Posts Tagged ‘Silk Route’

Chengdu is another huge city (over 4 million) but we have decided to take it on and stay a few days – helped by the fact that Sim’s Cozy Garden Hostel is by far the best place we’ve stayed for quite a while. My God, it’s positively cosmic providing decent music in the bar, a huge library of dvds to play in your room and the sorts of foodstuffs we Westerners crave. The staff seem to enjoy being helpful and best of all they provide a map of the city and the bus system. It is of course full of young people, but that can’t be helped.

After a couple of days we’ve explored the local area, its park and wet market and enjoyed the “laid back”* feel of folk playing cards and mah jong under the trees. We’ve hopped on the buses like old hands and visited the city’s temples, markets and even “downtown”.

(* Lonely Planet’s favourite word)

Statue of Mao and fountainsA huge statue of Mao Tse Tung stands there in the middle of The Avenue of The People, his arm raised benevolently over the nearby Starbucks and McDonalds, the Citibank, and the shops selling Cartier and Armani. Chinese approximations of abysmal American rock “classics” play along to his fountains. Oh Mao, what has happened to your dream?

Actually Chengdu isn’t bad and it would be even better if the sun could just fight its way through the smog. Some parts of the city have been restored to resemble what China is supposed to have been like once with tea houses, cobbled lanes and handicraft shops.

These parts are regulated by the Chengdu Municipal Spiritual Civilisation Office and its rules are posted at the entrances. Amongst others:

  • “Don’t jump the queue”.
  • “Don’t chase or beat animal”
  • “Do not be out for small advantages”
  • “Don’t force foreign tourists to take photos”
  • “Do not utter dirty words”
  • “Advocate a happy and healthy way of life. Resist superstition. Avoid pornography, gambling and drug”.


Well, we’ve done our tourist bit, we’ve even been to the Chinese opera. What an experience! Somewhere between the sublime and the hellish loud. It included a hand shadow show, lots of very loud singing, a poignant puppet show, some very loud Chinese trumpet playing, a terrific scolding wife/contrite husband slapstick act and some very spooky instantaneous costume and mask changing. The VIP seats have tea bowls filled by waiters brandishing watering cans with extremely long spouts and the audience just love it all, shouting “Ho!” at the good bits.

And as if that’s not enough, we find that we’ve stumbled on to a second Silk Route – the southern route which connected south-western China with Burma, India and Persia. We’d thought we’d left the Silk Route when we headed south but we’re back on another one.

I’ve also discovered that Chengdu was once known as Brocade City, the river where the silk brocade was soaked was known as the Brocade River and silk brocade fabrics from Chengdu were highly prized and traded all along the Silk Route.

Following this up on the internet (yes, we have free Wi-Fi at groovy Sim’s!) leads us to search out the “Shu Brocade and Embroidery Museum”. We were prepared for disappointment, perhaps it would just be another excuse for a souvenir handicraft store. Instead we got one of the best textile museums we’ve been to – a fantastic exhibition, a great demonstration, very good English labels and all free!

The exhibition shows examples of amazing brocaded silks -reproductions of original pieces excavated from ancient sites on the Silk Route. These have been recreated on the museum’s painstakingly manufactured copies of the original looms. There are also breath-takingly fine embroideries and wonderful pieces of silk costume.

Downstairs there are four brocade looms. On one of them there is a young woman weaving a design of Sichuan opera masks. A chap sits half way back on a high platform – two people are needed to work the loom with its incredibly complex system of heddles, 16 pedals, sheds, shuttles and reeds. The chap up top is one of only two “masters” who know how to set up the loom so that it can produce the complex patterns required. It takes about ten years to learn it all.

There are 8,192 warp yarns which can be selected and manipulated to allow for endless possibilities and it’s these combinations which form the design. On average they can weave 5 or 6 cms. a day and this “Emperor’s” fabric sells for around £680 per metre!

Well, that’s the price they’ve put on it in the museum shop but I can’t say we saw anyone actually buying it.

I don’t suppose the project could possibly support itself through sales – the museum is a private initiative, with government funding. But to be able to watch skills and tools which have been used across the centuries and through the dynasties since 225 BC, was a privilege and an inspiration. Full respect to the team that put the whole thing together.

However, it has to be said that their skills are pretty redundant these days as this slow process was totally superseded once the steam driven jacquard loom was invented. This was followed by electric powered looms, and nowadays huge, power looms with integrated computers make our fabrics.

Sichuan brocade may be on the list of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage, but we just don’t have to do things that way anymore!

As if to prove the point, the same day we visit the art and antique market where there’s a stall selling brocade. It’s bright and shiny and rather lovely (or a bit naff, depending on your taste) A machine made silk jacket will set you back about 15 quid and a nice machine embroidered cushion cover £3. Obviously, on close inspection, the brocade woven in the traditional way is much more complex, precise and beautiful, and the hand embroidery is certainly way superior.

The thing is that in the days when Chengdu silk brocade was traded on the Silk Route, there were no power looms, no computer programmes and simply no other way of producing brocade. There were 2,000 workshops and 10,000 looms in Chengdu and everyone in the city had a silk brocade suit of clothes. So there were obviously customers, and if you wanted to dazzle with the brilliance of your outfit you just had to pay the price!

These days you don’t have to be rich to dress in brocaded or embroidered silk – we can all have it without the huge expense needed to make it.

So it’s almost impossible for us to imagine the wonder and delight people must have felt when they saw textiles like that, especially if they had come all the way along the Silk Route!

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OK! At the end of two 23 hour train journeys we’re finally out of the desert, and into farmland with small holdings and recognisable crops. We’ve crossed into Gansu province and its famous “Hexi Corridor” a narrow stretch of flat land between mountains which Silk Route caravans had to pass through on their way to the West from China.

From here various warmongering Emperors of their various warmongering dynasties sent out their storm troopers to conquer more territory and people for themselves. Xinjiang was known as “The Middle Kingdom”, and so at last we’re now hitting China proper.

Suddenly there are massive building sites as far as the eye can see and quite literally hundreds of building cranes. We thought we were coming into a fairly manageable provincial capital called Lanzhou, but let’s look in Lonely Planet – exactly how big is Lanzhou? Oh, it says it has a population of 3,200,000 – as big as Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow combined. It has probably reached 4 million by now!


A complete shock to the system as we emerge from the station to be hit by a barrage of blaring car horns and the sudden need for 360˚ vision to a cross a road and survive. We quickly decide that the 2 or 3 days of city life we had planned can probably be squeezed into an afternoon.

That afternoon is spent sitting in taxis in barely moving traffic (the buses having defeated us), taking a look at the mighty Yellow River (and it is indeed a sort of brownish yellowy colour) and riding a cable car above the permanent smog which envelops the city to a view of the concrete blocks surrounding the fabled river in every direction. It’s not exactly a hell hole but it’ll do til one comes along (and I suppose it will)

Enough! Call me a country bumpkin and a wimp but I want back to the countryside ASAP.

A few short hours and we’re out into the villages again with terraced fields and people busy with their autumnal jobs, drying corn cobs and stacking maize stalks, ancient brick works with hillside kilns and most surprisingly, mosques all over the place. This is an area with a high percentage of Chinese Muslims, the Hui. They were almost completely massacred in the 1870s but have obviously bounced back. Judging by the number of mosques, their faith is now not only tolerated but positively encouraged – but then, these days they are much less bumptious than the Uyghurs.

Our bus keeps climbing higher and we start to see prayer flags in the fields, an old lady with long plaits, a monk in the whole maroon robes get-up and children with very rosy cheeks get on the bus and before we know it we’re in full-on Tibetan mode.

We had no idea, but this area along the borders of western China is inhabited mostly by Tibetans. And Xiahe where we get off is not only a majority Tibetan town but it’s also a place of Buddhist pilgrimage. The Labrang Monastery which houses 1,200 monks is one of the 6 major monasteries of the Yellow Hat order (and the Dalai Lama is the head Yellow Hat) so it’s a pretty big deal. The town is full of guesthouses, shops and teahouses, catering for the hordes of mostly rural Tibetans who turn up by the coach and truck load. And what a colourful lot they are.

Tibetans are another minority who look, sound, write and behave nothing like the Han Chinese. They’re a noisy, exuberant bunch – probably because although they’re on a pilgrimage, it’s also a bit of a holiday. They’re also incredibly exotic.

Old guys in trilbies and sun glasses with prayer beads, old girls with long plaits in chunky trainers and sunhats, hunky young guys with long hair and mobile phones in fur lined robes, young women in face masks, coral necklaces, wide leather belts and brocade robes. Oh, and monks everywhere!

Walking the 3 km pilgrims path (kora) all around the outside of the monastery spinning the 1,174 prayer wheels as you go is a great way of having a laugh with them exotic Tibetan pilgrims. The longer path around the top of the mountains looking down on it all is even better.

But nowhere is perfect. The part of town where poor Tibetans live is pretty dire with mud alleyways, litter tips and no drains (I hate to think what the medieval sewage system is like). The Chinese “quarter” is tower blocks and the ever present building sites – what for? More hotels? More housing blocks?

This journey through China is becoming a tour of the borderlands and therefore of the minorities who live here, and no less interesting for it, perhaps. Xiahe has totally bowled us over anyway; I hope the photos give you a flavour.

After a couple of fantastic days here, Jim arrives back from a foray to the shops with a rug under his arm (at last!) It’s Tibetan, its wool, and the designs look typical but more than that we don’t really know.

It’s obviously time I found out more about Tibetan textiles!

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More thoughts from Jim Gaffney

When was then?

Officially, the Silk Road opened with an exchange of embassies between Parthia and China in 105 BC. Once the sea route from Europe to the East opened from the 16th century onwards, the overland Silk Route declined in importance, at least for long distance trade.

Where did it begin and end?

The Silk Route has no universally agreed start or finish lines, or, indeed, er, route. The silk which gave the name came from ancient China, so the eastern end of the route would have to reach to the borders of the early empires, the present day province of Gansu. At the western end, the huge prices paid for silk in ancient Rome were the stimulus to extend the route’s length. So a reasonable definition could be “from the borders of ancient Rome to those of ancient China”

Who travelled the Silk Route in the old days?

For the first thousand years, from the time silk first made its appearance in the most exclusive merchants’ shops of Ancient Rome, no individual human being is recorded as doing the whole thing. A few famous travelling monks made it from China as far as Persia in the early days, but nowhere near as far as Rome. It was the goods that did the travelling. Traded from hand to hand perhaps hundreds of times, the stuff got a long way.

Statue of Silk Road travelling monk Tripitaka with his companions (inc. Monkey!) in Lanzhou.

Statue of Silk Road travelling monk Tripitaka with his companions (inc. Monkey!) in Lanzhou.

Two sorts of stuff: light, easily transported items, such as precious stones, spices, dyestuffs and, of course silk; and items that could transport themselves, i.e. livestock and slaves. The only people to travel the whole of the Silk Route in the first thousand years, if anybody did, would have been slaves

Even the section of the route that Diane and I have tackled with 21st century technology available reveals why so few travelled the full route. We can report that the factors which everyone has moaned about over the millennia are still in play: distance, deserts, mountains and awkward locals. On the plus side, however, I can list oases, views, discovery and lovely locals.

What’s the Silk Route like now, then?

Tour group on the Silk RouteAs a travel biz marketing ploy, you’d have to  say it’s not doing too badly. The great oasis cities of present day Uzbekistan, Bokhara and Samarkand, have had some serious money spent on doing up the mighty mosques and madrassas of yore. There’s not exactly hordes of tourists but no doubt enough to keep the restaurants, hotels, taxi drivers, coach drivers, guides and souvenir sellers going for a fair while yet.

Tourists are also doing a great job taking on the role fulfilled by slaves in the old days. They obediently shamble around in little gangs, getting shouted back into line by barking tour guides if they show any inclination to wander off. They are a tradable commodity too- guides will happily deliver them to your tat emporium for a small commission.

I myself have been captured and sold on quite a few times at the long distance shared taxi stands.

We made a deal with a guy who swore by all that is holy that he was leaving now, yes, now, definitely! He grabbed our bags, locked them into the boot….and promptly disappeared. Of course, he needed two more passengers to make the trip worth it – a situation we were already very familiar with.

Shock, horror, a taxi driver lied to us! It’s only happened to me about 1,500 times, so why am I always surprised? Maybe there’s something in the middle class English upbringing which doesn’t prepare you for the real world. Anyway, there we squatted disconsolately in the dust, waiting for our master to come and release us, when he was ready.

Another time, we were turfed out halfway through the journey and transferred to another driver. It was done quickly and furtively, but I spotted Driver 2 paying Driver 1 the bit extra for the lucrative tourist fare. We cost about £1.20, if you’re interested.

So at least one traditional Silk Route commodities, the slave, has found a modern substitute, the tourist.

But a big improvement – the tourist pays for his own food and drink and makes only half-hearted attempts to escape.

Deserts, Mountains, Oases.

View of desert landscape with mountains and an oasisThese three are the clichés of Silk Route reportage from 300 AD onwards and with good reason. The deserts are still dry, dusty, huge, mostly ugly (ignore the guidebooks) and frightening. The mountains are still almost impassable, very high and awe inspiring. Their weather is maddeningly, not to say dangerously, unpredictable.

The oases are life savers. The sheer joy of arriving at them seems to have inspired the building of some of the most beautiful cities ever to have existed. No wonder the poets and travellers have gone into raptures about pomegranates, fountains, fig trees and so on. It’s the feeling that you’ll never see another one that stokes up your enthusiasm for that sort of thing.

21st Century Deserts

1. Khiva to Bokhara, Kyzyl-Kum desert, 374 kms. Shared taxi took maybe 9 hours. Grey dust, gravelly stones and so little vegetation that I saw no animals and that means very little vegetation. The only town is built to serve the natural gas wells which have been drilled in the desert. Absolutely impossible to imagine living there in ugly concrete blocks, 45 ̊ heat and dirt. The name of this place is Gazli, meaning “got gas”. Yeah.

2. Bokhara to Shahkrisabz, Karshi Steppe, 253 kms. Shared taxis about 6 hours. Very barren. Huge, almost derelict industry lurking in unlikely bits of desert. Still working, but I couldn’t work out what was being produced.

3. The Erkeshtam Pass to Kashgar, 200 kms of the driest, dustiest, greyest yet. Gravel extraction, road building and mobile phone towers waiting to be erected.

Oil well4. Kashgar to Turpan, 1,400 km. The “Taklimakan” (“Go in, don’t come out”) desert. No need to say more.

The Chinese have built and are still building innumerable industrial plants in the desert: oil extraction, petrochemical installations, mineral extraction and quarries for stone, sand and gravel. The dust clouds are therefore much worse. The stark, relentless stamp of this human activity seems to make the desert, if anything, even more forbidding.

Mordor, indeed!

21st Century Mountains

Aaah the mountains, how we’ve loved them! The freshest air I’ve ever breathed, the most entrancing views I’ve ever gazed upon and the brightest stars shining down on the path ‘twixt bed and midnight wee. Diane in the mountainsEven Diane’s enthusiasm (making Julie Andrews appear positively disenchanted by comparison) hasn’t been enough to dent my love for the mountains.

So the great push to conquer the pass into China, which had filled me with foreboding ever since I first looked at the map to check the altitudes, no longer held any terrors for me. I’d worried about our visas, the weather and the political situation in Xinjiang (would we even be allowed in?) but as we ascended towards Sary Tash (altitude 3500m), before hitting the border first thing in the morning, I breezily confided in Diane just how good I was feeling. Mountain viewNone of the problems I’d foreseen looked like materialising, the sun was shining and we were speeding along nicely.

A few hours later we sat in a room so hot we had to leave the door open to the sub-zero outside in order to breathe. It was now clear that the previous night I had finally found vodka cheap enough to give me an evil hangover. Altitude sickness was causing shortness of breath, dreadful nausea and, in the words of the ever-helpful guidebook “general malaise”. I had also started a nasty urine infection with a raging temperature. No doubt I would live, but I didn’t want to.

“As for his intestines, he could no longer claim them for his own” (H.E. Bates)

In the end I tackled the pass and the descent into Kashgar with the aid of lots of encouragement from my lovely and resourceful partner, my own paltry reserves of “can-do” spirit, some fierce anti-biotics aimed at the nether regions and two hardboiled eggs.

These last two had dire repercussions. My first five days in China went by unaccompanied by bowel movement. I was faced with an appalling dilemma. I could find no chemists or traditional medicine shops in Kashgar with anything but Chinese labels and Chinese speaking staff. No Boots, no Superdrug. So should I practice the Mandarin for “Could I have laxatives please?” and repeat this several times in my hopeless accent until somebody in the shop got what I wanted?

Chinese laxatives

The first shop assistant able to stop giggling would eventually serve me, but humiliation was certain. Or go for the mime option? On reflection, I realised that this would not only require nerves of steel to carry off, but would run the dreadful risk of giving the exact opposite of the intended message.

Fortunately, I found a phrasebook with the relevant information (full respect to “Just Enough Chinese to Get By”). Highly motivated, I made myself understood at only the fourth attempt. A capital young shop assistant and I managed the whole transaction with the seriousness and professional dignity appropriate to the gravity of the situation. Climb every mountain, guys.

21st Century Oases

I guess the area of irrigated land under cultivation nowadays would amaze early travellers. It amazes me, anyway. Every drop of water flowing along the course of the Amu Darya is potentially divertible for agriculture. I was excited to be crossing this mighty and legendary river. In ancient times it was the Oxus, giving its name to one of the oldest known civilisations. A whole region, Transoxiana, was defined by the fact you’d got across it.

We approached, rammed into the back of a shared taxi. Oh, the cruel disappointments that travelling sometimes has in store! The taxi bounced through the river bed, occasionally across pontoons spanning the shallow streams that wound between the gravel. The banks of the once enormous river towered either side of the poor remnants of the current. It took ten minutes to cross the river bed, but very little of that time was spent crossing water.

Between the glaciers feeding the sources of the Amu Darya 1,500 miles to the east are hydroelectric schemes, lots of ageing Soviet-built industrial plants, field and fields and fields of cotton and several quite large cities. The countless small farms and villages that also share the water would have been there in ancient times too, and so could not be blamed for the stricken state of the river. It’s the Amu Darya that once fed the southern half of the Aral Sea, and this no longer exists. So the oases of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are now bigger, but not without cost.

My Personal Top Five Oases

French Klezmer band in Bishek1. The Registan Café, Samarkand. A real cup of proper, lovely, caffeinated Turkish coffee! Bliss! Astounding, but there’s hardly a coffee worth the name on the whole Silk Route from Khiva to Lanzhou.

2. Bishkek. Parks, museums, a decent art gallery, restaurants, the ballet (Swan Lake for £2.75!), a great French klezmer band (Kekiristan Republic?) playing for free. A capital city of culture!

Stream among trees in Aslanbob3. The village of Aslanbob – an Uzbek enclave in the midst of troubled southern Kyrgyzstan. Listening to every sound running water can make, we wandered up to the enormous walnut forest. Gentle Uzbek villagers kept on inviting us in for tea and snacks.

4. The little Chinese caffs in Turpan. Fantastic tasty meals for a quid, big Tsingtao beers at 50p. A welcome respite from the endless lamb kebabs and chai.

Jim snacking5. Speakers for the laptop (for only £4.50 from a Chinese electronics superstore) providing me with an oasis of good music – an antidote to the relentless diet of Chinese pop and rock played on every form of public transport.

Jim and Diane in a cafe

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Osh seems to me a tough, gloomy place on the whole. Admittedly, I’ve only been here 24 hours, and last night included ingredients such as a hot airless room, mosquitos, bedbugs (luckily only imagined) and bowels. The hard-core travellers among you have all been there. So I’m not exactly Mr. Cheerful today. Sometimes it’s no bad thing to ignore the guidebook waffle and have a good old grumpy look at what’s in front of you.

Peasants picking cottonYesterday on the way to the Kyrgyz border, things did indeed look very guidebook. The Fergana Valley is, hereabouts, a green and pleasant land, thanks to effective irrigation schemes fed by glacial melt from the massive mountain ranges to the east. We stopped the taxi for a moment to get a photo of merry peasants picking cotton.

The road south to the border is a straight, wide shady avenue between pleasant homesteads where life looks pretty good.

We overtook healthy, brown old guys on bicycles wearing Uzbek skullcaps. I was a bit surprised, and said to Diane, “This is very, very quiet for the main road to the border”. I had a little sideways glance at the taxi driver. I was reassured that he was not enacting a dastardly plot to take us off somewhere to rob us, or that he was only kidding when he said he knew the way to the border (too many years’ travelling can give rise, in my case anyway, to this kind of paranoid musing).

The border itself was weirdly quiet. The various officials were in the usual midday condition of virtual somnambulism, but we got through border security, Uzbek customs (and certificates were not even mentioned), emigration, immigration and Kyrgyz customs in a sprightly 50 minutes. Luckily, we were just in front of a Russian tour group. As they rolled up at the desk, the Uzbek customs officials exchanged glances and decided to take their lunch break. But nobody else was crossing. We were the only candidates for a kindly old taxi driver for the few kilometres into Osh.

We guessed there must be other border points more convenient for locals. Not so. Today we found out that the border between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan has been effectively closed to locals since fighting in Osh just over a year ago. The riots seem to have been an attack on the Uzbek minority here by the majority Kyrgyz. No doubt there are many versions of what happened and why. The trouble spread to nearby Jalalabad and in the two Housing in Oshcities 200 died and 200,000 fled their homes. The first hand evidence is that the whole city feels very neglected and un-cared for, that a lot of the bazaar is burnt out, that a couple of people who’ve talked about it are very, very unhappy and not a little scared and that the vibe on the street seems to me gloomy and tense.

This province is isolated from the spectacular and mountainous northwest, geographically, politically and culturally. There’s a very large (40%) Uzbek minority and Osh fits into the business and agricultural context of the Fergana Valley towns- all the others are over the border in Uzbekistan. Closing the border must have completely knocked the stuffing out of the bustle, energy and joie-de-vivre of the place. It’s a border town, after all.

Having said all that, we’ve already come across the warmth and friendliness that often came our way in Uzbekistan and there’s clearly plenty of positive energy around the young people we’ve met. But glossy silk route tourist brochure territory it ain’t!

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