Silk Road - Xi'an to Kashgar

Following the Old Silk Road - Xian to Kashgar

We left Xian nearly three weeks ago following the old trading route to Kashgar, all the way along the last stretches of Great Wall and finally skirting the edges of the Taklamakan desert, one of the most inhospitable places on earth.

What we've just travelled in 14 days, I cannot imagine travelling on foot or by camel at a rate of only 10-20km a day, as the old Caravans would have. This area was a gold mine for the archaeologists of the 19th century who would make their name discovering and transporting ancient treasures back to Europe and Russia. Vast deserts of huge sand dunes (some of them even sing), red sandstone, and moon-like grey mountains with steep valleys carved into them...travelling the early stages of the old silk road, though transformed by a pretty smooth expressway, you can still feel the remote, wilderness all around you.

Only a few days out of Xian we had time for a day exploring the grasslands of Sangke, near the Tibetan town of Xiahe. Though in mainland China, Xiahe's largest population are Tibetans, followed by Han Chinese and then Muslim Chinese. Many speak only Tibetan, relying on their Yaks for meat & milk, and their horses to get around (as well as their 'motorhorses' of course) This Green hills stretching out as far as the eye can see, yaks grazing, marmots sunbathing and Tibetan women on horses moving their yak to their summer pastures.


After taking a breathtaking stroll up the hill (we are at over 3700m and the air is thin) we sit in the sunshine and listen to our guide tell us about everything from being born in a nomadic tent, to marrying a girl from the tent next door (which can be 10km away), to having a sky burial - which Tibetans believe is the best way to leave this world - offering your body to the Vultures.  We visited a nomadic family where the lady of the tent (very much the boss) offered us Yak milk tea and Yak Momos (small steamed dumplings). Their Tibetan Mastiff sat quietly outside the tent, keeping an eye on the herd of Yak's (and half and eye on us). Families out here keep these big dogs to protect their yaks and sheep from wolves.  Not long later a small truck arrived with a load of small Yaks and a couple of horses, which the family have purchased;  the Yaks to raise and sell when they are larger - they can bring in 7000CNY for a large one, (around 1100usd), and the horses to race, a winning horse can bring in a car in prize money!


After leaving the green highlands of our little Tibet behind we set off for three nights of wild camping across the Gansu province.  Our first night being a particular highlight, where we met up with Katie, Tom and their group travelling from Istanbul.  Camping on either side of an un-restored and broken down section of great wall, we had a chance to share stories by the fire and enjoy a rum or two.  The following days took us through some stunning mountain scenery, stopping off at the Rainbow Danxia Mountains and the Jiayuguan Fort on the way, but after 3 days we were very ready for a cool shower and a soft mattress (though this is China, so a hard mattress will have to do!), so the Oasis town of Dunhuang was a welcoming sight.  Finishing off the day with a nice glass of red wine, overlooking the mighty sand dunes on a great roof top bar.  Just 5km out into the desert is Mingashan (echoing sands) a sand dune which can be heard whispering and sometimes roaring, as the wind blows the sand around. According to legend, during a great battle an army was buried under the sands, where they continued to fight beneath the sand. The sound you hear is said to be the roar of the soldiers.

The part of this trip I was least looking forward to was heading into the Turpan Basin, 150m below sea level and the hottest place on earth. Fortunately we have decent AC & a cafe that does a good coffee. But the real highlight of this place is visiting the great, ancient ruined garrison town of Jiohe and a Karez, which is an incredible Central Asian underground aqueduct, for bringing mountain water thousands of km down into the basin to create a fertile land, even fit for growing wine (marginally questionable, but you have to try it!).

Upon leaving the Turpan basin, I'm pretty happy that we've survived the heat, the mercury pushing 46'C.  Its then onwards for Kashgar, these days are all about the drives and the views.  It's spectacular, we have to take it steady because its hot and hilly, we pass through flame red sandstone mountains, which give way to sandy yellow dunes, mixed with dark grey rocks and steep valleys.  It's all desert, and I'd hate to imagine being out here with only my camel and nothing but days of trekking ahead, but covering 400-500km a day in Xara gives us a chance to appreciate the edge of the Taklamakan desert at its best.  Along the way we make a stop at the old Silk Road town of Kucha and visit some of the earliest Buddhist Cave paintings, dating from 3rd Century.  We've all be reading about the adventures of the silk road archaeologists and their race to discover and 'collect' manuscripts & paintings from desert buried sites around the Taklamakan.  Visiting these caves, you can actually see the etching where paintings and carvings were carefully removed (you can now visit these in the British & Berlin Museums) From what remains you can see amazing well preserved blue paintings, with influences from as far away as Greece - very cool! Our final drive into Kashgar gives us a chance to visit the Sunday Animal Market and Mosques.

After weeks of travel in China, I'm really sad to be saying goodbye to Jason our guide, who has really gone the extra mile to look after us.  But I am very excited to be crossing the Torugart Pass into Kyrgyzstan to enjoy a couple of weeks of camping in the wilds, hiking and horse riding and some cooler conditions!