Northern Silk Road
The missing link between the two major urban areas of Tashkent, Uzbekistan and Urumqi, China (see my post: a Thing for Thina) is very perplexing. With a flight time of just less than 2 hours, the distance over the Ferghana Valley and the Tian Shan mountains was indeed very short. Google maps had no discoverable routes between the two cities. Even Kashgar, the far outer reaches of Xinjiang Province accessible by train, had no published routes between these two cities in Google. You can go to Kashgar but there was no train to go beyond into Uzbekistan, and there were no flights from Tashkent to Kashgar. This was a Catch-22 for me.
There was probably a way to go via road locally, but I did not see any reliable method that could be planned in advance. Thus my itinerary and decision was to fly from Tashkent to Urumqi, where Gee Kin and I successfully rendezvoused. It was somewhat miraculous that both of our flights arrived in Urumqi, his from San Francisco via Beijing, and mine direct from Tashkent, within ten minutes of each other. And we actually found each other in this far-flung, highly sensitive part of the world!
We know that this minor link had to exist overland, but it seems to have been forgotten and virtually decommissioned as the Silk Road declined over time. There were a number of other options, but they too have drifted by the wayside. We learned that the caravans traveled from oasis to oasis in the desert, where ground water was available. It seems so obvious once you are in the desert, staring at each grain of sand, that this was essential for survival and success of the Silk Road.
The camels could pack enough food for 2 months and water for 2 weeks. Other animals and men could go for 4 days, so the caravans timed their journeys so they would have enough provisions and wouldn’t get caught in between. From Dunhuang, on the outskirts of the Gobi Desert, there were two basic routes to the next watering hole: one took seven days and was easier, and another took four days but was riskier. Doing the hop-skip made so much sense!
The other aha moment came when our guide explained the history of the two major outposts in China. Both Turpan and Dunhuang were major Silk Road trading points. Turpan contained one of the early walls from the 1st C. BC that preceded the Great Wall outside Beijing. And both the ruins of Gaocheng, a Han Dynasty city, and Jaio He, a fortress, were worth seeing but very remote from the current day town of Turpan.
The Han emperor sent the generals to fight the Hsiung Nu invaders from the North. When they finally won, a period of stability and civil order allowed the Han Dynasty to flourish. Trade and intercourse between the Chinese and the Sogdians, who were settling and trading in China, developed during this time. The Sogdians, if you recall, were the people who inhabited Bokhara and Samarkand! This period of prosperity lasted through the Tang Dynasty until the Mongols came down again from the dreaded north and ruined everything for the Tangs.
As soon as a sea route was discovered by Chang He in the Ming Dynasty, the party was over. It was better, faster, cheaper to go by sea to all the Middle East points. And sadly, the Silk Route diminished in its importance. While trade continued, the difficulty in going between desert and mountains became impractical and the cities like Dunhuang lost their significance.
After staring at the map for quite some time, I realized that all of the cities I visited were only within a few degrees’ latitude of each other: Tashkent, Samarkand, Bokhara, Kiva, Turpan, and Dunhuang were nearly on the same latitude by a range of only 5 degrees. Amazingly, San Francisco lies in this zone of 38-42 degrees. There must have been something in the air or water that made me feel so at home in all of these locations. Maybe the wind direction had something to do with why the ancients chose to move eastward, or the water flow below fed the streams and wells in one horizontal line….
It was amazing that amidst the Turpan desert were extensive grape vineyards. They really gave the lush impression of the oasis. It was a little bit of Napa Valley in the middle of the Gobi! The wells and water sources were precious and more important than gold. To this day, they are maintained carefully as a national resource. The government has big plans to harness the desert’s solar and electrical power capabilities. A high-speed train is under construction and will be in operation next year. That’s when development and tourism will be inevitable, and will kick in big-time.
Both the Southern and Northern Silk Road segments were the highlights of my travels. If you are interested in details, please let me know, and I will be happy to share my plans with you.
1. Simplified map showing cities I visited on both Northern and Southern Routes: Kiva, Bokhara, and Samarkand in the south (Uzbekistan); and Turpan and Dunhuang in the north (China)
2-3. Ruins of Gaocheng and Jiao He
4-5. Ruins of Dunhuang Palace