Footsteps into the Middle Kingdom: An Adventure Through Western China Along the Old Silk Road

Alexander Long

The Great Wall of China."While I was studying abroad in China on a prolonged leave of absence nearly two years in length, my mother and grandmother came to visit me. I decided to take them up into the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. I wanted to go as far out as I could and then slowly return into the center of China, hence the name of my trip: Footsteps into the Middle Kingdom.

The region is in not homogenous with large variations in cities and climates. However, a huge part of the region is extremely arid with about 5% of its land area fit for human habitation. The region has a large Muslim Uyghur population composing 45% of the ethnic population with 41% Han on a gradient from west to east. In places, the traditional culture with heavy Muslim influence is prevalent. To visit, cultural sensitivity and practices are recommended, as well as learning some basic phrases in the Uyghur language.

Traveling in Xinjiang posed several unique issues beyond what you would normally face. As with many remote regions of China, simply speaking Putonghua is not always going to be sufficient outside tourist and service areas. As an English speaker it is nearly impossible to get reliable information on the region online. However, as China continues to become more prosperous, Chinese tourism within the country has rapidly increased and a basic tourist infrastructure has arisen. English will not get you anywhere on the ground except maybe into a fancy hotel. I found the places we were able to find online were usually overpriced and generally inferior to comparable hotels in the area which could be found by inquiring upon arrival. Ideally it's always best to have contacts in the region which you travel, but with 96% of the population in the eastern part of the country, making contacts beforehand in Xinjiang is not easy. As a foreign passport holder, the hotel selection is more limited. This is the case through most of the country.

Generally, as a rule of travel, there will always be a mix between people trying to exploit foreigners for money and honest professionals doing their jobs. The more remote the region, the greater the value of HUMINT, to use that term. Getting out and talking and asking questions is vital to significantly reduce costs and to open up new options. This was also vital because internet availability was sporadic. I experienced a few blackouts, which is consistent with the growing pains of a rapidly growing county. I definitely felt like an outlier traveling with two silver haired women, however traveling with a grandmother can have very real advantages. It's a tradeoff between mobility and traveling cheaply given the friendliness and disarming quality that comes with traveling with a 73 year old woman.

It is my observation that the police are not highly visible. This is very different from what you would expect, for example, in Egypt where there is a very clear and heavy police presence around tourist locations, usually heavily armed. It is my sense the Chinese authorities try to promote economic growth and Hanification as the main means of keeping stability; however, the People's Armed Police are always on hand. Generally, large temples, mosques and historic sites will be funded by the government and meticulously restored as a way to encourage tourism, but in my opinion this is also to buy a moderate message.

The scenery in Xinjiang was amazing, no matter the form of transportation. It is primarily a very arid climate devoid of life or color save their musty brown low mountains with occasional plateaus, all absolutely bare and stark, yet mesmerizing in the lines and patterns carved by the torrents of water that cascaded down long ago. The rocky crags and gullies were harsh and inhospitable yet alluring to the eye in the desolate symmetry of patterns etched over the ages.

We started in the city of Kashagar or Kashi, the westernmost city in China near the border with Tajikistan and proceeded back. Kashi was by far one of the most amazing and culturally rich experiences of my time in China. Over 90% of the population of Kashgar is ethnically Uyghur, and like many cities, it was divided into a large modern segment, nearly indistinguishable from any city, and a smaller but very traditional Muslim section or old town. The old town was a bustling labyrinth of streets with families, older men, groups of women shopping and children dashing about and shyly saying "Hello, hello".

A Chinese market.Although the government is purportedly tearing down the old city with great speed, my observation is while there is much construction and renovation, the situation is more complex than the simplistic analysis readily offered on the internet. On the one hand, there are many new modern 20 story housing units which have been constructed literally adjacent to the structures of old. On the other hand, there are many old city renovations being done by hand, the old way, with structures temporarily held up by an army of supports hewn from sapling poplar trees while the local masonsand laborers reconstruct and strengthen the home using as many of the bricks as could be rescued from the original but mixing in modern touches.

An excerpt from my trip log.

"In the old town food was everywhere. Bakers were forming the bread and lowering it to hot ovens right on the street, fruit vendors hawked their plums and melons, the dried fruit and nut salesmen clamored for the attention of passers-by and men chatted with one another as they made skewers out of piles of lamb or goat to barbecue later. So many people were engaged in actual craft and trade: a younger man was hewing instruments out of solid wood, a tin smith worked to fashion a tool, older men were sewing slippers on the street, young men stitched belts, and cobblers repaired heels and soles for waiting customers. I always enjoy the sight of so many older people out socializing; I think it's a very important part of community that can be lost in our own spaced-out suburban car culture. There was a sea of motor bikes parked, their seats covered with what we would call "oriental" carpets. We saw so many craftsmen; it was incredible, the copper smiths, the tinsmiths, the men making and sharpening knives, garden tools, scythes.

The colors were astonishing. Women moved about in groups in patterned skirts and dresses in a myriad of colors and textures with brightly colored scarves covering their hair or with simple brown cloth scarves on their heads or over their heads, completely obscuring their faces. Children were brightly clad and babies had extraordinary outfits in vibrant tones with bits of shiny mirror stitched in. Sometimes lace or small decorations were attached. Some of the stalls were painted red. The fruit and vegetables stood out, as did the rich warm browns and gold of the dried fruit and nuts under the golden tarps. Green melons were piled high on carts pulled by motorbikes with one or two cut to reveal their deep red and yellow interiors."

The standard restaurants usually had an upstairs level for ladies, with mostly men eating on the first level or outdoors, café style. A typical meal would consist of the house specialty as well as skewers of mutton. The meat was fine and interspersed with chunks of liver and fat. The local house specialty (available on the street and in restaurants small and large) was good and inexpensive (50 yuan worth—just over 7 dollars—fed us all well). It was a traditional mixture of vegetables and dried fruit (raisins, prunes, carrots, onions and I am not sure what else) cooked with rice and topped with roast mutton. We often drank tea and had several fantastic experiences with different teas.

At one restaurant, it was extraordinary. A mixture of black tea infused in a clear pot with a center cylinder filled with raisins, the tiny apples, fresh local golden raisins and shards of local crystallized sugar. A thread of local honey was dramatically dipped out of a small glass pot and carefully etched into the glass tea cup before the scalding tea was swirled in. We were amazed by the complexity of flavors and the purity of ingredients, all of which were local. To our disappointment, the honey could only be bought in portions of multiple kilos—too large to carry—especially since we were uncertain it would pass through customs.

Kashi also has a vast Grand Bazaar because it is relatively close to the four international borders of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It acts as a hub for regional goods. To use another excerpt form my log.

"It is difficult to describe a market so burgeoning with life in its many forms: families, mothers, children, babies, small boys, giggling girls, children peering shyly, old men with donkey carts, whole families on donkey carts, whole families on a flatbed pulled by a motorcycle, a man with a mother sheep on a string and three lambs trotting behind, people haggling and others cleaning up or setting up. Even among the textiles and rug vendors, one found men selling melon slices, other men selling shaved ice mixed with either milk and syrup or yogurt and syrup. Inside, one could purchase a dozen different ethnic dresses not to mention the array of furs and scarves. Only jewelry was not in evidence for sale. Every other thing imaginable was there.

Outside in the alleys were freshly slaughtered animals in one lane while another had parts of old machines being reassembled and repaired or just parts to take home to repair. One man was carefully taking apart bicycle pumps and reconstructing them out of a graveyard of pump parts. Another had scads of old shoes he was cleaning, repairing and organizing to sell. To see piles of old shoes surprised me since nearly everyone gets their shoes repaired by the many cobblers. In and amidst the buzz and hum of activity were several stalls that served as dental clinics with patients in chairs. Other stalls had barber or beauty shops."

Our next destination was the city of Turpan. The long distance bus was a bit decrepit but it made its way handily on the highway across the mostly barren landscape. The mountain has a beautiful range of red tones due to the iron oxide in the soil. The shades of red are lovely, although not easy to capture on film. As we slowly traveled the land got flatter and we started passing many, many wind turbines. At the bus terminal in Turpan we were eagerly greeted by a bevy of unlicensed cabbies who shouted out that they could take us to the hotel. After a quick survey we took off and of course the driver told us he could act as our guide tomorrow. After some negotiating the price we took his information.

This is reputed to be one of the hottest places on the earth, which may have just been the city bragging, but undoubtedly it was one of the hottest and driest places I have ever been. Every scrap of green is directly linked to an irrigation system. The city is famous for its very long history of underground tunnels carrying water from the mountains to the city. The Bezklik grottos near the city are over 1000 years old with ancient drawings and paintings of Buddha, Bodhisattvas and Uyghur people and other religious figures. They were most remarkable for the utter destruction and pillaging by a German named Stein, who removed entire fore walls and side walls to take the art back to Germany, where it now resides in a museum in Berlin. The grottos overlooked a valley fed by a stream which danced its way through the parched canyon, adding a sheltered ribbon of life and a splash of color to the landscape. The Ancient Tuyuk Village was fairly interesting. The villagers know they are on display (one pays a fee to get in and one old man had a neatly lettered sign which read 5 yuan for a photo with him), but unlike historical villages in the United States or in Europe, this was simply a semisecluded town trying to capitalize on a growing industry. We went to see an ancient abandoned city which is being excavated (and sadly overly reconstructed) by the Chinese Authorities and its ancient underground tombs. The sites were incredible and merited a more examination, but we were withering quickly under the unrelenting heat of the midday sun. The coolness of morning was gone by 10am and the baking heat for which the city is named rules the day until about 8:30 p.m. when the day's heat breaks.

A Chinese statue of a lion at an ancient building.

One of the most dramatic experiences of the trip occurred unexpectedly when we traveled to our next destination. My grandmother was far less than enthusiastic when I told her we would be traveling 14 hours by night bus, and she insisted I arrange for alternate transportation. We set off packed into a slightly old well‐used Chinese van with two drivers and the four of us. Our drivers were Ousman who had made the round trip 60 times with tourists and Ahmed who had done it 50.

I should begin by explaining that driving in this part of China can best be described as an all‐out game of chicken—where two drivers face off running headlong at one another until one realizes the other means business and quickly darts out of the way narrowly avoiding impending death. The roads in the countryside around Turpan are for the most part two way with one lane of traffic coming in each direction.

Now, in the US, two way roads are marked by double and single yellow lines, but not here. The whole of the C‐30 and the C‐321 were painted with the broken dashes, meaning one can pass at any time either way, and that is exactly what the drivers do. From both lanes, in both directions drivers constantly pass. No distance between themselves and an oncoming car is too short to make a quick jig around whatever impediment rolls between them and the open road, or more likely the next impediment behind which they will quickly stash themselves narrowly averting a collision. All drivers in both lanes suffer from the syndrome, and so people are constantly passing in both directions, raising the stakes. So, one reason you absolutely need two drivers here for a road trip of a mere 540 miles is that no one has the mental tenacity to play chicken and win for ten hours straight. Therefore you absolutely need a backup driver to take over where the other left off.

The second reason for needing a backup driver became clear with about 220 kilometers remaining in the trip. As we careened along playing chicken, there was suddenly a large blue sign with lots of Chinese and Uyghur writing. Not two yards past the sign, the road literally ended. I looked up as one guide said something to another, snapped a shot of the blue sign and realized we were tumbling down onto a sandy unfinished surface complete with road equipment. What had happened was the company that was initially contracted to build the highway had embezzled most of the funds. They had laid concrete in some places only an inch thick over an elevated embankment. Not surprisingly the roadway eroded and washed out, rendering the stretch of highway impassible. Because of the importance of the trucking rout, they essentially cleared and leveled a very rough and now flooding parallel path through the desert to act as a makeshift road. This was shocking but hardly surprising given the number of abandoned large scale projects we had witnessed that had failed because the companies had taken off with the money.

When off‐roading became impossible our driver’s next plan included racing forward between the blocked vehicles going north and south. When he ran out of room, he then cut across all the traffic again, weaving between the stopped trucks. Ahmed disembarked and jogged ahead. We inched forward on the far left of the road, slopping water and sand as we went. When we hit another complete blockage, we thought we were stuck as we were on the wrong side of the road and were faced with columns of trucks going in both directions. Ahmed was there with his jovial smile, waving us forward with one hand defiantly held up to one rig while another backed up to make room for us. When he leapt back into the already moving car, he smiled, laughed and said in broken English. “Police, Stop, Police” and he held his hand up and smiled broadly. Apparently he informed the truckers he was the police and they promptly mobilized the parking lot so we could get through. Weaving our way to the other side, we waited to see what was next.

At the next opportunity Ousman took back off across the muddy desert now accompanied by a small caravan of smaller cars. The new idea involved going back a half kilometer and getting on a piece of new unfinished highway construction we had seen that ran parallel to the sodden slippery deadlocked mess we were on. The new road had just had a foundational layer of concrete and was temporarily wrapped in a plastic coating made of a fabric‐like rice sack to protect the pavement from the sand. We proceeded along for a couple of kilometers when, and suddenly, we came across a cluster of cars who had the same idea and were now stopped. Indeed, it seemed that the pavement ended in a drop of at least 15 inches. People from the other cars were gathering stones and plant material to improvise a ramp. We followed other cars carefully down, and although the rear of the car scraped and bumped hard on the edge, we made it. We were now off across the desert, again following a handful of vehicles sliding and lurching forward towards a fate unknown. Whether we might be stuck in the jam or, even worse, stuck 100 yards into the desert alongside the jam was a matter of conjecture.

At 2:38 AM, road weary and sore from 21 hours of jostling along the desert in a van with old shocks, we at last arrived at the desert oasis city of Dunhuang.

We had been traveling down the Silk Road and it was apparent we were stepping into the sphere of more traditional Chinese Han culture. Dunhuang has some of the most beautiful sand dunes one could imagine. The smooth curves of the dunes are transfixing. The crisp angular ridges rise and fall as they weave into one another set against the blue backdrop. Dunhuang also boasts the Mogao Grottos, which are a series of hundreds of grottos carved into a cliff face. It has a 36 meter high Buddha, now the 3rd tallest in the world (after the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan) and exquisitely preserved artwork. Dunhuang has a much more developed tourist infrastructure, in large part because it is more prevalently mentioned in classical poetry and thus has a greater cultural significance. It is the last stop on the Silk Road for many of the Han tourists coming up from Xian. Most people will not go on into Xinjiang. From Dunhuang we hopped on a 23‐hour sleeper car and rode the rails into Xian and back to the huge cities of China."

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