Dis­cover the Silk Road

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was buck­et­ing down when we ar­rived in Shang­hai, but the wet weather did lit­tle to de­ter our ex­cite­ment. We were soon slosh­ing our way through the del­uge to the Lanzhou Mu­seum to gain an un­der­stand­ing of the his­tor­i­cal con­text of the famed route we were about to em­bark on.

It was not all work and no play, how­ever, and our group of 15 in­trepid ex­plor­ers be­gan to get to know one an­other over a de­li­cious din­ner be­side the mighty Yel­low River.

The next morn­ing, we were up early and on the road in our pri­vate bus, mak­ing our way out of the grey gloom of the city. Ar­riv­ing in ru­ral Wuwei in Gansu, our guide got some lunch spot tips from a group of lo­cals, and we were soon tuck­ing into a hearty meal of hand­made noo­dles. I came to learn that we were served first be­cause we were guests in town. I was sur­prised by these small ges­tures which made me feel so warmly wel­comed.

Well-fed, we headed to the Tian­dis­han Grot­toes – which trans­lates to the “Heaven Lad­der Moun­tain Grot­toes” – some of the ear­li­est grot­toes built in China, which rep­re­sent a key his­tor­i­cal land­mark in Bud­dhist his­tory.

We de­scended 62 steps into a cav­ernous ochre dam, ini­tially built to sup­ply water to the lo­cal com­mu­nity. This dam houses a se­ries of enor­mous Bud­dha stat­ues, the largest of which is the 15-me­tre Sakya­muni Bud­dha, flanked by two dis­ci­ples, two bod­hisattvas, and two heav­enly kings.

Af­ter overnight­ing in Zhangye, we made a short de­tour to the Zhangye


Dafo Tem­ple – which trans­lates to the “Gi­ant Bud­dha Tem­ple” – and it’s cer­tainly de­serv­ing of its name: It houses the largest in­door re­clin­ing clay Bud­dha statue (34.5 me­tres long) in China, de­pict­ing the Gau­tama Bud­dha’s at­tain­ment of Nir­vana.

From here, we drove to the Zhangye Danxia Land­form Ge­o­log­i­cal Park, fa­mous for its rain­bow “layer cake” moun­tains. Hav­ing only ever seen pic­tures of these iconic rock for­ma­tions be­fore, I was un­der the im­pres­sion that the or­ange­hued moun­tains had been overly pho­to­shopped, and I was pre­pared for an an­ti­cli­max. Imag­ine my sur­prise when we ar­rived to see that these rock for­ma­tions were just as I’d seen in pho­to­graphs. The rain had cleared much of the dust from the air, and we were treated to a clear, full-blown Tech­ni­color view of these spec­tac­u­lar land­forms.

The next day, we vis­ited the Over­hang­ing Great Wall. Built in 1539, this was a key strate­gic point in the Ji­ayuguan mil­i­tary de­fence sys­tem. Climb­ing to the peak was quite phys­i­cally de­mand­ing, and made us ap­pre­ci­ate the man­power – and stamina – that would have been re­quired to build it.

Af­ter a 10-minute bus ride, we ar­rived at the Ji­ayuguan Fortress, which was built even ear­lier, in 1372. This was the pri­mary trans­porta­tion node link­ing the East and West along the an­cient Silk Road. All trav­ellers pass­ing through here had to re­trieve a spe­cial exit pass from the of­fi­cer on duty – much like your pass­port for in­ter­na­tional travel. To­day, lit­tle has changed: Each of us had to ac­quire a spe­cial pass to exit the fortress gate.

It was worth the ex­tra pa­per­work. Once we’d ex­ited the gate, we were greeted with the sight of the Gobi Desert stretch­ing be­fore us. It may seem ro­man­tic now, but for for­merly dis­graced of­fi­cials and crim­i­nals, the sight of this bar­ren stretch of sand meant ex­ile, and a life­time sen­tence of des­ti­tute iso­la­tion. This ac­counts for the gate’s other name, “the Gate of Sighs”.

Thank­fully, to­day, any “crimes” are more for jest than ac­tual ban­ish­ment: The cur­rent (very an­i­mated) of­fi­cer at the gate be­queaths you with your “an­cient pass­port” by shout­ing out your name and “pur­pose” for trav­el­ling. Within our group, this in­cluded “a trip to Per­sia to marry a prince”, and – less glam­orously – “opium traf­fick­ing”! The day was capped off with a meal of roasted lamb, slow-cooked whole in a brick oven.

Our fifth day took us to the Yu­men Pass and the Dun­huang Yar­dang Na­tional Geop­ark – an­other im­pres­sive ex­panse of eerie rock for­ma­tions. An ex­pe­di­tion wouldn’t be de­serv­ing of its name without en­coun­ter­ing all weath­ers, but it was nev­er­the­less with some trep­i­da­tion that I stepped out into a sand­storm that morn­ing. Thank­fully, many of our group were well-pre­pared with face­masks and caps. I, on the other hand, was not as equipped, so I was quite happy to seek refuge in the ho­tel at the end of the day – and empty out the fine dust that had gath­ered in my ears!

This was, ad­mit­tedly, the low­point of the trip, but repa­ra­tions were made that evening with a spon­ta­neous trip to an ex­trav­a­gant cul­tural show, fit­tingly called “Silk Road”. Once held at the “Great Hall of the Peo­ple”, it was ex­clu­sively re­served for gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and for­eign lead­ers, but is now open to the pub­lic.

This was a more di­vert­ing take on the Silk Road’s his­tory, us­ing dance and song to por­tray the vivid cul­tural tra­di­tions and artis­tic lega­cies of Dun­huang and the Silk Road. The in­te­gra­tion of dra­matic light­ing, bril­liant chore­og­ra­phy, and the op­u­lent stage de­sign made for a thor­oughly en­ter­tain­ing evening.

The next day’s visit to the Mo­gao Caves was the de­fin­i­tive high­light of the trip. From the out­side, they look per­fectly or­di­nary, set in a slab of drab, brown rock. But upon en­ter­ing the dry, cool caves, it’s as though you’ve been tele­ported into an­other world: It’s a labyrinth of an­cient art­work with 45,000 square me­tres of mu­rals and stat­ues, mak­ing it the world’s largest col­lec­tion of Bud­dhist art. Much of the orig­i­nal pink­coloured paints have turned black due to ox­i­di­s­a­tion. Our guide told me that the painters spent much of their lives paint­ing in the near-dark, guided only by shards of nat­u­ral light and dim oil lamps, and as such, most went blind.

From the dank dark­ness of the caves, we stepped into the blind­ing light of the Gobi, with a view of the Yueyaquan Lake, nestled in the desert bowl, for an af­ter­noon of sand­board­ing and camel rides – Silk Road style.

Thank­fully, the jour­ney back opted for a more mod­ern mode of trans­porta­tion, and we were all aboard a sleep­over train back to Lanzhou, set­tling into our com­fort­able bunk beds within their pur­ple and gold Ap­sara-mo­tif cab­ins, and gen­tly rocked to sleep.

For more in­for­ma­tion on Asian Ge­o­graphic’s forth­com­ing Silk Road ex­pe­di­tions to Uzbek­istan and In­dia, visit www.asian­geo.com/ex­pe­di­tions

The 2017 ASIAN Ge­o­graphic Hot Soup Chal­lenge con­cluded its sixth suc­cess­ful quiz this year, held at the Man­age­ment De­vel­op­ment In­sti­tute of Sin­ga­pore (MDIS). The com­pe­ti­tion brought to­gether 20 teams of four be­tween the ages of 13 and 17 from var­i­ous schools around Sin­ga­pore, with the ma­jor­ity of par­tic­i­pants re­turn­ing to the com­pe­ti­tion with high hopes of mak­ing it into the fi­nals.

The qual­i­fy­ing round took place at the Asian Dive Expo (ADEX) in April this year, and – in keep­ing with the fo­cus of the event – tested par­tic­i­pants on their knowl­edge of cli­mate change with 25 mul­ti­ple choice ques­tions. Fast-for­ward to July 8, and the teams put their think­ing caps back on for the elim­i­na­tion round – an­other 25 mul­ti­ple­choice ques­tions on ge­og­ra­phy, his­tory, con­ser­va­tion and cur­rent af­fairs in Asia. All ques­tions were de­rived from the past two years’ is­sues of Asian­geo­graphic mag­a­zine, and so the more vig­i­lant and dili­gent stu­dents gained an edge in the com­pe­ti­tion by read­ing up be­fore­hand.

We were then joined by Dr Toh Tai Chong, a lec­turer and re­search fel­low at the Trop­i­cal Marine Science In­sti­tute at NUS, who gave an en­gag­ing talk on the cri­sis of marine trash, and how we can all do our part to clean up our oceans, with sev­eral stu­dents putting ques­tions to Dr Toh af­ter the pre­sen­ta­tion.ten­sion was high as the names of the first four teams were an­nounced, mak­ing it into the semi-fi­nals. A team from Hwa Chong In­sti­tu­tion emerged vic­to­ri­ous in this round, as did an­other two teams from this school in the two sub­se­quent rounds, plac­ing three teams from Hwa Chong In­sti­tu­tion neck-and-neck in the fi­nals.

Par­tic­i­pants had the op­por­tu­nity to take a breather from all the ac­tion, how­ever, with a de­li­cious bento box lunch spon­sored by Makan Mate, and an­other two talks from our guest speak­ers: Ms Khong Swee Lin – a trainee do­cent at the Na­tional Gallery Sin­ga­pore – who spoke about the Bug­i­nese, and ac­tress Ms De­bra Teng, a marine am­bas­sador for Shark Guardian.

The fi­nals were upon us with the three lead­ing teams from Hwa Chong In­sti­tu­tion tak­ing to their buzzers, an­swer­ing 10 pic­ture-re­lated ques­tions. Team E emerged vic­to­ri­ous as the Asian Ge­o­graphic Hot Soup School Chal­lenge 2017 Cham­pi­ons, walk­ing away with the grand prize: a four­day, three-night ed­u­ca­tional and cul­tural trip to Bangkok, Thai­land, spon­sored by the Tourism Author­ity of Thai­land ( TAT). The trip will take the stu­dents to the float­ing mar­ket, Di­nosaur Planet, a fam­ily-owned eco-vil­lage, and to Ayut­thaya, the sec­ond cap­i­tal of the Si­amese King­dom. They will also be able to par­tic­i­pate in a cook­ing class, and at­tend a Muay Thai train­ing ses­sion. The win­ning team – Alvern Mak Wei Jie, Cleon Yong Tzen Wen, Ernest Ng Wei Jun and Ho Choong Kai, spurred on by their teacher Ms Li Young Chua-ngui – were all smiles and fist pumps as they claimed their enor­mous gold tro­phy and medals. In the spirit of the com­pe­ti­tion, the first and sec­ond run­ner-up teams gave the cham­pi­ons their hearty con­grat­u­la­tions and ap­plause.

We were hon­oured to have the Vi­cePres­i­dent of the Sin­ga­pore Na­ture So­ci­ety, Mr Leong Kwok Peng, grace the event.

As this year’s Guest of Hon­our, Mr Leong gave the clos­ing ad­dress about his work in en­vi­ron­men­tal ed­u­ca­tion – work­ing on projects with youths in the com­mu­nity.

Mr Leong pre­sented the tro­phies and medals to the top three teams, and cer­tifi­cates to all the par­tic­i­pants, who had the op­por­tu­nity to have a group photo with him be­fore fetch­ing their goodie bags, which in­cluded TAT tote bags and ac­ces­sories, com­pli­men­tary laser tag tick­ets from Tag Teams, B2P gel pens from Pilot, and a bot­tle and voucher from the Peo­ple’s As­so­ci­a­tion (PA) Water Ven­ture.

We’d like to thank the schools, spon­sors, speak­ers and or­gan­i­sa­tions that came to­gether to sup­port the event – and a big shout-out goes to all the par­tic­i­pants who showed what team spirit is all about. We look for­ward to see­ing teams re­turn to test their knowl­edge of Asia at the sev­enth Hot Soup Chal­lenge on July 7, 2018. ag

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