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Across China's Silk Road: Part 2

by Walter Glaser

We had made our way from Alma Ata in Kazakhstan to Turfan, a large oasis in the desert of one of China's remotest northern regions, traveling on the Chinese State Train built in the former East Germany for Chairman Mao and the members of the Politbureau. Our train was taking us along a newly established route that followed the ancient Silk Road, and we had spent a night in a Turfan hotel after watching a show put on by local dancers.

Turfan is below sea level. In spite of the fact that it is not all that far from glacier topped peaks, it is the second lowest place in the world after the Dead Sea. It also has one of the fiercest climates in all Asia, in fact many claim that it is the cruelest. Winters are dry and bitterly cold, with temperatures of 15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees F) accented by howling gales that send the wind chill factor through the roof -- hence the nickname of 'Storehouse of the Wind.' Summer goes to the other extreme and accounts for the town's early name of Huozhou (meaning 'Land of Fire'), appropriate when summer temperatures regularly reach a sizzling 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees F) or more between June and August.

After a simple Chinese hotel breakfast that was notable only for the fact that it was the oiliest one I'd had for many years, we boarded buses that took us to the outskirts of town and to the crumbling remains of the ancient city of Gaochang.

At first it was hard to make out the ruins of buildings in what was a treeless landscape of sepia clay, but after disembarking from the buses we climbed on to quaint donkey carts led by a group of runny nosed children who guided us through the once busy streets of this vast, ghostly town. Gaochang is huge and, in many ways, eerie. Perhaps this is brought about by the fact that the mud-brick buildings are badly eroded and often look like disintegrating anthills until one takes a closer look and sees that these were once impressive habitats. The effect is further emphasized by the vastness and emptiness of the whole vista. Not a blade of grass, and frequently not another human being in sight. Just monotone ruins as far as the eye can see. It would be a perfect backdrop for a science fiction film.

Whenever I see ancient towns that are now bare, dead remnants of what were once thriving, bustling cities full of life, laughter and activity, I never fail to think of a book which made such a huge impression on me as a child-- H.G. Wells 'The Time Machine'. Invariably, I half-close my eyes and imagine myself having such a machine and dialing the years back to the city's heydays. This one must have been a fascinating place, with loaded camel trains heading towards Persia and the Mediterranean stacked high with silks, spices, fine porcelain and other eastern merchandise, and returning with imports from Europe that were equally exotic to the Chinese. If only these walls could talk!

Gaochang was built as a garrison town some 200 B.C., eventually becoming the capital of its own kingdom under the Han House of Qu. A center of Buddhist learning, it had many monasteries and temples, as well as a Confucian college which taught that master's ethics and principles.

To what extent the flow of Europe/Persia/India/Asia trade affected the life of Gaochang was revealed in many small ways. Some excavated rooms had mosaic floors, an artform brought across from the far-away Mediterranean. Statues and paintings were in Buddhist and Gandharan style, but clearly also showed a very strong classical Greek influence.

Manuscripts found in the ruins were in Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit, Uygur, Tocharian and Syriac. Originally the vast city had three sections, the inner and outer cities, and a palace complex with 12 gates which, according to manuscripts recently found, were guarded by 900 soldiers.

During a 40 year war that took place during the 14th Century the city was sacked, destroyed and abandoned. When German archaeologist Von Le Coq was sent by the Ethnographic Museum of Berlin to excavate Gaochang, statues, frescos and manuscripts were revealed. Perhaps one of the most poignant discoveries was an underground room containing the bones of over 100 murdered Buddhist monks.

The Chinese Government is now engaged in further diggings, with new revelations coming to light. Tragically, many of the lightly baked mud and dung bricks have crumbled over the centuries and as they reverted to rich soil, they were carted away by local farmers to be used as fertilizer.

As we left Gaochang a wizened old man with his beautifully groomed camel stood at the ancient city gate, inviting tourists to have their picture taken atop his 'ship of the desert'. In the two hours we were there he probably earned more than his previous year's income. Gaochang is popular with Chinese tourists but foreign visitors are scarce indeed. In all the time out and about that day, we only saw the occasional intrepid Japanese and one rare Westerner, perhaps an oil industry consultant working on the many new finds in this area.

Back to Turfan where I decided to go for a walk down one of the city's main streets. It was fascinating to see the different faces, especially those of old Moslem men with long wispy beards which gave them a picturebook quality. By many Western standards inland China is primitive and lacks the rush towards modernity that one finds in coastal cities. However, there are some things to be found in such remote places that are so advanced that they are real eye-openers. The shaded archways of Turfan fell into this category.

The City Fathers had wanted to find a way of protecting Turfan's citizens from the extreme summer heat when they need to walk from one end of the town to the other. So they created shade, taking the kind of steel mesh used for reinforcing concrete and bending this into an inverted 'U' shape. This was then fixed on to the footpath so that citizens would in effect, be walking underneath a steel mesh 'tunnel' some 8 feet across and 8 feet high. The City Fathers had then planted grapes right along the wire mesh.

Soon the 'tunnels' had been transformed into cool green bowers shaded by thriving grapevines that thickly matted themselves into the wire meshing. And as the citizenry walked along these bowers, hunger and thirst became a thing of the past. All anyone who was hungry or thirsty had to do was to reach out or up for one of the huge bunches of 'mare's nipples' grapes and help themselves to a delightful combination of a drink and a meal. Here was lateral thinking at its very best.

It was now late morning, and as we headed for Flaming Mountain, some 35 miles north east of Turfan, we passed fields of cotton being harvested, the bales being transported to town by donkey cart. Then came vineyard after vineyard, growing large green grapes. Local mythology has it that a thousand years ago these grapes, the most famous in China, were packed in ice from the nearby mountains and carried all the way to the royal court in faraway Beijing. Historians are now starting to give some credence to this tale.

Apart from the natural springs that welled up with water from the melting snow in the nearest mountain ranges, the locals had been supplementing the water supply for over a thousand years. They did so by building underground aquifers that brought the water from the mountains to the oases in such a way that it would neither evaporate nor freeze in the extreme temperatures experienced here. Right along the Turfan plain we could see igloo-shaped mounds and these, we were told, contained wells down which the aquifer could be accessed.

We passed the town's precincts where the artesian water supply came to an end and headed back into arid, desert like moonscape. Here we saw hundreds of workers shoveling away at green mounds piled on to plastic sheets spread out on the desert sand. On closer inspection they turned out to be raisin-makers whose job was to carefully sun-dry vast mounds of grapes, so turning them into raisins.

A mountain of grapes would be carefully shoveled flat so that the sun could get at each one. Then they would be piled into a mound and again spread out so that the sun would reach other parts of the grapes until these had been reduced to the relatively tiny but deliciously sweet end-product.

Through the midday heat haze we could see what looked like a barren mountain range in the furthest distance. There, our guide explained, was our goal the Bezeklik Caves of the Flaming Mountains. The latter are, in fact, red sandstone hills running along the northern edge of the Turfan depression. The name is derived from the fact that the reflecting rays of the late afternoon sun bounce off the reddish soil, making these hills appear to be on fire.

Over the millennia the Murtuk River which wends its way through the Flaming Mountains had gouged a deep trench there. Now down to a relative trickle, it left a slash of green vegetation at the bottom of the ravine.

In the thousand years between 300 and 1300 A.D. Buddhists had constructed many caves high on a ledge above the Murtuk, fitted out the caves with Buddhist statues and used these caves as shrines. By the end of the 14th Century the soft sandstone facings, weathered, became unrecognizable, and were subsequently forgotten by mankind.

At the beginning of the 1900's, German archaeologist Von Le Coq rediscovered these caves. He took some two tons of their contents back to Europe, returning twice more to bring the total of antiquities taken from this site to a formidable 24 tons.

A subsequent expedition led by British archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein removed a further 140 crate loads. Once he had left, local people defaced some of the Buddhist images and paintings on the cave walls, after which the whole area was again ignored for nearly a century. Today the Chinese Government has preserved those caves that had been spared and restored some of the others.

As we slowly filed into each cave the effect was quite awesome and somewhat eerie. I could not help feeling that the ghosts of the people who had painted these once lovely, now partly ruined frescoes still hovered over the scene.

Copies of some of the figures removed by Von Le Coq and Stein have now been put into the places once occupied by the originals. These also add realism, blurring the curtain of time. The Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves are an awesome sight! How superb they must have been in the days before many of the frescoes were so sadly ruined.

As with many other archeological sites, including the terra-cotta army at Xian, the Chinese were fanatical about forbidding photos to be taken inside the caves. Backpacks and handbags were searched and we were warned that cameras would be confiscated if we were found taking any pictures, but slides would be available for purchase at the little government-run kiosk afterwards.

We left the caves by walking along the cliffside path that looked down onto the river below. Even there, every available inch of land that could be irrigated was planted with grapevines and the roofs of the mud houses were covered with drying grapes.

By now it was late afternoon and we returned to Turfan's railway station, to continue our journey. Looking back, I saw the golden-red sunlight reflecting off the Flaming Mountains, at this time of day truly living up to their name.

On reaching the station, we saw that word of our presence had gone out with a vengeance! China Rail had completely cleared the local population from the entrance and the platform, and hundreds of residents had gathered behind barricades. Some were smiling, some staring open mouthed. This was the very first time that Chairman Mao's private train had chugged into Turfan, and our group was the largest contingent of Westerners seen here since the Russians pulled out in 1960.

By mid-next-morning our train had pulled into Liuyuan, the train station for Dunhuang. Buses then took us to the Dunhuang Guest House, an excellent hotel with Western standards built, we were told, in the days when many Russians came into this area to act as advisers to the Chinese Government. The town was clean and tidy, with leafy trees planted along the streets to combat the excessive heat. We could not help noticing that most of the families had dragged their beds out on to their front verandahs to catch the night breeze. The alternative was to sleep in airless rooms made oven-like by the heat build-up in the mud-brick walls.

The Muogao Caves which we visited that day are considered one of the world's richest sources of Buddhist statues and paintings. The caves are cut into the cliff face of the Mingsha hills, 16 miles south-east of Dunhuang and work on these reputedly started in 353 and continued to be further expanded for many centuries.

By the second century AD the town of Dunhuang had become the major setting-off point for Lop Nor, then on the Silk Road but now a major testing site for atomic weapons. Dunhuang was first captured by the Tibetans, then the Mongols in 1227. The Moslem ruler Chagatai Khanate held the city until it was mainly abandoned, not being resettled till 1760. There are now some 500 Buddhist caves in the mountains here in the Mingsha Mountains, and after the caves we were taken to the Dunhuang Museum to see some of the treasures that had been found in the caves.

In the late afternoon our buses took us to yet another experience -- a camel ride along the nearby sand-dunes. These dunes were amazing for both their size and the steepness of their sides. I've been to desert dunes from Central Australia to the Sahara and from the Kalahari to Dubai, but nothing at any of these places could possibly match the dunes of Dunhuang for size and steepness of slope.

Every camel within miles must have been gathered at the one spot, and suddenly tourists seemed to appear out of nowhere -- Chinese, a few Russians and Europeans but mainly Japanese. There probably weren't more than 200 or so, including all of us from the train. But with each tourist mounted on a camel and strung out in a straight line across the dunes it seemed a large enough presence to even make Genghis Khan and his army turn tail. This was the first and last time we saw any large number of tourists in the Gobi region.

Before returning to the hotel for dinner we visited the local market and were amazed to see how well-stocked the local shops were in this remote part of China. What a contrast to Alma Ata! There were Chinese cosmetics, Chinese-made appliances with Japanese brand names -- everything from rice cookers to TV sets -- and an amazing range of consumer goods that had clearly been shipped right across China from industrial plants in cities like Canton and Shanghai. One had the feeling that it was these little luxuries that made life bearable for the local citizenry in inland China.

Yet this was an area where almost everything moved by rail. Cars were almost non-existent, and the family vehicle, where there was one, consisted of a small tractor or motorized tiller with the blades removed and a fixed 2-wheel trailer on the back converting the whole thing into an awkward-looking transporter that could move along the unmade dirt-track roads. Buses and trucks only existed in small numbers for very specific purposes.

We returned back to the hotel in time for dinner, which proved to be yet another Chinese culinary disappointment, with the accent on quantity rather than quality. But the rooms were very nice and the bathrooms had lovely big baths with plenty of hot water. Suddenly we could forgive the hotel for the sub-standard food while we soaked a week's grime out of our skins. Utter bliss, made even better by comfortable Western-style beds and windows that could be left open as they had flywire. One values such rarities in central Asia.

We rose at 5 a.m. the next day, a time at which my temper is usually not at its charming best, and then had a 2-hour bus ride over the bumpy, unsealed tracks that passed for roads in this area. Once out of town the desert terrain which we were now quite used to had returned and we suddenly found ourselves in a classic sand storm. Complete with a tornado, the whirlwind column spun its way across the dead-flat plain like a giant spinning-top, seemingly lifting half the desert's sand into the sky in the process. By the time we arrived at the train we were even grittier than before the previous night's bath.

During the next few hours that we spent clickety-clacking across more of the desert, our guides presented an on-board lecture about the Great Wall. Early that afternoon we arrived at the Jia Yu Guan Pass, left the train and boarded buses to head for this amazing structure. As our vehicle crested a hill, a strange sounding ah-h-h-h-h went up from all of us in the bus. For there, before us was the southern end of the Great Wall.

No matter what one reads or hears about this structure beforehand, the Great Wall can only amaze. Large enough to be the only man-made object on earth that can be seen from the Moon this, the most southerly portion of the wall, had been built during the Han period and was in continuous use as the outpost of the Chinese Imperial Kingdom until the new, larger wall as we know it today was built over the top of the old one in the mid-1300's. At regular intervals it featured a fort where the local garrison troops were stationed, and it was one of these that we were visiting that day.

We have often been asked for the impression the Wall made on us. It was one of strength, permanence and power. No wonder that, as long as it was properly manned, no barbarian hordes could overrun it. This part of the Wall was far from the usual tourist track, so most of the visitors were local Chinese. Perhaps the most unforgettable sight, and one that I will always remember about the Great Wall, was the high-ranking General in charge of the nearby Barracks of the Chinese People's Army. Here he was with some of his staff officers, inspecting the perfectly-restored wall. Walking five paces or so behind him was his Orderly, carrying a large tray that held a big teapot and several tea-glasses -- a made-to-order mobile canteen.

Soon it was time to get back on the bus and return to our train. We boarded, the whistle blew, and slowly we clickety-clacked back towards the Gobi Desert and far away Xian. As we sat in the dining-car looking out at the passing landscape there was an almost imperceptible change, but one that slowly grew stronger and stronger. The desert was still there, but now there were more and more chemical and industrial plants, each belching their putrid pollutants out of archaic-looking factories.

By the next morning there were even more of these to be seen, and it was clear that we were coming out of the desert for the last time. Stunted trees and shrubs had started to appear and by early afternoon we arrived at the station of Lanzhou, a large industrial city on the Yellow River. Disembarking, our sightseeing tour took us over a huge bridge and on to the Lanzhou Market.

Here was China's free market system at work. Farmers brought their chickens, eggs, carp and eels to the market. They also brought their beef -- and their cats. We saw a number of the latter alive in small tight cages, and yet others that had been killed on the spot and were now hanging on hooks, some skinned and some about to be. I asked our Chinese guide about dogs, and was told that these were not premium meat like table-cat and consequently were sold on the general stalls together with the beef and pork. At that point I thought it would be a good idea to ask no further questions. At first I was horrified, but then realized that it's all a matter of perception. I've seen the cutest little lambs, baby calves and lovely deer with big, innocent eyes that made them look straight out of 'Bambi' consigned to the cooking pot in our neck of the woods. So who are we to throw stones when we, too, live in glass houses ?

Everybody at the market looked happy, healthy and well-fed in spite of the fact that this city's air was horribly polluted by heavy industrial plants. Children were beautifully dressed -- the non-Moslem Han-Chinese families being dutifully restricted to one child per family. Slippedy-slides and rented pedal-cars were doing a roaring trade. Soon it was time to return to our train for our last night on the Silk Road.

For dinner over we went to the Bar-car, intending to spend only 15 minutes there before bedding down in our train compartment. But it was not to be. As we arrived in the Bar-car we saw that everyone was there, drinking Chinese champagne that should only be considered for the alcoholic content and not for the bouquet, Tsing Tao beer which is excellent, and Chinese wine which is not. One English wit commented that the Chinese winemakers must be extremely clever -- how else could they get those cats to wee in the bottles ? If you get past a certain threshold of alcohol, anything becomes drinkable and by the time the night was through, we even enjoyed the Chinese wine.

But in the meantime the evening was a roaring success. Our Chinese pianist played tunes from the 60's, alternating with our English Lord who, it turned out, was a splendid rag-time pianist. Our Sri Lankan doctor friend totally captured our imagination with tales of his earlier trip to China where he had traveled up the Yangtse with a group of British medics who were there to inoculate children against Typhus while the hovercraft was searching for the headwaters of the Yangtse. More stories, more champagne. The night was a fantastic success, but the headache the next morning was a lot less enjoyable!

The following mid-day we were due in Xian, home to the fabulous terra-cotta army. Just to see this and nothing else is well worth a trip to China. But we had been especially lucky to see so much more and be privileged to explore a part of this vast country that few Westerners would ever see.

Each day had brought new surprises and new knowledge as we chugged our way across China. And with these came an understanding of what true adventure travel is all about. For, on this journey, right up to the moment when we gasped at the sight of the thousands of life sized terra-cotta warriors that had been unearthed in the site of the Emperor Quin Shihuango's grave at Xian, I kept thinking of the words of Aldous Huxley. In 1925 he wrote (in "Along the Road"), "The voyage ceases to be a mere tour through space; you travel through time and thought as well."

Back to Part One

Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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