First steps on the old silk road

It was an adventurer called Zhang Qian, between 100-200 BC, who is said to have started off the old silk road trade route, from China to the west. He keeps appearing in lots of different stories and sounds like a fascinating fellow. I sometimes develop unhealthy obsessions with long-dead explorers.

Over many centuries, the silk road eventually reached all the way to Rome. The original and most eastern starting point in China is the ancient capital of Xi’an. It was love at first sight for Xi’an and me. It would be so good to spend a year there sometime, if I had one to spare. There’s so much incredible history to explore. JH loves it too but thinks it might be a bit too big to live in. There ARE 12 million people but you don’t really notice them so much.

Xi’an is both ancient and modern. It’s set up for tourism and easy to be in. There’s so much going on that you’d need a year to experience it. Things are big in Xi’an – wide streets, giant statues and huge buildings, both new and very old. It still has the magnificent city walls that apparently were destroyed in lots of other places during the cultural revolution.

Huge city walls in Xi’an
Huge city walls in Xi’an

The main attraction in Xi’an is the terracotta warriors. The 8000 or so life-sized unique individual statues (and their horses and weapons) are part of the massive tomb complex of China’s first Emperor, Qin Shihuang. The warriors are an entire army created to protect the emperor in death. Just a wee bit paranoid if you ask me. They say it took over 700, 000 artisans 40 years (from 246 to 206 BC) to complete and they didn’t finish it until after he died. Why did they bother finishing it I wonder, why not just down tools and go off to the pub singing ‘the King is dead’?

Terracotta warriors
Terracotta warriors
Rows of terracotta warriors
Row upon row upon row of warriors and horses

The warriors were buried for 2000 years or so until discovered in the 1970s. The life-like rows of the silent soldiers are very eery. I expect them to wake up any moment and start marching forward like some freaky zombie army. The warriors aren’t the only thing buried with old Qin. His actual tomb is a small mountain, believed to contain a miniature replica of the then-known world, where the model rivers are filled with mercury. It has never been opened and the Chinese government placed a 100 year ban on opening it. This is partly to protect the contents from disintegration when exposed to the air and partly because it’s too dangerous due to the mercury. It’s fascinating stuff and the scale just blows my mind.

Emperor Qin’s tomb
Emperor Qin’s tomb

Another very interesting place we saw near Xi’an is ‘Banpo’, an archaeological dig of a 6000 year old neolithic village. As always, when I see something this old, it strikes me how little we’ve changed in some ways. The houses are so similar to ours and the skeletons of the dead are still in their graves. The most interesting thing though is how much we’ve regressed in other ways. Its accepted that this village and the wider Yangshao culture was a peaceful and productive matriarchal society that lasted for thousands of years. They were predominantly vegetarian and practiced free love without commitment. There are still pockets of this culture remaining in China. Unbelievably, the archeologists named these people Banpo ‘Men’. No joke.

Apart from all the grand-scale stuff, the main reason we loved Xi’an was probably because we were staying right in the Muslim Quarter – a warren of winding lanes filled with market stalls, life and colour. It’s so much fun to walk around trying new and unfamiliar street foods. There’s such a joyful energy in places like this.

Our next three stops on the old silk road are all in the central province of Gansu, roughly in the middle of China, between Mongolia and Tibet. Gansu is wild country with high mountains, the Yellow River and part of the Gobi Desert.

Our first stop Zhangye seemed so very remote – cold and dry up on a high altitude plateau. The air felt so dry that all the moisture was being sucked out of our skin and we turned into wrinkly prunes about ten years older. The main reason we’d come to Zhangye was to see the Rainbow Mountains of the Danxia Geological Formation. They didn’t disappoint and really are rainbow coloured. The colours change with the weather, the light and time of day, and the angle of view. Simply stunning.

Rainbow Mountains
Rainbow Mountains

The highlight of Zhangye turned out to be staying in the yurt camp right next to the geological park. It’s just like a hotel where the rooms are yurts. There seemed to be nobody else staying there and it was wonderful to see the stars and to be out in the peace and quiet of nature after so much city time. The yurt camp is run by the local Yugur people from the Sunan Yugur Autonomous Province, a Tibetan Buddhist branch of the more widely known Muslim Uyghur people. It’s organised in the traditional way with a communal big yurt to gather in for meals and music. These people are so lovely and play great music. Another place on the ‘come back to one day’ list.

Kaoshan Tent near Zhangye
Kaoshan Tent, yurt camp near Zhangye

In our second Gansu stop, at Jiayuguan, there are remnants of the Great Wall built during the Ming dynasty. This was the ‘wild west’ frontier of China in those days and it still retains that feeling. I think I might have a bit of a thing about frontier towns.

Jiayuguan city is a little bit poorer, wilder and messier than other places we’ve been so far. When I say messy, I don’t mean dirty. Nowhere I’ve seen in China is dirty. Everywhere is spotlessly clean, inside and out. There is no litter. In downtown Jiayuguan, loud music blares out into the street from morning until late. People are super friendly and everyone smiles and says hello. Nobody speaks English but we had some great and hilarious conversations via translator apps and charades. When we left, even the streetstall holder we bought socks from came to help see us off.

The Great Wall at Jiayuguan
The Great Wall at Jiayuguan

Also at Jiayuguan and part of the Great Wall defence is the seriously impressive Jiayuguan Fort, a huge and stunningly beautiful military outpost from the 1500s, with the snow-capped Qilian mountains as a backdrop. The story goes that when the fort was being built, the architect calculated that it would take exactly 99, 999 bricks to build. At the end of construction there was a single brick left over. That brick was placed on one of the towers and is still there. It’s said that if that brick is removed the whole structure will come tumbling down. We resisted the urge to test it.

Jiayuguan Fort
Jiayuguan Fort

Dunhuang, our last stop in Gansu, is a wonderful ancient Silk Road oasis town in the Gobi Desert. The UNESCO World Heritage Mogao Caves (or Thousand Buddha Caves) are the main reason to come here. Feeling a little buddha’d out, and not being a big fan of caves, I wasn’t really expecting to have my socks knocked off. It’s pretty damned impressive though and a great story. It seems a Buddhist monk came wandering along the Silk Road sometime around 360 AD and had a vision of 1000 Buddhas at the cave site out in the desert. He started digging out the caves by himself, then carving statues and painting murals of the Buddha. Eventually others joined him and the practice went on for 1000 years until there were almost 500 caves brimming with Buddhist art reflecting the changing styles of the times. It’s not allowed to take photos inside the caves so I can’t show you but the most ‘wow’ thing for me was the 35m Northern Giant Buddha. You step inside the Nine Storey Building and look up and just go ‘OMG’. Incredible.

Nine Storey Building
Nine Storey Building

The reason I really wanted to go to Dunhuang though was to see the Gobi Desert sand dunes at Echoing Sand Mountain and the Crescent Moon Lake. It’s quite magical how this crescent shaped pool of clear water survives amidst the sand dunes without being covered in sand. It’s been a tourist attraction for thousands of years and there’s a beautiful temple next to it. I’d seen photos and wanted to see it for myself. Even though it was totally overrun with Chinese tourists, I think it’s one of the highlights of my experiences in China.

The temple at Crescent Moon Lake

Actually, Dunhuang itself is one of my favourite places in China so far. It’s not too big, the people are warm and friendly, it’s exotic and interesting, there’s a great night market and even a fabulous local style vegan restaurant.

I feel we’ve got our China legs on now and are ‘in the flow’. Buying tickets, catching transport, navigating and communicating are all pretty easy with internet. Finding good vegetarian food regularly is still an issue but that’s not unusual. We get by with fruit, nuts and weird and horrible snacks. The amazing things we’re seeing and doing make it all totally worth it. I’m so excited to actually be travelling on the Silk Road.

8 thoughts on “First steps on the old silk road

  1. I am enjoying seeing China through your eyes – having the photos with your commentary is great and you do such a broad sweep – a little sample of many things 🙂


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