Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Tatler (Hong Kong) Mar 09 - text

The Road Most Travelled

It’s a clear September morning when the eight of us arrive in Xi’an. Eyes puffy from the early flight over, I shrug on my windbreaker and breathe in the crisp autumn air, which at 19 degrees Celsius is considerably nippier than the 26C we’d left behind in Hong Kong. I was grinning a little too broadly given the fuzziness in my head, but this was the first leg of our much-anticipated Silk Road tour and I was ecstatic. Known as Chang’an in ancient Han times, Xi’an was once the capital of China and the heart of the Middle Kingdom’s contact with the West. At its height, the Silk Road spanned more than 7,000 miles from Chang’an all the way to Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey).

Our first mission was to visit the legendary Terracotta Warriors, tribute to one of China’s most infamous emperors, Qin Shi Huang. Often characterised as a ruthless despot, he unified China, initiated the Great Wall, standardised language and measurement, and implemented civil examinations more than two millennia ago, changing Chinese society forever. The emperor was also completely obsessed with death and immortality. Doctors and alchemists were ordered to find the elixir of life, while more than 700,000 men were commanded to build an army of thousands to help him rule in the afterlife, just in case the elixir was discovered too late. The carefully preserved relics at the Terracotta Army Museum are breathtaking. As I switch from wide angle to closer shots, I’m awestruck by the unique facial features of every individual soldier I bring into focus.

Next, we’re whisked to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, where resident monks commingle with bronze buddhas and bodhisattvas, faintly green from centuries of oxidation. Rising seven storeys above the city, the pagoda is the warden of many sacred figurines brought to Chang’an by celebrated Buddhist explorer Xuanzang circa 7th century AD. Transported from India over thousands of miles along the Silk Road, Buddhism remains one of China’s major religions, along with Islam. We spend the rest of the day taking in the cityscape, its quaint pagodas reminding me of the Cantonese costume dramas my mother used to watch when I was a kid. We stay the night at the Grande New World hotel, advertised as a four-star but more on par with a three-star hotel.

The following day, we take a two-hour domestic flight past the Yellow River and Hexi Corridor to Jiayuguan city, a trip that once took days astride horses, camels or donkeys. After an achy night on a lumpy mattress at the disappointing Jiayuguan Hotel, we drive west to the Jiayuguan Pass. I feel an exhilaration shared by centuries of travellers when I spot the Jiayuguan Fort in the distance, a mirage across the vast golden barrenness of the Gobi Desert. Those coming from the west would have endured perilous deserts and treacherous mountain passes before reaching this western-most outpost of China’s Great Wall, also known as the First Magnificent Pass Under Heaven “天下第一雄关”.

Six hours of camp songs later, our minivan finally reaches Dunhuang in the early evening. We were in for a treat. The Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel, built in the style of a Tang Dynasty palace with enclosed courtyards, takes us back in time with its mud walls and replicas of antique furniture. We feast on skewers of the most tender lamb I’ve ever tasted, slurp lamien noodles and sample countless Gansu delicacies, one of which is camel toe. Only available in Jiayuguan according to our tour guide, camel toe is possibly the most malodorous dish I’ve ever experienced. Giddy from gorging and exhausted from the long and bumpy ride, we’re happy to call it a night and retire to our well-appointed rooms.

We wake up early, refreshed and ready for adventure. Nearby, packs of two-humped Bactrian camels await, tied together by large nails through their nostrils, so that if one moves, the rest must follow. We’re helped up by our tour guides and then led single file towards Echoing Sand Mountain, which arcs majestically in the distance. As we sway closer, I hear a yelp from behind me, seconds before I glimpse the remarkable sight myself. At the foot of the giant dune lies a delicate and seemingly improbable oasis. A graceful pagoda stands still, set off by the shimmering waters of Crescent Moon Spring.

We trek onward to the Mogao Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. Generations of Buddhist monks sequestered themselves within these grottoes in search of enlightenment. Over the course of a thousand years, the Mogao Caves amassed one of the largest libraries of Buddhist scrolls and sutras in the world. In 1907, British explorer Aurel Stein discovered the Diamond Sutra, the world’s earliest known printed book, in Cave No 17. The site’s preservation is remarkable. Thousands of cave murals are being painstakingly restored to their original lustre. Ducking into the grottoes, I’m humbled by the sight of the prehistoric paintings. For a brief second, I feel, or imagine, a spine-tingling energy from centuries of spiritual inhabitants ascending to nirvana.

That evening we take a surprisingly comfortable sleeper train to Turfan heading north-west towards the formidable Taklamakan, a punishing desert that’s known as “the place of no return.” Its shifting sands have swallowed many foolhardy explorers. In the days of the Silk Road, merchants travelled either north or south around the Taklamakan, often on routes marked by the skeletal remains of camels and travellers who had perished along the way.

We awake to a brilliant sun and the arid flats of the Turfan basin. It’s a comfortable 23C and the terrain here is rougher. It’s hard to imagine that grapes, Hami melons, and watermelons are among the main exports of this region. We learn that the Karez water system, dating back to the Han dynasty, enables the necessary irrigation through a web of underground channels. We head towards the foothills of the red sandstone Flaming Mountains to see the Bezeklik Caves, similar to the Mogao Grottoes, but on a much smaller scale. We return to Turfan, where our guide shows us the Uyghur mosque, in particular its most striking feature, the Emin Minaret, which stretches 44 metres towards the vivid blue sky.

From Turfan, we caravan to nearby Urumqi to catch an evening flight to Kashgar (modern-day Kashi), where the northern and southern routes of the Silk Road converge. With the Taklamakan to its east, the Tian Shan, Karakoram, and Pamir mountains to the north-west, and the Kunlun mountains to the south, Kashgar is a unique crossroads, where a wealth of animals, textiles, gems, precious metals and other goods have been bartered for centuries in its famous bazaars.

The Kashgar bazaars are bustling to this day. Their overflowing stands and colourful wares transport us to the height of the Silk Road in the 13th and 14th centuries AD. I’m fascinated by the myriad of vibrant hues everywhere,which are in stark contrast to the ochre landscape. Brilliant fabrics showcase elaborate embroidery originating from the delicate handiwork of the ancient Chinese, while other textiles feature ikat patterns, similar to today’s tie-dye, which travelled east from India centuries ago. Intricate patterns woven into smooth silk and soft cotton display symbols of different cultures and religions, capturing the spirit of the Silk Road itself.

As we tour through Kashgar’s Old City, we notice immediately how friendly the local community is. Lively and curious children pose happily for photos and are fascinated by their miniature images on our digital cameras. The alluring scent of baking bread holds us captive as we wait beside a large tandoor oven for fresh bagels and naan. Elderly folk amble along the lanes and soak in the sunshine on benches and chairs outdoors, their lined faces telling stories of their fathers and forefathers before them. I feel strangely comfortable in this city of friendly strangers and could have stayed for days capturing expressions and personalities of the young and old. Sadly, our Silk Road tour has come to an end. Leaving the Old City, I turn back for one last shot of the mossy emerald doorway and am surprised to see a small crowd of kids waving to us from the threshold. I couldn’t have asked for a warmer farewell.

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