interesting exhibits relating to the
many ethnic minorities who inhabit the area. It also showcases
artifacts that reveal the daily lives of the Silk Road's early
inhabitants, including some of their mummified remains, unearthed
from the nearby desert of Taklamakan, which literally means "go in
and you won't come out."
Take a day trip during your China travels to nearby Heaven Pool,
a beautiful lake surrounded by stunning mountains, rolling green
hills, grazing ponies and the circular yurts of the Kazakh people.
Or better still, spend a night or two in a yurt and explore the
area on horseback with a Kazakh guide to witness the equestrian
skills that have always made these people famous and feared.
Be sure to sample the local Uyghur cuisine, a culinary
crisscross of Chinese and Middle Eastern influences. Try the
laghman, thick noodles topped with a sauce of spicy lamb,
eggplant, tomatoes, beans and garlic. The fresh tandoori-oven
breads are scrumptious and go down well with a cold beer or green
tea with nutmeg.
The essence of ancient Asia is like a pervading fragrance in
Turpan. The place is awash in traditional scenes: twisting alleys
lined with mud-brick houses; grapevines winding their way up
trellises; raisins and apricots drying in wind-blown chambers, the
summer sun too intense for the work; ponies pulling ploughs through
fields of grain. This is the grape-growing region of China, and the
Uyghurs who inhabit Turpan produce the delicious wine for which the
region is renowned.
At the Gaochang Ruins just to the east of Turpan you can explore
the remains of this ancient Uyghur capital, which flourished as a
Silk Road center around the 9th century. Recalling Pompeii in
scale, this city was lost to the sands of the Gobi for hundreds of
years until recent excavation. It is listed as a UNESCO World
Ramble through the Grape Valley to see the picturesque vineyards
surrounded by the starkest of desert landscapes. You can enjoy
lunch among the vines, or a picnic while walking in the Flaming
Mountains, named for their profusion of red and purple flora.
The area surrounding Turpan is a veritable archaeological
sandbox and it seems every peasant you meet has unearthed Roman
coins, Persian pottery, swatches of ancient Tang Dynasty silk, even
carved wood, which predates the invention of paper. To stand at
such a crossroads of antiquity is an awe-inspiring experience.
Synonymous with the ultimate exotic outpost, Kashgar was, and in
some ways still is, the last frontier. Until the 21st
century, it was almost frozen in time, a living relic of its
trading heyday four centuries earlier. The old section of Kashgar
remained much as Marco Polo found it: an intoxicating, marvelous
confluence of Indian, Persian, Arabian and Chinese cultures layered
one on top of the other. Recent renovations of the Old Quarter by
the Han Chinese have taken place, resulting in many old mud
buildings being demolished, and residents relocating to newer
buildings that employ modern earthquake and fire codes. This has
caused an outcry among some who fear ancient ways of life are
vanishing. Some steps are being taken to preserve Kashgar's ancient
relics, but the forces of modernity march on. However, there is
still much to see.
The Sunday Market is fascinating, and it just may be the largest
bazaar in all of Asia-an absolute must on any tour of China.
The Id Kah Mosque is huge and suitably impressive; around town
you'll discover dozens of smaller mosques at every turn. While
strolling the city's alleyways you'll catch glimpses through the
mud-brick doorways of people engaged in all manner of ancient arts,
including bread making, metal forging, musical instrument
manufacturing and firing of hand-made tile.