Cities of the Silk Roads: China

Where goods don’t cross borders, armies will.

— A theme of the trip, sometimes attributed to 19th century French economist Frédéric Bastiat, actually Otto Mallery, an American writing in the mid 20th century. Considerations:

A) Even if they need management, tourists are goods as well, complex important goods bringing their money, ideas and interaction with them. Familiarity reduces the likelihood of arbitrary judgment.

B) No one has told Donald Trump. Actually, they have but …


[Fragment of wall image of ambassadors (VII Cent.) in the State Museum of History of Uzbekistan]

The halfway point between east and west, running broadly from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea to the Himalayas, might seem an unpromising position from which to assess the world. This is a region which is now home to states that evoke the exotic and the peripheral, like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and the countries of the Caucasus; it is a region associated with regimes that are unstable, violent and threat to international security like Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria, or ill-versed in the best practices of democracy like Russia and Azerbaijan …

While such countries may seem wild to us, these are no backwaters, no obscure wastelands. In fact the bridge between east and west is the very crossroads of civilisation. Far from being on the fringe of global affairs, these countries lie at its very centre — as they have done since the beginning of history. It was here that Civilisation was born … It was in this bridge that great metropolises were created that were the wonders of the ancient and more recent world, full of sophisticated architecture, engineering, and people.

This region is where the world’s great religions burst into life. It is the cauldron where language groups emerged: Indo-European, Semitic and Sino-Tibetan languages jostling with Altaic, Turkic and Caucasian. This is where great empires rose and fell, and where the after effects of these events were felt thousands of miles away.

These tremors were carried along a network that fans out in many directions, routes along which pilgrims, warriors, nomads and merchants have travelled, goods and produce have been sold and ideas exchanged, adapted and refined.

In the late 19th century, Ferdinand von Richthofen, uncle of the ‘Red’ Baron, coined the term Seidenstraßen for these routes, ‘Silk Roads’, a name that has stuck ever since.


We read Peter Frankopan’s ‘new history of the world’, The Silk Roads — from where the excerpt above comes — and thought we should see for ourselves.

We landed in Xi ‘An, once the eastern terminus of the Silk Roads, went on to Urumqi where we got more than we bargained for, and then joined an Intrepid Tour in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, which took us eventually as far west as Bukhara in Uzbekistan. Antioch, Damascus and Istanbul were the major trade hubs for the Roads in the west, but Jerusalem — trading in more complex goods — has never been unimportant. From Uzbekistan we went to Jerusalem.

History. Is all this relevant today?


And just while we’re there: ‘stan’ is an ancient Persian word for ‘place of’, or ‘home of’. So, Kyrgyzstan = place of the Kyrgyz. Etc.

* * * * * *

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There are people who have been to Xi ‘An (‘she-arn’) who have not seen the Terracotta* Warriors, who have not bicycled around the walls of the Old City, who have not climbed up the Bell Tower, nor visited Wild Goose Pagoda, Big or Small. (*I originally wrote ‘Porcelain’. If they had been porcelain I think we would have gone to see them.)

That would be us.

We lay around a bit before venturing off to buy some toothpaste. ‘Down the street’ was a bit further than I had banked on. How many people in Xi ‘An? A big city I know, so perhaps three million? 14 million as it turned out, and growing rapidly. I was a bit short of blood sugar and might have been a bit tired as well, but I suddenly felt the not inconsiderable weight of a big Chinese city and needed to sit down.

We’d been walking past block after block of telecommunications shops, masses of them and not single huge shops but repetitious huge shops: Vivo, Oppo, Huawei, Samsung, Chinese Mobil, Mobitel, Apple, Alcatel, Ericsson, Siemens — not one of each, but six, eight, twelve. QR_code_for_mobile_English_Wikipedia.svg.png

Xi ‘An is the focal point of China’s space program and the city was full of signs of China’s muscular modernity: a hotel concierge providing an Uber (electric) in three minutes instead of a taxi during a rainy peak hour, street stalls with their QR payment codes (like at left) dangling on bits of string. It makes sense when you’re there.

But then just round the corner … swarming …

IMG_0409.jpgThis was why we had come. The Muslim Street. However duded up for tourists — almost exclusively Chinese here tonight — it is one vital element, nominal proof at least, of the history of Middle Eastern contact and influence in China.

IMG_0415.jpgThey’re making and cooking shish kebabs with baby octopi on the next burner — but their hats say ‘not Chinese’. ‘From somewhere else.’ ‘Muslim’. IMG_0418.jpg

IMG_0421.jpgFurther along the street we found women winding spun sugar into Turkish fairy floss, the drinking yoghurt you would get in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbeki bread, endless versions of halva that you could just as easily find in Palestine, a dozen or more bao stalls, boiled lamb chopped into the middle of hard bread and covered with a ladle of spicy broth (which promptly restored me).

And the clincher:IMG_0426.jpgWhat sort of ‘Special Snack’? A halal special snack.

We ate some amazing concoction from this cafe and I went home feeling profoundly satisfied.IMG_0501.jpg

* * * * * *

Xi ‘An, one of the ‘Four Ancient Capitals’ of China, was once called Chang ‘An (‘Eternal Peace’) and was capital for the Western Zhou, Qin, Western Han, Sui, and Tang dynasties. Its chief museum, the Shaanxi History Museum reflects this historical standing. The museum’s name suggests ‘provincial’. It was anything but. It was at least as good if not better than its counterparts in Beijing and Shanghai.

It is popular to the extent that it can be a challenge to get in. You line up before 9am and are given a free ticket which cuts out at 3000, leaving far more than half the queue ticket-less under their umbrellas in the pouring rain. China. Unless of course you look a bit foreign in which case you get herded into the magic Line 4. We seemed to be the only foreigners and from arrival to inside the door poking round took 11 minutes. Which doesn’t mean you’re on your own. There is plenty of company.

IMG_0454.jpgThis remarkable wine vessel is from the Western Zhou Dynasty period, about 800BC. The headless pottery eagle is from the same period. IMG_0443.jpg

Dugu Xin’s 26-faceted set of seals is about 1500 years old.IMG_0477.jpg

We didn’t see the Terracotta Warriors but we did see their domestic and commercial counterparts, smaller, beautifully made, each unique.IMG_0487.jpgIMG_0484.jpgAnd here we have an orchestra transported on the back of a camel. The Silk Roads were introducing themselves.

You think of Marco Polo as opening the way from Europe to wherever it was he ended up: Xanadu? (Did in fact Kubla(i) Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree?) A version of China anyway. His father and uncle definitely met Kublai Khan (in Bukhara, now in Uzbekistan, one of our destinations). After a most fraternal exchange the Khan tasked the brothers with delivering a letter to the Pope, and returning to his kingdom with 100 Christians acquainted with the Seven Arts (grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy). Marco’s movements are less certain. He claims to have become an advisor to Kublai Khan. He gets some things wrong, but others are uniquely and verifiably correct. We can only conclude that he did get to eastern China.

His Travels or Book of the Marvels of the World was published about 1300AD. However, there had been a lot of traffic over that route before then.

220px-Statue_of_Zhang_Qian.jpgThe museum introduced me to Zhang Qian, a Chinese official and diplomat who served as an imperial envoy to the world outside of China during the Han dynasty. (At left, as rendered in the Shaanxi Museum.) The information in the museum suggests he spent 14 years trying to find ways across the various mountain ranges to the west of China: the Tian Shan (contemporary Kyrgyzstan), the Pamir (Tajikistan) and the Karakorum (Pakistan), each of which has peaks above 7000m. And, in addition, to find his way past the local inhabitants of the region east of Xi’an including the Xiongnu, a coalition of nomadic peoples which included the Hun famous for their ferocity, who had long history of hostility to the Han.

(A footnote: And yes, these are the ‘Hun’ that the British chose to call their German adversaries in WWII. Its source? Speaking in 1900 to German soldiers waiting to sail to China to help lift the siege of Peking in the Boxer Rebellion, Kaiser Wilhelm told his troops to fight ‘like the Huns under their King Attila a thousand years ago’ so that ‘the name of Germany shall become known in China to such affect that no Chinaman will ever again dare so much as to look askance at a German.’)

It seems likely that Zhang Qian was held captive by the Xiongnu for about ten years during which time he married a Xiongnu woman with whom he had child. Remarkably he continued on with his journey getting as far as Bactria (today Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan-ish) where he spent more than a year in the eastern end of the Fergana Valley, one of the most fertile places on earth, and Sogdiana (eastern Kyrgyzstan and Kazahkstan). He was captured again on his way back to China, but eventually got home where he and the products of his journey were feted. (‘The Emperor will know of the Dayuan, Daxia, Anxi, and the others, all great states rich in unusual products whose people cultivate the land and make their living in much the same way as the Chinese. All these states are militarily weak and prize Han goods and wealth.’ A diplomat’s report.) This was in 128 BC, about 1400 years prior to Marco’s travels.

Some evidence suggests that the Romans had diplomats/merchants in Xinjiang (the westernmost province of China) about 150 AD. They were no longer there when we arrived.

* * * * * *

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Xinjiang is the largest province in China as well as furthest west. Urumqi (sort of ‘yi-rim-chee’) with 3.5 million people, the largest city in Central Asia, is its capital.

In its museum this artwork can be found.IMG_0533.jpgIt is an artist’s reconstruction of the head of this mummified body from Lop-Nor, some distance south of Urumqi but still in Xinjiang.IMG_0532.jpgShe is known as ‘The Loulan Beauty’ and is important for several reasons. One is that her body dates from around 5000 BC and that the cloth she was buried in still exists 7000 years later. Another is that she wasn’t ‘buried’ at all, or embalmed, or wrapped in protective bandaging. Like other mummified bodies, several of which are on display here,IMG_0537.jpg after her death she was placed in a cave and preserved by the climate (a consistent low temperature and minimal humidity).

But the most important reason by far is, as the tag notes: ‘According to scientific test, she belongs to ancient Europoid.’ She’s Uyghur; she’s not Han. Uyghurs (‘wee-gurs’) were here first. They own the land. Children of the soil, they should control it. Their wishes should prevail.

She has recently been re-assessed by some Chinese scientists appointed by the Provincial Government who have confirmed that in fact the mummy is only 4000 years old — and, great heavens!, is Han.

Just as Tibet’s formal name is the Tibet Autonomous Region, Xinjiang’s full name is ‘Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’. As noted in Wikipedia, which doesn’t usually use words like ‘hardline’, they have something else in common.

220px-Chen_Quanguo.jpgSince hardline official Chen Quanguo was transferred from Tibet to govern China’s Muslim region in August 2016, he has overseen the construction of a network of extrajudicial internment camps. He has also stepped up surveillance of residents by using advanced technology as well as increasing police presence, and passed severe regulations to curtail religious and cultural expression. According to estimates by rights groups and researchers, at least tens of thousands – or possibly a million members of ethnic minorities – many of them ethnic Uyghurs, are currently being held in “re-education” camps in the region.

While we were there we had companion who was Uyghur. For fear of possible reprisals, I can’t show you a photo, I can’t tell you his or her name, in fact I’ll have to gloss over much of what we were told.

I can show you this photo which sums some of the experience up.IMG_0548.jpg

Police presence. When we were alerted to it, we noticed there was a police control station at every significant intersection. There are 700 of them in the city centre alone.

unknown1.jpegMonster golden Buddha in what is billed as an environmental park, Urumqi’s latest major tourist attraction. We were warned by email before we arrived we would not be able to go to the Red Mosque (as advertised; a stolen photo at right, obviously something to see). Police have closed this area. So this ‘Park with Buddha’ is the new option.

The Buddha is approximately five years old, the same age as the Hilton Hotel built next door on the outskirts of the city. There is no significant history of Buddhism in Urumqi or Xinjiang as a whole for that matter. Fake religious news.

We didn’t go in; it all looked a bit new, raw. We read the ‘Civilisation Convention’ on a massive billboard. 

Love the Motherland, love Hongguangshan (the name of the park), safeguard ethnic solidarity and maintain stability … Treat others politely, respect elders and take good care of children, care others [sic] and take pleasure in helping others 

We drove past the usual forests of tower blocks but a lot of these were unusual. They were only three-quarters finished: no top, variable heights, no windows, limited cladding. What’s going on there? I asked. ‘The building has been stopped. The government building funds have been transferred to making prisons. There are 10 million Uyghur in China. One million are in gaol.’

The Uyghur are Muslim. Our companion’s spouse and four brothers went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. These five people have been imprisoned now for more than a year. What they are charged with, their whereabouts, and their future are all unknown. Why has this happened? Does our companion fear for his/her freedom? ‘Of course. Every time there is a knock at the door. Why do they do this? To wash the brain…’ 

There are several children in this family. Parents are fined 200 yuan (40 AUD, a lot in this context) every time the children speak Uyghur at school. (In this case 4800 yuan so far this year.) Teachers who speak Uyghur to their students are fired. Uyghur stories and songs have been banned from the curriculum. Doctors who speak Uyghur to their patients are struck off and imprisoned. ‘One year women who wear long Uyghur dresses in the street were stopped by police and their dresses were cut short with scissors. This year headscarves are removed and they are fined. Next year they go to gaol.’ Rugs and cushions on the floor to sit on are banned.

Downtown is littered with building sites, literally hundreds of them, covered in green screening fabric. What is happening behind that fabric is that pointed arches are being removed and replaced by rectangular openings. Curves and angles are being straightened out. All decoration that smacks of an Islamic past is being removed. 

This is the square outside the Grand Bazaar, the old hub of Urumqi.IMG_0566.jpg

Just incidentally, to the right of the neck of the big instrument (might be a dutar or a dombra) you might be able to see the four guys who were playing up a storm with hand drums and wind instruments the second time we came here. Central Asian rather than Chinese music. They were wonderful. We had to be searched and go through a metal detector to enter this square.

To the right is the base of a huge minaret. That and the ever so elegant building behind are scheduled for demolition. On the left is the market, once one of the busiest in Central Asia. From the suggested best photographic point to show its crowded alleys it now looks like this.IMG_0562.jpg

The markets are mainly used and run by Uyghurs. But more generally, Urumqi’s previously burgeoning economy is being run down quite deliberately as a means of controlling its population. With unemployment now a serious problem, priority is being given to Uyghur recruitment into the police and armed forces. It was suggested that these ‘turned’ Uyghurs were among the most brutal members of the police.

The Chinese have renamed Urumqi (‘beautiful pasture’) ‘Wulumuqi’ because, our friend said, they can’t say ‘Urumqi’ and anyway it’s a Uyghur word (actually probably Mongolian, but definitely not Han). Over the last decade the Han population of Urumqi has increased by 800,000, a mass importation of the dominant Chinese ethnic group just as has happened in Tibet — part of the game which has accelerated mightily in the two years since Chen Quanguo took over.

But what a game. Myriad insults, large and small. Every move covered. Fenced in from every direction. 

The Museum we visited is new but built before the latest dispensation. 

IMG_0547.jpgThe sign accompanying this display says:

Gorgeous Costume and Hats Graceful Women and Handsome Men

The Uyghur Nationality’s costume had condensed the national spirit, embodied unique creativity and ability of presentation. …Through various kinds of caps, it reflects the Uyghur peoples’ natural and unrestrained individual characters. Precious jewelry, gold and silver ornaments all reflect the invariably limitless and lofty sentiments of Uyghurs who like to explore nature, integrate quintessence of works of god with their heart, and create their own beauty.

How much longer will it be there I wonder. How much longer will that excellent museum be open?

* * * * * *

Qualifying all these impressions, we went out. Our friend persuaded us and negotiated an excellent deal on the tickets to ‘The Silk Road: A Millenial Impression’, a song and dance show of the type that is often so tired it nods off and slumps to the floor during the first act. But not so. It was simply amazing. About 800 people were entertained in a most superior fashion.

First we ate. A gigantic buffet.


IMG_0573 (1).jpg

The most popular dish was ripped up spit roast lamb. I counted four of these consumed, I don’t know how many I missed.

We did a few things wrong but were generally treated as somewhat exotic members of the family.

One of the clever aspects of the design of the show was that the dances were meant to reflect a trip across the Silk Roads, so dances from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Persia and so on, and that of course was great. But the first half was Uyghur. And if you’re thinking those dancers don’t look Chinese … you actually mean Han.

IMG_0576 (1).jpg

What this gal was representing I’m not sure but it was the high point of the night. The crowd howled. Men rushed forward to be entangled with the snake.


* * * * * *

Unrest. That’s what it is called. On the 5th July 2009 riots broke out in Urumqi during which an unconfirmed number but probably around 200 people were killed and several thousand injured. Government sources suggested that most of the dead were Han, and it is certainly true that Han were targeted by Uyghurs. The rather remote flashpoint appears to have been the failure of the central government to investigate the deaths of two Uyghur migrant workers in Shaoguan, 4000 kilometres away. 26 Uyghur ‘ringleaders’ were subsequently executed.

Unknown.jpegUrumqi is situated in a highly strategic location. In essence to go west from China by land you have two options. The first is to find your way round the Taklamakan Desert, one of the world’s largest, to Kashgar and then north to Bishkek or Andijon through the river valleys and mountain passes of the Tian Shan. The second, much easier, is to go round north of the high mountains. Urumqi is the key to that route. (Both are part of China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative.)

That means that this has been a contested area for hundreds of years. The fact that Xinjiang shares its current border with eight countries — Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India — suggests its historical complexity.

The disagreement between the Uyghur and the Han government about which group has greater claim to the Xinjiang region has a long and often violent history. The Uyghur believe their ancestors were indigenous to the area, whereas government policy considers present-day Xinjiang to have belonged to the various dynastic rulers of ‘China’ since around 200 BC. Uyghurs have been classified as a ‘National Minority’ rather than a ‘Nationality’ group. Thus they are considered to be no more indigenous to Xinjiang than the Han and, unlike other defined Nationality groups, they have no special cultural or other rights.

Historians point out that 400 years ago, the Qing brought in Han, Hui, Uyghur and Kazakh people as colonists after the Mongols who had previously lived in the region were driven out or slaughtered. Before that it was populated for hundreds of years by the Xiongnu mixture mentioned above.

But matters like that have been easy to ignore as the struggle has become more defined: just two ethnic groups at loggerheads. Forget the rest. A census of Xinjiang in the early 19th century indicated that 30 percent of the population was Han and 60 percent ‘Turkic’ (a language group, mostly Uyghur). In 1953 this had changed to 6 percent Han and 75 percent Uyghur. By 2000 the recorded population was 41 percent Han and 46 percent Uyghur, some of whom at least believe they live in ‘Eastern Turkestan’.

Yellow Han people have not the slightest thing to do with Eastern Turkestan. Black Tungans also do not have this connection. Eastern Turkestan belongs to the people of Eastern Turkestan. There is no need for foreigners to come be our fathers and mothers … From now on we do not need to use foreigners’ language or their names, their customs, habits, attitudes, written languages and etc. We must also overthrow and drive foreigners from our boundaries forever. The colours yellow and black are foul … They have dirtied our Land for too long. So now it’s absolutely necessary to clean out this filth. Take down the yellow and black barbarians! Live long Eastern Turkestan!

‘Tungans’, the ‘blacks’, are Chinese Muslims. When this was written some years ago it wasn’t a matter of religion but of ethnicity. What would the The Loulan Beauty have made of all these wrestles with identity, at once so fundamental and so trivial?


* * * * * *

I asked the hotel clerk if we could get a call for 4am. Our plane left at 7 and it would be 30-40 minutes to the airport and an international flight. He was nonplussed. ‘Do you mean Uyghur time sir?’ A moment of panic not having a clue what he was talking about. I showed him our schedule. It was quite clear. He just thought it was very early. ‘Too early.’ I did know that all of China is on Beijing time, so for example it was still quite light in Urumqi at 10.45pm. What I didn’t know was that on Uyghur time it would have been a more sensible 8.45. But it was a suitable departure point — a muddle, with murky undertones.

Our taxi got pulled over by police a couple of kilometres from the airport. I wondered if we had a Uyghur taxi driver; but it wasn’t him they were after. It was us who were searched. They also went through our luggage perfunctorily and put it through an X-ray machine tucked away in their roadside cabin. We went through another search as we entered the airport. Very very very thorough body searches. You haven’t had a body search till you’ve had one of these. At check-in a metal detector, and our passports were confiscated for a time. Kept, taken perhaps, rather than confiscated. I may have had a lithium battery in my packed luggage. We got our passports back. All this is happening with a very nasty underlying tenor. People used to their customers being angry and frustrated, developing a rhinoceros hide coupled with a ready sneer. Then customs. Another check and search, and this was weird. I had to remove my shoes for a hand check of the soles of my feet and between my toes. Then we both were sent off to a small room to stand on a platform which moved back and forth making buzzing noises. What that was none can tell. Another metal detection and hand luggage search at the gate before we got on the plane.

We were tourists, AND we were departing! Was there a message to take with us perhaps?

* * * * * *

How exciting it was to see the Muslims of Xi’an (who as it happens are mostly Hui, another ethnic group), celebrated, lauded, important contributors to the culture and tourist industry of Shaanxi. How troubling to meet the Muslims of Urumqi, conflicted, repressed, angry, despairing. In both cases because they are Muslim. China, mate. China.

Getting off at Bishkek was a breeze, such a breeze. We just wandered through. It was, and remained, a gust of the freshest air.


2 thoughts on “Cities of the Silk Roads: China

  1. Thanks, David, for your enjoyable and informative account of these two cities. It is distressing to learn about the forms repression is taking. I look forward to breathing freely again in Bishkek, as I hope your next blog will start from there.

  2. Wonderful material David. It’s quite scary reading about the Han colonisation of the area and I wonder what the outcome will be by the middle of the century. I’m looking forward to reading your experiences and thoughts about Uzbekistan where Ruth and I caught up with Kitty and Alex in 2013 as they made their way on bicycle from Amsterdam to Melbourne. After Tashkent they went on to Bishtek and China and experienced the same sort of surveillance you did. We all loved Uzbekistan and hope you do too.

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