The gigantic provinces of Gansu, Qinghai and Xinjiang spread across the whole of the Chinese northwest, an almost dizzying agglomeration of desert, grassland, raging rivers and colossal mountains. Despite the region’s impressive size, which alone would form the eighth largest country in the world, it contains only four percent of China’s population – quite a baffling statistic considering the region’s staggering ethnic variety. Xinjiang is home to, and indeed an autonomous province for, a large population of Uyghur, a predominantly Muslim people who speak a language far more proximate to Turkish than Chinese. The province’s deserts and mountains also harbour large communities of Kazakh, Krygyz and Tajik, making for the curious existence of occasional blond-haired, blue-eyed holders of a Chinese passport. Qinghai forms the northern edge of the Tibetan plateau; now that transport to Lhasa has been restricted and sanitized, the province is proving popular with those wishing to soak up a bit of “free” Tibetan culture. Over in Gansu, there are large communities of Mongolians and Hui Muslims, as well as lesser-known groups such as the Bao’an and Salar. Indeed, the Chinese of old thought the whole region was remote, subject to extremes of weather and populated by non-Chinese-speaking “barbarians” who were, quite literally, the peoples from beyond the pale – sai wai ren.
However, a Chinese presence in the area is not new. Imperial armies were already in control of virtually the whole northwest region by the time of the Han dynasty two thousand years ago, and since then Gansu and the eastern parts of Qinghai and Xinjiang have become Chinese almost to the core.
Today, the relatively unrestricted use of local languages and religions in these areas could be taken as a sign of China’s desire to nurture patriotism in the minority peoples and regain some of the sympathy lost during disastrous repressions under communism and in previous eras. Furthermore, in economic terms, there is a clear transfer of wealth, in the form of industrial and agricultural aid, from the richer areas of eastern China to the poorer, outer fringes of the country. On the other hand, the degree of actual autonomy in the “autonomous” regions is strictly controlled, and relations between Han China and these more remote corners of the Republic remain fractious in places, most notably Xinjiang, recently subject to a substantial amount of inter-ethnic strife.
Organized tourism across the Northwest focuses on the Silk Road, a series of historic towns and ruins running from Xi’an in Shaanxi province, through Ningxia, Gansu and Xinjiang, and eventually into Central Asia. The Northwest also offers chances to enjoy the last great remaining wildernesses of China – the grasslands, mountains, lakes and deserts of the interior – far from the teeming population centres of the east. Gansu, the historical periphery of ancient China, is a rugged terrain of high peaks and desert spliced from east to west by the Hexi Corridor, historically the only road from China to the West, and still marked along its length by the Great Wall – terminating magnificently at the fortress of Jiayuguan – and a string of Silk Road towns culminating in Dunhuang, with its fabulous Buddhist cave art.
The Kunlun Mountains rise to the south of the Hexi Corridor and continue beyond to the high-altitude plateau stretching all the way to India. The ancient borderland between Tibet and China proper is Qinghai, perhaps the least-explored province in the whole of the Northwest, which has monasteries, mountains, the colossal lake of Qinghai Hu and, above all, a route to Tibet across one of the highest mountain ranges – and the highest train line – in the world. Originating in this province, too, are the Yellow and Yangzi rivers, the main transport arteries of China throughout recorded history.
Guarding the westernmost passes of the empire is Xinjiang, where China ends and another world – once known in the West as Chinese Turkestan – begins. Culturally and geographically, this vast, isolated region of searing deserts and snowy mountains, the most arduous and dreaded section of the Silk Road, is a part of Central Asia. Turkic Uyghurs outnumber Han Chinese, mosques stand in for temples and lamb kebabs replace steamed dumplings. Highlights of Xinjiang include the desert resort town of Turpan and, in the far west, fabled Kashgar, a city that until recently few Westerners had ever reached.
Travel can still be hard going, with enormous distances and an extremely harsh continental climate. Winter is particularly severe, with average temperatures as low as -15°C or -30°C in Qinghai and Xinjiang. Conversely, in summer, Turpan is China’s hottest city, sometimes exceeding 40°C. Despite the wild, rugged terrain and the great expanses, however, facilities for tourists have developed considerably in recent years. In nearly all towns, hotels and restaurants now cater for a range of budgets – and in general, accommodation is a good deal cheaper here than in eastern China. Where rail lines have not been built, nearly everywhere is accessible by bus, and more and more towns by plane as well. Finally there is the possibility of onward travel to or from China’s Central Asian neighbours – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan can all be reached by road or rail from the provinces covered in this section.Read More
The Silk Road
The Silk Road
The passes of Khunjerab and Torugut, linking China with western Asia – and, ultimately, with the whole of the Western world – have only in recent years reopened to a gradually increasing flow of cross-border traffic, mostly small-time traders. Yet a thousand years ago these were on crucial, well-trodden and incredibly long trade routes between eastern China and the Mediterranean. Starting from Chang’an (Xi’an), the Silk Road curved northwest through Gansu to the Yumen Pass, where it split. Leaving the protection of the Great Wall, travellers could follow one of two routes across the deserts of Lop Nor and Taklamakan, braving attacks from marauding bandits, to Kashgar. The southern route ran through Dunhuang, Lop Nor, Miran, Niya, Khotan and Yarkand; the northern route through Hami, Turpan, Kuqa and Aqsu. High in the Pamirs beyond Kashgar, the merchants traded their goods with the middlemen who carried them past the frontiers of China, either south to Kashmir, Bactria, Afghanistan and India, or north to Ferghana, Tashkent and Samarkand. Then, laden with Western goods, the Chinese merchants would turn back down the mountains for the 3000km journey home. Oases along the route inevitably prospered as staging posts and watering holes, becoming important and wealthy cities in their own right, with their own garrisons to protect the caravans. When Chinese domination periodically declined, many of these cities turned into self-sufficient city-states, or khanates. Today, many of these once powerful cities lie buried in the sands.
The foundations for this famous road to the West, which was to become one of the most important arteries of trade and culture in world history, were laid over two millennia ago. In the second century BC, nothing was known in China of the existence of people and lands beyond its borders, except by rumour. In 139 BC, the imperial court at Chang’an decided to despatch an emissary, a man called Zhang Qiang, to investigate the world to the west and to seek possible allies in the constant struggle against nomadic marauders from the north. Zhang set out with a party of a hundred men; thirteen years later he returned, with only two other members of his original expedition – and no alliances. But the news he brought nevertheless set Emperor Wu Di and his court aflame, including tales of Central Asia, Persia and even the Mediterranean world. Further expeditions were soon despatched, initially to purchase horses for military purposes, and from these beginnings trade soon developed.
By 100 BC a dozen immense caravans a year were heading into the desert. From the West came cucumbers, figs, chives, sesame, walnuts, grapes (and wine-making), wool, linen and ivory; from China, jade, porcelain, oranges, peaches, roses, chrysanthemums, cast iron, gunpowder, the crossbow, paper and printing, and silk. The silkworm had already been domesticated in China for hundreds of years, but in the West the means by which silk was manufactured remained a total mystery – people believed it was combed from the leaves of trees. The Chinese took great pains to protect their monopoly, punishing any attempt to export silkworms with death. It was only many centuries later that sericulture finally began to spread west, when silkworm larvae were smuggled out of China in hollow walking sticks by Nestorian monks. The first time the Romans saw silk, snaking in the wind as the banners of their Parthian enemies, it filled them with terror and resulted in a humiliating rout. They determined to acquire it for themselves, and soon Roman society became obsessed with the fabric – by the first century AD it was coming west in such large quantities that the corresponding outflow of gold had begun to threaten the stability of the Roman economy.
As well as goods, the Silk Road carried new ideas in art and religion. Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism trickled east across the mountains, but by far the most influential force was Buddhism. The first Buddhist missionaries appeared during the first century AD, crossing the High Pamirs from India, and their creed gained rapid acceptance among the nomads and oasis dwellers of what is now western China. By the fourth century, Buddhism had become the official religion of much of northern China, and by the eighth it was accepted throughout the empire. All along the road, monasteries, chapels, stupas and grottoes proliferated, often sponsored by wealthy traders. The remains of this early flowering of Buddhist art along the road are among the great attractions of the Northwest for modern-day travellers. Naturally, history has taken its toll – zealous Muslims, Western archeologists, Red Guards and the forces of nature have all played a destructive part – but some sites have survived intact, above all the cave art at Mogao outside Dunhuang.
The Silk Road continued to flourish for centuries, reaching its zenith under the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD) and bringing immense wealth to the Chinese nobility and merchants. But it remained a slow, dangerous and expensive route. Predatory tribes to the north and south harried the caravans despite garrisons and military escorts. Occasionally entire regions broke free of Chinese control, requiring years to be “re-pacified”. The route was physically arduous, too, taking at least five months from Chang’an to Kashgar, and whole caravans could be lost in the deserts or in the high mountain passes.
There was a brief final flowering of trade in the thirteenth century, to which Marco Polo famously bore witness, when the whole Silk Road came temporarily under Mongol rule. But with the arrival of sericulture in Europe and the opening of sea routes between China and the West, the Silk Road had had its day. The road and its cities were slowly abandoned to the wind and the blowing sands.