In times of chemical fibers, shipping and air freight it seems incredible that a textile once was of such value that it justified the terrifying hardship to transport and trade it from China to Europe, crossing Central Asia. For me silk has always been a beautiful material and it is a metaphor of romance, grace and elegance. In ancient China only Emperors had access to it. During times of pests, healthy silk worms were still contained in Japan. This is the setting in which Alecandro Barico's novel Silk is narrated, which is the story of a French Silk worm smuggler. It is a very mystical book, which I liked a lot. There has also been a movie produced, which follows a pattern you often see when people work on this material: brilliant material and bad cut - applies in fashion as well as in directing this movie. I am frequently suprised why silk dresses actually are made so lousy. They count on the material to compensate for bad design and craftsmanship, I guess.
My own first contact with the Silk Road, was when I found Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen'sFuehrer fuer Forschungsreisende as a discounted reprint in my favorite hangout as a Geociences student in Cologne: the Goertz Map Shop. Ferdinand von Richthofen is not to be mistaken with Manfred von Richthofen, commonly known as The Red Baron. It was Ferdinand von Richthofen who first coined the name "Silk Road" for a system of trading paths which never were, nor are, one road.
The trigger to make a journey along the Chinese parts of the Silk Road came from Judy Bonavia's book The Silk Road from Xi'An to Kashgar which is published by my friend and former neighbor on Lamma Island Magnus Bartlett and is a brilliant historical and cultural guide. A very interesting account of the early explorers which found and took many mural paintings and treasures from Central Asia back to Europe, is Peter Hopkirk's Foreign Devils on the Silk Road. It is one of the constant allegations by Chinese that there were not explorers but robbers, and I have sympathy for that argument. On the other hand they are sometimes defended, saying that they actually secured the works from grave robbers and rescued them from the communists, who destroyed many art works and temples in the Cultural Revolution. The latter argument does not hold for the German collections though, as they have been to 40 % destroyed in the allied bombardment of Berlin at the end of World War II. The British Museum is more lucky, but keeps the collects at very low profile not to provoke anybody. Anyways, world cultural heritage is as the name says "world cultural heritage" and it does not really matter who is taking care of it, as long as everybody has access.
The better starting point for a journey along the Silk Road tough turned out to be not Xi'an but Loyang. This is a city south of Xi'An which states its claim to be included into the Silk Road and which was one of the four ancient capitals of China and the place where the legendary Journey to the West took its start. The famous Longmen Grottos are UNESCO world heritage site.
Xi'An is one of of the places of which people say you should go there once in a life time. I agree, in the sense of: if you happen to go there once, you will definitely not go there a second time. Xi'an holds one of the best known historical treasures of China: the Terracotta Soldiers. They are really very impressive individual art works and not mass production. However, not just that I have seen too many cheap replicas of them as garden decoration and flower pots all over the world - but I am also tired of these kind of tourists which fall in thousands into the site. Xi'An is a place where tour busses dump they human cargo. It is wise to start a Silk Road Journey not in Xi'An, but in Loyang. Otherwise your will change your mind, and strait away book a ticket to Thailand instead, because you already had enough.
The journey further West through the Hexi Corridor brings you to Jia Yu Guan, which are the remains of the most Western large Chinese fort and also has the last remains of the Western part of the Great Wall. It is here not a unified structure any more, but only blocks the valleys from potential ancient enemy penetration. Jia Yu Guan was also the place wehere many goods changed their ownership from Chinese hands into Central Asian tradesmen. The fort it really impressive, but unfortunately surrounded by a heavy industrial environment. The mountains in the background inspire the imagination, but the reality on the ground is that of a historical marvel in a complete trash environment. Also Jia Yu Guan is still in the reach of tour busses and their load, and a useless management of the site ruins the rest. This experience will stay when traveling further West through the Gobi desert, where all kinds of industries received cheap land to do anything (which they do) with no or only few laws implemented.
When you arrive Dunghuang, you see a marvellous landscape of large sand dunes, which is entirely spoiled by tourist development. The Dunghuang Grottos are wonderful though and it is a very well managed site. You can only join guided tours, and as a positive surprise the guides are really knowledgeable and of course necessary to stop our neocommunist comrades to pi on the mural paintings or scratch them off as a souvenir. As Tulufan (Turpan) is also still in the range of organized tourism, it is just a stop over. But as soon as you leave from here further to the West, things slowly become interesting until you finally arrive in Kashgar. Even the Han Chinese behave better, as if they would bully people here, I guess three brothers will take care of them. Seeing the livestock market on a Sunday in Kashgar is really a must.
Even more interesting becomes the journey further West to Tashkogan and along the Pakistan border. The Tashiks are, like the Uyigurs, very nice and friendly people. The landscape is one of the most beautiful I have seen in China too. From Tashkogan you can drive to Hetain in two days and from there cross the world's second largest desert, the Taklamakan. The Western, and new, desert highway is going along some river beds and here the desert is not that arid. I enjoyed learning about the trees changing their shape when they have more water available and the geomorphological spots which allow them to survive under such hard conditions.
On the way to Urumchi, do not miss to drive through a part of Northern Xingjian. Here are again, where scenic spots, and wonderful grassland, populated by utmost friendly Kasak nomads.
It is really not easy for me to draw a conclusion on this Silk Road Journey. There are places which become even more mystical when you see them and your interest grows. These are actually most places I visited. The Silk Road is not one of these. Seeing the places along the Silk Road, de-mystifies the whole concept very solemnly. Yes, there are beautiful landscapes and wonderful people with minority cultures which are very appealing and interesting. But up to Dunghuang and Turpan, they are just covered by a landscape of industrial trash. It is really hard to ignore that the "factory of the world" is turning them into the world's trash can. And further there are cities like Kuche and Aksu, which are purely functional places, some of them set up by former army units. These cities easily compete at the low end of urban appeal and cultural heritage. Last but not least, I would recommend to avoid even some of the most famous sites, and sites which are convenient to reach.
Once again, what is right for the Terracotta Soldiers, might be right for the whole Chinese section of the Silk Road (North and South): you might want to see it once in a lifetime, but in the sense of that you will not go there a second time. However, I am personally curious how the further Central Asian section up to Turkey looks like. So, my personal Silk Road exploration is not over yet.