stand amid a jagged series of crags and peaks, enveloped in a
reddish haze that tinges both the rocks and the sky an unusual
shade of Mars. I might indeed be tricked into believing I’m on
another planet altogether, were it not for the strip of dusky-pink
road that snakes through the centre of the valley like a tongue and
reminds me that others have traced their way into the depths of
this mirage-like place before me.
The legendary Venetian merchant, explorer and writer Marco Polo
was one of the first Europeans to set sail for these lands many
centuries ago, journeying far from his homeland and into Yuan
Dynasty-era China in 1271. His chronicles of 24 years of travels
along the old Silk Road – a route connecting the ancient Chinese
capital of Chang’an with the trading hubs of Persia, Arabia and
Rome – introduced generations of Westerners to this mysterious and
alien kingdom. “I did not write half of what I saw, for I knew it
would not be believed,” he scrawled in his memoirs of the
I arrive in Gansu Province to retrace a small part of Polo’s
epic route, voyaging from the city of Lanzhou to the Buddhist
grottoes of Dunhuang. The old Silk Road was a conduit not only for
the fevered exchange of precious stones, spices and materials, but
also of ideas, religions and technologies. The result is a place
where even today the five main religions co-exist peacefully and
ancient wisdom underpins a current of entrepreneurial energy.
As tensions between the neighbouring states of Taiwan, Japan and
the Philippines escalate the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, has
embarked on an ambitious project to build a new trade route to the
West. Trucks replace the caravans of the past on superhighways
stretching for thousands of kilometres from western China to
Kazakhstan, Russia and all the way to Europe – they call it “the
new Silk Road”. On my way into Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu
Province, I pass construction sites, oversized yet empty
neighbourhoods and life-size, theme park-esque reproductions of the
Pantheon, the Taj Mahal and the Sphinx, all evidence of Jinping’s
attempt to make the region bloom.
During his time here, Polo met Kublai Khan, the founder of the
Yuan Dynasty who was immortalised in verse by Coleridge. Whispered
lines from the poem seep into my own travels: I drift through wide
rivers and scenic rock formations, encounter secretive oasis
cities, listen to sand dunes sing and lose myself in rainbow-ridged
mountains. Sometimes it seems like I’m being catapulted back in
time – at others, forwards into a future full of candy-coloured
tower blocks and unfamiliar neon characters where I also don’t
Yet even as I feel myself an outsider, a stranger in a strange
land, the generosity and kindly curiosity of those I meet deflates
any expectations I might have had of China as an intimidating
superpower. I need only get my phone out in a restaurant to
translate the menu to find myself surrounded by the kitchen crew,
who help me choose and watch closely as I demonstrate my best
chopstick skills. It’s a reminder that despite our differences, one
way or another we’re all travelling on the same road.
In a world that at first seems familiar, looking for a
supermarket makes me feel instantly illiterate. Shrieking Chinese
letters dance around my head – the language is so hard-edged that
it sometimes seems that the people are going to kill each other,
yet the Chinese here are incredibly gentle. At night and after
eating the best beef noodles in the world, I notice that the city
has undergone a metamorphosis. There is even more light than during
the day – the buildings are packed with neon. That this was once a
stopping place for camels and caravans is hard to believe.
The next day I board a small boat to the Yellow River and the
Bingling Temple Grottoes. Meandering along the Liujiaxia Reservoir,
the silence lulls me into a kind of meditation – I hear nothing
besides the water lapping against the belly of the boat. Bingling
means “ten thousand buddhas” and this series of grottoes is full of
statuettes, each a temple in miniature. Walking along the paths
next to trees half-submerged in water, I worry that if I’m not
careful I might spontaneously reach nirvana.
Marco Polo stayed in Zhangye, situated in the footsteps of the
former Silk Road, for a year and it is perhaps my favourite stop.
In addition to being home to one of the largest indoor Buddhas in
the world at the Giant Buddha Temple, Zhangye is best known for its
kaleidoscopic mountains, otherwise known as the Zhangye Danxia
Landform. This otherworldly spectacle’s unusual shapes and colours
were only discovered 16 years ago by a scientist with a passion for
photography. An hour’s drive away lies the Pingshanhu Danxia
Landform, where I squeeze through narrow passages and up steel
staircases as I navigate its various twists and turns.
The Jiayu Pass is located southwest of the city of Jiayuguan and
was a key waypoint on the ancient Silk Road. Its impressive, sandy
walls stand as an imperious gateway to the West through which
envoys, exiles, traders and soldiers have all been forced to pass –
consequently its archways are variously known as the Gate of
Demons, Traveller’s Gate and Gate of Sighs. After a steep climb of
400 steps I’m rewarded by the strikingly arid landscape of the Gobi
Desert, stretching out as far as I can see.
After passing the narrow Jiayu Pass with the barren Black
Mountains to my right and the snow-capped Qilian Mountains to my
left, I enter Dunhuang. The pace of life is markedly slower than in
the other huge cities here, with men and women playing Chinese
chess on the street while audiences help them plot their next move.
The Crescent Moon Lake, situated on the border between the
inhospitable Taklamakan Desert and the Badain Jaran Desert, is a
2,000-year-old oasis whose Mingsha Sand Dunes were nicknamed “the
rumbling sands” by Polo for the sound they make when the wind
blows. They sing their song to the rhythm of my steep sunrise climb
and when I reach their ridge, I’m greeted by an intriguing mixture
of warm and cold colours.
China destination specialist WildChina offers a number of both group and
private Silk Road tours in Gansu Province and beyond.