Discover the Silk Road
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