The dawn swelling in the east imperceptibly rarefied the inky night that was enveloping the desert oasis. The silhouettes of hundreds of two-humped camels lying down in the sand were cut out in the crystal focus of the morning frost. The cold silence was disturbed by sleepy human voices and hungry dogs’ barking.
Without hurrying, the members of the caravan made their camels—loaded up with rich wares—get up and set out westward along the endless Silk Road. The camels were stepping with tired hooves in the sands—indeed, why hurry if ahead of them were thousands of kilometers of thirsty march from desert to desert… They set out and the first sunbeams penetrated through the forest of densely walking camels’ legs that darkened the horizon with their wise movement.
You can guess that it is difficult to see such a picture live nowadays. Yet this Silk Road—looking as if taken out of “Thousand and One Nights” and connecting for millennia the East with the West—still exists. Of course today, the camel caravans are replaced by trains, trucks etc. and the caravan roads are modern highways and high-speed railway lines. In any case, however, the route is the same: from the eastern China provinces through Central Asia, Iran and Turkey to the entrance to Europe. What is not the same are the built-up areas along the Silk Road.
There is hardly a traveler who hasn’t shuddered at the mention of names like Kashgar, Turfan, Kucha etc. All of them are main points on the Silk Road in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. Over the centuries they were also cultural centers of the region that was named Tarim Basin by the historians. Situated roughly on the territory of the Taklamakan desert and the surrounding mountain massifs and high plateaus, the Tarim Basin is a real Mesopotamia of ancient cultures. Furthermore, the most tangible contact between the Hellenistic, the Indian and the Chinese civilizations happened exactly here.
As early as the 5th century BC the Greek historian Herodotus describes a land in the heart of Asia where mythical unicorns live, where ants as big as scarabaei dig ant-hills in gold-bearing soil, and on the slopes of the endlessly high mountains ill-smelling weeds grow that cause splitting headaches to those “who dare wander on the Rood of the World”. There is material evidence that the Tarim Basin was inhabited by humans at least five thousand years BC when the desert was a lot smaller and more hospitable than it is today. The Silk Road functioned even then, except instead of fine textiles and pepper corns the trade traffic consisted predominantly of semi-precious stones like nephrite and lazurite.
The first written sources about the region and its inhabitants are from 399 AD when the Chinese Buddhist monk Fa Xian passed this way in a search for a road to India and to his religious roots. He tells about prospering towns inhabited by Buddhists of Aryan origin who held their religious services in skillfully painted temples. Considerable revenues from the already flourishing trade on the Silk Road flowed into their treasuries. All data about these prospering Buddhist settlements mysteriously stopped after the beginning of the 7th century. Only the ruins of their rich towns were preserved, hidden from the world by the sand shroud of Taklamakan. They were only discovered as archeological remains at the beginning of the 20th century. What was the fate of their inhabitants remains a mystery to the present day.
The next people that settled on the Silk Road in the Tarim Basin were the Uyghurs. They arrived there in the 6th-7th century AD and were of Turkic origin. Their appearance coincided more or less with the massive Muslim invasion in the East. As a result, the Uyghurs converted to Islam but never managed to overcome the clan disparity and create a homogenous state. This fact was used by the Chinese dynasties that would periodically send military expeditions to the western parts of their empire with the goal of showing the warring khans who was the master in these lands. Nevertheless the Uyghurs keep making their living in the dusty oases around Taklamakan even today, although they are no longer engaged with caravans and camels trading along the Silk Road.
In the Middle Ages—despite the unrests and the wars—the traffic on the Silk Road grew continuously and when at the end of the 13th century the renaissance merchant Marco Polo crossed the whole of Asia, the trade in fabrics, spices and what-not was flourishing more than ever. Later on though, after the industrial revolution in Europe and the conquest of India by the British Empire, the clash of interests and the struggle for political influence among the Great Powers led to a drop in trade on the difficult road from the Bosporus Strait to the East China Sea and back, as passing it continued to take long months and was accompanied by numerous dangers, privations and losses.
Indeed the trade in the Tarim Basin decreased in the 19th century, but the interest in its history on the part of scientists and archeologists from abroad increased in inverse proportion. Scuffling for strategic superiority during the so-called Great Game in Central Asia, the British got ahead of the Russians and in the 1960s and 1970s they realized the first exploring expeditions in the region that indisputably also had a reconnaissance mission. Later on the “pure” travelers like Kostenko, Sven Hedin, Nikolai Roerich etc. appeared. The notable thing is that the Swede, Sven Hedin—one of the most erudite experts in Central Asia and Tibet—proved to also be a “mountaineer”. He tried to climb Muztagh Ata (7546 meters above sea level) not like any climber would but mounted on a yak! He didn’t succeed, of course, however he reached the respectable height of 6300 meters.
The archeologist with the best luck on the Silk Road was Sir Aurel Stein who, in 1901, discovered a whole, comparatively well-preserved town dated to the beginning of our common era. This is Neya near the present-day Hotan. The Briton made his discovery thanks to a high-water river, which was surrealistically cutting through the desert providing easy water for his caravan. The archeologists who visited the site the following year were extremely puzzled that there was not a trace of the river there! But not completely. It turned out that on a whim of the Taklamakan winds, the moving sands had covered the river only to uncover it again a year or two later. Figuratively speaking, the same was also the fate of the Silk Road over the centuries.
In the 20th century it sank more and more into oblivion, especially after WWII, when a heavy iron curtain also dropped in Central Asia, sealing for almost five decades the borders between China and all its neighbors. But about ten years ago the Silk Road started coming to life again. China opened its borders with the Central Asian republics of the ex-USSR and the economic boom in the country itself led to connecting Xinjiang with a railway line that followed the route of the Silk Road, reaching as far as Kashgar in 2000. Now a project has been underway envisaging an extension of the line by way of the Pamir passes to Kirgizstan, Uzbekistan and possibly to the shores of the Caspian Sea. All this undoubtedly makes for a new appearance of the Silk Road, and if you hope that by traveling on it in the 21st century you’ll be able to feel the romance of the former caravan atmosphere, you’ll be deeply disappointed.
Nowadays, archaeological monuments connected with the history and the development of the Silk Road can still be seen in many towns in Western China. Turfan is a vast depression below sea level (minus 154 meters) and is respectively the hottest place in the territory of China, with a highest recorded temperature of 50 degrees Celsius. Here was the first capital of the Uyghurs after their migration to Xinjiang. They built their settlement on a deserted early-Buddhist town, but only shapeless walls have survived to the present day…
Kucha was one of the most important ancient towns on the Silk Road.
In the region there are several rock-hewn religious complexes—the so-called Buddha’s caves. The fact that a highly developed pre-Islamic Buddhist civilization existed here leads to the chronicle of the Chinese monk Xuanzang who passed through the town in 644 AD and wrote that on both sides of the Western Gate monolithic 30-meter high statutes of Buddha were erected and the numerous monasteries around were covered with beautiful frescos. The largest monastery is Kizil, which dates to the 3rd century AD and consists of more than 230 caves. Today there is almost nothing left from these frescos. Of course, over the centuries Kucha was devastated many times by invaders who were negligent of the Buddhist art, and then at the beginning of the 20th century, it was invaded by another type of vandal. The German archaeologists Grünwedel and Le Coq removed all valuable frescoes from the walls of Kizil and took them to Germany. As one Chinese art expert says: anyone who wants to get to know the art of Kizil had better visit Berlin than plod along to Kucha.
Otherwise Kucha is a modern city with wide streets girdled by grey impersonal buildings in an unchanging Chinese architectural style so typical throughout the countryside.
Almost the same, by the way, is Kashgar—the legendary transportation junction on the Silk Road where three ancient thoroughfares cross. The monuments of culture that are still preserved in the city are mostly from Muslim times—among them the Id Kah mosque, finished in 1442, and the tombs of numerous Kashgar rulers. The adobe remains of the city walls remain standing absurdly together with modern boulevards and a huge statue of the Chairman Mao.
What, however, still gives colour and aroma to Kashgar is the people and the local crafts. The native population is a motley ethnic mixture consisting of Uyghurs (being the majority), Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Kyrgyz people. On the stands in the streets one can see unique central-Asiatic carpets and silk fabrics as well as original jewelry, silver utensils, inlaid string instruments, and knives. The manufacturing techniques might have changed but the design and the colours have remained unchanged for centuries.
The main attraction of Kashgar is no doubt the Sunday market where the whole babel of Asiatic faces, gestures, garments, articles and exotic spirit are concentrated in the narrow lanes of the market place. Only here does the present-day Silk Road traveler have the opportunity to feel what vigorous atmosphere reigned in this area in the past. And when the night falls and the market disperses, one can probably see a lonely camel driver moving away in the sunset with his unsold camels.