SILK ROAD

Fol­low the an­cient trade route from China to Oman to dis­cover a jour­ney thou­sands of years old.

Virgin Australia Voyeur - - SNAPSHOT - Words BEN GROUND­WA­TER

IT WAS SUP­POSED to be about the rarest of goods: the silk and cot­ton, the tea and salt, the horses and live­stock, the most pre­cious met­als and stones, the frank­in­cense and myrrh. The an­cient Silk Road was sup­posed to be about power too, about famed lead­ers such as Julius Cae­sar, Genghis Khan and Alexan­der the Great tight­en­ing their grip on the known world. And it re­ally was all of those things — a leg­endary trade route that sup­ported em­pires and moved huge amounts of ex­otic goods over the al­most un­think­able vast­ness of Eu­rope, the Mid­dle East and Asia for thou­sands of years, all the way up to the 15th cen­tury, when sea routes took over. How­ever, there was more to the Silk Road than just trade and power, be­cause with this great move­ment of peo­ple came an in­cred­i­ble ex­change of ideas. Ma­jor trad­ing cen­tres along the route, such as Li­jiang in China, Sa­markand in Uzbek­istan and Salalah in Oman, be­came rich, not just in ma­te­rial wealth but also in cul­ture, as trav­ellers from around the world met, traded, talked and shared. Bril­liant thinkers emerged from these places. Great re­li­gions were es­tab­lished and spread. Even now, hun­dreds if not thou­sands of years later, these great meet­ing places pro­vide a per­fect fo­rum for the world to gather.

Tea Horse Road, China

There’s a mo­ment you re­alise just how jaw-drop­pingly, mind­bog­glingly beau­ti­ful the scenery is in the high moun­tains above the city of Li­jiang. It strikes hard as you fol­low an an­cient trade route, as you wind your way up to­wards Zhong­dian — the city mythol­o­gised in Bri­tish au­thor James Hilton’s fa­mous 1933 novel Lost Hori­zon as Shangri-La — as the mist clears and the sun shines and you re­alise where you are, on the very east­ern edge of the Hi­malayas, where val­ley floors open be­low you in chasms that look im­pos­si­bly deep, where yaks tread the high plains and birds of prey cir­cle in the bright blue sky above.

This is the iconic Tea Horse Road, an an­cient trad­ing route that stretched from Pu’er in China’s Yun­nan Prov­ince, across to Ti­bet, into Nepal and then In­dia. These days the path­way is

ac­ces­si­ble via Kun­ming, the cap­i­tal of Yun­nan, which con­nects eas­ily to the stun­ning old city of Li­jiang. It’s here that the full power and wealth ac­quired by those who utilised this an­cient trade route be­gins to re­veal it­self, par­tic­u­larly in Li­jiang’s Dayan Old Town. Part of a UN­ESCO World Her­itage site, its com­plex net­work of canals and many bridges pro­vides a bur­bling au­ral back­drop to the war­ren of cob­bled streets lined with man­sions and palaces. Such great vis­tas have barely changed in cen­turies.

You have to travel north of Li­jiang, how­ever, to ap­pre­ci­ate the ul­ti­mate cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance of the Tea Horse Road. Though plenty of goods were fun­nelled from China into In­dia on this path­way, some­thing even more im­por­tant re­turned: Buddhism. It’s through the moun­tains near the city of Zhong­dian, eth­ni­cally close to Ti­bet, that this re­li­gion made its way into China. That Bud­dhist in­flu­ence re­mains pow­er­ful around Zhong­dian to­day, in the Ti­betan-style monas­ter­ies you pass by on the road and the re­li­gious tra­di­tion that thrives af­ter emerg­ing from the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion (1966–1976) im­posed un­der Chair­man Mao.

Ev­ery­thing is very dif­fer­ent in this high-alti­tude re­gion: the peo­ple dress in the colour­ful robes of the Ti­betans; they live in large, im­pos­ing homes that tower over the tree­less land­scape; they drink tea with yak but­ter and eat rus­tic hot­pot-style stews. It’s the sort of place you could imag­ine dis­cov­er­ing all of those years ago and rush­ing back to tell the world what you’d found.

Silk Road, Uzbek­istan

You can thank ge­og­ra­phy for the rise of Sa­markand. Although there had al­ready been peo­ple liv­ing in cen­tral Uzbek­istan for many cen­turies, the city only truly flour­ished when the Silk Road opened, when traders be­gan mov­ing be­tween China

and Eu­rope, and when those traders re­alised there was a nat­u­ral halfway point on their jour­ney: Sa­markand. This was the place to meet, to trade, to con­verse, and then to turn back for home.

The Sa­markand of the post-Soviet era is a bustling and modern city, where chaotic traf­fic ne­go­ti­ates pot­holed roads, and eth­nic Ta­jiks in their colour­ful robes mix on the streets with Uzbeks and Kaza­khs and those with Rus­sian her­itage.

It doesn’t take long to see the rem­nants of the power that Sa­markand’s ge­og­ra­phy granted it. Regis­tan, the city’s main square, is a spec­tac­u­lar space hemmed in on three sides by huge mosques and madras­sahs, in­tri­cately tiled build­ings erected by Per­sian ar­ti­sans who ar­rived dur­ing the Silk Road hey­day. This clas­sic ar­chi­tec­ture is spread through­out Sa­markand — known as the ‘Gem of the East’ — in the nu­mer­ous blue-tiled mosques and madras­sahs and mau­soleums that punc­tu­ate the sky­line.

It’s so easy to gain a sense of the Silk Road’s his­tory as you wan­der around here. Visit the sprawl­ing, open-air mar­ket­place of Siab Bazaar, and you’ll come into con­tact with charis­matic mas­ter trades­peo­ple, buy­ers and sell­ers whose an­ces­tors have done the same thing, in the same spot, for 2000 years.

They sell fresh fruit and vegeta­bles, nuts and spices, dried fruits and tra­di­tional sweets. Good luck hag­gling for a bar­gain. There’s ev­i­dence, too, that this nat­u­ral meet­ing point be­came a fo­rum for the ex­change of ideas. This beau­ti­ful and in­flu­en­tial city was also the birth­place of many great schol­ars and thinkers.

Ulugh Beg is the best known of those in­tel­lec­tu­als, an as­tronomer whose hill­top ob­ser­va­tory (built 1424–1429) can still be vis­ited to­day. For­tu­nately for Beg, it turns out Sa­markand is the per­fect place for stargaz­ing — just an­other geo­graph­i­cal gift.

Mar­itime Route, Oman

“We have the old in­ter­net here,” says Abubakar, a guide in the south of Oman. “It’s called the ocean.” He smiles and gazes out at that sparkling body of wa­ter, the se­cret to the Omani sul­tanate’s power and the con­duit for so many traders on the ‘Mar­itime Route’, a lesser-known though no less vi­tal wa­ter­borne branch of the Silk Road pro­vid­ing links to South­east Asia and Africa.

The “old in­ter­net” brought so much over hun­dreds of years to the area around Salalah, a desert out­post in Oman near the bor­der with Ye­men. It brought vis­i­tors from the Ro­man Em­pire, Egypt and Per­sia, and from China on the other side. It im­ported wealth in the form of their traded goods and at­tracted buy­ers, too, who were search­ing for gold, per­fume, frank­in­cense and myrrh. Salalah is still known for those spe­cial­i­ties, and they are sold in the beach­front Al Husn Souq, a ma­jor mar­ket­place.

Here, traders call softly from the murky depths of their stores, en­treat­ing shop­pers to step for­ward, sniff the per­fumed air, and re­alise they alone sell Salalah’s best frank­in­cense. This sweet-smelling sub­stance used to be worth its weight in gold — lit­er­ally. It’s made from the dried sap of trees that only grow in very cer­tain con­di­tions, which flour­ish in the south of Oman. Those trees — as well as the skill of lo­cal jew­ellers — gave the peo­ple of Salalah some­thing to trade, a rea­son for the nu­mer­ous boats sail­ing past to call in. And that they of­ten did.

Visit the an­cient ru­ins of the port town of Sumhu­ram, just near Salalah, and you’ll see where ar­chae­ol­o­gists found clay pots that were made in Italy dur­ing Ro­man times and used to trans­port wine, along with pots and jars from Egypt, In­dia and Iran. The world came to Oman back then — and it still does.

GET­TING THERE VIR­GIN AUS­TRALIA OF­FERS FLIGHTS TO THESE DES­TI­NA­TIONS WITH ITS CODE­SHARE PART­NERS. TO BOOK, VISIT WWW.VIR­GINAUS­TRALIA.COM OR CALL 13 67 89 (IN AUS­TRALIA).

FROM LEFT Li­jiang’s Old Town; Baoshan Stone City in Yun­nan, China; a Chi­nese woman in re­gional at­tire; pro­duce at Sa­markand’s Siab Bazaar. OPENER, FROM LEFT Dra­matic scenery at Tiger Leap­ing Gorge north of Li­jiang; the Amir Te­mur Mau­soleum in Sa­markand; pris­tine Salalah beach.

THIS PAGE Fish­er­men’s boats crowd the har­bour at Mir­bat. OP­PO­SITE PAGE, FROM BOT­TOM Clas­sic ar­chi­tec­ture in Regis­tan Square; Uzbek woman sells bread in Siab Bazaar; frank­in­cense tree in Oman.

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