A journey on the Silk Road in the year 2000 is a less adventurous undertaking than when General Zhang Qian, the “Great Traveler,” set off in 138 B.C. toward the unknown lands of Central Asia. His mission for the Han Emperor Wudi was to locate Western allies against the Huns and find the famous horses of Ferghana, swifter than swallows, that were to be exchanged for silk.
The trade route, which until then had functioned sporadically and unofficially, was thus formally established. West-bound caravans transported silk, spices and ceramics, while goods such as glass, gold and grapes from the Mediterranean world came eastward. Indian holy men joined traders on the road to convey the Buddha’s message to China via Central Asia.
Conversely, the 7th-century monk Xuan Zang traveled to India in search of the sacred texts of Buddhism. His fictitious adventures as the “Monkey King” were told in the humorous 16th-century novel, “Journey to the West,” popularized in TV serials and cartoons even to this day.
Today’s travelers may not have the time to follow Xuan Zang all the way to India, but even within China itself, a great way of experiencing the rich mix of East and West is to join the Silk Road in the Central Asian province of Xinjiang and follow the ancient routes east from Kashgar. Direct flights to Kashgar from Beijing are to begin this year. Otherwise the connection is via Urumqi, a modern Chinese city said to be the farthest in the world from the sea; it hasn’t much else to offer except its museum.
Kashgar, in contrast, is still the bustling trading center it always was, the hub of various silk routes. At its famous Sunday market, the Uighurs (who form 90 percent of the population) barter with Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tajik and Pakistani traders for horses and camels, sheep and goats, carpets and spices, silk brocade and gaudy nylon.
The atmosphere is exotic, and yet very familiar fruit and vegetables are piled up on the stalls: peppers and eggplants, melons and peaches, apricots and almonds. Silk Road travelers helped the dissemination of plants and foods. One can sample shishkebab, or a dish of noodles — perhaps the original spaghetti recipe Marco Polo took back with him to Italy. Rice country starts further East.
The regular Kashgar bazaar by Id Kah mosque is a hive of activity. Bakers knead nan, butchers slaughter goats, and barbers work alongside silversmiths, coppersmiths, joiners and lute-makers. There are no Buddhist monuments of interest left in Kashgar, but Muslim architecture is well represented by the Id Kah mosque and Abakh Hoja tomb. The tomb, a miniature Taj Mahal, stands in a quiet grove, while in the shade of plane trees women spin and weave silk.
There is always something of interest going on in Kashgar, but the Sunday market should not be missed. Do it at the beginning of the trip, to avoid missing it through accumulated delays on the way.
Along the Karakoram Highway, about 200 km out of Kashgar, is Lake Karakuli, halfway up the Pamir Mountains, the Roof of the World. The “highway” (a dirt road frequently cut by rain and landslides) leads to Pakistan through a checkpoint and so you need a travel permit from China International Travel Service. It follows one of the routes that led to the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Gandhara.
The scenery is spectacular. The greenery of oases gives way abruptly to rocky desert until the road climbs onto grassy plateaus where Kyrgyz families graze their yaks. They may invite you into their yurt and give you a bowl of sharp-tasting yoghurt while you negotiate the price of embroidered felt. Spending a night in a brightly decorated yurt at Lake Karakuli is a great experience. Although some travel agents dismiss it as too ethnic or uncomfortable, carpets and futons inside are clean, cozy and beautiful.
The lake lies at 3,600 meters, surrounded by snow-capped peaks such as Muztag-Atashan, the Father of the Ice Mountains, towering at 7,000 meters. The air is pure and cold, sunsets are dramatic and the nights crystal clear. The lack of oxygen may keep you awake but give you a chance to admire the stars.
The Seman Hotel in Kashgar is disappointing. The old part of the hotel, the Russian Consulate during the Great Game of the late 19th century, is very run down. The modern wing is a concrete block, as is the new hotel built in front of the old British Consulate.
From Kashgar, the ancient Silk Road divided into the northern and southern routes which skirt the dreaded Taklamakan Desert. Today the southern route has little to offer tourists, even Khotan. In the 5th century this was a flourishing center of Mahayana Buddhism, and the first kingdom outside China to practice sericulture, thanks to a Chinese princess betrothed to a local dignitary. She smuggled precious silk worms out in her headdress, thus breaking China’s monopoly.
Now Khotan has little left of its glorious past. It is still famous for jade, silk and carpets, but these can be found in Kashgar.
The northern route, on the other hand, is still popular with travelers and has numerous Buddhist sites worth visiting. Closest to Kashgar (a 15-hour drive on rough roads), Kizil Thousand Buddha caves, near Kucha, have many fine murals dated as early as the 3rd century.
To go on eastward from Kucha takes even longer. Flights are weekly, if at all. Kizil is certainly worth the detour, but only for the determined traveler. The easier, if less rewarding, way of getting to the main northern sites is to fly directly from Kashgar to Urumqi. From there, the road and railway head eastward to Turpan, Dunhuang and beyond.