Author Archives: Tom

CN-1: Crossing the Taklamakan Desert

The Taklamakan is one of the most fearsome deserts in the world. The name means “you go in and you don’t come out,” and that was true of many early travelers. Even in 1900, most explorers ventured in only in winter with teams of camels carrying ice blocks. Those who didn’t usually lost most of their party.

Travel is easier now that China has built several highways to service its desert oil fields. A good road now follows the northern branch of the Silk Road from Kashgar to Urumqi, and two cross-desert highways link it with Khotan in the south.

Dozens of long-distance buses go every day to Urumqi, but there was only one to our next destination, Kuche. It was a sleeper bus, which meant that even though we were traveling during the day, we reclined on bunk beds rather than seats. By judicious stacking of beds just long enough for Asian bodies, the Chinese are able to fit as many people in a sleeper as in a regular bus. It isn’t exactly comfortable, but for overnight trips it’s far better than an American Greyhound.

The desert was indeed remarkable. We saw no animals apart from those at the occasional road houses, and in places nothing but sand. There was no wind, so we were spared the Taklamakan’s infamous sandstorms that turn the sky black, but we could see that they could be deadly to camel riders. The road itself was lined with bands of straw to keep dunes from sweeping across.

We reached Kuche around 11pm.

CN-2: Kuche and the Kizil Caves

Once the capital of a desert kingdom, Kuche is now a booming oil town. Our hotel had a glossy book published by the local boosters to convince Han Chinese people to move west.

We began by visiting the old town and its Friday bazaar. The indigenous Uighur population mostly lives and shops here, and the old town has been spared the changes that have gutted the larger cities. Since the Han Chinese built their new city center to the east, there has been no pressure to knock down the old town and its city wall. Storefronts are still brightly painted wood buildings. The bazaar was teeming with people and sheep.

In the afternoon, we hired a car to drive 70 kilometers (45 miles) to the Kizil Thousand Buddha Caves. Our expectations were low because these were the site of an early race between German, Russian, and English explorers to remove ancient paintings for display in their respective capitals’ museums. More recently, local Muslims and Red Guards took their turns scratching out bits. As a result of this cultural theft and vandalism, many of the caves were empty or damaged.

But even what remained was fascinating. The Kizil cave paintings date from the 4th to 7th centuries CE, and they are among the earliest Buddhist art in China. The iconography still shows influences of the earlier Buddhist centers in Gandhara and Central Asia, from which the religion spread across the Silk Road. Interior pictures were not allowed, but can be found on the internet at sites such as this.

On the way to and from the caves, we passed through some remarkable desert mountains.

On the way back, we made a detour to the ruins of Subashi, which was a Buddhist city and temple from the 4th to 14th centuries. Some walls and stupas remain.

We came back to the train station and took an overnight sleeper back to Urumqi, where we had left our bags a week earlier. Using double-decker cars with two bunks on each level, the new “hard sleepers” fit over 80 beds into a single train car. We slept well in our capsule hotel.

CN-3: Urumqi

The capital of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, Urumqi is now a massive Chinese city. The books report a population of 2.3 million but it is surely double that and growing. Although its skyscrapers and wide streets are certainly much more pleasant than the mud-filled tracks I saw when I spent a night there in 1987, Urumqi is really just a cookie-cutter modern center.

It does have one interesting museum, however. We had tried to visit the Xinjiang Regional Museum a week before when we arrived on the train from Almaty, but it was closed on Monday. This time we went straight there when our train arrived, and we found it again closed for lunch. But at 3pm, it opened and we were able to flood in with a crowd of locals who were taking advantage of free admission.

In any Chinese museum, one must get a large dose of ideological spin and packaged ethnic color. The “strong and brave Hui people” were given prominence because the Hui minority sides with the Han Chinese against the Uighurs, who historically oppressed them. Dozens of early Chinese inscriptions tried to prove that the Chinese have had a presence for over 2000 years, even though most of that time they had tenuous links at best.

But the museum has a remarkable collection of local artifacts, in particular a set of 4000-year-old mummies discovered in Loulan, a Silk Road town now in the heart of the desert. These bodies and their clothes were preserved remarkably well by the desert sands, and their faces and fabrics are still clear. The ideologues allowed the museum to admit that these people were of Caucasian origin.

CN-4: Turpan

About two hours southeast of Urumqi lies the Turpan Depression, the second lowest spot on earth. About 150 meters (500 feet) below sea level, Turpan regularly measures the hottest temperatures in China. But it was comfortably cool in the late autumn.

Turpan is the site of several ancient cities. We first visited Jiaohe, a Chinese garrison town from the Han through Tang dynasties (1st through 9th centuries). It was built on a natural tableland between two river canyons, and extensive ruins remain of the town and its Buddhist monasteries.

We also visited Gaochang, also called Kharakhoja and Khocho. This was even larger, stretching several kilometers in each direction. The best-preserved section was the Buddhist monastery with its central pillar. Other walls gave a sense of the huge city it must have been at its peak during the Tang dynasty (7th to 9th centuries). The nearby Astana caves are now empty except for a few paintings and mummies, but they were the site of many important archaeological finds.

Another famous site was the Bezeklik Caves, whose frescos were mostly stripped by the German archaeologist Albert von le Coq. Many of those paintings were destroyed by bombing raids in World War II, but enough was left for us to see what they must have been like.

Turpan is not all ancient cities and caves. The town itself is pleasant with vine-covered streets and a huge market. Outlying villages such as Tuyoq have pilgrimage sites that keep some Uighur culture alive.

And although they are now featured as a AAAA tourist attraction, the underground aqueducts that feed the town are a remarkable engineering feat built as long ago as 2000 years. Using only hand tools, the local population dug over 5000 kilometers of these channels to tap the Tianshan’s mountain snows without losing water to evaporation.

The only downside to Turpan was the difficulty of getting to our next destination, Dunhuang. Neither town has a train station right in town, so we would have had to take buses around 100 kilometers on each end. And the only night train would have arrived at 5am, which didn’t sound like fun.

So we talked ourselves into spending a night on a sleeper bus. At first it wasn’t bad and I got a few hours of sleep. But at a bathroom stop a little after midnight, I was hit with diarrhea, and I spent the rest of the night taking antibiotics and trying to keep from getting sick as the bus rocked over an increasingly bad road. I was very happy when we got to Dunhuang at 10am.

Marcia, fortunately, remained healthy and slept well.

CN-5: Dunhuang

I have dreamed of visiting Dunhuang for most of my life.

Dunhuang is the site of the Mogao Caves, which contain the world’s greatest collection of ancient Buddhist art. Dating back to the Sui and Tang Dynasties (6th to 9th centuries), many of these caves were painted at the high point of Chinese art.

Western explorers learned of them in the late nineteenth century and quickly carted off a huge stash of ancient manuscripts that included the world’s oldest printed book, made seven centuries before Gutenburg. Fortunately for China, the caves were still attached to a working monastery and few of the paintings were taken. Zhou Enlai also protected the caves during the Cultural Revolution, so they suffered little damage from the Red Guards.

Photographs are allowed only of the outside of the caves. Most of the exteriors are bare concrete conservation doors installed by the Chinese government a few decades ago, but a few retain their wooden gates dating back to the Tang Dynasty. The one at the right shelters a 33-meter (110-foot) high Buddha, the third largest in the world.

The International Dunhuang Project is building an online database of the Dunhuang art that has ended up in museums around the world. But to really experience these remarkable works, you will will have to make your own trip into the desert.

Dunhuang is also the home of some of the world’s largest sand dunes. These 300-meter (1000 foot) high mountains have been turned into an overpriced amusment park for rich Chinese tourists, but their natural beauty remains.

We hired a car for a day trip into the desert west of Dunhuang. There lay the ruins of the Jade Gate, which marked the edge of China during the Han Dynasty 2000 years ago. Beyond it lay only desert.

In the same area can be found the remains of the Han-period Great Wall. Although it was less dramatic than the later Ming Dynasty wall featured on tourist posters, the Han wall actually extended further west into the desert. And unlike the tourist wall, it is 2000 years old and has never been restored.

CN-6: Jiayuguan

Our next stop was Jiayuguan, the town that marked the western edge of China for most of the last millennium. Although Chinese influence stretched to Dunhuang and further at times, the Ming Dynasty ended its Great Wall here in the 14th century. Anything beyond was the realm of bandits and barbarians.

The Great Wall was a big draw for Jiayuguan. One section had been nicely restored and gave a chance to walk along the ramparts without the hordes of people that visit near Beijing. This section is called the “overhanging wall” because it is so steep it seems to overhang the mountains. A few kilometers further, the wall ends at a cliff overlooking a river. Guard towers periodically straddled the wall for surveillance and communication.

Within this last section lies the Jiayuguan fort and its gate through the wall. Although much of it was built or rebuilt in the last few centuries, it gave a good sense for the ends to which the Ming rulers defended the gateway to their kingdom. Three sets of walls and guard towers defended the arch that allowed traders to enter and unwanted criminals to be cast out into the desert.

An older and more interesting site lies about 20 kilometers to the east. Here was the burial ground for the local kings of the Wei and Western Jin periods (3rd to 5th century CE). These tombs were deep underground and their walls were covered with painted tiles. Although these showed none of the sophistication that was found in Dunhuang a few centuries later, their commonplace subjects gave an interesting view into the everyday life of the period.

CN-7: Zhangye and Mati Temple

The next city east is Zhangye, an ancient town that has had a pagoda since at least 528 CE. The pagoda has been rebuilt several times after earthquakes, most recently in the 1920s.

Zhangye is more known, however, for its huge reclining Buddha, showing his posture after entry into Nirvana. Built in the 11th century, the 35-meter-long statue is the largest of its kind in China. The surrounding wooden building is also one of the country’s oldest.

About an hour into the mountains is a fascinating temple complex called Mati Si. Built into the side of a cliff, the temple has a series of meditation caves connected by steep staircases cut inside the rock. I was able to walk up to the topmost balcony while Marcia chose to wait at the bottom.

CN-8: Wuwei

Our last stop before Lanzhou was a mid-sized city called Wuwei, which is best known for several archaeological treasures found in the past century.

The most famous of these is the “flying horse of Wuwei,” a small bronze statue found in 1969 in an ancient tomb under a modern Taoist temple. Also found in the same tomb were the small bronze statues of an army detachment. It’s not the terracotta army, but it’s a beautiful remnant almost 2000 years old.

Although the horse and other treasures have been moved to the museum in Lanzhou, we were able to go into the tomb, whose brick work has survived dozens of earthquakes. Tests on the bricks show them to be more than twice as strong as any bricks made today.

A Confucian temple provides peace near the center of Wuwei. Near here was found a 3-meter high stele with an almost-identical inscription on both sides, one in Chinese and the other in the local Western Xia language that had been used in this area from the 11th to 13th centuries until Genghis Khan wiped the kingdom off the map.

We also paid a visit to an old bell tower. Much more interesting, though, was the lively Taoist ceremony in progress at the surrounding temple. Incense, rapid chanting and burning papers were everywhere as people performed their rites.

After a spicy hotpot dinner, we took our final train ride three hours into Lanzhou.

CN-9: Lanzhou

Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu province. A generally modern and overcrowded city, it has little by itself to offer a visitor.

But being the provincial capital, Lanzhou is the home to the Gansu Provincial Museum, one of the finest in China. As the home of Dunhuang, Zhangye, Wuwei and other Silk Road sites, Gansu has more than its share of historical artifacts, and its museum curators have done a wonderful job displaying them in a brand new building.

The museum of course holds many fine artworks from the Silk Road, including the Flying Horse of Wuwei described in the previous posting. However, we were the most taken with some of the more unusual items, such as this wooden “envelope” for sending messages from one station to another.

The museum also has a fine collection of pottery dating back to the Yangshou civilization and before. These are some of the oldest painted pots ever discovered, and they show remarkable sophistication.

After visiting the museum, we hurried to the airport for our evening flight to Kunming. This was a fine end to our three months of traveling the Silk Road.

– end of China Silk Road postings –


Having arrived back in China, we flew back to Khotan and the Taklamakan Desert. We were close to here in late September, when we took buses from Kashgar to Yarkand and Karghilik, but we didn’t have enough time to go the five more hours to Khotan. Now we would pick up where we left off and continue overland on the Chinese Silk Road.

Khotan is legendary as the place where the earliest ancient city excavations were made. Around 1900, following up on local reports of cities buried in the sand, Sven Hedin and Aurel Stein discovered and excavated a series of early Buddhist ruins. Most of these are now reburied or off-limits, but we were able to visit a few.

One of the most impressive was the 3rd-century stupa at Rawak. Although technically off-limits, it is possible to visit it by paying a substantial fee. The 9 meter (30 foot) structure now sits in the middle of the desert with sand dunes washing over it, but 1700 years ago it was the center of a thriving Buddhist community. The 100 fragile Buddha statues that Aurel Stein unearthed are shattered and gone, however, victims of treasure hunters looking for gold.

Another impressive ruin was Melikawat, a huge city that was the capital of the Yutian kingdom about 2000 years ago. Although most of the structures have melted back into the desert, it was astonishing to think of a 2000-year-old desert city that covered an area of 10 kilometers by 2 kilometers.

Next to this ruin was the White Jade River. Khotan has been the source of China’s jade for over 2000 years, most of it found in rivers such as this. The deposits are now scarce, but some people still make a living looking for it.

Khotan is also a center for silk making and carpet weaving. The manual process was the same as what we saw in Margilon, but we were able to see some different steps, such as these people untying the bundles of silk after dyeing. A child slept in the local equivalent to a daycare center.

Khotan has a wonderful Sunday market that hasn’t been turned over to tourists. Although we were not there on the largest day, the market was still lively with sales of textiles, hardware, and sheep. A store attached to the bazaar had the town’s display of major appliances. There were few other stores in town.

Donkey carts still shared space with cars in the street.

Bakers on the street made bread in tandoor ovens.

A local version of a chain restaurant displayed its menu with downloaded photos, watermarks still visible.