Along China’s Silk Road

by Michael Whitaker
Camel walking on the Dessert

I had not expected to find Marrakesh in China. Yet here we were in the far west of the country and apart from the Chinese characters on the street signs, thelook and feel of the place was as if we were in a modern Arabic country. And all because Europe and the Middle East wanted to buy Chinese silk two thousand years ago.

I was on a tour of China along the old Silk Road from Xian to Kashgar; Xian being the ancient capital of China and Kashgar the furthermost city before you go over the mountains and into the countries of the old Soviet Union – Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Ancient Soldier of China

We flew to Beijing which I had first visited in 1984 as an independent traveller, the second year that China had allowed this to happen and in those days it was not really geared up for tourism in the way it is today. It was December 1984 and Margaret Thatcher was discussing whether the British should keep Hong Kong island and Kowloon after the lease on the New Territories ran out in 1997. Fortunately for everyone, she decided to return the lot. The rest, as they say, is history.

I had been warned that Beijing had changed over the intervening 33 years, but I was not quite prepared for the extent of the change. In 1984 Beijing was a city of bicycles with the occasional vehicle, usually black and in the style of a Soviet diplomat’s car. I thought at the time that if ever the Chinese population got cars instead of bicycles, then what a change that would make – roads growing wider to accommodate the traffic, to say nothing of flyovers and motorways.

Needless to say, all this has happened, along with buildings heading skywards making Beijing a modern-day metropolis. How different from 1984 when life was very much a dawn to dusk existence. Admittedly, there was more staying up late and
going out at night the further south you went, such as in Shanghai and Canton, now Guangzhou, but in Beijing it was difficult then to find a restaurant that stayed open after 8.30pm.

Now all that has changed. Not exactly Las Vegas, but certainly a sense that people want to enjoy themselves more. For example, over the past 33 years the Chinese have gone in for lighting the buildings at night in a big way so that many monuments as well as skyscrapers will be lit up or have a light show of flashing LEDs on them. In 1984 it was purely functional street lighting. All this makes a very different atmosphere, along with the bright colours in people’s clothing,

especially for the women. Jeans and tops for both sexes make the cities like any Western-styled place across the globe. The Mao jackets have long gone.

Great Wall of China

But perhaps the most telling change and indicator of greater affluence, at least in the cities, is the fact that the Chinese are travelling in their own country. In Beijing, places like the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, Mao’s Mausoleum and the Temple of Heaven now have many Chinese visitors following their tour leader’s flag or wearing caps of a particular colour to distinguish them from the rest. I longed to see a time when two different groups with the same coloured caps would meet and then I could enjoy the ensuing chaos, but it never happened.

After Beijing we took the overnight train to Xian, famous for the discovery in 1974 of a vast tomb consisting of terracotta warriors made to keep the first Chinese emperor, Emperor Qin, safe in the afterlife. A large building, like an aircraft hangar, was built in the late 1970s to cover the statues and two more hangars have been built more recently to cover further exhibitions.

Green temple

One big change that has happened since I last saw them in 1984 was that we were now permitted to take photos, endlessly. In typical modern fashion, the Chinese tourists took selfies with the warriors in the background. I did the same. After all, when in Rome do as the Roman’s as it were! Thirty three years ago there were guards on duty to ensure no photos were taken. Now it would be impossible to stop it.

I never really understood why we were not allowed to take photos then; I can only assume it was to encourage tourists to buy postcards. Outside the hangars a burgeoning theme park is being developed with a cinema showing a very well made documentary about the terracotta warriors and an even more spectacular cinema is under construction. Already there is a flourishing market and souvenir shops. I don’t expect a terracotta funfair in the future, but you never know! And to think that all this came about in 1974 when a farmer digging down to make a new well found an ancient army instead of water.


Xian was China’s capital when the terracotta army was constructed in around 200BC. The 8000 warriors, 30 chariots and several hundred horses are replicas of the actual warriors who guarded Emperor Qin during his time on earth. It was their duty to guard him in the afterlife. Qin unified China after the Warring States period and gave his name to the country he ruled. The ensuing peace encouraged merchants to head west ending up in the Roman Empire – a route now known as the Silk Road. To be more accurate, this was the start of several Silk Routes heading west as there were different ways to get to Europe and the Middle East.

Silk for clothes

The first indication that we were going to be moving into a more Arabic influenced part of China was the Muslim Quarter in Xian. It is rather like a Chinatown area in a Western city – there is a main road that is obviously different to the surrounding culture and concentrating on restaurants and food markets. In the case of Xian’s Muslim Quarter, some of the men wore skullcaps and some women had a headscarf covering their hair, a distinctively Muslim fashion statement. It was also the start of new territory for me as in 1984 I headed south after Xian, whereas now we were heading west.

Jiayuguan, notable as the end of the Great Wall, was our next stop. There are so many statistics about the Great Wall that it is impossible to take in – how many people died trying to build it, the date it was started and then how many extensions and so on. But the most interesting fact, to my mind, is that it takes four hours to fly from Beijing (which is not even the start of the Wall) to Jiayuguan where it finishes.

Imagine how far one can go in a plane from Bangkok and then try building a wall across mountains and hostile terrain and then you can see why it is called “Great”. Needless to say there was a massive fort at the end of the Wall, which along with the Wall itself, was designed to keep out the invading armies to the north which it has succeeded in doing for the most part.

It is perfectly understandable why the Chinese phrase to describe the land beyond the end of the Great Wall translates as something like – the land from which no traveller returns. Viewed from our high-speed train that took us to the next city, the land was dead flat with just a few scrubby plants. It showed no sign of human habitation apart from vast numbers of wind turbines designed to generate electricity. One usually thinks of China as having polluting sources of energy, and certainly that was the case elsewhere, but on the evidenceof our journey between cities in this region, another greener form of energy is being developed. But not just green electricity, green transport as well.

In particular, electric motorbikes are a popular way to get around in Kashgar. These are totally silent and are driven on the pavements which are wide enough to accommodate them, although pedestrians do need to be cautious, especially as the minimum age for driving these machines is 12! Along the particular Silk Road that we were following, lie cities which must have started as staging posts for weary travellers, built around oases, evidence of which still exists today.

Now they are bustling with all the modern signs of affluence. The Chinese are developing them at a tremendous pace – shopping malls, high rise flats, grand theatres, exhibition halls, motorways etc. In fact, a new Silk Road is being built, namely a massive motorway that will reach from Beijing to Pakistan.

There is a real sense that China has the money and technology to develop their own regions in the west as well as the countries that surround it. Despite all the wealth that is being generated by the new infrastructure projects, each city retains their historical roots, popular with visitors from China and abroad. Markets abound as they must have done for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Cities then developed as somewhere that the merchants of old could stop and sometimes settle down rather than move on.


The period that the Silk Roads were in operation was from the time of the first Emperor of China, Emperor Qin, in about 200BC until the time that the Ottoman Empire put the shutters down in about 1400AD. During this time Buddhism came to China, evidence of which is in the beautiful cave paintings and massive statues of Buddha. All very necessary to give the travellers spiritual uplift for their impending journey across the desert on camel.

Nowadays, the dominant culture for spiritual uplift in this part of China is Islam. Over the centuries, mosques have replaced Buddhists temples; the people look more Arabic than Chinese; and the food and music are distinctively Middle Eastern. For the first time since we arrived in China we were sitting at rectangular tables to eat instead of round tables with a ‘lazy Susan’ in the middle to convey the dishes round to everyone. It was also the first time that we had to go through a security screening in order to get into a restaurant. Obviously one has them in airports and sometimes in hotels but here it was for restaurants as well.

We were now in the Uygar region of China in the far West. As tourists we were welcomed and respected, but you do notice a police presence on the streets that was not so obvious elsewhere. Road blocks existed outside of the cities where we had to get off the coach and present our passports and have our fingerprints taken. We went through quite smoothly but there were long queues for the indigenous population. There were also more Chinese flags than I recollect seeing in other Chinese cities.

Uygar is an autonomous region within China which sounds as if they have some control over their destinies. To some extent that is true. For example, they have their own language which is very different to Mandarin Chinese and is written in what looks like Arabic script. But it also means that the Chinese authorities can put restrictions on them, so that they have to get permission to travel to other parts of China but the Chinese can come to the Uygur region without any such bureaucratic fuss. No doubt a cause of resentment.

Family Tour

One of my abiding memories from my travels round China in 1984 was the fact that cities like Shanghai had not changed at all since 1949. It was like walking into a film set for the original King Kong movie. A similar amount of time has elapsed between then and now – such a difference. One can only imagine what China will look like in a generation’s time. One thing is certain though – unlike the first 33 years after the Communist takeover, it will have changed beyond all recognition. The future is with China.


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