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[Originally published in Asia Magazine, March 18-20, 1994]

FOLLOWING ANCIENT FOOTPRINTS

Exploring the Northern Silk Road

by Pamela Logan

Mounted Uighur girl
Uighur girl of the Khotan oasis

Transport yourself back a thousand years. The Silk Road is at its height, and we are at its beginning: somewhere in eastern China, in a humble, windowless hut, dark and silent, without furniture or people. But if you listen closely, there is a noise, a faint rustling. It is silkworms gorging themselves on mulberry leaves. A silkworm's life is short and unspectacular: it eats, it spins a cocoon, and then is killed by its merciless human keepers. Its silken resting place is soon unwound, then spun into a cloth legendary for its exquisite softness and beauty. This precious material, coveted everywhere but made by a mysterious process known only inside China, now begins a long and hazardous journey.

The Silk "Road" is a misnomer, for actually it was many roads, many slender filaments originating in thousands of towns and cities all over eastern China. They threaded their way west, skirted the deserts of Turkestan, gradually coalescing into just a handful of trails hacked out of some of the world's most impenetrable mountains. If the bundles of precious silk survived crossing these formidable barriers--the Pamir, the Hindu Kush, and the Karakoram-- they then descended to the Indian Subcontinent. Here the Silk Road swiftly multiplied again, spawning hundreds, then thousands of diverging tracks that brought Chinese goods to Persia, Arabia and Europe, then returned the treasures of those faraway lands to eager Chinese connoisseurs.

With so many Silk Roads, then, how is the modern-day traveler to choose? Easy: most of them are barred, for they pass through inhospitable areas (see "Exploring the Southern Silk Road," which appeared in the last issue), or cross closed borders. But one track needs only a tourist visa to obtain access, and doesn't require your own four-wheel-drive truck. So let us sample the highlights of this fascinating and still-navigable trade route.

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SPECTACULAR BUDDHIST GROTTOS: DUNHUANG

Picture a cliff face, 1600 meters long and three or four stories high, pierced by hundreds of holes. Each hole leads to a cave, and each cave contains statues and murals of surpassing excellence, a whole museum of Buddhist art entombed within sandstone. Step into the dark, cool interiors and you may view murals spanning ten centuries of Chinese civilization, most of them in excellent shape. The grottos range from pigeon-sized to gigantic; inside one dwells a Buddha statue more than 30 metres high.

How did these grottos come about in what is now a largely Muslim region? Both religions reached China along the Silk Road; but Buddhism--now largely supplanted by Islam along the route--was the first to arrive. From its birthplace in India, Buddhism was carried by stout-hearted missionaries--Parthians, Soghdians, Bactrians, Kushans and others--along the same trails traveled by merchants. Some Silk Road caravansaries became flourishing centers of Buddhist learning, and a string of dramatic legacies from this era still remain. Of these, the grottos of Dunhuang are without question the most spectacular.

But Dunhuang is more than a fabulous archeological treasure-house; since its discovery by a Taoist monk at around 1900 it has become a magnet for the modern-day faithful. Follow a faint trail into the mountains and two hours later you may stumble on a tiny temple inhabited by a pair of elderly Buddhist nuns. Or climb to one of the many pagodas erected in salute to the area's sacred past.

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ANCIENT RUINS IN A GRAPE OASIS: TURPAN

Sand stretches in every direction, naked and blazing. Turpan is the hottest place in China, with maximum summer temperatures of more than 40 degrees centigrade. It's a recipe for hell on earth, except for one thing: water, and plenty of it. It comes from the Bogda Shan, a range of snow-capped peaks to the north. Water from this natural reservoir crosses the desert through man-made aqueducts called karez, miracles of ancient engineering. Look out into the desert north of Turpan and you can see row upon row of mounds, like an ant housing development. These are access holes, allowing engineers to dig and maintain the karez, on which life in Turpan depends.

Because of its karez Turpan is not only fertile, but has become China's most famous center of viniculture. Grapes are so much Turpan's mainstay that some of the town's streets are sheltered under grape arbors. It's this shade, vital in summer and delicious most any time of the year, that makes Turpan a grape paradise.

Scattered around Turpan are many relics of Silk Road splendor. The city of Jiaohe, for example, dates from the second century B.C., and was both an prosperous commercial center and a devoutly Buddhist town--until its destruction by Jenghis Khan. A visit to the ruins is sure to conjure up images of the Silk Road's past. You can walk Jiaohe's main street, clearly discernible among the crumbled remains of shops and homes. At the end stands an enormous temple, its walls and terraces still standing; and if your imagination is good, perhaps you will catch sight of a dust- streaked silk trader bowing before the shrine.

Jiaohe ruins
The ancient city of Jiaohe, near Turfan

Now come the hardest part of the journey: skirting the great Taklamakan, whose name in the Uighur language means "desert of no return." As you gaze across the blinding white sands, you might think that a thin, dark line drawn along the horizon is a mirage. But it's not; it's a line of trees, and they grow steadily taller as you approach. Suddenly you plunge into shade: a boulevard lined with regiments of poplars, channels of cool running water, kerchiefed women chatting by the roadside, children playing in the dust. A few miles of cool respite, then, just as suddenly, you pop out onto desert once more. Oasis after oasis: Korla, Kucha, Aksu, and then...

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CROSSROADS OF CENTRAL ASIA: KASHGAR

Kashgar. It's Sunday, and from every district, from hundreds of farms lying on the city's outskirts, and from dozens of satellite villages, come the clip-clop hooves of earnest little donkeys. They are pulling carts heaped high with farmers' bounty: melons, grapes, vegetables, meat, flour, wool, lumber and more. Holding the reins are Uighur farmers; they are headed into town for the Great Sunday Bazaar, where they will trade the fruit of their labors for household goods like pots and pans, furniture, and clothing. Whatever they need, they can certainly find it here, for it is the greatest market in all of central Asia.

Donkeys
Donkeys for sale at the Kashgar Sunday bazaar

At the carts near town, they converge into a gigantic donkey-jam. The lucky tourist, unencumbered by a vehicle, can walk past the confusion into an endless maze of stalls. In one area you find watermelons, heaped in piles four and five metres across. Elsewhere you walk down lanes lined with women's gauzy scarves, men's tarboosh, shoes, jackets--every imaginable item of wearing apparel is here. Purveyors of traditional medicines squat on the ground behind their piled wares: mysterious herbs, tinctures, and dried animal parts.

If the heat becomes oppressive, stop for a bowl of tea or refreshing sweet iced yogurt. If you're hungry then consider mutton kebab, or pilaf, or freshly pulled noodles. Then head over to the livestock market, and watch knowing old men bargain furiously over the backs of donkeys. You can wander the bazaar for hours and never some to the same stall twice.

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YURTS AND GRASS: THE PAMIR

It has been a hard climb to get here, but it was worth it. The desiccated heat of the desert is far behind; we have climbed into the Pamir mountains. No more featureless sand, no more crowded oases. This place is wide, high, and green--at least during its short summer. It belongs to the Kirgiz, a race of handsome herdsmen with Euro-Asian features and slanting eyebrows slashed dramatically across their faces. They are not farmers like the people of the Dunhuang, Turpan and Taklamakan oases; instead they keep goats, sheep, horses, and camels. Many families still live in yurts, the round, felt-covered tents used across Mongolia and Central Asia.

Karakul Lake is the most picturesque place in the Pamir. At a cool 3600 meters above sea level, it's got a robust climate, but in compensation it's also got the Pamir's two greatest giants growing at each end. The tallest at 7720 meters, Mount Kongur is an un- prepossessing heap of snow and rock to the north, while Mustaghata (7540 m), in the south, is a spectacular heaved-up slab of ice. Karakul Lake itself is as beautiful as only a pure, untouched pool of glacial melt can be.

If you opt for a stay at Karakul, by night you can rest warm and snug in a guest yurt, dining on food prepared by the camp's capable staff. By day you can hike the perimeter of the lake, or visit a Kirgiz village. But even if you just bask on the lakeshore by your yurt, curious tribesmen will come to check you out. They ride sleek horses, perhaps with a camel or two in tow. At day's end you can admire the changing color of light on Mustaghata as the sun sets behind ice-capped mountains.

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SHANGRI-LA IN THE SKY: HUNZA

From Karakul Lake the highway continues to the Tajik town of Tashkurgan. This is the last town in China; it's also your last rest stop before ascending the Khunjerab Pass (4730 meters) that marks Sino-Pakistan border. From this pass, the highest of your journey, it's a breathtaking descent.

As your bus rumbles downward, the Karakoram looms mightily. Lifeless but living, these mountains are chewed by monstrous glaciers and raked by rockfall, perpetually shrugging themselves into new configurations. The road is in constant danger of being buried in karakoram, the crumbling black rock that gives the range its name.

The first town, Sust, seems supernaturally green amid so much barren rock. It is the first in a chain of amazing mountain communities, towns built on deposits of glacial silt. Green and fertile, they look like emeralds cast among stones. Hikers will find no end to adventurous possibilities in this stupendously rugged land. But the best is yet to come: Hunza. This fabled kingdom is so beautiful, its air so clean and food so pure, that Hunzakuts are supposed to live to fantastic ages. You may wish to put this theory to a test, staying a week or more to gorge yourself on Hunza's legendary dried apricots and other fruit. Your health will certainly benefit from a stay in Karimabad, Hunza's capital, for the town is spread over a slope of jaw-dropping verticality-- even a short walk will bring color to your cheeks.

As you walk, let your eyes wander up and down, for Hunza is all green terraces. They are scratched into canyon walls that start hundreds of meters below, at the Hunza River, and then climb to majestic, snowy heights. Across the River, almost close enough to touch, is the stunning Mount Rakaposhi. At 7,780 meters high, it's an awesome tangle of glacier-filled gullies and icy shoulders.

After Hunza, the highway proceeds to Gilgit, capital of Pakistan's Northern Areas and the beginning of your gradual return to civilization. From Gilgit you may choose to fly to Islamabad. Or, like the ancient Silk Trader, if you keep to the road, you will slowly descend into the dizzying kaleidoscope that is the Indian Subcontinent--and on to your next adventure.


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THE KARAKORAM HIGHWAY

Map of Xinjiang Province, China
Xinjiang Province, China

The Karakoram Highway connects China and Pakistan with what must be the most harrowing trail of asphalt on earth. From Kashgar to Islamabad, the road stretches 1260 kilometers, and pierces the territory of at least five ethnic groups (Uighur, Kirgiz, Tajik/Wakhi, Hunza/Nagar, Shin and Pathan). At least nine languages (Chinese, Uighur, Kirgiz, Tajik/Wakhi, Burushaski, Shina, Pushto, Urdu and English) are commonly heard along its length. The highway was begun in the late 1960s after a warming of relations between the two countries. China provided most of the engineering know- how, building bridges to span Pakistan's treacherous rivers and blasting a two-lane highway out of shear rock. Muscle was provided by thousands of Pakistani and Chinese laborers, who wielded picks and shovels under a blinding mountain sun. On the Pakistan side of the border alone, more than 400 lost their lives.

Nowadays most traffic on the Karakoram Highway consists of tourists and hajjis--Muslims making a pilgrimage to Mecca--but small-scale trade has revived as well. Pakistani businessmen come to Kashgar to load up on thermoses, enamel wash-basins, and other items sold cheaply in Chinese shops. They are also attracted by Kashgar's reputation as a place of pleasure, for liquor and whores are not easily found in their straight-laced homeland. Apart from the hajjis, few Chinese find their way west.

Auther with bike on Karakoram highway
Biking the Karakoram Highway, near Kashgar

The sheer difficulty of this road makes it a magnet for adventure- seeking bicyclists, of whom this author was one. If steep ascents, thin air, long distances, interfering officials, shabby hostels and unfamiliar food aren't challenge enough, the cyclist must also contend with children for whom grabbing the luggage rack of a passing foreigner's bike has become a favorite sport. Yet the rewards are worth it: standing alone at the summit of a pass, master of all you see; cheers from villagers as you pedal by; visiting Kirgiz nomads on a great plain beneath Mustaghata; and, from the Khunjerab pass, the long, long joy-ride down. It is an unforgettable experience.


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THE GREAT GAME

The year is 1889. Imagine you are Lieutenant Francis Younghusband, a British officer of uncommon mettle and skill, on an assignment to map the uncharted region of Hunza and to befriend its lawless and feuding tribes. One night you are camped with your contingent of Gurkhas and Kashmiri soldiers, far beyond hope of aid from your government, when a messenger arrives bearing an invitation to dinner. It is from a certain Captain Gromchevsky--a Russian, and therefore your avowed enemy. He and his Cossacks are camped nearby. What do you do?

By this time Silk Road trade is long played out. Booming sea trade has eclipsed the ancient caravan route, and the mountain passes have reverted to the control of ruthless plundering tribes. But once again the spotlight is pointed at these wild highlands, for they have become a hotbed of international intrigue. The Great Game, as it was known, was espionage played on a grand scale. It pitted Great Britain, at that time firmly entrenched in India, against Czarist Russia to the north. Both feared attack from the other, but neither knew anything about the peoples and terrain that separated them. The first to map these uncharted wilds and to befriend their unruly inhabitants would have a great advantage in the event of war. Both nations also hoped bring their own products to the bazaars of Central Asia.

Francis Younghusband was a Great Game player of consummate skill. Two years before his Hunza adventure, at the age of 24 he earned the approval of his superiors by completing a 1,200-mile crossing of China, including the uncharted Mustagh Pass. He returned to India loaded with geographic information, and subsequently won the Royal Geographic Society's coveted gold medal.

Less is known about Gromchevsky, whose invitation Younghusband decided to accept. When the British officer arrived at Gromchevsky's camp, he found a huge dinner prepared in honor of the visit. The two sat up late into the evening plying each other with brandy and vodka, arguing politics, and talking of the expected Russian invasion of India. A few days later they parted, Younghusband to resume his exploration of Hunza, Gromchevsky in the direction of Kashmir.

But not all Great Game players were Russian or British. Some of the most intrepid explorers were Asians recruited by the British Survey of India. These men, called "pundits," could travel where no European dared, and the information they returned was priceless. They learned to clandestinely map mountain paths by counting their paces, using Buddhist rosaries to keep track. They carried a sextant, compass, and boiling-point thermometer (used to measure elevation) hidden in their clothing and baggage. With them they plotted routes that before had been only blank spaces on British maps.

"The Mirza," of mixed Persian and Turkish parentage, was one of many British-trained pundits. In 1867 he left to explore a route across present-day Afghanistan to Kashgar, and then south to Ladakh. Along the way he overcame high passes and deep snow, mutinous servants and attacking bandits. More than once he was arrested as a spy but managed to talk his way free. After a journey of nearly two years he returned to India, where he was acclaimed for his "pluck and endurance." A few years later, on a second expedition, the Mirza was murdered by his guides while asleep.


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TRAVEL TIPS

WHEN TO GO: Late spring and early autumn are best. Summer is searing on the desert, while the Khunjerab Pass is closed to traffic from November to April.

WHAT TO BRING: Clothing for a large range of temperatures and comfortable shoes are a must. If traveling by public bus, bring no more baggage than you can easily carry. If you plan to make day- hikes or longer off-road journeys, consult trekking manuals and hire a local guide. Personal items such as medicines, dental floss, and feminine hygiene supplies may be impossible to buy. A small flashlight is very handy.

ACCOMMODATIONS: Dunhuang, Turpan, Kashgar, Karimabad and Gilgit all have hotels of reasonably high standard, while Urumqi's Holiday Inn is world-class. Inexpensive accommodation is also plentiful. In some other towns along the Silk Road, for example Karakul Lake and Tashkurgan, conditions range from rustic to primitive--but that's part of the adventure.

TRANSPORTATION: Easiest is to join a group tour and let them make the arrangements for you. Silk Road tours are offered by Mountain Travel/Sobek (6420 Fairmount Ave., El Cerrito, CA 94530, U.S.A., tel 1-510-527-8100, fax 1-510-525-7710); Journey to the East, Inc, PO Box 1334 Flushing, NY 11352, U.S.A. tel 1-718-358-4034; fax 1- 718-358-4065); Wilderness Travel (801 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA 94710, U.S.A., tel 1-510-548-0420, fax 1-510-548-0347). Karakoram treks are offered by Wilderness Travel and also Above the Clouds Trekking (P.O. Box 398, Worcester, MA 01602-0398, U.S.A., tel 1- 508-799-4499, fax 1-508-797-4779). Karakoram trekking and cycling trips are offered by Karakoram Experience, P.O. Box 10538, Aspen CO 81612, tel 1-303-925-8368, fax 1-303-925-6704)

If you want to travel on your own, then begin by flying to Dunhuang via Beijing and Lanzhou. From Dunhuang you may travel by train or bus to Turpan; check with travel agents in town. From Turpan to Urumqi is four hours by public bus, or less by hired car. Once in Urumqi you may travel by air (2 hours) or bus (3 days) to Kashgar. After Kashgar, if you elect to visit Karakul Lake, it is probably best to hire a car or join a group tour (check with agents in Kashgar); but it is also possible to go by bus. If you do not go to Karakul Lake then bus travel to the border is both easy and economical. Once you have passed through Pakistani immigration (note: visas are not issued at the border), there are further buses to take you to Karimabad in Hunza, and afterwards to Gilgit, from which you may fly or bus to Islamabad. Advance booking for all air travel is highly recommended.

HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVALS: The Silk Road passes through so many different ethnic areas that a comprehensive list would require pages. Notable, however, is Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, which should be avoided if possible. During this period it may be difficult to buy food during daylight hours. The dates of Ramadan move up by about 11 days every year; in 1994 it falls between February 11 and March 12. In Pakistan's Northern Areas, fire-pots are put on the mountainsides at night to mark the Prophet's birthday, which falls this year on August 19 (Aug 9 in 1995 and July 28 in 1996). In Gilgit, Nov 1 marks the beginning of a week-long polo tournament. Turpan has a grape festival during the third week of August.

RECOMMENDED READING: Lonely Planet's Karakoram Highway: The High Road to China, (PO Box 617, Hawthorne, Victoria 3122, Australia), which covers everything from Kashgar to Islamabad, is a must for independent travelers. It also contains a list of trekking guides for the Karakoram. In Turpan and Dunhuang (and most anywhere else in China), Lonely Planet's China--a travel survival kit is useful.

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