The Silk Road, China

Saturday, 28 July 2007

The Northern Silk Road to Xian - Dunhuang & The Hexi Corridor

Both the Buddhist caves and the sand dunes of Turpan (see previous posting) served to whet our appetites for what was to come in Dunhuang, another oasis town this time where the Southern and Northern Silk Roads merge into a single a route towards Xian.

The Mogao caves were once a complex of over 1000 Buddhist caves, literally hidden away in the desert outside Dunhuang until an itinerant monk happened upon them around the turn of last century. He subsequently devoted the rest of his life to restoring and protecting them and they remain an incredible sight today.

At first the caves were used as retreats by a few monks, but in time their proximity to the Silk Road resulted in a huge increase both in the number of caves and the level of ambition of artwork within them. The caves became a display of devotion and were generously endowed by westbound merchants who hoped to secure their safe return and eastbound merchants who had made it back to the safety of China. At their height in the Tang dynasty (7th to 10th centuries) the caves were a thriving community of 140 monks and nuns, along with numerous local sculptors, painters and calligraphers.

The caves are awe inspiring. Upon entering the first, all that is visible is a huge fold of cloth sculpted into the rock. As the eyes become accustomed to the gloom, they are drawn to the two enormous feet (the big toenails are the length of my forearm) on either side. At this point they slowly are drawn upwards to take in the enormity of the 35 metre high seated Buddha.

We saw just a tiny selection of the caves, but enough to appreciate the quality of the art and to notice the foreign influences - as well as goods - that travelled down the Silk Road: Indian faces and Buddhism shared the same narratives as local people, customs and Taoist ideas. Despite being extremely busy, the Mogao caves were nonetheless a highlight of the entire Silk Road.

The only way to follow such a morning was to opt for a complete contrast. We hired bikes and rode towards the massive (300m high) sand dunes that literally bump up against the outskirts of Dunhuang. As with Tian Chi, we were somewhat surprised to be welcomed by a hefty entrance fee, which presumably funded the camel festival-cum-theme park and wooden steps that had been built up one of the dunes.

We turned our backs on it all and set out to find our own, quiet dune, when suddenly a microlight circled over head. Immediately I knew I had to try it and it conjured up images of the English Patient for Helen; we knew we could not pass up the opportunity. We swallowed our pride, paid our dues and enjoyed a brief, but exhilarating and spectacular flight over the dunes.

The dunes from the microlight

Once back on the ground, we left the camels where they were and trudged up a huge - and almost too hot to walk on - dune, well away from the crowds.

The Hexi Corridor

We were to find last of the desert in a town called Jiaguyuan. Its significance lay in its fortress which - thanks to the Great Wall - guarded the pass into the Chinese Empire through which all travellers had to pass: the Hexi Corridor. For the caravans it offered either the first or the last security and civilisation for months.

Even today, its location is striking. Both the Wall and the Fort have recently been restored and cut an imposing shape in the wilderness. We cycled out from the town to where the wilderness begins. From a turret on the wall at the top of the hill, we looked out to the West: the Hexi corridor is hemmed in by snow capped mountains to the south and the desert to the North. To savour the moment, we walked a short distance into the Gobi desert and sat for while, looking back on the Great Wall of China.

Ahead of us to the east lay the part of China that was driving the economic growth that constantly dominates the headlines. Here the news makes fascinating viewing: every year on year trend reported is a massive increase. The media must contribute to the optimism and energy that you can sense in China, although of course it is closely monitored by the state. Nevertheless, I was surprised at how openly (but not non critically of course) the discussion is around the biggest some of the biggest challenges that China faces. These include the undervaluation of the yuan and the sustainability of the unusually high level of savings - changes in either of which could seriously undermine Chinese stability.

The environmental cost of the Chinese miracle is also visible here for the first time. Well documented in our media, I had initially been encouraged by the widespread use of recycling bins upon arrival in Kashgar. But as we rode back from the Wall towards the town, it was impossible not to notice the countless factory chimneys on the outskirts of the town, spewing black smoke into the bright blue sky. The wind carried the smell to the back of our throats and the smoke hung in the air, hinting at the smog to come in the more urbanised east; the contrast with the wilderness could not be more striking.

Our final stopover before Xian was an unexpected surprise. The small town of Zangye somehow had more atmosphere than anywhere Helen and I had found so far. It was neither a tourist town like Dunhuang nor a sprawling concrete mess like Urumqi: it was simply a pleasant place to pass the time. It had a delightful pedestrianised street where people seemed to be taking time out from the hectic pace of China; a welcome change from the highly functional norm for Chinese towns. We duly joined in with the merriment and tried a local dish called Big Plate Chicken, comprising a whole chopped chicken cooked in a tasty hot sauce. Some pieces were rather less appetising than others...!



No comments: