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This article appears in Volume 23: The Adventure Issue.
I 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 period.
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 quite belong.
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.
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