Mike's China by Mike Dixon - HTML preview
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Two silk roads cross eastern China. One hugs the mountains of Tibet to the south. The other takes a northern route and skirts the mountains of Mongolia and the Tien Shan. Both routes pass though some of the most desolate and forbidding country on earth. If you like deserts then you will like the Silk Road.
The northern route is favoured by the tourist industry and this is the one I'll talk about. The southern route isn't geared for tourism and travel permits are sometimes difficult to obtain.
You can travel the northern route by bus or train. The city of Xian ... of Terracotta Warriors fame ... is a frequent starting point. Sleeping carriages are available on the trains but you'll miss the scenery if you sleep through it. The track traverses country that becomes increasingly arid. You pass through the southern corner of the Gobi then enter the Taklimakan Desert.
My preference is to cross the desert during daylight hours. Deserts fascinate me. The geology is laid bare for all to see and the people are different from city folk. That observation applies to my own country (Australia) and everywhere else I've been ... deserts are different.
In the old days, the Silk Road was the east-west highway for merchants and soldiers of the Chinese Imperial army who policed the route and manned the western extension of the Great Wall. The beast of burden was the two-humped Bactrian camel. You can see them running wild in the desert. Failing that, you'll have no trouble finding them in tourist parks.
The old route made its way from one oasis to the next. Two of these (Dunhuang and Turpan) are of special interest. Short side-trips will be needed if you travel by train.
The tourist brochures say that Dunhuang has the biggest sand dunes in the world. I can't vouch for that but I can testify to their gigantic size. They tower up at the edge of the town. You can climb them on a camel for a small fee and make the trip back down on a sledge. After that, a gentle stroll through the dunes will take you to a Chinese temple beside a pool.
My main reason for going to Dunhuang was to visit the famous Mogao Caves nearby. Many centuries ago, Buddhist monks made their homes in caves in a low cliff beside a small river. They enlarged the caves and created others. Over the years the caves became linked by wooden walkways protruding from the cliff face. Huge shrines were built within the cave system and decorated with murals.
The caves were a place of learning where the Buddhist scriptures were translated and copied onto scrolls. Many survived the misfortunes of the ages and are dispersed amongst museums around the world, including the museum at Mogao. The caves may be reached by tourist bus from Dunhuang. Facilities at the site are excellent.
Remnants of the 2000 year-old Han Dynasty Great Wall survive in the desert near Dunhuang. You will pass them on the way to join the railway line. About 80 beacon towers remain. They were used to send messages using smoke by day and flame by night.
The Turpan basin is one of the lowest points on earth ... comparable with the Dead Sea. The temperature is blisteringly hot in summer and freezing in winter. Underground and other aquifers provide water for a highly productive horticultural industry. In the old days, the City of Turpan was a major administrative centre and military post astride the Silk Road.
Impressive ruins stand to this day. The defensive walls and buildings were made of mud, compacted on a massive scale. In the dry climate of the Taklimakan, this sort of construction can survive for centuries. You can visit the ruins, which are a major archaeological and tourist site.
If you saw the film "Warriors of Heaven and Earth" and liked it then you will like Turpan. The film is set in the Tang Dynasty and gives a good idea of what Turpan was once like.
The top picture (camels) was taken on a track near the “Great Wall”. Those below were shot at the Mogao Caves, Turpan and beside a collosal sand dune which is encroaching on the town of Dunhuang. The locals have made the best of their plight by turning it into a tourist attraction.