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