SILK ROAD ADVENTURE #3: NORTHWESTERN CHINA

Today is a travel day, so I am getting ahead of the pack by sharing some information about the Silk Road. I read the book “the Silk Road, a New History” by Valerie Hansen and I want to cite some interesting points from it. The book covers three key chapters of my selected cities: Turpan, Dunhuang, and Samarkand.

Dunhuang, while known for its Buddhist cave paintings, has a treasure trove of over 35,000 documents that recorded official edicts, announcements, and private letters. These were found in a garrison outside of Dunhuang. The dry desert air helped to preserve these documents from the 1st Century BCE to the 1st Century CE.

Agreements were written on bamboo strips and wood before paper, originally used for wrapping, became the material for writing. Paper did not become widely used for writing until the 2nd Century. All envoys passed through this garrison at Xuanquan outside Dunhuang in either direction to control movement.

Turpan, a walled city further west from Dunhuang, was known for its foreign community dating back to the Tang Dynasty. It was only the halfway point between Samarkand and Chang An (current day Xian). One of the most significant groups living in Turfan, believe it or not, was the Sogdians, who originated from Samarkand! They settled in Turfan to farm, run rest stops, take care of animals, and trade.

Thing for Thina
image

In case you were ever wondering, the name “China” is derived from a reference to “Thina”, by a merchant in the 1st C. CE with a description of China as “a great inland city from which silk floss, yarn and cloth are shipped by land…” Since Ancient Greek did not have a letter for “ch”, the letter theta was used. In Sanskrit, where the English word for China is derived, China was pronounced Chee-na. This word came into use around 221-207 BCE during the Qin Dynasty.
As far as the “Silk Road” is concerned, it is a relatively recent concept from 19th C. explorers. The Silk Road consisted mainly of clusters of cultures that lived and traded among each other. The paths were unmarked and did not provide the big saga event romanticized by the Marco Polo story. Silk was only one among other goods traded that included chemicals, spices, horses, glass and paper.

The Dunhuang Museum


The Dunhuang Museum was an exciting experience, because the museum provided the history and the context for what we were seeing in the ruins the previous couple of days. Most of the development of Dunhuang occurred during the Han Dynasty, when the emperor sent troops and their generals to protect the frontier of China. At that time, Dunhuang and the area around it was the outer edge of the country. The Han general finally defeated the Hsiung Nu raiders from the North.

Following this major victory, trade needed to be controlled and taxes charged. So it stood to reason that Dunhuang occupied a very strategic position in the future success of China. As a matter of fact, the heavy control over the trade and passage through the Silk Road allowed the Han Dynasty relative peace and prosperity. The country advanced in many areas during that time.

After a period of turmoil and disorganization, the Tang Dynasty continued to maintain strong control over the passages. We visited the Mogao Grottoes in the afternoon, and while there are no photos to share the experience, the Buddha sculpture, paintings, and architecture were a clear expression of the flourishing of encounters with the outside world. Trade, language, art, and religion were being introduced, explored, challenged, and absorbed between many cultures during this time (600AD-900AD).

I am posting a few pieces from the museum that I particularly liked and found quite unusual. They seemed to be very robust and expressive, similar to the style of the better known horses of the Tang period. The Photos of Han and Tang (200BC-900AD) Museum pieces are above.

The new museum itself was surprisingly beautiful and excellent in its presentation of material. It was very thoughtfully and clearly laid out, and spanned everything from early neolithic implements to planning for the future generations. I am inserting a couple of photos to show you how the new building interior courtyard looks. I would highly recommend this museum to anyone intending to visit this area.

The Northern Silk Road
Over and Out

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!

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 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.

Gaochang

The Ancient City of Gaochang was an essential passageway between the East and West during the Han Dynasty and Tang Dynasties and was an important section of the ancient Silk Road. The foundation of the Wall was laid in the first century BC. The total area of this city is about two million square meters.

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.

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.

Food! Food! Glorious Vegetables!

In addition to items one might expect from a typical Chinese breakfast buffet in Turpan, we were treated to an array of dishes, all cold, and mostly vegetarian. These locally produced vegetables were lightly flavored with oil and a hint of garlic or chili pepper and proved to be not only a visual delight, but very appealing to the palette for an energetic wake up. Dishes included the following:

  1. Fresh broccoli
  2. Lotus roots with ginkgo nuts, fungus strips, celery strips, red cabbage clips, red pepper, and straw mushrooms
  3. Fresh steamed yellow and orange carrots (a contribution to China from the West)
  4. Clouds Ears with onions, red and green pepper strips, bean sprouts and green onions
  5. Shaved Gourd strips with Green onions and red peppers
  6. Green beans (also likely a Silk Road vegetable imported from the West) with carrots, leeks and red pepper
  7. Chinese Greens
  8. Marinated cabbage with deep-fried pork strips
  9. Deep-fried pulled noodles
  10. Mini tschung and corn on the cob (another item from the New World) sections
  11. Mung beans and pickled cabbage
Onward to the Southern Silk Road

The missing link between the two major urban areas of Tashkent, Uzbekistan and Urumqi, China 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. The cities we are going to visit are 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….

Training the Trainers

Our non-highspeed rail travels between Turpan and Urumqi involved harrowing late night transfers and crowded trains. We were rewarded with endless entertainment and an opportunity to chat with train interns.

Do’s and Don’ts

1. Organize your bag according to rooms in your house and how you use things in them: BR, bath, kitchen, etc. I use a lot of kitchen implements like a set of plastic fork, spoon, and knife to do most in-room dining for those unexpected, can’t be bothered moments to avoid eating out. Plus the knife comes in handy and passes security control.
2. Pack a box of tissue flat as a pad for your Ipad or computer.Use it as you go.
3. I use a nail clipper to cut and make my own band aids. They cost pennies if you buy them uncut and in sheets and you can make them any shape you need. The nail clipper also gets you around the scissor-weapon issue at airport security.
4. Be careful when taking trams and trains. Check to make sure that you know the end destination of the line, or you may end up in a completely different part of town!
5. Never be in a hurry when checking the next train or bus schedule.
6. Never, never, never take shortcuts near train tracks.
7. Don’t be without a cell phone.
8. Never have the batteries die or be close to dead before or after you take a train in the wrong direction.
9. Never be too sure you can meet someone even after you have just confirmed that you are meeting them in an hour.
11. Do not be in a remote location where there is no cell phone coverage.
12. Do not travel when it is getting dark.
13. Never trust your own judgment.

Minor point: in having executed 4-13 above in the span of 2 hours (between 7:30 and 9:30pm at an undisclosed location), I can vouch for the necessity to avoid these incidents at any cost, particularly when they are combined. Fortunately, one additional “do”: Do trust that your friend will be patient and wait for you, even if you are a complete flake and end up being over an hour late just because you were stupid enough to think that you knew what you were doing and didn’t.

This post is a compilation of several posts from August, 2014.

Our next major adventure will be from Urumqi to Tashkent, Samarkand, Bokhara, and Kiva, the classic cities along the Southern Silk Road.

2 thoughts on “SILK ROAD ADVENTURE #3: NORTHWESTERN CHINA”

  1. Vickie, you might look at caravanserai as a building type. Some are in. ruins but others are being used for other purposes.. they were prosperous ‘hotels’ on the silk roads.. and interesting architecturally, Sara

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