Star Date:  December 2005
China: The Southern Silk Road, Quinghai, Gansu


Hello Dear Family & Friends!

Ech nerse emes!

(No problem - Kyrgyz)


"No tool is more beneficial than intelligence.  No enemy is more harmful than ignorance."

(Abu Abdullah Muhammad al Harithi al Mufid - 10th century Muslim scholar)

"I got through a number of things in the area of defense, like showing the importance of cruise missiles and getting them more accurate so that we can have precise precision."

(Dan Quayle, former U.S. Vice President, referring to his achievements as a senator. Sorry we couldn't resist!)




Chinglish' road sign-get the point?




The South Silk Road.  The secrets revealed, to those few who dare venture along this route, make it worth the travel time and effort required.  Evidence of Hotanese jade trade with China dates back over 7000 years.  In the 2nd century BC a Chinese envoy, Zhang Qian, was sent west in hopes of ending the border raids by the Xiongnu Tribes.  Immediately he was taken prisoner and didn't escape until 10 years later.  Peace wasn't achieved but he discovered the north and south routes around the deadly Taklamakan desert.  He also brought back an exceptional Ferghana horse from central Asia and soon silk flowed out of China in exchange for these "Heavenly Horses".  Along with goods from the west came new ideas.  Influenced by Buddhism in the 3rd century, the art work was a blend of Kashmiri, Persian, Indian, and even Greek.  The Tang Dynasty reasserted rule in the 7th century and the Uighurs swept down from Mongolia in the 9th century. Mongol rule continued with a power play between the warlords until the Manchu army took Kashgar in 1755.  In the 1860's the Mongols rebelled and formed an independent Turkestan, with little Chinese intervention.  The Kuomintang (Chiang Kaishek) and the Communist Party(1949) that followed, were opposed by the Muslim League.  When all but one Muslim leader were killed in a plane crash on the way to negotiations in Beijing the official independence movement collapsed and they settled for Autonomous Region status.


The southernmost part of this remote western region hasn't changed much in 1000 years.  Clustered around lush oasis's in the parched barren deserts, life in these small villages along the Southern Silk Road is reminiscent of what it would have been like to cross the desert by camel and stop here to rest and gather supplies. Villages offered simple accommodations, with the toilet down the hall, while the newly built Chinese cities, some with most buildings erected after 2000, offered  surprisingly comfortable modern rooms in which to rest after our long, hard camel, I mean, bus ride. The villages remain predominantly Uighur Muslim and unchanged while the regional cities usually consisted of two parts. In the Muslim part of town the negotiations were going hot and heavy in the markets around the main Mosque.  In the Chinese part of town there was always a large new town square displaying identical masonic symbols: the party flag, columns, sundials, pyramids, phoenixes, dragons and the classic fountains without water.  Around this square were new shops and Chinese restaurants. Behind the row of businesses there was always a market where the Chinese bartered fast and furiously for the best deal.  As we went further east the markets were a combination of Uighur and Chinese trading and working together.  From Xining east there remained only tiny Muslim sections in the cities adjacent to equally small populations of Hui Muslim Chinese. 


An interesting article which we read recently, by Dr Richard Foltz, Columbia University, was discussing the history of superpowers. "In every era, one or two countries have existed that can be called superpowers because of their influence in world military, economic, political, and cultural affairs. Examples through history have been the ancient Persian Empire and conquests of Alexander the Great which set the stage for Rome, Mauya India, and Han China to dominate the regions of Eurasia."  Over the centuries that followed the Arabs, Mongols, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch, successively achieved powerful positions, and in the 18th and 19th centuries the British took their turn. In the 20th century, especially since 1945 (first nuclear bomb test in New Mexico), the United States has been the dominant power.  “A characteristic of a modern superpower is a lively cultural scene that extends across its borders.”  What took centuries along ancient trade routes now happens almost ‘overnight’ and for good or for bad, technology has allowed the spread of U.S. culture throughout much of the world. “Transregional dominance is difficult to maintain, as other civilizations eventually catch up and forge ahead.” The interesting concept in this whole historical scenario is that most people tend to focus on the problems now and they forget that the U.S. is but a drop in the historical bucket. This 'New Bully on the Block' will have to "prove endurance to match the longevity of China’s status as a superpower, which began in the middle of the 1st millennium A.D.".  Top that one George!


The Tang Dynasty maintained a superpower status that only a few nations have equaled. The Tang Dynasty, 618AD –907AD had a vast empire stretching from present day Siberia to Vietnam and from Turkey to Japan.  Called the Golden Age, this period not only allowed the exchange of goods and ideas but encouraged it.  New religions, philosophies, artwork, and exotic goods were transported along the Silk Road.  Following in their footsteps we were daily bombarded with new sights, sounds, smells and thoughts.….Our first stop 5 hours from Kashgar was for dinner at the lively markets outside the 15th century Jama or Friday Mosque in Karghilik. We planned our journey so that we would take in the largest and least visited market in Xinjiang, the Hotan Sunday Market. We were not disappointed.  The Hotanese unlocked the secrets of Chinese silk by the 5th century AD and later became this region’s most sought after carpet weavers. These serious traders ply their wares in this loud and lively blur of activity.  After swimming upstream through the crowds for a while we just sat at a little local noodle shop and watched the show go by: fur hats, veils, donkeys, camels, vegetable wagons piled high, rolled up carpets, little kids spinning tops, you name it- it went by! These healthy looking people were never overweight and always seemed to have time for a good hearty laugh or at least a genuine smile. Most Uighurs would walk by, look, look again, smile, and go on.  Some would stop and stare and soon a great conversation would take place, telling us all about the market or what they were doing or selling.  When you only speak but a few introductory words it is fun to just kick back, observe and watch body language.  The show was lively and the people were fascinating.  Not much different than centuries ago.


The further back east we went the more remote it got.  We were pleasantly surprised at the good roads through Cherchen and as far as Charlik.  From there we had to share a private jeep with 4 locals through the barren mountains to Huatugoa. Crossing into the Qinghai province we followed the edge of the Tibetan Plateau along a bumpy gravel road.  Formerly a part of Tibet, called Amdo, this was the birth place of the current Dalai Lama.  This province has served as a kind of ‘Chinese Siberia’ in the past with large numbers of political and common criminals sent here for hard labor. Suddenly the stark mountainous landscape gave way to an eerie cloud of dust caused by a large open pit mine and processing plant.  They were mining a kind of white powder, possibly gypsum and the air was so thick that you had to breathe through a cloth. The workers lived in cold stone buildings without windows and when we finally arrived in the next town it was unlike anywhere we have been.  Like a scene from an inhospitable distant planet in Star Wars this place was a rugged frontier town, solely existing because of the nearby mine. Most people lived in small cement or mud houses, as the windows in the large apartment buildings had been blown out in a recent explosion. Freezing cold, tired and hungry we asked when the next bus to Golmud was leaving.  I almost started crying when they said, "Two days".  I thought Hell was supposed to be hot!!  Looking at the big map on the wall we surveyed our options and started asking when the next bus was to "Anywhere But Here!!?"  Dunhuang in 3 hours, out of our way but better than suffering here for 2 days.  I couldn’t believe this strange twist of events which pointed us back to the sand dunes we loved so much. The one thing I had secretly wanted to do for my birthday was to ride the camels at sunset on these large dunes near Dunhuang, but choosing the southern route ruled that out.  Now only 12 hours on a sleeper bus stood between us and footsteps in the sand. Watch what you wish for, you may get it!!


Sometimes the bleakest of situations reveals the warmth in the hearts of those around us.  A curious young man befriended us and tried to help with the bus tickets.  He stood baffled as we spontaneously chose to go in the completely opposite direction.  He then invited us to go eat with him.  We did our usual and stopped to buy whatever vegetables we could find.  We followed him to a row of small tent like restaurants and were warmly welcomed into his brother’s establishment.  I quickly rolled up my sleeves and started chopping and cooking.  We had a fun time preparing dinner together and ended up with so much food that we gave a bowl to everyone there.  After hanging around the little stove for an hour or so after the meal we headed back to the bus station. This family which had so little had shared so much, just when we needed it.  They refused to take any money towards the cooking costs and instead gave us some fresh flat bread and snacks to take on the bus. We left that cold desolate town with a warmth inside us that lasted through the cold bus ride ahead.


Atop the 5000+ ft high Singing Sands Dune Mountain in Dunhuang we had visions of ancient days on the Silk Road.  Encompassed with this history we ventured out on a camel caravan to the oasis at Moon Crescent Lake and up to the lofty heights of the towering dunes. Stretched out below us were the footsteps in the sand of the ancients who followed this perilous route. As the sun set and the shadows shifted, the cold evening wind blew a smoker’s crest of sand off the top of the mountain and the crescent moon appeared along with the first evening star. Was it 2005 or 1500AD.?  I still don’t know.



And so it goes............................................... Next Tibetans, pandas, Gansu and Sichuan. Though that camel ride was exhilarating, an even better birthday present was receiving warm wishes via email. Thanks.    Keep Smiling and Keep in Touch.     Take care.



Love, xoxoox  Nancy & Joseph






Our journey from Beijing west to Kashgar, Xinjiang /Pakistan
then back along the South Silk Road east to Guilin, Guangxi











Hotan Sunday Market, full of distinctive hats and relaxed smiles.



Singing Sands Dune Mountain, Dunhuong



My trusty stead.



Following ancient footsteps in the sand.



Proud Uighur mother.



 Shave and a haircut anyone?  The next chair down was a dentist
with a bowl full of teeth!



A cantankerous old character with tales to tell.



Three little sweethearts who guided us through the maze of narrow
alleys to the ancient Jama Mosque.



Hand wrought copper pots.



Every unique, exquisite face tells a story.



In China hats differentiate tribes, (Tajik) and the glasses,
well, they are just way cool!




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