A Modern Journey through China’s Ancient Silk Road

Some parts of the world you make a conscious effort to visit and others have to wait until fate delivers you there.” – Tony Hawks

The above quote perfectly defines my trip to Northwest China. How little I knew back then what effect that unexpected detour would have on me, on us. I’ll start at the beginning……

The trip to China originally included an extended excursion to Tibet. Upon arriving in Shanghai, the tour group I went with was informed that the Chinese government had stopped issuing tourist visas to Tibet, effectively blocking international tourists from entering the region (and expediently escorting out those who were already there). The government’s official reason was their concern for the safety of foreigners due to the timing of the 60 year anniversary of the “Peaceful” transition of Tibet to China.

After traveling for 20+ hours and on multiple flights to reach China, my bucket list dreams of seeing the Potala Palace slipped away along with travelers’ bragging rights of visiting one of the most forbidden lands on Earth. Needless to say, the six of us who had planned to visit Tibet, were deeply disappointed. After days of vetting options for Plan B, our tour agency informed us that an alternative plan was to send our group to the Uighur Autonomous Region, located in the Xinjiang province in Northwest China, which happens to lie on the infamous Silk Road.

Once the announcement was made that our itinerary included a visit to Kashgar, Turpan, and Urumqi , I logged into our hotel’s spotty internet connection and did some research. The journey we were about to embark on was in a region that bordered “The Stans”, including Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; and at some point, was an independent country called East Turkestan. I came across information which stated that Kashgar and the surrounding area were the furthest place on earth from the ocean. A scary thought for this island lady!

Originally, I was resistant to Plan B. Not because of the location, but due to my perception that our North American tour agency was duplicitous in not properly sharing information regarding the Tibet visa situation in a timely manner before we left for China. In the eventual spirit of going with the flow, we all agreed to embark on this unknown adventure ( actually we had limited choices since reimbursement was not part of the local or North American tour companies’ vocabulary….but that’s another story. Let it go and Welcome to China!!! )

Kashgar:  Initial Impressions

On the plane ride to the West, the landscape below looked vast and empty. A sea of nondescript beige as far as the eyes can see. Occasionally there were pools of what looked like multicolored hotsprings. I remembered thinking morbid thoughts…that if the plane had to make an emergency landing here, no one ever would find us. Oh dear…still need to work on the “Embracing Plan B” attitude. Yes Yes Yes!!!.

After a stopover in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang province, we landed in Kashgar. Among the first things I noticed there was the distinction between Beijing time and Local time. In fact, all of China is under one official time zone even though the landmass stretches the length of at least four. This led to 11pm “afternoon” lights.

After settling in our hotel, our group of six plus our national tour guide decided to take a stroll through Kashgar to get a feel for the town. Since there weren’t many foreign tourists in the area we certainly captured the attention of the locals when we walked down the streets. There was a camel sitting in the plaza where the Id Kha Mosque stands and it even seemed to have turned his head to get a look at the group of foreigners, a caravan of five white people, one black woman, and one Han Chinese woman. I had to laugh when a car full of people had their faces pressed up against the window to get a look at us as they slowly drove by.

Although we received plenty of attention, the stares were a softer stare than what we experienced in the eastern part of China. It was more a stare of curiosity than of outright dumbfoundedness. It was a warm stare mixed with a slight smile that invited one to engage in conversation.  

In all honesty, it was more of a staring contest as there was mutual intrigue between us foreigners and the Kashgari locals. The physical characteristics of the people in this region were varied. Many had almond shaped eyes, but instead of dark brown, their eye colors were blue, green, and that elusive violet. A very creative blend of Caucasian and Asian.  Politically, the people are considered Chinese, but culturally, they are closely aligned with its Central Asian neighbors.

The men and women dressed very conservatively. Many of the older men wore small square or round hats that covered the center of their head and their attire resembled clothing style from the mid 1900s. The majority of the women wore some sort of head covering as a show of respect of their Muslim faith, and was dressed in colorful patterns, often with shinny baubles for decoration. I remember shaking a woman’s hand to say hello and how she lingered in releasing my hand, like an aunt, who hadn’t seen her beloved niece in a long time.

There was plenty of activity in the streets. Motor bikes zipping through dusty roads. Men preparing dumplings and cooking meats and kebabs outside on grills. Street vendors selling fruits, vegetables, and loaves of round shaped dimpled bread. Shopkeepers selling wares including appliances, carpets, clothing, herbs and spices, and souvenirs.

Elongated butternut squash shaped Kapoks seemed to hang from every corner shop. These hallowed interior wooden water jug, decorated with Islamic writing or drawings, looked like an item that ancient tradesmen would carry on their trips along the Silk Road. It was the one souvenir that caught my eye which now hangs in my Islamic inspired themed living room.

No longer walking together in one collective troupe, our group of seven was beginning to scatter about. A couple on a motorcycle stopped next to me to introduce themselves. The man looked Han Chinese and the woman looked Turkish. We exchange pleasantries of “hellos”, “where you are from?”, and “how long are you staying here?”.

The children are always a pleasure to engage with. At first, a couple of girls, wearing pink dresses with sequenced designs, stopped to speak with us. I motioned with my hands to request permission to take a photo of them. They indicated yes. Once I snapped a photo and showed them the result on the viewfinder, they squealed with laughter. A few more girls joined in the fun of picture taking and they too squealed and laughed. Soon they were joined by the boys and it became a group of children in a semi circle laughing and chatting. This journey to a land that is the furthest area on earth from the ocean was starting to look up.


 

Apricots and Watermelons

Road scenes on our ride from Kashgar to the countryside included people being transported on jeeps with mattresses in the back used as cushions, oxcarts with farmers driving the animals, women selling apricots along side the road, and men driving bucket loads of watermelon in their jeep.  Once we pass the junction between  the town and the countryside, the landscape became infinite .   As we approached our first tourist destination, which seemed as if it were in the middle of nowhere,  I kept thinking “ where are we ? ”  The expression on fellow passengers’ faces suggested we had similar thoughts.  We walked up to the Mor Pagoda, a lump of concrete that has been weathered down through time.   The surroundings were absolutely silent.  Only the sound of our footsteps and the occasional wind gust broke the stillness.


Within ten minutes, we see a  jeep carrying a brigade of women and a couple of men, who then parked by the entrance path to the  pagoda complex. The manner in which the group headed straight for us, made me wonder if the tour guide called the locals ahead of time to say “the foreigners are here, the foreigners are  here”.   Ignoring the five white tourists in our group, the eldest woman in the posse, grabbed my right arm, push the left side of my torso back in an attempt to half hug me from the back, while the remaining  ladies surrounded us for a group photo shot.  The rest of my tour group stood in astonishment of  this enfolding scene, then obliged “grandma’s”  photo request by angling to take snap shots of the group of local Kashgari women and myself, the sole black person in the group.  The entire scene was hilarious.

Although we didn’t share the same language, the Kashgari locals enthusiastically tried to communicate with us using sign language, smiles, and our local guide as the interpreter. In addition to our exchange, what was amazing was how these ladies, who were 50 years old and above, wearing dress shoes and attire, were ascending up the pagoda with the ease of a mountain climber. I feared for their safety but they were a tough breed, needing no assistance up or down the monument.  Before we left Mor Pagoda, our new found friends, share their apricots with us, and wished us well on our journey. One final wave goodbye to the group and we were on our way to visit the cultural treasures of Abakh Khoja Mausoleum and Kashgar’s Old Town.  I left with a big smile and a warmed heart.  Intercultural experiences like these are what traveling is all about.



 

Turpan:  Emotional highs and lows of the Flaming Mountains

After visiting the Astana Caves and  Karez Museum in Turpan , we head further in to the countryside towards the infamous Flaming Mountains depicted in Wu Chengen’s Journey to the West.  We pass villages filled with dirt strewn houses, green vegetation, and farm animals.   Then the landscape begins to change to a vast empty valley with charcoal colored mountains turning more and more rust colored,  as if we were entering into the southwest area of the United States.  With each passing minute, the scenery of the red rust colored mountains was increasingly breathtaking.  All that could be seen for miles was these flaming mountains to the left and to the right, with a single winding road down the middle.

The tour van driver pulled over to the side of the road to grant us a photo opportunity. As I stepped out of our van onto the earth, I was so filled with awe that my legs were trembling. I felt like I was literally stepping into a professionally enhanced photograph. The stunning sight of these towering rust colored mountains contrasted with the green ravine below was almost too much for my heart to bear. This moment alone, was worth coming for.


After we spent some time soaking up our surroundings, we continued driving and came upon an Arabic looking Disney World theme park that was either abandoned or still in progress of construction. With the arid scenery of mountains and sand, it felt more like we were in a Middle Eastern dessert oasis than in China.  A little further up the road was the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves.  Inside the caves are frescos on the walls and ceiling. Unfortunately much of it has been damage or stolen by both locals and foreigners.  To see the remains of the handy work done by vandals and thieves who either gouge out the eyes on the faces in the figures or the ripped them out entirely, left a heavy and disheartening feeling among our group members.

Outside the caves, an elderly Uighur man, with the brightest smile, played an instrument resembling a ukulele. It was great background music to the scenic backdrop of the mountains and gorge below. He was so appreciative of our tips and enjoyment of his music, that upon finishing his tune, he stood up and warmly shook our hands. A very personable gesture.  If he could smile amidst the tragedy of his stolen cultural treasures that stood behind him, certainly we could.

                                                                                                                                                  


Urumqi: A modern Oasis

On our return journey from Turpan to Urumqi, we passed by homes surrounded by walls decorated with beautiful paintings depicting rural scenes of country life. Women picking fruit, families enjoying a picnic in the grass, farmers tilling soil.   Before returning to Urumqi, we visited Turpan’s Emin (Imin Ta) Minaret, Grape Valley, and Jiaohe Ruins (a world heritage site). All of which are must see sites if one visits this area.

Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province,  is a modern city with tall buildings and a concrete main square with the usual Mao Zedong statue dominating the center .   Chinese of Han and other  ethnicities can be seen more here than in Kashgar or Turpan.   The main square was a center for social activity including the elderly participating in group exercise, teenagers rollerblading, and couples and singles dancing. Each night, around 7pm (local time), people would congregate and socialize here. In the area where the dancers were, there was one particular man that was simply a pleasure to watch.  He glided and turned with flowing hand movements that dipped above, below, then side to side.  His face expressed pure enjoyment of the moment.

Evening social activity was a great way to counter the calories consumed in flavorful Uighur dishes, which is an intriguing blend of pan orient cuisine from Istanbul to Beijing. Popular dishes such as polo and samsa were herb and spiced infused and at times warranted a side of yoghurt to tame the heat. Although our tour group’s final night in China was spent in Urumqi, which is less populated by ethnic Uighurs than in the more western part of the province, once we had a taste of Uighur food in Kashgar and Turpan, there was no turning back to the steamed vegetable and meat dinners served on Lazy Susans from the more well known parts of eastern China.

                                                                                                                                                           


Final Words

By the end  of the trip, the disappointment of the Tibet blockage was a distant memory. I dare say that I’m glad we didn’t go to Tibet, because I never would have thought to come to this part of China. The trip also gave me insight to my personality that could use refining….to let go; to trust that that there is higher purpose in our experiences; and to let it lead you to new places, people, and ideas.  The experience motivated me to think about my purpose, my passions, and how best I can utilize them to better contribute to this world.

A year later, in a random Seattle diner, I bumped into one of the participants from the China tour. What was so fantastic about our serendipitous encounter was that we both live in two separate and far flung parts of the U.S. yet we were in Seattle for unrelated reasons at the same time. She shared with me how the trip to Western China inspired her to make some career changes in her life and I shared similar aspirations with her. I truly believe that our Plan B trip was destined for those involved and designed to change our life course in purposeful directions. Us meeting each other again by fate, confirmed those feelings. Even if that purpose is simply to share with you our modern journey though China’s ancient Silk Road, and bring awareness of the existence of the place, its people, and its culture, that is good enough.


For more information on Xinjiang Province and Uighur Autonomous Region of China,

-Kashgar:
http://www.chinahighlights.com/kashgar/
http://www.chinahighlights.com/kashgar/attraction/

– Turpan:
http://www.chinahighlights.com/turpan/
http://www.chinahighlights.com/turpan/attraction/

-Urumqi:
http://www.chinahighlights.com/urumqi/
http://www.chinahighlights.com/urumqi/attraction/

-UNESCO Silk Road Project:
http://www.silkroad.travel/unesco
http://portal.unesco.org/culture/es/ev.php-URL_ID=36644&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html

-Wu Chengen’s  Journey to the West:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journey_to_the_West

Sidebar on Ethnic Tension in the Region:
The Uighur Autonomous region is known as the second Tibet in terms of the Chinese government’s attempts to suppress their culture and religious beliefs and practices. There are ethnic tensions and sporadic uprisings that can become violent at times. Depending on your perspective, this can be viewed as people striving to maintain their cultural and economic dignity or it can be viewed as terrorist actions from extremist .  Whatever you views are, it’s wise to keep abreast of current events before traveling to the area.

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