The history of the Silk Road, especially its influential cultural value, has always fascinated me since high school, and thanks to Soong Ching Ling foundation that my classmates and I could have the opportunity to embark on an 8-day journey, traveling through 4 major cities Xi’an, Tianshui, Lanzhou and Dunhuang on the Silk Road, which refers to the land passage initiated by Zhang Qian starting from Xi’an passing Gansu and Xinjiang Province in China to the Central and Western Asia and some Mediterranean countries. The trip is an eye-opening and unforgettable experience which has broadened my knowledge and gained my greater respect for Chinese history and cultures.
Early in the morning, Beijing sent us off with chill weather and blue sky. The journey by fast train took us 6 hours to reach Xi’an. Like many big cities in China that I have been to, the provincial train station was very busy and crowded underground, however, when we emerged from the base, here came a huge empty square which completely contradicted what you may think of China as the most populous country in the world. Xi’an welcomed us with its warmest hospitality literally and figuratively. Xi'an is the starting point of the Silk Road and well-known as home to the Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. We got to enjoy the Shadow Play - one of exquisite folk dramas in the East, at the Small Wild Goose Pagoda. It is a kind of silhouettes made of hard paper and skin of buffalo and donkey. The performer manipulates the puppets behind the screen while singing the libretto to tell a simple story. We all were amazed when the performer blew a smoke out of the puppet's mouth that made it seem so real and interesting. Later, we were asked to perform after being instructed how to control the puppets, however, it turned out to be a spontaneous dancing show, instead of a story-telling one.
Tourists mostly come here for the Terracotta Army, we were not exceptional in this study tour. Locating to the east of Xi'an, on Mt. Lishan, an hour away from the center, the Qin Emperor’s tomb mound is surrounded by nature with greenery jungles, mountain chains, riddled with underground springs and watercourses. The Terracotta Army is a collection of terracotta sculptures displaying the strong armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. It was discovered on 29 March 1974 by farmers digging a water well as clearly written on information boards around the sight. When he died, Qin Shi Huang was buried in the most opulent tomb complex ever constructed in China, a sprawling, city-size collection of underground caverns containing everything the emperor would need for his afterlife, even an army to protect him.
The ancient Chinese, along with many cultures, I think northern Vietnam also has sort of similar practice, believed that items and even people buried with a person could be taken with him to the afterlife. Ancient writings say that the emperor created an entire underground kingdom and palace, complete with a ceiling mimicking the night sky, set with pearls as stars. As a result, it’s not so surprising that some experts predict about pits full of terracotta concubines even though they have yet to discover it. Qin Shi Huang's tomb is also thought to be encircled with rivers of liquid mercury, which the ancient Chinese believed could bestow immortality. Honestly speaking, the Terracotta Army exhibition might not be as enthralling as its tales and historical stories due to some reasons such as the on-going excavation leaving debris and construction trace visible everywhere, the modern infrastructure surrounding a historical place, the commercial invasion, just to name a few; however, I believe, the abovementioned reasons are understandable for the purpose of raising funds for further excavations and archaeological discovery.
Later came the cycling activity on the City Wall of Xi’an – the world’s largest City Wall. It was built under the rule of the Hongwu Emperor as a military defense system. It has been restored and is 12m high, 18m wide at its base, 15m wide on the top, 13.700m long, encloses an area of about 36 square km.
Leaving Xi’an behind, we continued the trip on 4-hour train ride to our second stop – Tianshui the city of sky and water. It is situated along the Wei River and was historically an important location on the Silk Road.
We first went to the temple dedicated to Fuxi – an ancient Chinese legend who was the first of lots of things in Chinese mythology, of which Yin-Yang and the eight trigrams are indispensable to being mentioned. Besides, as I have learned, he was also the originator of the Chinese writing system.
My classmates, who are black-skinned origin, experienced some crazy and interesting incidents at the temple. People seemed to forget why they first came here for, they followed and surrounded my friends asking for photos, touching their skin and hair instead. Literally, it was like a press-conference or premiere show for my friends who played as the celebrity guests.
Nearby the town is the Maijishan Cave-Temple Complex, an example of rock-cut architecture filled with thousands of sculptures, over 1000 square meters of murals representing figures such as Buddha and the original male form of Guanyin produced between the Wei and Song dynasties by monks travelling along the road and by local Buddhists. In the past, Tianshui path was the route along which Buddhism entered China from India, and these hand-carved caves were one of the ways that minor rulers in the area expressed their fealty to the new religion.
Tianshui welcomed us with a sprinkle of rain which helped a lot to cool down the heat we carried along from Xi’an and also gave us a special view of Maijishan wrapped up in clouds and heavy fog. In Vietnam, we have the same practice of donating money at temples, however, it was shocking to me seeing these notes scattering on the floor, not to mention the big notes were everywhere.
We also went to visit a Buddha molding workshop, watching the artists and workers creating thousand Buddha statues from clay.
Shortly visiting all the places in one day, we headed to Lanzhou city and arrived in the evening the same day. Having said that, Lanzhou beef lamian noodle is a must when you get to visit the city, therefore, the very first thing we did was to settle in a halah restaurant and have our dinner served with the famous noodle. There were some games along the trip in which we were divided into 4 teams, and my team won the recent one so we were favored to order more side dishes like more beef and veggies. Yayyy!!!
Lanzhou, located on the bank of the Yellow River, is a key regional transportation hub, connecting areas further west by railway to the east of the country. Historically, it has been a major link on the northern Silk Road. We spent the whole day roaming around the city and along the Yellow River. The sheep-skinned raft amazed me a lot. As its name suggests, it was made of sheep skin. The first step was to skin a big sheep and shave the wool by soaking the skin into the salt water, then applied oil into the four legs and the neck to make them soft for the knots, tied the skin into a bag with thin ropes and left a small hole, through which air will be blown in, sealed the hole and bound several blown-up sheep-skinned bags onto a wooden frame. Finally, the raft was ready.
My friends did not miss their chance to go rowing on such a special raft. Funnily, when going downstream, they were taking a raft, then they were carried upstream on a canoe since the raft could not go otherwise. Seeing them sitting on the raft, suiting up in life-vests sort of reminded me of refugees fleeing to look for new land. They did look like that in the picture.
Saying goodbye to Lanzhou, we embarked on an overnight 12-hour journey by train to Dunhuang – the last stop and also the most important destination of the whole trip. Having been stunned by mountain chains, greenery meadows, we were again astonished by the immediate shift from green to yellow color of wasteland and desert on the way to Dunhuang.
Dunhuang is home to relics of the Silk Road, particularly the Mogao Grottoes, a series of hundreds of Buddhist caves dug out of a cliff face and painted on the inside. The Mogao Grottoes are remarkable, a wealth of manuscripts was found which helps prove the amount of trade in ideas and people that were occurring along the Silk Road.
Today, the site is the subject of an ongoing archaeological project. Visiting the grottoes in the middle of a dessert and being granted to see some special caves which are not open to public was really a great experience (it is not allowed to take photos while visiting the caves tho). More than that, learning about its history at the museum by enjoying some documentaries and a 3D show in an oval shaped room that helped enhance the feel of reality to its incredible level was terrific.
Here came the most interesting part of the trip, we were about to camp in the desert on the first night in Dunhuang and trek for 5km through the desert on the following day. The experience was extraordinary. I have camped and trekked in the jungle, on the beach but desert, even never thought of doing such a thing, and here I was informed about doing it without planning. Spontaneous events are always the most memorable and it is so true. To reach the camp base, we walked thru a deserted village whose main road was paved with fruity trees (I don’t really know those fruits but for sure they are edible), I was happily skip jumping on the way, picking some fruits reminiscing of my childhood living with my grandparents in a persimmon valley. Arriving at 3pm at the base, we had plenty of time to chill before it got dark, so we hiked up the highest sand dune close to us to have a panorama view, each of us got to ride the squad bike once for free also. I joined with some locals nearby to play volleyball before the dinner was served. We had a bunch of options for dinner, since it was a bbq that we would have to bbq the food we wanted to eat by ourselves. I really like Chinese bbq for its diversity of items like lamb, pork, beef, chicken, mushroom, eggplant, bread, etc. (literally Chinese bbq everything they have), even tho Malaysian satay is always the best I’ve ever had.
The night curtain fell down on the desert marking on it thousands sparkling stars. The bonfires lit up a small corner surrounded by cheerful, happy faces dancing, singing all night long (we had a real outdoor KTV with speakers and mic). The sun rose early at 5am lightening up the sky. Everyone quickly had a bite of breakfast before the trek began. The 5km trek didn’t seem that much but once we started, we could feel the laid-back just by looking at range after range of sand hills. I had to keep telling myself to move forward every second I reached the bottom of a sand hill. The trick was to never stop for a break, you could slow down to take some deep breath and let yourself rest while slowly walking but never stop, otherwise, your muscles would cool down and lose all their will to continue. Eventually, I finished the trek in about an hour trying to catch up with the three leading guys in the team. The feelings and mental reward was worth all the effort.
Given few hours to shower and rest after the camping and trekking, we continued to explore Dunhuang’s famous attractions which is Crescent Lake - one of the most well-known attraction in the town. Most photos of this place are impressive with a slender mirror of water, flanked by wooden temple tower, all of which was encircled by mountains of sand. However, truth should be told that the place has been completely sold out to tourism. There are camel rides, glider rides, helicopter rides, cart rides and quad bike rides available for you if you have money to afford. After all, the lake is really just a small crescent-shaped pond that has been an oasis among the sandy desert.
Our last day was well-spent at Yanguan Pass – the Sun Gate Pass which is one of China’s most important western passes, the other being Yumenguan. Yanguan is associated with sad farewell parting in Chinese literature as it was the last stop for Chinese travelers leaving China to the West. There is a famous poem written by poet Wang Wei as follows:
Seeing Yuaner off on a Mission to Anxi
The morning rain of Weicheng dampens the light dust
The guest house is green with the color of fresh willows
Let’s finish another cup of wine, my dear sir,
Out west past the Yangguan, old friends there’ll be none.
We were asked to make our own poem, but none of us seemed to be good poets after all.
On the way back to the city, we stopped by a local garden restaurant for lunch, where I discovered that Chinese date (Jujube) naturally turned red upon drying on the tree. I always thought that it went through drying process after harvesting.
The last evening spending in the city, we carried on our own activity. I went along the river watching local people’s daily activities, then got down to the middle where there were wooden sticks coming out of the water surface for people to step on and reached the middle platform. Walking on these small sticks to get to the platform was a fun challenge, since the sticks were small (enough for only one person at a time), just 1cm emerged above the water, and people needed to step on at least 30 sticks to reach the platform depending on the route, so there was a tiny possibility that you might fall into the water if you rushed or were careless. Dunhuang is so far my most favorite city in China, for the fact that it has many things to offer in a way that can surprise you from time to time.