Long before Xian became famed internationally for its silk, China's
first emperor was embarking on a remarkable project which has
survived almost intact to this day, over a spell of two thousand
years. The terracotta warrior tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, with
its rows and rows of thousands of clay warriors - each with a
different expression - is one of the most stupendous sights in
Visitors to today's Silk Road begin their journey in Xian, marvelling
at the inventiveness of the Emperor who, as well as unifying the
country and introducing standard weights and measures began work
on the Great Wall, a structure which survives to this day along
parts of the Silk Road route.
With its delightful Chinese-style wooden mosque and high city
walls, is the ideal starting point for tours along the Silk Road,
beginning in the same place as camel trains of yore. These days,
air travel allows visitors to fly over the vast Gobi Desert, alighting
in the oasis town of Dunhuang, home to a unique collection of
Buddhist cave paintings, originally paid for by Silk Road traders
to ensure good fortune on their way through the sand dunes.
Although foreign archaeologists raided some of the best treasures
in the caves early in the last century, carting them back to Europe
and the United States, there is much left to admire. Close to
the town itself is the Silk Road Dunhaung Hotel, a modern-day
architectural marvel, built in the style of ancient dynasties,
which backs onto the desert itself.
A train ride away - across part of the Gobi Desert once more -
is the oasis town of Turpan, famous throughout China for its juicy
grapes. An inventive irrigation system allows melting snow from
the Tian Shan mountain range to flow in channels through city
streets and fields, giving Turpan a plentiful year-round supply
of the desert's most rare and precious commodity.
That natural asset has allowed Turpan to flourish over the centuries.
It was the site for two ancient cities, the hilltop Jiaohe, built
in a fabulous, hill-top location, and the once-thriving Gaochang,
which was a vibrant cosmopolitan centre in its day, welcoming
traders, artesans, scholars and artists.
The people who live in the shadow of the rich red mountains surrounding
Turpan are from the Uygur minority, renowned for their warmth
and hospitality. Uygurs are particularly fond of singing and dancing:
the women dress for performances in vivid red dresses, with the
men attired in colourful braided waistcoats and trousers.
The Uygurs are followers of Islam, as are the Kazakh nomad herders
who spend part of their year around the shores of Heavenly Lake,
close to the Xinjiang region capital city of Urumqi.
The rich blue of the lake and the bright green of the meadows
contrast with the stark white of the snow-capped mountains. For
supplies, the herders and nomads head into cities and towns, where
sprawling bazaars sell everything from sizzling lamb kebabs to
rolls of embroidered material to ceremonial knives. The biggest
bazaar of all is the weekly Kashgar market, where herders come
from far afield to trade sheep and goats.
Visiting this far-flung part of China is a chance to seamlessly
mix modern-paced adventure with ancient culture. The arts and
crafts of the region, strong since the Silk Road era, are still
thriving: contemporary skills follow traditions dating back thousands
of years, to the First Emperor himself.