One of the world’s oldest and most historically important trade routes, the Silk Road played a significant role in the development of China. Helping to build a bridge between Eastern and Western cultures, it linked traders, pilgrims, monks, soldiers and adventurers from China to the Mediterranean Sea for thousands of years. Visitors can now follow in the footsteps of these explorers and discover the achievements of ancient civilisations, whilst taking in the beauty of this rugged and remote region of China.
Beijing – The Nation’s Capital.
Beijing is one of the six ancient cities in China and is the modern-day capital of the People’s Republic of China. Located in northern China, the city covers an area of more than 16,410 square kilometres and now has a population of almost 15million people.
If Beijing represents China today and Shanghai tomorrow, then surely Xi’an represents China’s past. Once the Eastern terminus of the Silk Road, Xi’an has welcomed foreign visitors for thousands of years. Today, Xi’an’s main attraction is the famous Terracotta Army, one of the man-made wonders of the world. However, Xi’an is also home to a large Muslim community and the Muslim snack street will have you thinking that you have left China for the Middle East. Lastly, take a trip around the city’s ancient city walls and be sure to feast your stomach at a Dumpling Banquet and your eyes at the Tang Dynasty show.
Located on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau and with an average altitude of over 2200 metres, Xining is home to an intriguing blend of minority groups, including Hui Muslims, Tibetans, Kazakhs and Mongols. Take time to visit the Ta’er Temple, one of the six major Tibetan Temples in China and popular with both pilgrims and tourists. Xining also serves as a base from which to explore Qinghai Lake, the largest salt water lake in China, where birdlife is in abundance. The desert vistas en route are reason enough to warrant this popular side-trip.
The first major city situated on the Yellow River, Lanzhou has been the key transport link between the heartlands of China and China’s North-West for centuries. Flowing through the centre of the city, the Yellow River is home to Lanzhou’s main attractions, the Iron Bridge and the ancient Water Mill. Before the introduction of the Iron Bridge in 1904, locals and travellers had to create a bridge by chaining together flotillas of boats.
Jiayuguan is famous for two reasons. Firstly, it is the end point of the Great Wall of China as at the time, Jiayuguan was deemed to be the final frontier for the local Chinese, as beyond that lay, to them, the barbarian and lawless North-West region. Secondly, Jiayuguan is home to the distinctive and imposing Jiayuguan Fort, which was known as the “Impregnable Defile Under Heaven”. Commanding a narrow and critical mountain pass, which was a tempting route for an ancient invading army, Jiayuguan Fort was a logical place to collect duties from the caravans travelling along the Silk Road. The bastion’s solid construction and intelligent military layout inspired ancients to proudly call Jiayuguan “The strongest pass under heaven”.
Referred to as “Sha Zhou” (beautiful desert oasis) during ancient times, Dunhuang’s main attraction nowadays is the Mogao Caves. Also known as the Caves of a Thousand Buddha’s, this UNESCO World Heritage Site contains some of the finest examples of Buddhist art spanning a period of 1000 years. According to local legend, a Buddhist monk, had a vision of a thousand Buddha’s, which inspired the excavation of the caves he envisioned. The number of temples eventually grew to more than a thousand. As Buddhist monks valued austerity in life, they sought retreat in remote caves to further their quest for enlightenment. Among the thousands of items discovered in 1907, by a western explorer, was the world’s earliest printed book, in scroll form.
Meaning “the lowest place” in the local Uighur language, Turpan is a fertile oasis in the province of Xinjiang, which shares a border with 8 countries. Highlights of Turpan include the Flaming Mountains and the Gaochang Ruins. The Flaming Mountains are so called because at certain times of the day, the powerful mixture of sun and shadows turns them a fiery red, making them almost glow. South-east of Turpan lie the impressive ruins of Gaochang, a city which was once surrounded by 10 metre high walls. Once the capital of the Uigur people, the city was abandoned during the Ming Dynasty era.
Located in a green oasis between the ice-capped Bogda Peak, the vast Salt Lake in the east, the rolling pine-covered Southern hill and the alternating fields and sand dunes of Zunggar Basin in the northwest, Ürümqi has won a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the most remote city from any sea in the world. With a fascinating mix of ethnic groups including Uighur, Manchu, Kazakh, Mongolian and Tajik, the city offers lively markets as well as the interesting History Museum of National Minorities. Located 100 kilomteres east of the city, “Heaven Lake” (Tian Chi) is a large pristine lake surrounded by alpine meadows and snow-capped mountains, a refreshing change from the dry and arid deserts. Scattered amongst the slopes are the Yurt encampments used by the local Kazakh people.
Lying at the foot of the Pamir Mountains and acting as the meeting point of the northern and Southern Silk Roads, Kashgar has arguably the most famous Sunday market in the entire world. It is alleged that up to 100,000 traders from as far as Pakistan and Uzbekistan, make the weekly pilgrimage to sell their wares. Notice how the locals here are much more Central Asian looking than their compatriots in Xi’an.