Tracing the Silk Road: observations from China’s West

Posted on January 18, 2013

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My journey westwards started on China’s coast, in Suzhou, an ancient city north of Shanghai renowned for the canals that weave between its willows and whitewashed walls. It’s also the city that made Marco Polo fall in love with China and home to one of the nation’s most famous inventions: silk. So it was fitting that my journey along the old Silk Road began at one of the most significant places on a trade route that had its earliest crossings in the era BC and criss-crosses 6,500km on its way between China and Europe.

Though it’s the home of silk, Suzhou is not where the Silk Road began. Legend has it that the story started in the year 138 BC when Emperor Wu-ti wanted to beat the Huns once and for all. So he sent his best men West from Xi’an to find allies to support his struggling Empire. They didn’t succeed in that endeavour — they were captured by the Huns for the best part of the next decade — but before being captured they did open up trade routes as far as Xinjiang province, where the heart of Central Asia’s trade routes spread. Over time, the paths ventured further, until there were multiple land and sea Silk Road routes tracing the centre and edges of China to Central Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and onwards – I even witnessed ancient storage cellars used by Silk Road traders in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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Unexpected visits from travellers who came, saw, conquered and abandoned the desert moonscapes of the Silk Road led those who inhabited its path to label non-locals ‘foreign devils’. The stories drip with adventure and danger: strangers appearing and disappearing from the dust, tales of survival against the worst odds, mysterious cities hidden among whistling sand dunes. The Silk Road brought Buddhism, Christianity and Islam to Asia, along with thousands of other intellectual and material exchanges. Today, the route remains the footpath through China’s Wild West — still oozing with tales of baddies, haunted landscapes, treasure and suspicious locals.

In the markets of Xi’an, I had my first glimpses of the Islamic empire that Sheiks and Imams had built hundreds of years before. Delicacies of spiced teas and rose water pastries sat alongside roasted duck and pig heads. Chinese women with hair wrapped in brightly coloured scarves, men’s heads bobbing with small, white skull caps: the markets were busy and deliciously anachronistic — a privilege in a modern China that despises age. I spent every afternoon in Xi’an wandering those streets, trying to embrace the glimpse of a defiant, older China.

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I spent days and nights on trains, moving through lonely desertscapes only interrupted by the spindly limbs of wind farms. The further West I went, the further behind I left the China that I thought I knew, and that it wants the world to know.

Dunhuang was one of those frontier towns. Famous for its Mogao Grottoes – caves etched into sandy mountains, decorated over 1000 years with exquisite Buddhist art – the heat of the desert smothered the town like a disease and no-one strayed far from their houses during the day. But in the evening, life appeared. Dancers and musicians came onto the streets to celebrate the cool evening air. Hikers took to the famous Singing Sands mountain to reassert their authority over nature. Foodies wandered to the night markets for a terrific assortment of fresh meats, spiced vegetables and dried fruits.

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Eventually those sand dunes led me to Xinjiang province, host to the Taklamakan desert which houses many of the greatest treasures of the Silk Road. There are stories of whole caravans being swallowed by the desert sands, and the name Taklamakan means, in the local Turki language, ‘go in and you won’t come out’.

These days, roads, satellite maps and cityscapes have taken some of the edge off the Taklamakan, but it remains an exotic place even for the Chinese. Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region borders Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India and Pakistan. It is home to the nine million Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic minority whose faces resemble those of their neighbours almost as much as they do the Chinese. In fact, if it weren’t for the Chinese flags reminding me where I was, I might have felt I were in another country altogether.

Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang province, arose from the mountains like another ghost town. But this one was populated with the hopes and fears of over two million people. The city is a hub for China’s fast-paced change and the centre of the Chinese government’s focus on Xinjiang economic rejuvenation – a desire to return the area to its former Silk Road glory. While there I visited the space-age halls of the China-Eurasia Expo – a sort of world fair hosted by the government to encourage national and international investment in the region. The area was designated as a special economic zone in 2010 for the same reason. But tensions between the Chinese authorities and Uighurs still remained high. Groups of Uighur activists in Xinjiang demand autonomy, similar to the demands of protestors in neighbouring province Tibet. Tensions exploded in 2009 when ethnic violence between the Han Chinese – the largest ethnic group in China – and Uighurs ended with almost 200 deaths.

Southwest of Urumqi, the city of Kashgar is the hub of Uighur culture. It is also the site of more economic rejuvenation as the Chinese government attempts to re-create it as a modern trading hub, returning to its former merchant status when it played a key role for traders taking the Silk Road. While new buildings and big money are poured into the Gangzhou New City project in Kashgar, old buildings and more money are being poured into tearing down the historical remains of the city’s Uighur community.

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In the Old Town – where what was left of these old buildings remained – patterned and decorated doorways lined streets that smelt of fresh breads and spiced meats; stall holders continued to sell figs, melons, musical instruments, rugs and sweets. But yellow bulldozers sat menacingly outside those brightly painted doorways. Beautiful buildings storing hundreds of years of families and memories have been destroyed by the authorities under the guise of safety.

When I asked for my noodles in Chinese, a Uighur man replied in English: Don’t speak that language to me. It’s easy to understand the resentment. The Chinese flag had been planted along the streets like flags on the moon. At the main mosque, police sat and watched passersby through the heat of the day – water hoses and barricades ready to disperse even the slightest congregation.

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It’s a time of change in Xinjiang province as histories and people are shifting. With more migrant workers moving far west for the growing job prospects, and Chinese officials hoping to inspire a modern Silk Road through the region, the empty desert-scapes could become a thing of the past in the same way the traditional Uighur homes in Kashgar have. It remains to be seen if the Taklamkan will continue to hide its treasures.

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