Magazine article Geographical

Great Journeys of China ... the Silk Road

Magazine article Geographical

Great Journeys of China ... the Silk Road

Article excerpt

In the second century BC, at the order of Emperor Wudi, courtier General Zhang Qian travelled to the "regions western to the Han Dynasty", an area today covered by China's Xinjiang region and several central Asian countries. The route taken by Zhang later became part of a vital route linking Asia and Europe, stretching over 7,000 kilometres from the Chinese capital of Chang'an (now Xi'an) to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

It was not until the 19th century, some 2,000 years after Zhang's secret mission, that the route was dubbed the Silk Road by German scholar Baron Ferdinand von Richtofen. It became the greatest conduit for East-West trade and cross-cultural exchange, bringing Chinese silks, gunpowder, ceramics, cinnamon, rhubarb, papermaking and printing skills to the West, and introducing products such as grapes, walnuts, pomegranates, cucumbers, glass and perfume to China, not to mention precious metals, ivory, Buddhism and Islam.

Trade flourished for a millennium, before plunging into sharp decline. This was brought about partly by Europe's discovery of silkworms (smuggled from China). Most damaging, however, was the tribal warfare that made the western regions too perilous for travellers.

Ironically, it was Westerners who "reopened" the Silk Road in the 19th century, lured by the promise of great treasures and antiquities. European scholars, adventurers and even military spies, came to explore the heartland of Eurasia, uncovering many of the "lost cities" of the great Silk Road, and plundering art treasures.

Yet enough treasures were left to ensure that the Chinese part of the Silk Road at least -- some 4,000 kilometres of it -- remains a huge attraction for tourists.

Many start their exploration, logically enough, in Xi'an, proceeding via Lanzhou and the Jiayuguan Pass to the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang, Urumqi, Turpan and Kashi (better known as Kashgar). Other itineraries start with flights from Beijing, Guangzhou or Shanghai to Urumqi, for trips to Kashgar and Turpan, and then on to Dunhuang.

The ancient city of Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi Province, is today home to more than two million people. The starting point of the Silk Road, Xi'an boasts a wealth of historic sites, from its remarkably well-preserved 14th century city walls to the fascinating, yet relatively modern Film City, birthplace of a generation of post-Cultural Revolution films.

The plains around Xi'an are littered with burial mounds and temples. One of the most visited sites, located 36 kilometres to the east of the city, is the Qin Museum of Terracotta Warriors. It is thought that the thousands of life-size soldiers and horses, the first few thousand of which were uncovered in 1974, were intended to serve as bodyguards for the ghost of Qin Shihuangdi, the first emperor, who reigned from 221 to 210 BC, and from whose dynasty -- the Qin -- we derive the word China.

Hailed by the Chinese as "the Eighth Wonder of the World", the terracotta army is a breathtaking sight, and one that rivals the Great Wall as a tourist attraction. …

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