The Silk Road

An un­for­get­table trip across north­ern China re­wards this trav­eller with the taste of a di­verse cul­ture

Nadia - - CONTENTS -

Athree-week jour­ney along China’s an­cient Silk Road re­vealed an un­ex­pected side of the coun­try to NA­DIA’S creative direc­tor, Tanya Wong. Al­though Tanya’s grand­par­ents hail from south­ern China, and she has ex­plored some of the coun­try be­fore, north­ern China proved to be an en­tirely new ex­pe­ri­ence. “It was so dif­fer­ent I of­ten for­got I was in China,” Tanya says. “The land­scape, the peo­ple, the var­i­ous cul­tures – they all seemed to be­long to a dif­fer­ent place. Be­cause north­ern China borders many cen­tral Asian coun­tries, and the re­gion was a trade route con­nect­ing Africa, Europe and Asia, the blend­ing of cul­tures is amaz­ing. It teaches us a les­son we should re­mem­ber to­day: even when there was con­flict, peo­ple had to get along with other cul­tures in or­der to sur­vive and grow.”

North­ern China is steeped in cul­ture and his­tory, with many an­cient cities and sites to ex­plore. There’s a lot to take in – and the Silk Road tra­verses a large part of the coun­try – so Tanya’s fam­ily ar­ranged a custom tour with Janet Joe of Planet Earth Travel. The three-week jour­ney took them east­wards from the au­ton­o­mous re­gion of Xin­jiang in the north­west to Gansu and on to Shaanxi.

“The land­scapes in the north are so vast and seem to carry on for ever,” says Tanya. “The ter­rain was so di­verse, from the sand dunes in the Gobi Desert to moun­tains, rock for­ma­tions and caves. Fly­ing into Urumqi in Xin­jiang, I was in awe of the amaz­ing to­pog­ra­phy. There were moun­tains cov­ered with snow, with sun­light hit­ting the crevices and nooks, all dis­ap­pear­ing into a sea of fog.”

Xin­jiang is home to the Uyghur eth­nic mi­nor­ity, a Tur­kic, pri­mar­ily Is­lamic peo­ple, as well as a num­ber of other eth­nic groups, in­clud­ing Kazakh, Ta­jik, Hui, Kyr­gyz, Mon­gol and Han. This di­ver­sity is re­flected in mul­ti­lin­gual sig­nage and a med­ley of ar­chi­tec­tural and cloth­ing styles. The Mus­lim in­flu­ence is seen through­out the area, in build­ings, food and dress.

Speak­ing of food – be pre­pared for a feast. Spicy, aro­matic food is plen­ti­ful in the north, with Mid­dle Eastern flavours to the fore. Meat is a main fea­ture – mut­ton pies, don­key burg­ers, goat’s head soup and yak jerky all make ap­pear­ances.

You’ll find more lamb and wheat-based dishes on the menu than in south­ern China, and also more use of buck­wheat and mil­let. Food is an art form here, from shaved noo­dles (cut from a block of dough to tum­ble straight into boil­ing wa­ter) to hand-pulled tof­fee sweets. Piles of fruit al­most spill from mar­ket stalls: pomegranates, jack­fruit, figs, and raisins in­fused

with the scent of roses (ow­ing to the rose bushes that grow along­side the grapevines).

Mar­kets are a great place to take in the sights and in­ter­act with the lo­cals. “We loved walk­ing through the al­ley­ways and play­ing with the kids,” says Tanya. “Peo­ple were so friendly and wel­com­ing. I ap­proached one lady to see if I could take a pic­ture of her and she ush­ered me to her ta­ble and of­fered me some of her lunch.”

A high­light for Tanya was a visit to the Afaq Khoja Mau­soleum in Kash­gar in the Xin­jiang re­gion, also known as the Tomb of the Fra­grant Con­cu­bine. This holy Mus­lim site and func­tion­ing mosque is the final rest­ing place for de­scen­dants of the Sufi teacher Afaq Khoja and, ac­cord­ing to Han le­gend, the “fra­grant con­cu­bine,” a young Uyghur woman whose nat­u­ral scent was said to be so beau­ti­ful that she was taken as a con­sort by the Qian­long Em­peror.

You can’t talk of north­ern China with­out touch­ing on the Great Wall, the rem­nants of which pro­vide a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into for­mer em­pires. The struc­ture ac­tu­ally com­prises a num­ber of walls and for­ti­fi­ca­tions, some built as early as 770 BC. In Gansu, Tanya vis­ited the Over­hang­ing Great Wall (which seems to lean out over the Shiguan Gorge), Ji­ayuguan Pass fort (where the Silk Road and Great Wall meet), and fi­nally the western start­ing point (or “first bea­con”) of the wall’s Ming sec­tion (the best-known and best-pre­served seg­ment).

“It’s ac­tu­ally quite hard to get a feel for how mas­sive the wall re­ally is while you’re there,” Tanya says. “It’s mind-blow­ing to imag­ine how it was built. It echoes the feel­ing I had about the en­tire Silk Road. It was awein­spir­ing to try to pic­ture the many jour­neys that would have been un­der­taken over the years – what peo­ple must have en­dured and ex­pe­ri­enced along the way.”

Cul­ture calls Relics of an­cient civil­i­sa­tions dot the land­scape, from the nat­u­ral fortress of Jiaohe (top right) to the Mo­gao Caves (bot­tom left), which con­tain some of the finest ex­am­ples of Bud­dhist art. Tof­fee nut tarts, spices and rose petals for...

Above The Afaq Khoja Mau­soleum in Kash­gar; it is also known as the Tomb of the Fra­grant Con­cu­bine be­cause, ac­cord­ing to Han le­gend, it is the rest­ing place of an im­pe­rial con­sort said to have had a beau­ti­ful nat­u­ral scent. Op­po­site Kash­gar’s old city...

Worth the hike Raisins (top left) from the re­gion of Tur­pan are im­bued with the scent of roses. It was a long, hard climb up the Great Wall of China to the Over­hang­ing Great Wall (bot­tom right and top right); just a few kilo­me­tres away is Ji­ayuguan...

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