Visions of China: The Silk Route by Train
by ANDY ALPINE
The Silk Road. The words conjure images of camel caravans laden with exotic goods as they trudge from Asia Minor to bazaars within the Great Wall of China. The desert sand is hot, the sun undulating. Gold glints in its powerful rays. A fairytale view maybe, but mine.
In the Fall of 2000, I traced the Silk Road for 21 days with Toronto-based Conference World Tours (CWT) – not by camel, but aboard a luxurious train aptly named “The China Orient Express.” The original train was built in the 1950s in Germany and serviced the Beijing-to-Moscow route.
A Railway Revival
After falling into disrepair, the train was refurbished in the 1970s and served China’s political elite (spending most of its time in a railway hangar in Beijing) until 1988, when intrepid traveler (and CWT owner) Maria Flannery convinced China Rail to further renovate the train for Western comfort. Flannery led her first group of Silk Road travelers aboard the China Orient Express in 1990.
The original Silk Road, which eventually stretched from Eastern China to the Mediterranean, was first traversed by Chang Ch’ien, a Chinese diplomat sent on a mission across Central Asia in 138 b.c. by the Emperor Han Wu Ti. Upon his return after 12 years and many adventures (captured twice, married once, fathering several kids), Ch’ien reported on 36 kingdoms that had previously been unknown to his people. These included the realms of Ferghana, Samar-kand, Bokhara — places that are today in Pakistan and Uzbekistan, plus a city called Li Kun, which many believe to have been Rome.
Fables of Ferghana
Ch’ien told stories of powerful horses (the famous Ferghana horse, rumored to be of “heavenly” stock) and treasures in these mysterious lands to the west. While textiles (of which just a small portion was silk), precious metals, ivory, furs and weapons were later traded along the route, the Ferghanas were what instigated the return, since horses offered one of the main tactical advantages in the warfare of the time. A second expedition was sent in 115 b.c., and the Silk Road was born.
The Road to Buddha
Most significantly, the route connected China to the belief systems and religious arts of India, Central Asia and the Middle East. Buddhism, until that time practiced only in India, was integrated into the culture, revolutionizing Chinese life. The Buddhist art and culture that flowed into China along the Silk Road would provide the focus for our own adventure aboard the China Orient Express.
John MacGreagor, a professor of the psychology of art, presented nightly lectures and slide shows, sparking our enthusiasm for what we would see the following day. MacGreagor’s passion for Chinese poetry, sculpture and painting, as well as his appreciation for the nuances of art, made us admire the treasures even more.
The train served as our mobile hotel for the entire trip. It was truly beautiful, with mahogany and red-lacquered walls, two dining cars, and a full bar-lounge car. Air-conditioned throughout, it featured compartments with comfortable bunk beds, a table, salon chair, and a large window from which to marvel at passing vistas. To add to the sumptuous feeling on board, we were entertained by music from David Kelly, a Chinese-speaking Australian pianist who held court nightly in the lounge car.
In addition, our compartment was looked after by two delightful attendants who would greet us with cold towels and hot tea each evening when we returned from a day of sightseeing. In fact, there was a staff of 60 maintaining the caravan on wheels and its 43 passengers, though most were unseen.
A Slower Pace
Though airplanes can spirit travelers to destinations quickly, being on a train offers the chance to experience an exotic land at a palatable pace. As we rolled through the Gobi desert with its ever-changing shades of stone and sand, or wound our way through the hills of the Qilian Shan mountains, we felt the same drama and wonder that early adventurers must have experienced.
While most activities were planned, we also explored on our own. Although we saw uniformed railroad attendants at the railway stations, we never felt the presence of government control over where we could go or not go. I mention this because several friends wondered if we were able to move freely in the cities without restriction. In fact, we spent many afternoons wandering alone in Kashgar, Beijing, Hohhot, Turpan and Urumqi.
The organized tour introduced us to many of the artistic wonders along the route. The most impressive, almost overwhelming, site we visited was the caves at Dunhuang. This “City of Sand” was the point of departure from China for places west. For over 600 years (400-900 a.d.), voyagers embarking on Silk Road journeys would pay monk-artists to paint frescoes and carve reliefs and sculptures for them in the caves, believing that this would ensure their safe voyage and return. Their goal was to re-create Paradise inside the earth, and in many ways they have.
Dunhuang’s ultra-dry climate has preserved the statues and brilliant frescoes in the almost 600 caves, which stretch over one-and-a-quarter miles. The scenes in paintings often depict tales from the life of the Buddha or scenes of contemporary palace life. Because there was little natural light and no electric lights in the caves, our flashlights roamed in search of the next incredible gem, like spelunkers in search of spiritual treasures. Truly an awesome experience.
For me, another breathtaking moment at Dunhuang came when I knelt before a 90-foot Buddha that had been carved into a mountain. Unlike the darkness of the caves, light beams streaked through several openings onto the majestic Tang dynasty Maitreya Buddha (Buddha of the Future.) I actually felt embraced by its presence. (Since the recent destruction of the Buddhist images in Afghanistan, these statues are some of the last remaining ancient Buddhas of this size in the world.)
A Patchwork of the Past
Although quite different from the artistic and spiritual experience of the caves, another trip highlight was our visit to the 2,000 year-old market in Kashgar, a central outpost of the Silk Road during its heyday. Flying from Urumqi to Kashgar (the current itinerary includes going to Kashgar on the China Orient Express) we were immediately immersed in a very different culture.
Being in Kashgar is like stepping back in time to an ancient Central Asian khanate (principality). On the way into town from the airport, our bus had to stop on the highway to wait for a shepherd, who was leading his flock into the city at midnight to prepare for the morning market.
The feeling that you’ve stepped back in time is further accentuated by the exotic dress and culture of the locals. Kashgar is in Xinjiang province, and the language, dress, and customs are more Turkish than Han Chinese, although the people are ethnically Uygur. The Uygur headdress serves as a personal fashion statement, with the men wearing a variety of styles such as skullcaps, prayer caps, fur-lined caps, “dunce” and “thug” caps, and the women wearing brown veils or colorful scarves.
Nearly 50,000 people descend on Kashgar’s Sunday market to trade wares, livestock, fruits and vegetables, to gossip, or sometimes just to get a haircut (shaved heads are definitely the style these days). After exploring for the entire day, I became an expert on donkey’s teeth, an important factor in selecting an animal and bargaining over an appropriate price. We also watched people “test driving” horses, primping goats and sheep, cursing camels and just having a raucous good time. Watching isn’t the correct word, as we were definitely in the middle of it all: the timeless bumping, laughing, dust, smells, and jingle of bells from horse and donkey carts.
While culture and art scenes nourished our minds, the spectacular food of the region left us well-satiated. Each meal was a feast from breakfast all the way through to dinner on the China Orient Express. The chef on the train had been the personal cook of China’s ex-premier Deng Xiao Ping, and needless to say, we ate well.
Meals in restaurants were also impressive, such as a 17-course dumpling meal in Xian after viewing the famous terra cotta warriors (Xian was the capital of China during the time of the Silk Road). Each dumpling was individually shaped like a pigeon, duck, fish, or horse, to name just a few of the forms. At another meal, we watched the chef make noodles by running the dough through his fingers while he moved his arms in almost Tai Chi gracefulness. The thickness of each noodle was determined by the space between his fingers. Although Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from China, he neglected to explain this technique.
I recently returned from an exhibition of Taoist Art at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. After entering the darkened room, I felt shivers running through my body when I saw two ancient scrolls of Lao Tse’s masterpiece, the Tao te Ching. The placard describing the piece stated that it had been discovered at the caves of Dunhuang.
I knew the exact spot in Cave #17 where the scrolls had been found. I knew because I had been there.
For more information on “The China Orient Express” contact Conference World Tours — Tel: 800-387-1488 or 416-221-6411; Fax: 416-221-5605; E-mail: conference@vision2000. ca or flannerym@vision2000. ca; Website: www.conferencetours. com.
For information on additional programs and operators, see the Geographical Index under “China.”