Camels Past and Present
It is now a week since we left Xian, the official start of the Silk Road. Several days before that, we went through the city of Nanchong, which could lay claim to being the real beginning as it was famous for its silk which was sent to Xian and on towards Europe, with mulberry trees growing well in the surrounding mountains. Anyway Xian gets all the cudos and has a fine statue at the western exit to celebrate its importance to the Silk Road. We had the obligatory photo stop there to mark our venture onto the famous route.
As one journeys westward via Pingliang, Lanzhou, Zhangye, Jiayuguan, Dunhuang, Hami and Turpan (our night stops) one is full of admiration for those ancient travellers with their camel trains and goods of silk, porcelain, spices, paper and so on. Many of the towns would have been oases of green with water available, as they are today, but in between the territory is dry, rough dusty wind-swept desert, with areas where not a plant would grow. Ruggard mountains intervene between flat plains that roll out to the distant horizon. A most inhospitable environment.
Unlike them we travel on modern motorways or rough older roads, with the ever present new road building alongside. We may be going through the desert but we are seldom alone with nature – oil rigs, windmills, 2 or 3 rail tracks, road works for a new motorway, and trucks by the hundreds. Our constant companions are the camels of the 21st century – huge trucks, laden high, wide and long with goods going from east and west. Driving a NZ vehicle with the steering wheel on the right necessitates Martin asking me if a truck is approaching before he risks entering the left side of the road to pass.
It is early spring at present and trees are in blossom or still in their winter bareness. As we move west, the fresh green of new foliage is evident. At Turpan we have hit the heat, it being the hottest place in China, but still quite pleasant in mid-April. Grape vines trail over domestic courtyards and leafy trees line the urban streets.
Ideas and religions also travelled along the Silk Road. Buddhism came from India from the 1st century AD when a Han emperor sent for monks and Buddhism scriptures, and much later the famous Chinese monk Xuan Zang journeyed to India, returning with writings which were then translated. Consequently there are numerous Buddhist sites that the tourist can visit along the Silk Road; we went to the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang where we were shown through 9 caves with their ancient paintings and Buddha statues. Various intrepid European explorers ‘stole’ a number of scrolls and paintings in the 19th and early 20th centuries and they now reside in western museums, much to the chagrin of today’s Chinese.
Nestorian Christianity also came to China via the Silk Road. Under the Tang dynasty from the 7th to the 9th century there was a thriving Nestorian community, recorded on a stele in Xian, the former ancient city of Chang’an. It lasted about 200 years until the then emperor persecuted foreign religions, both Christianity and Buddhism, causing their decline. We viewed the Stele Museum from the city walls in Xian as we bicycled along, Martin and I on a tandem and Maurice by himself. Great fun!