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The Enigmatic Silk Road

It has a reputation of being one of the world’s most evocative and fascinating train journeys, but prior to the Silk Road tour last year, Golden Eagle’s guest lecturer, Lynne Attwood, was worried that it might not live up to the hype. Read her vivid and captivating account of her experience on board, to find out whether or not it did!

The delights of the Golden Eagle Silk Road trip started for me with the transfer from the airport. I discovered that my affable driver had worked as a clown for 28 years, first in the state circus and then, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, in an independent company set up by himself and his acrobat wife. He entertained me with his clown voice all the way into Moscow, and I arrived at the hotel with a broad grin and a conviction that this was the first chapter of a great trip.

This was my third Golden Eagle outing as Guest Speaker (in my other life I am a University lecturer who specialises in Russian history). Meeting my fellow travellers at the Welcome Dinner on the first evening was, as always, an intriguing experience. You look round the room at complete strangers – and are absolutely certain that by the end of the trip they will be close friends.

The journey we shared, The Silk Road, was a sequence of brilliant cities and magnificent scenery. When you hear so much beforehand about a celebrated place, there is always the danger that seeing it with your own eyes will be a disappointment. It might not be as grand or as beautiful as you pictured it; its ancient tales might refuse to come to life. This is not the case with the Silk Road.

The two trains we travelled on – the Golden Eagle and the Shangri-La Express – delivered us to some of the most amazing sights we were ever likely to see. Our first stop, Moscow, has emerged like a phoenix from the Soviet years and is now a modern, buzzing, cosmopolitan city. Yet its pre-Soviet past is still vivid; the magnificence of Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral still draw visitors’ breath. Then there is the brilliance of Uzbekistan’s blue-tiled mosques and madrassas, and, the jewel in its crown, Samarkand’s fabled Registan Square.

We were impressed and amused, in equal measure, by the absurdity of Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan: white palaces and huge new hotels, gold-plated statues and an almost complete absence of people. We got up at 4.00 a.m. to traipse across the Kara Kum Desert to the astonishing Darvaza Burning Gas Crater which has been bubbling and blazing for more than half a century, an unexpected side-effect of Soviet gas exploration.

We rode Bactrian camels across the sand dunes of the Gobi Desert (how much more comfortable than the one-humped Dromedaries!), on a gorgeous blue-skied day, in the company of hundreds of Chinese tourists: it was the week-long National Holiday, and the Chinese love to travel. Xian’s life-sized, life-like terracotta soldiers and horses, lined up to protect the corpse of China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, were an inevitable highlight. So too was our final experience – the winding ribbon of the Great Wall, which we almost had to ourselves since the Chinese had returned to work. These sights and experiences were just as impressive in real life as they had been in our imaginations.

Our tour group on the Silk Road
Our tour group on the Silk Road

So, what exactly is the Silk Road? The name was only coined in the early 1870s by the German scholar Ferdinand von Richthofen, who spent four years travelling through China carrying out the first major study on its geography and geology. But the road – or roads, to be more precise – existed long before then. In the second century BC, the time of China’s Han dynasty, the emperor Wu sent an emissary called Zhang Qian on a diplomatic mission to Central Asia to try to forge an alliance with China’s long-standing enemy, the Xiongnu, in what is now Tajikistan. In one respect, the mission was doomed: Zhang Quian was captured and imprisoned for 13 years. However, he managed to escape and return to China, delivering such an impressive report of his experiences that the poor man was despatched on a second mission – which led to the establishment of trade routes from China to Central Asia and, in due course, to Europe.

Before Zhang Qian’s travels, people knew almost nothing about other parts of world. Now there was a clear, if physically tortuous, link between East and West. Commerce – and much else – could take place between people in very distant and different parts of the world.

Silk was a hugely important feature of this commerce.  It was much prized by the wealthy because it was a material unlike any other. It was soft, fine, dyed in rich hues and decorated with gorgeous designs. Rulers and noble families in the various countries along the Silk Road saw it as a physical demonstration of their status and importance; they could not get enough of it. However, both the cost of the material, and of transporting it over such long and perilous distances, was high; according to Judy Bonavia, in Byzantium, by the fourth century AD, ‘two thirds of the…treasury went to imports of luxury items from the East’.[1]

Sand dunes on the Silk Road

The name ‘Silk Road’ is actually a misnomer. A huge variety of merchandise travelled between East and West. Zhang Qian himself was behind one unusual ‘commodity’:  he was particularly struck by the elegant horses of the Fergana Valley, which, he wrote, ‘sweat blood; their forebears are supposed to have been foaled from heavenly horses.’ [2]  In fact, their bloody necks were the result of some sort of bacterial infection which resulted in weeping sores.  All the same, the Chinese developed an insatiable demand for them, and exchanged them for enormous quantities of silk.  The horses are now the national emblem of Turkmenistan and the personal passion of its President, Berdymukhammedov. We could not fail to notice this; the paintings of his favourite horses adorn both the National Museum in Ashgabat and the hotel where we ate lunch, while a huge gold-plated statue of himself on a rearing horse towers over the centre of the city.

In addition to silk, the Chinese sent porcelain, lacquered goods, mirrors, paper, gunpowder, medicines, and much else along the Silk Road. Central Asia, situated in the centre of the trade routes, exported its produce in both directions: precious and semi-precious stones, jewellery, pearls, spices, and flowers (the famous ‘tulips from Amsterdam’ actually originated in Central Asia and reached Holland in the 16th century).  From Europe came wool and linen textiles, Baltic amber, asbestos (surely much appreciated by the recipients…), wine, and opium (the poppies probably originated in the Western Mediterranean and reached China about the 7th century).[3]

Samarkand was, according to one contemporary traveller, ‘the home of all the romance and poetry in the East’.[4]  It had already been a fortified city since the 4th century BC, the time of Alexander the Great;  but it was Tamerlane who turned it into the most beautiful city on the Silk Road in the late 14th/early 15th centuries, when, as Jonathan Tucker puts it, he ‘embarked on a veritable orgy of construction in Samarkand with the help of craftsmen brought from [his] conquered territories’.[5]

Samarkand had an extraordinarily diverse population in the heyday of the Silk Road.  It was home to Turks, Arabs, Moors, Greeks, Armenians, Indians, Christians of various denominations, and many other ethnic and religious groups.  This diversity was reflected in its markets, especially the one in Registan Square, which was piled high with goods from virtually every country on the Silk Road route.  The catalogue of a 2010 exhibition on the Silk Road contains this evocative description of the city:

 ‘Are you seeking the finest silk brocade? A sable coat, a packet of fragrant musk or a smooth roll of cream-colored paper? Whatever you desire, chances are a Sogdian merchant from Samarkand can deliver it. These shrewd traders have built up a fortune buying and selling in distant countries. The Sogdians are ambitious go-betweens, controlling a network of commerce that extends to India, China and Persia – and the heart of their trading empire is here, deep in Central Asia’.[6]

Markets still abound in the nooks and crannies of Registan square, but now they sell Uzbek souvenirs.  Silk is, of course, no longer a Chinese monopoly, and we left the city laden with Uzbek silk scarves.  Some of us were also seduced by the embroidered bags, heavy silver jewellery, and jackets with colourful and distinctive Uzbek designs.  But the awesome delight of gazing around Registan Square at night, with glasses of champagne in our hands, will probably be our greatest souvenir of the visit.

The light show in Registan Square
Registan Square at night

At least as important as the exchange of merchandise on the Silk Road was the exchange of ideas and lifestyles.  Art, culture, folk tales, musical instruments and much else travelled up and down the trade routes:

‘Travellers along the Silk Roads were attracted not only by trade but also by the intellectual and cultural exchange that was taking place in cities along the Silk Roads, many of which developed into hubs of culture and learning. Science, arts and literature, as well as crafts and technologies, were thus shared and disseminated into societies along the lengths of these routes, and in this way, languages, religions and cultures developed and influenced each other.’[7]

In one of the stalls of Registan Square, some of us enjoyed a musical journey through the Silk Road, performed on a variety of instruments from different Silk Road countries by an astonishingly versatile musician.  It did not surprise us to see a photograph above the door showed him performing before the recently deceased President of Uzbekistan, Karimov.

Perhaps the most important exchange between the various regions of the Silk Road was religious belief. Christianity of different denominations, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and many other religions made the journey along the Silk Road, lodging themselves in parts of the world in which they had no ancestral connection. Buddhism, now the principal religion in China, arrived from Northern India along the Silk Road in around the 1st century AD. Some 300 years later, two Buddhist monks, impressed by the imposing cliffs in what is now Mogao, near Dunhuang, dug some caves to use as shrines.  For another thousand years Buddhist pilgrims continued to add to this cave complex, filling them with exquisite decorations and a range of other gorgeous treasures. Around 500 of these caves still contain Buddhist statues and mural paintings depicting Chinese history and the stories of Buddhism. Hence we were able to see on our visit how Chinese Buddhism developed over the centuries. The Indian influence is unmistakable in the slim, serene representations of the Buddha, representative of Theravada Buddhism, which stand in sharp contrast to the jolly, rotund Buddhas of Mahayana Buddhism, which China ultimately embraced.

Mogao Caves, Dunhuang
Mogao Caves, Dunhuang

The caves were partly financed by merchants in the hope that the Buddha would grant them safe and successful passage along the Silk Road.  Their anxiety is understandable; they had to travel through some of the most appalling, inhospitable territory on the face of the earth.  The worst stretch was the Taklamakan desert, which, as Peter Hopkirk explains, ‘with good reason, enjoyed an evil reputation among travellers…the ill-marked tracks frequently became obliterated by wind-blown sand, and over the centuries a sad procession of merchants, pilgrims and soldiers have left their bones in the desert after losing their way between oases’.[8]  Judy Bonavia paints an equally horrendous picture: ‘Blinding sandstorms forced both merchants and animals to the ground for days on end – their eyes, ears and mouths stifled’. Early travellers felt that supernatural forces were determined to destroy those who ventured across the desert.  The most famous Silk Road traveller, Marco Polo, explained: ‘When a man is riding through this desert by night and […] he gets separated from his companions, […] he hears spirit voices sometimes even calling him by name. Often these voices lure him away from the path and he never finds it again, and many travellers have got lost and died because of this’ .[9]

Our own journey through the Taklamakan desert was rather less fraught.  I gave a lecture on the history of the Silk Road as our train chugged along the railway track cut through the sand; we sat comfortably round tables adorned with biscuits and steaming cups of coffee and hot chocolate, looking out at the endless expanse of desert and shuddering at the thought of those early, brave travellers who risked their lives as they forged the links between East and West which we were now able to enjoy.

By the time we reached Beijing, the Chinese travellers were back at their jobs after a week-long so-called National ‘Day’. (Our wonderful Beijing guide, Helen, explained that so many people had been taking a few days off work after National Day that the government decided to make it official, so National Day has become National Week.)  This meant we had the city’s attractions almost to ourselves. To explore the Forbidden City in the company of just a handful of other tourists was a truly memorable experience; and the section of the Great Wall we visited, at Mutianyu, was almost completely empty once we had walked a short distance from the cable cars which had delivered us there.  Most of us returned to the bus park by toboggan, on a long track which wound its way downhill; this was rather less scary than it sounds, and really good fun.  And it was followed by one of the great treats of the trip: lunch on an outdoor terrace (for some of us, the last burst of summer sunshine before we went home to much colder climes) at ‘The Schoolhouse’, the most famous restaurant in the village, which had previously hosted Michelle and Barack Obama.  Well, nothing but the best for Golden Eagle travellers…

Tasty fried locusts on prawn crackers
Fried locusts on prawn crackers

Our Farewell Dinner that evening was in the Quanjude Peking Duck Restaurant, which, as was clear from the succession of photographs lining the walls, had also entertained an impressively famous global clientele, from actors to politicians.  I wondered if they had enjoyed the most interesting of the starters set before us – fried locusts on prawn crackers. A couple of our braver souls actually tried them, while the rest of us looked on in horror!

So the Silk Road trip came to an end.  One of the greatest aspects of the trip was the tremendous camaraderie which developed amongst the members of our group.  As we said our goodbyes in Beijing I thought back to the first evening of the trip, in Moscow, when I looked around a room of complete strangers and knew that by the end they would be close friends.  While there were so many surprises on this trip, this was one thing that turned out exactly as I imagined.

[1] Judy Bonavia, The Silk Road: from Xi’an to Kashgar, 2007.

[2] quoted by Jonny Bealby, Silk Dreams, Troubled Roads, 2003.

[3] Jonathan Tucker, The Silk Road, 2015.

[4] Michael Shoemaker, a Silk Road traveler of the early 1900s, quoted by Jonathan Tucker, ibid.

[5] Jonathan Tucker, ibid.

[6] from the catalogue of ‘Travelling the Silk Road:  Ancient Pathway to the Modern World.  Exhibition at American Museum of Natural History, 2009-10.

[7]  See www.en.unesco.org.

[8] Peter Hopkirk, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, 1984.

[9] Marco Polo, Travels; various editions.

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