THE SILK ROAD – By Bernard VanCuylenburg

THE SILK ROAD – By Bernard VanCuylenburg

Bernard Van CuyenburgThis is the ‘Travelogue’ which I wrote, following my tour along the Silk Road. . I returned from China after what must surely rank as one of the best trips I ever made to this empire within empires, of which the travels along the old Silk Road and all the historical sites along its route are what enriched and nourished my spirit. Although I returned extremely tired and somewhat battered after the intense travel involved, what I saw in terms of a rich cultural heritage will forever live in memory, and a rich memory at that.



                                                                  THE SILK ROAD

When I embarked on a visit to sections of The Silk Road on one of four visits to China, I never dreamed that it would be a journey which has no end ! My tour began in Beijing and then went to Xian (ancient Chang An) a former capital of ancient China, from where the Silk Road started over 1600 years ago on its long way to Europe and ultimately to ancient Rome. The very term “Silk Road” conjures up romantic notions of a fabled highway from a fairy tale leading to distant lands and dreamlike far horizons abounding in riches in lands unknown…..that image is true, but a “fabled highway” it was not !  The Silk Road at that time was a tortuous track fraught with danger which went through half a dozen Asian kingdoms for more than 11,000 kilometers, and finally ended in imperial Rome. It was in the legendary city of Xian that the Silk Road had its genesis. This may take longer than I expect, but  there is no other way, as it is impossible to skip detail on a journey of this nature.


Xian, once known as Chang An was the legendary capital of China The city is a melting pot of cultures and religions and was once home to emperors, courtesans, poets, monks, merchants and warriors. Her glory days ended in the early 10th century, but many elements of this ancient capital are still present. The ancient city walls still remain intact and are well preserved . So is the old Muslim Quarter with enough places of interest to keep the most diligent amateur historian busy. There is a vital feel to this place as if the ghosts of the ancient traders, sages and soldiers are still sitting atop the ancient city walls demanding not to be forgotten. Of course, the city is famous for one archaeological treasure which ranks or even outranks the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt –  the terracotta warriors of China’s first Emperor, Qing Huang Di who started construction of the Great  Wall in 221 BC – give or take a few years. All these sites are thankfully on the UNESCO World Heritage List.


My next stop was Lanzhou, the capital of China’s Gansu province. The city grew up on  a strategic stretch of the Yellow River and frequently changed hands in the past as it sat between competing Chinese and Central Asian empires. The excellent museum here has displays dating from the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) including inscribed wooden tablets used to relay messages along the Silk Road. One piece that set my mind pondering is a 2nd century BC silver plate depicting Bacchus, the Greco – Roman God of wine. In the ancient past an imperial envoy of the Han dynasty called Chang Chien was dispatched to seek trading partners, and returned with detailed reports of Central Asia and lands beyond  the route, which eventually became known as the Silk Road. There are many ancient temples in the vicinity  – a google of Lanzhou on the internet will give you  all the information you need. Next stop, Dunhuang.


The fertile Dunhuang oasis has long been a welcome site for weary Silk Road travellers.I use the word “Oasis” because this town lies on the edge of the Taklamakan desert. Most travellers stayed long enough to swap a camel and have a feed. Others settled down and built the forts towers and cave temples in the area. One of the richest historical sites are the Mogao Caves, one of the greatest repositories of ancient Buddhist art in the world. At its peak the site housed 18 monasteries and 1400 monks according to the extant records. The date ascribed to the founding of the first cave is 366 AD. Worthy of note to fire the enthusiasm of any history buff is the fact that the  colours of the paintings in the caves can still be seen in their original splendour – these paintings were started 1200 years before Michaelangelo began his masterpiece in the Sistine chapel in Rome. In fact ,before the  Renaissance saw the light of day in Europe. There are also the Sui Caves (Sui dynasty –  581 – 618 AD) and the Tang Dynasty caves (618 AD – 907 AD). All treasure troves of classic ancient Buddhist art. Jiayuguan marks one of the defining points of the Silk Road. During the Ming dynasty, a fort was constructed here in 1372.


This fort guards the pass that lies between the snow capped Qilian Shan peaks and the Hei Shan mountains. This fort was christened “The impregnable defile under Heaven” . This fort (still very well preserved) marked the last major stronhold of imperial China    – the end of the “civilised” world beyond which lay only ‘desert demons’ and the barbarian armies of Central Asia. Although the Great Wall extends for some distance beyond this point, Jiayuguan marks the symbolic end of The Great Wall , the western gateway of China. There is a Ming dynasty section of the Wall running north from Jiayuguan which was constructed in 1539. From the upper tower of this section of the Wall, one gets a panoramic view of the desert and snow capped peaks in the distance  – an artists dream. Now to a province very different to the rest of China  – XINJIANG  – the new frontier, home to 8 million Uighurs. This province has stronger cultural and ethnic ties to Central Asia than to the Han Chinese and the rest of China. Here the language Uighur, is not just a different dialect  Its a completely different linguistic family. Xinjiang’s countless minorities and its crucial geopolitical location keep this restless land a political thorn in the side of Beijing. On the other hand it is a golden goose with its sheer territorial expanse (one sixth of China’s territory) , abundant natural resources including 30% of China’s oil reserves and a hyper-rich Silk Road legacy. It is a beautiful region contrasted by desert and snow capped mountains. Along the Silk Road, the old towns, the camel trading, the blowing sands, the beautiful mosques and the unsurpassed hospitality of the Uighurs are  timeless………….


Geographically, it is an adventure travellers dream. The Taklamakan desert, a section of the Gobi desert, an extension of the Pamir plateau , and the heavenly Tien Shan mountains (a region resembling landscapes in Austria  or Switzerland) are in this area. In fact from one town Kashgar, the Karakoram Highway goes all the way to Pakistan ! That gives one an idea of the distance and size of China, in geographical terms, and how far away from Beijing we were.


This whole area is a geographical miracle, given the fact that most of these towns skirt the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts ! But that  is  not all. The weary traveller is suddenly greeted with acres of vineyards, apricot and apple orchards, almond, pomegranate and date plantations, not to mention a wide variety of vegetables, and even paddy cultivation in certain places ! We were also taken to a place called “Grape Valley”. The beautiful town of Kashgar is the Uighur’s heartland. It was a major Silk Road hub and bristled with activity for nigh on 2000 years. This town was globalised before globalisatioon was even a word ! A babel of negotiations  – Kazhak, Urdu, Tajik  and more, mixed with the Uighur language in a business stew  – still goes on in shops, back alleys, and hotels.

From here, the stunning Karakoram highway goes all the way to Pakistan. The tomb of Abakh Hoja,  one of Kashgar’s rulers is in a beautiful mosque. He lies along with seventy of the clan in one section, spanning a period of about 350 years……Close to his tomb is that of his granddaughter, Xiang Fei (Fragrant concubine). This beauty led a revolt against the Chinese Emperor – and ended up by being his concubine ! (Some revolt !) The emperor was Qianlong. There is a saying here that “If you have not been to Kashgar, you have not been to Xinjiang”.

The town of Xiahe is set amidst pretty grasslands, but the visitors here are not tourists. Most of the visitors arriving by the truckload are Tibetans who come here to pray at the Labrang monastery. The majority of the population here are Tibetans, who maintain strong solidarity with their bretheren on the plateau. As in most of the other places mentioned, the yak and the camel are common animals in these parts. There is another archaeological treasure about 75 miles from Xiahe, which is quite unknown to the rest of the world….the very impressive 2000 year old Han dynasty town of BAJIAO. It was once a city, but today the 2000 year old walls shelter only a small village. It is the walls which are the chief attraction. Climb these walls still as solid and majestic as ever, and  one stands on the very spot where soldiers stood on guard duty. Set amidst beautiful countryside, BAJIAO is  another historical gem lost to the world. The capital of the Xinjiang province is the beautiful town of Urumqi. Its Mongolian name Wulumuqi means “Idyllic pastureland”. Most people here speak the Uighur tongue  – Mandarin Chinese takes second place. The museum here is one of the best I have ever seen. Two thousand meters up in the Tian Shan mountain range is TIAN CHI (Heavenly Lake) . This stunning lake is surrounded by towering snow capped mountains and is natures Shangrila. I could easily have spent a whole day here.


The ruins of the ancient city of JIAOHE are a treasure. It is one of the world’s largest and best preserved ancient cities. It reminded me of ancient Jericho. Records indicate that over 6500 people once lived here. Another town in which we spent a day is worthy of note, and that is KUQA. It was once a thriving city state, and centre of Buddhism on the ancient Silk Road. Here the sage Kumarajiva, (AD 344 – 413) the first great translator of Buddhist Sutras from Sanskrit into Chinese was born to an Indian father and Kuquean princess. When the famous 7th century Buddhist monk Xuan Zang passed through Kuqa he recorded that two enormous Buddhist statues flanked Kuqa’s western gate and that the monastery had 5000 monks. 75 kilometres from Kuqa are the famous Kizil Buddhist caves, an important site in Central Asian studies with a wondrous mix of art and religion dated as early as the 3rd century AD.  There are over 230 caves here, each one a holy grail of Buddhist art, most resplendent in their original colours. Some caves sadly are in a poor state, one was stripped by Western archaeologists around 1912, and some were defaced by the Red Guards during the infamous Cultural Revolution. But the caves are now listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Listing , and that is good for posterity.


And the women ! Distinctly different from their Chinese  sisters, these doe eyed beauties with their sultry looks seem to have appeared from some tale in “A thousand and one nights”……..they gaze at you enticingly with looks which would melt the hardest heart ! The Uighurs have a  beautiful saying in their homeland which I noted. Translated into English it means ” Every Uighur child learns to sing before he/she learns to talk, and learns to dance before he/she learns to walk”. The city of TURPAN is another jewel in the crown. Settlements in this area predate the Han dynasty. The inhabitants have ranged from Indo-Europeans, and in the mid 9th century the ancestors of the Uighurs were forced from their homeland in Mongolia and settled here around 1250. It is a pretty town and some streets are covered with grapevine trellises which would be a godsend in the summer heat.

(Concluding paragraph) 8.


The rapid economic development of China over the past three decades has been the talking point of economists and foreign governments. This one time “Sleeping Giant” is now wide awake and is on track to being the world’s largest economy in the mid to late 2020’s.                                                                                                                                                           

  I am no economist, but cannot help but conclude this travelogue with a note on the gigantic economic strides made by this ‘Economic Behemoth’  – China.. Now ranked as the world’s second largest economy the country is striving to provide a higher living standard for her people. With her foreign currency RESERVES of US$ 3.8 trillion, Napoleon Bonaparte’s words come to mind…”China is a sleeping giant  – but when she awakes one day, the whole world will be aware of her presence”.  Today, the old Silk Road of ancient times has been resurrected with a new name  “The Belt and Road” initiative.  The “Sleeping Giant” has awoken.


Bernard VanCuylenburg.







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