The Silk Road

The Silk Road

Nowhere in the world enjoys such an ancient past and dazzling future as China. Travelling across this vast country, seeking out its epic history, you are constantly confronted by China’s rapid modernisation and perpetual state of change. It’s true to say that if you visited the Silk Road cities ten years ago they would be dramatically different to the vibrant, state-of-the-art oases of today and in another ten years they’ll be unrecognisable again. The dusty streets are being swept up and built on, donkeys and carts are being replaced by electric mopeds and mud-brick houses sit happily alongside new 5-star hotels but the cities are no less charming for it.

A modern lifestyle means that well-kept park areas are filled with smiling locals playing cards, exercising, dancing and singing. Marketplaces are abuzz with trade and are still fabulous places to pick up some bargains. The range of food venues is plentiful from local night markets to luxurious air-conditioned restaurants. And while clean toilets are harder to find than you might imagine, this has to be somewhere near the top of China’s list of things to build next!

Journeying the Silk Road from Xi’an to Kashgar it really does feel like you end in a different country to the one you started – the places are so very different ethnically, culturally and architecturally. While China’s former capital is a treasure trove of archaeological gems such as the Terracotta ArmyKashgar is geographically closer to Beirut than Beijing and has long enjoyed its strategic position at the crossroads with Central Asia.

Almost 90% of Kashgar’s population is non-Chinese, the majority being Turkish and Muslim and the difference in culture, lifestyle and food is plain to see. Travelling along China’s Silk Road reinforces the vastness of China and journeys on planes, trains, buses and cars will give you a new found respect for those who did it on camelback 2000 years ago.

For over a thousand years the Silk Road was the most vital trade route in the world. Connecting East with West it allowed the transportation of silk and all manner of exotic goods via weighed-down camel caravans ploughing a dusty path across Asia. Today, as China opens itself up to foreigners and travelling around the country is made infinitely easier, the route is more accessible to ordinary travellers than ever before. Gone are the risks of starvation, thirst, frostbite and bandits, nevertheless the Silk Road still has a semi-mystic quality inspiring adventure and enterprise.

The Silk Road is not one single highway but a web of trade routes passing through different oasis settlements. Merchants would vary their route depending on the climate and local political situation. It was unusual for any individual traveller to journey the entire route himself, and those that did, such as Marco Polo, have gone down is history as the greatest of adventurers.

The entire route, which stretches from Xi’an in China to Istanbul in Turkey, covers over 7,000km and passes through 13 countries. Over half the route lies inside China and crosses dramatic landscapes including arid desert, rivers and snow-capped mountain ranges.

great-wall-jiayuguan-3

History

The opening up of the Silk Road is accredited to the 2nd Century BCE Chinese explorer, Zhang Qian, the first man to bring back a reliable account of the lands of Central Asia to the court of China. Dispatched by the Han dynasty emperor Wudi in 138 BCE to establish relations with other communities, Zhang Qian’s missions opened up kingdoms and products then unknown to the Chinese and uncovered the way for commercial trade between these Central Asian states and the Han. Trade on the Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of China as a great civilization, and in several respects helped lay the foundations for the modern world.

The term ‘Silk Road’ was not coined until 1877 by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen.

First produced in China 5,000 years ago, silk was an unknown product in the West and therefore highly prized. For many centuries it was the most sought after and profitable item transported along routes from Central Asia to the Mediterranean.

After silk, paper was the most important commodity to come out of China in ancient times, invented by a eunuch named Cai Lun in 105AD.  Jade and lapis lazuli were other valuable products traded with the West. China’s major contributions to civilization – paper-making, printing, compass and gunpowder – were introduced to Western countries via the Silk Road. In return, many aspects of Western civilization that influenced Chinese society made their way back along this road.

But it wasn’t just commerce that travelled along the Silk Road between Europe and the East. Travellers, missionaries and pilgrims also travelled the road, leading to the flow of religious ideas, philosophies and scientific thought (as well as the Bubonic Plague!).

The Silk Road was used primarily during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) and again in the 13th Century under the Mongols. As Maritime trade developed under the Ottoman and Qing dynasties, the Silk Road was barely used for trade.

Travel

China’s major international airports are in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Taxis are cheap within the cities (in smaller, more rural environments taxis may take the form of donkey and cart or electric carts).

Car and bus rental with a driver is easily arranged.

Public trains and buses run daily between cities but it’s best to book tickets in advance.

Climate

March / April is Springtime when the weather will be warm but you should encounter less tourists.

May – August is high season during which time accommodation prices peak and you should be prepared for hot weather with the occasional summer downpour.

Dress

Cool, lightweight clothes are recommended in the hot summer months. Shorts and skirts are fine in the larger cities but if travelling West, be respectful of the Muslim culture and dress modestly. Sleeved t-shirts are more appropriate than vest tops and knees should be covered.

What To Pack

1. Phrasebook

2. Favourite brand toiletries

3. Sunscreen

4. Tissue paper / wet wipes (for use in public toilets)

5. Fan (to keep cool in desert)

Scarf or hat (to protect head in desert)

7. Closed-toe shoes (for sandy or rocky environments)

8. A book for the long journeys

Currency

The Yuan (RMB).

Language

Languages spoken include Mandarin, Cantonese, Uighur.

Population

The area population is approximately 1.34 billion.

Festivals

1. January: Chinese New Year

2. February / March: Lantern Festival

3. June: Dragon Boat Festival

4. September: Moon Festival

5. October: Kurban Bairam, 4 day Muslim Festival of Sacrifice (very lively in Kashgar)

Top 10 Sights

1. Army of Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an

2. Jiayuguan Fort and Great Wall

3. Singing Sand Dunes, Dunhuang

4. Magao Grottoes, Dunhuang

5. Flaming Mountains, Turpan

6. Wire-walking, Grape Valley, Turpan

7. Khotan Jade market

8. Kashgar Sunday market (open every day!)

9. Kashgar Livestock market

10. Pamir Mountains

Food

Xi’an’s local speciality is dumplings which come in all shapes, sizes and flavours and shouldn’t be missed.

Centrally located Gansu has traditional Szechuan Chinese food – fried rice, sweet potatoes and local vegetables flavoured with garlic, chilli, peppercorns and ginger – as well as dishes influenced by their Muslim neighbours using beef, mutton and yellow noodles.

In Xinjiang the food reflects all the different ethnicities. Cumin is a more prevalent spice and dishes are often flavoured with the fat of the meat. Favourite dishes include noodles, mutton, kebabs, pilaf rice with lamb and naan bread.

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