CHINA - Xian, Dunhuang, Urumqi, Kashgar. KYRGYZSTAN - Bishkek. UZBEKISTAN - Samarkand, Bukhara. TURKMENISTAN - Ashgabad. IRAN - Mashad, Isfahan. TURKEY- Istanbul. ITALY - Rome.
Crowns of honeysuckle and Hathor's horns, or maybe Islam's crescent moon, apsaras or flying celestials, and Buddha with crossed feet - a style that originated in Bamiyan in Afghanistan - or Buddha in graceful draped and flowing robes, a fashion directly borrowed from Ancient Greece. A stele with Arabic script in the Mosque of Xian, which itself looks like a Chinese temple complete with phoenix birds and dragons, balbals or funerary stones, near Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, found across the vastness of Asia's steppes from China's Xinjiang province - formerly Chinese Turkestan - to Lake Van in eastern Turkey, the extent of nomadic cultures that used their superior horsemanship to create vast and powerful empires that endured from Genghis Khan until the Moguls.
The phoenix appears again in Bukhara, painted ceramic on the spandrel of the facade of Divanbegi's madrasa next to the peaceful, mulberry tree-fringed pool of Labi Hauz - for centuries Bukhara fell within Persia's purlieu and the pragmatic people of the plateau never did get quite so exercised about iconography even in religious buildings, although it is true that the madrasa was built as a caravanserai - that it is a madrasa is another tale.
Balbal with martini glass.....the first mixologist
Buddhism reached China from the west, from India and Central Asia, Nestorian Christianity went west to Iran and China because of suppression by the Byzantine Church, and Islam went west - not always by the sword, as is so often proclaimed, but largely by wandering sufis who were not always welcome at the courts of the caliphs for their unorthodox views. (Although a Muslim army did roundly defeat the Tang Emperor in 751AD, at the Battle of Talas in modern-day Kyrgystan, taking back Chinese craftsmen who made paper and gunpowder, to Baghdad where the craft spread to Europe.) Slaves and prisoners of defeated peoples were forced both eastwards and westwards and thus did knowledge spread. Manicheism - the state religion of the Uighur kingdom in the 8th century - died out in the 20th century from its beginnings in Iran in the 3rd century AD. Zoroastrianism flourished throughout Central Asia but disappeared except, ironically, in Iran where there is still a minority population with their own seat in parliament. Elements and symbols of all the religions have become intertwined in myth and legend handed down in remembered and forgotten facts, half-truths and memory. There is nothing like traveling the Silk Road to see the fluctuating confluence and overlap between East and West in art, architecture, culture, society and religion.
The beginnings of the Silk Road - a term not coined until the late 19th century by Baron Richthofen, a German nobleman - were due not to trade but to politics, and in a way, it all began with the building of the Great Wall of China by the Qin Emperor Shi Huangdi in 214BC. China was a pastoral society that was constantly threatened by nomadic tribal raiders, excellent horsemen and archers who stormed in, plundered everything they could carry and rode off, and the only way China could defend itself was to build a wall to keep them out.
Although it was marginally effective, China lost so much in the way of men, horses and goods, that less than a century later Han Emperor Wudi realized that China needed more than a wall, it required political alliances to counter the nomads which the Chinese called Xiongdu, generally, if loosely, known as the Huns.
The Xiongdu who infiltrated China's western and northern borders, over time became powerful enough to push out another tribe, the Yuezhi, who became known as the Kushans, who eventually settled westwards in Bactria, or modern Afghanistan. In 138BC, thinking that the Yuezhi might be interested in forming an alliance with China against the Xiongdu, Wudi sent an emissary, Zhong Chan, to meet with them. Dutifully setting out from Xi'an with 99 men, Zhong Chan returned thirteen years later with only one other man and no political alliance, because the Yuezhi pragmatically said China was too far away to be of any use regarding their security since they were separated by the Xiongdu. Yet the efforts of Zhong Chan in opening up the outside world to China was the beginning of the Silk Road, because as he passed through the Ferghana Valley in today's south-eastern Uzbekistan, Zhong Chan discovered exceptional horses, and alfalfa which was excellent feed for them. China desperately wanted these horses to enable their horsemen to ride after the nomads whose horses were of superior quality to Chinese ponies, and to get them China bartered its silk.
Modern camel caravan; a Bactrian camel at the Singing Sands
Xian is a city of more than 10 million people. What I most like about it? The Ming walls, its traditional bell and drum towers, the Big Goose Pagoda, its excellent museum, its jewel of a mosque, and its dumplings for which it is justly famous. Apples and pomegranate orchards line the road to the Terracotta Warriors under a bleary grey sky. How China will tackle its smog may define it because pollution levels in cities are routinely 20 times higher than the accepted WHO level. Their second problem? I am convinced that every Chinese person has a smartphone, and a billion plus people using the internet at once has a dire effect as I discovered trying to open email; you might as well watch paint dry. My phone didn't work. It is all very well for techno-geeks and nerdy billionaires to tell us how connected we are as they roll out the next 'big thing', but we're not, not unless you travel with your own IT specialist - which, come to think of it, is an excellent idea, or are a bit nerdy yourself and with two clicks or screen taps can make it all work.
Dunhuang It is the harvest festival and moon cakes are the order of the day. I like the look of the magenta bean curd one which tastes OK but I confess it will not make me renounce chocolate torte. Still, we have fireworks and dancing girls and a full moon and the desert - twinkling stars in a velvet sky and sharp night air. I wonder how much camels sell for? They have feet the size of chargers and manes you could spin a kilim from and I never understand why people are not as enamored of these strangely lovable beasts as I. You could never just buy one however because who would it follow?
A puce-colored mooncake
Urumqi We come to see the mummies - tall, red-haired dessicated figures from the 3rd centry BC dug up from the desert of Taklamakan. A re-constructed figure, the 'Loulan Beauty', is striking - even now she would be considered beautiful; tall and slender with green eyes. Where did these Indo-European people come from? Xinjiang province or more accurately, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, is surrounded by Mongolia to the north-east, Russia to the north, Kazakhstan to the north-west, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the west, India and Tibet to the south, and the rest of China to the east. The Tien Shan mountains cuts the province in two from west to east, creating the Tarim basin to the south and the Dzungaria Basin to the north where the Altai mountain range forms the border with Russia and Mongolia, the Kunlun range separates it from India and Tibet, the Karakorum mountains separates it from Pakistan and the Hindu Kush separates it from Afghanistan - it is an armchair traveler's dream. Urumqi itself, a modern city of high-rises and 8 million people, has little to commend it although it has the distinction of being the most land-locked city on earth.
Urumqi from my hotel room window
Kasghar was once a desert oasis which becomes ever harder to discern because it is a 'special development area' and growth churns on unabated. The city still has a statue of Mao, the largest mosque in China, the Id Kah, and a vast open-air livestock market where yaks, camels, cattle, bulls, goats and fat-tailed sheep (or as Abdul-Qayyum indelicately named them, 'fat-arsed cheep') are bought and sold to await their fate. Rickety food stalls at the edge of this entreprenurial extravaganza are festooned with tripe, glassy-eyed sheep's heads, ropes of intestines, flanks of beef, loins of lamb and mountains of yellow fat from the pendulous, wobbling buttocks of the afore-mentioned sheep. Next to them are beaded donkey harnesses, woven leather donkey whips, and camel bells shaped like scrotums. Sage grey-beards in long coats and dopa, their traditional little hats, wander around hands behind their back gravely inspecting proceedings.
The day we left Kashgar a sandstorm hit which followed us all the way to Kyrgyzstan across the Turugart Pass. But the day after that the skies were blue; the whole population of Kyrgyzstan is less than half the population of Urumqi, and the Kyrgyz joke that the Chinese will take them over one day just to breathe clean air.......It's not that funny, the former Soviet Union used to send its party appartachiks to take the warm restorative waters of Lake Issyk-kul, just outside of Bishkek.....