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I take in the view. On one side, the soaring peaks of the Qilian shan, white with snow. On the other, Hei shan, a range of rugged black mountains, their silhouettes ink blots on a plain sky. In front of me, a languorous herd of Bactrian camels gaze into a horizon where the sun hangs low and the landscape fades into a dun-coloured emptiness. Beyond the snow peaks, to the south of Qilian, lies the vast Tibetan plateau; across Hei shan, to its north and west, the grasslands of the great Gobi Desert. West of the Gobi, the landscape is fiercer—the Taklamakan Desert.

The Jiayuguan Fort. Photo: Sebastian Ku
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The Jiayuguan Fort. Photo: Sebastian Ku

I am looking out from the ramparts of Jiayuguan Fort, the westernmost outpost of the Ming-era Great Wall of China, and a vital pass on the ancient Silk Road that made trade between east and west possible for the very first time in history.

Silk Road. There are few other words that are able to instantly evoke the idea of epic travel. Visions of caravans journeying across desert-scapes through sandstorms and impossible mountains, battling thirst and hallucination, bandits and murderous tribes, binding East and West with silk and spice—this is the stuff of legend. I want to retrace a bit of it, to see if any of that magic still remains, and I have chosen to travel along a 1,000-odd kilometre stretch in China’s Gansu province that once held the key to the Silk Road. This is the Hexi Corridor.

Pronounced “Huh-Shi", it literally means the corridor to the “west of the river". The river is the Yellow River, the cradle of Chinese civilization. Winding its way up from the southern province of Qinghai, it crosses Gansu at the capital city of Lanzhou, continuing its way north before draining itself into the Yellow Sea on China’s east coast. Also called the Gansu Corridor, after the province through which it runs, the Hexi Corridor’s 1,000km stretches west of Lanzhou all the way to the border with Xinjiang, where the Silk Road splits into the northern and southern routes around the edges of the Taklamakan Desert and into India, Central Asia and the Mediterranean.

Gansu has a long history. It has been inhabited continuously for at least the past 8,000 years, possibly more. Archaeological discoveries here have found some of the earliest examples of painted pottery, bronze ware, palatial architecture, art and tools of cultivation. Till as late as the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912; the very last imperial dynasty), it was China’s westernmost border province, ringed by past and future enemies, mountain ranges and deserts. Beyond it lay the inhospitable and threatening “western regions"—home, among others, to the marauding Xiong’nu tribe which liked nothing more than picking a fight with the Chinese, pillaging and plundering what was not theirs. A whole bunch of trouble, yes, but usefully also the inadvertent provocation for charting the Silk Road.

In roughly 138 BC, fed up with the Xiong’nu—known to most of us as the Huns—the emperor of the Chinese Han dynasty sent an emissary, General Zhang Qian, to recruit soldiers from among the Yuezhis. The future forebears of the Kushan empire that would go on to rule much of north India under emperor Kanishka, the Yuezhis had recently suffered an ignominious defeat at the hands of the Huns. Zhang’s mission was to offer them the possibility of redemption and persuade them to join forces with the imperial Chinese army in fighting the Huns.

And so General Zhang and his posse of 100 men set out from the imperial capital of Xi’an, carrying on with much fanfare and puffery till Gansu. But no sooner had they crossed the Hexi Corridor, they were set upon by the Xiong’nu and taken captive. Zhang, blessed with the instincts of a good traveller, married into the Xiong’nu, produced a son, and having won the trust of his captors, managed to give them the slip and escape with his family. It had been 10 years since he left Xi’an.

Determined to complete his mission, he continued on his way, travelling along the northern edge of the Taklamakan desert, through Turpan (in present-day China’s Xinjiang province) and the Central Asian valley of Fergana (now spread across Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan). In Fergana, he met the Yuezhis, and realized they were quite happily settled and had no interest in revenge. From them, he heard stories of what lay further west, and with the enthusiasm of a backpacker ready to go to a place he has only heard of over drinks at a campfire, he proceeded to Samarkand and Bukhara, and from there to Persia and, finally, Rome.

Full of stories about what he had seen and heard, he returned to Xi’an in 125 BC, through a southern route across the Tarim Basin and Khotan (in Xinjiang). It had taken 13 years, and his company of 100 men had dwindled to just two, but it was the first time in history that Imperial China had made contact with Imperial Rome. The East-West trade route had been charted and the Silk Road—a name given to this passage only in 1870 by a German scholar—was open for business. Zhang died in 113 BC, having been decorated with the imperial title of Great Traveller, but expeditions on this route continued. Rome had fallen hopelessly in love with Chinese silk and soon, long caravan trails drawn by the hardy two-humped Bactrian camels were making their way west, with bales of this fine material and other such exotic inventions as ironware and gunpowder, paper, and the technology to print on it. On their way back came spices and cotton, glass, and the knowledge of how to make wine from grapes, watermelons and olives, lions and peacocks, Islam and Buddhism.

With the Silk Road gaining prominence and trade flourishing along its length, Gansu became a boomtown—a “Shanghai" of the time. It attracted merchants and nobles and scholars and entrepreneurs from various other provinces and towns, creating a uniquely cosmopolitan mix of ethnicities that has lasted till today. Seeing opportunity, the Han emperor set up four frontier towns along the Hexi Corridor; hub cities that acted as oasis towns for the tired traveller and his beasts, as regional markets for goods, and also, centres for development of art and culture inspired by the mosaic of influences that came this way.

My journey through the Hexi Corridor would take me through three of these four towns—Zhangye, Jiuquan and Dunhuang—but I begin at the beginning, in Lanzhou, on the banks of the Yellow River.

*****

From my window seat on the flight, the low, dumpy hills surrounding Lanzhou appear as sand dunes. When I land, I sniff at the air. Thankfully, it is merely polluted. I have arrived in late September, the best possible time to be here, but I know that swirling sandstorms are always a possibility in Gansu. For those crossing the Hexi Corridor in the early years of the first millennium, the whirling eddies of fine sand skimmed off Gansu’s top soil was the first sign that they had left mainland China and were now entering its “neck".

Even today, and even without the sandstorms, Lanzhou feels removed from a “Chinese China", which to outsiders like me means a Han China. Lanzhou is distinctly Muslim, dotted with mosques that combine classic Saracenic elements like onion domes with distinctly Chinese ones like flying eaves, and every other person can be seen wearing a skullcap. Officially, they are the “Hui", one of the 56 ethnicities that constitute the 8% of “minorities" in China, and, along with Uighurs, Kazakhs, Mongols, Manchus, Tibetans, and of course the Han, make up most of Lanzhou’s population. The food too reflects this diversity: There are a lot more grilled meats, flat tandoori-type breads, spicier broth, and chewier noodle.

From Lanzhou, instead of the camels on which travellers of yore would ride to the west, I have planned to take the pride of China—the “Gaotie", or the bullet train—to Jiuquan, and then the slow train to Dunhuang. But I want to stop at Zhangye—a quiet, dusty town with a population of just over a million. It wasn’t always like this. During the heyday of the Silk Road, Zhangye was full of hubbub, a major commercial node.

It is the geographical centre of the Hexi Corridor and host to the first ever “expo" held in China—1,400 years ago. The Italian traveller Marco Polo spent a year here and a chancellor of the Western Xia period (1038-1227) saw it fit to build an indoor reclining Buddha statue that is still the longest in all of China (34.5m).

The Rainbow Rocks in the Zhangye Danxia Geopark. Photo: iStockphoto
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The Rainbow Rocks in the Zhangye Danxia Geopark. Photo: iStockphoto

But I am here to see a different kind of wonder—the “rainbow rocks" of Zhangye. An hour out of the city, I arrive at the Zhangye Danxia Geopark and my mind is blown. Everywhere you look, hill after hill glows with bands of bright colours, like a Mark Rothko painting. A few Bactrian camels graze nearby, as though waiting to be loaded up with bales of silk. I can only wonder what the ancient traders made of these hills; did they think the desert demons had finally got to them, filling their heads with hallucinations?

Zhangye is also known for the Mati-si caves, carved into the cliffs of the Linsong mountains. Often overlooked in favour of the more spectacular and famous Mogao caves in Dunhuang, the 1,600-year-old Mati-si grottoes are special because of their isolation. On a rainy, overcast afternoon, bundled up in my windcheater, I was able to clamber up the uneven rock grooves and catch holds to the very interiors of the caves. Their highest chambers are filled with Tibetan Buddhist shrines and it all feels like the doings of a secret society, mildly scandalous and cultish. A few Tibetan monks live in these grottoes still, carrying out an ancient tradition of austere worship. On one occasion, climbing up in pitch dark, I stick my head up a hole and find a monk chanting hypnotically before a pantheon of esoteric, tantric idols with a fearsome appearance.

For me, the real beauty of Mati-si lay in getting there; a 2-hour drive from the city centre, it takes you through small villages, past corn fields and pine forests, small animist temples and wall-painted Communist Party slogans that advocate the abandoning of “superstition" and cultish thinking. The caves are located in the village of Mati, a predominantly Tibetan village that makes you feel you have crossed the Qilian mountains and are now on the Tibetan plateau. When I look out from the highest niches of the grottoes, lush green mountain-scapes have been coloured by the prayer flags fluttering furiously in the high-altitude winds.

A statue of Marco Polo. Photo: Sebastian Ku
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A statue of Marco Polo. Photo: Sebastian Ku

From Zhangye, Jiuquan—and Jiayuguan—is only about an hour and a half by the bullet train but you can feel the landscape beginning to change; I am coming up on the Gobi Desert. It is easy to see what Mildred Cable, an English missionary who travelled these parts extensively in the 1920s, meant when she wrote of a “dismal plain" that stretches before Jiayuguan. Greens wilt into browns, the flatness becomes chronic, and except for the Qilian shan range that continues to be pretty with its snow-white peaks, there is little to see. There is a highway and a freight rail track that runs parallel to my train and a blur of trucks and wagons carrying iron ore and coal from nearby mining towns rushing past. Sometimes, among this nothingness, a terribly modern industrial facility; maybe a cover for a secret nuclear facility or a covert space programme?

The thought isn’t as conspiratorial as you might think. Not too far from here is the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre, located in the Gobi Desert proper, as also the Jiuquan Atomic Energy Complex, which once stored a production line to create weapons-grade plutonium for thermonuclear explosions. These days, I am told, it is used for civilian purposes.

It is all very much in line with Jiuquan’s role throughout history. The fort I am on my way to see was the very last defensive position of the Great Wall of China during the Ming dynasty. “For almost 400 years," writes David Eimer in his book The Emperor Far Away: Travels At The Edge Of China, “the fort at Jiayuguan marked the end of the known world for the Chinese. Everything further west of this final outpost of the Great Wall in Gansu Province was beyond both their understanding and their control. Savage tribes and legends of demons which rose out of the desert sand waited to torment the travellers who ventured beyond the fort’s high walls."

This can seem confusing. Geographically, Dunhuang lies west of Jiayuguan and, for the first millennium and a little bit more, was the last point on the Hexi Corridor. The Great Wall, first built by the Qin emperor Shi Huangdi as a means to define the borders of a newly unified China, was extended, modified and strengthened by the dynasties that followed. After they established the Silk Road, the Han emperors were also able to briefly push the Xiong’nu further west and extend the Great Wall right up to Yumenguan Pass (Jade Gate) in Dunhuang.

But that was 121 BC. The Jiayuguan Fort is nearly 700 years old but in the grand scheme of Chinese history, it is a spring chicken; by the time it was built by the Ming emperors, the best years of the Silk Road were behind it. There were reasons. For one, the Ming emperors were much more inward-looking and isolationist, and wary of outside influences; at the same time, China experienced a boom in its naval capabilities, and a maritime Silk Route was established; and lastly, environmental causes such as increasing erosion and the drying up of oases along the Hexi Corridor led to a decline in travellers. Soon, whole towns along the corridor’s western ends were swallowed up by sand and by the mid-15th century, the Ming emperors had officially abandoned the Silk Road and secured their western borders with fortification in “Jiayuguan", which literally means “Barrier to the Pleasant Valley".

Extensively restored and reopened for visitors in 2014, the fort is perhaps the most touristic of attractions in the Hexi Corridor. It comes complete with faux Ming dynasty soldiers parading about the grounds with spears and breaking into a showy battle dance at regular times. There are camel rides to be had as well as a zippy buggy drive around the sandy outback leading to the Gobi Desert. You can enjoy a much more authentic experience if you head 6km afield and climb the 96m-high Great Wall Overhanging, where the untampered mud and clay from the Ming era are still intact—but, as I found to my dismay and mild guilt—rather easy to break off and crumble with bare fingers.

In its gradient and in layout, it is identical to the iconic portion of the Great Wall in Badaling, in Beijing, except that it is possible to stand here without a million selfie sticks jousting about you. Some of the most peaceful moments I spent in Gansu were atop the hills on which the overhanging Great Wall stands, looking out on to the silent expanse of the Gobi Desert, the wind off the Qilian peaks cold on my face.

The last stop on the Hexi Corridor is Dunhuang and it is the real highlight of travel to Gansu. The Mogao Caves in Dunhuang were designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1987. Over a million visitors—mostly domestic Chinese tourists—come here annually to enjoy the sand dunes of Mount Mingsha, which rise around an ancient crescent-shaped oasis, and to immerse themselves in the Mogao Caves, a complex of over 700 grottoes that were chiselled into the sheer cliff face of Mount Mingsha from the fourth to 14th centuries.

The Mogao Caves are inextricably linked to travellers on the Silk Road. The story goes that in 366 AD, a Buddhist monk walking along the route had a vision as he was crossing Mount Mingsha in Dunhuang; a thousand Buddhas appeared to him, bathed in sunlight. Inspired, he dug a grotto in the mountain where he could meditate, creating the first Mogao Cave. Other monks who came this way followed his example. In time, other followers—monks, nobles, even traders—started decorating these grottoes with stories from Buddha’s life. Emperors of successive dynasties that followed Buddhism promoted the development of Mogao and, soon, Mount Mingsha was pocked with grottoes running nearly 2km wide across it. Each cave was filled with intricate and elaborate art expressing a “Buddhist paradise": sandstone statues of gigantic Buddhas and Bodhisattvas; murals of Sakyamuni and Mahasattva, of the disciples Kashyapa and Anand, and of the flying apsaras; entire caves depicting legends and mythologies found in the Jataka tales, and all of it rendered in the most exquisite colours obtained from minerals—the heart-stealing blue from lapis lazuli that arrived from Afghanistan via the Silk Road—and the delicate patterns that dominate Chinese design till today.

Walking around the grottoes, trying to absorb the immensity of the achievement, I was suddenly conscious that I was the only Indian among the thousands of tourists who milled around me. I thought it an absolute scandal that Dunhuang is not better known in India, especially given the role we played in its development. Besides the basic fact of Buddhism coming to China from India via the Silk Road, several of the caves in Mogao draw explicitly from Indian influences, including architectural elements like central pillars, motifs like the flying apsara, and the Jatakas themselves.

If Dunhuang grew to prosperity on the back of an ascendant Silk Road, Dunhuang also mirrored its decline. After reaching an apogee in the development of grotto art during the Sui and Tang dynasties, the Mogao Caves were forgotten soon after the Silk Road was abandoned by the Ming dynasty. Many of the caves were buried under sand, cliffs and statues collapsed, murals flaked and effloresced. Six hundred years would pass before a monk named Wang Yuanlu would accidentally discover the “Hidden Library Cave", where nearly 50,000 manuscripts inscribed in languages as wide-ranging as Sanskrit and Tibetan, Uighur and Chinese, Mongol and Tangut, on silk and paper, revealed bits and pieces of Dunhuang’s incredible history, leading, eventually, to research and restoration of its glorious past.

By any measure, the Mogao Caves are world heritage in the league of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Petra in Jordan, but more than that it is a civilizational story of confluence. The Silk Road is where the world’s four great cultures—Chinese, Indian, Graeco-Roman and the Perso-Arabic—walked together, imbibing influences from each other, and the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang are an ensemble performance that perfectly expresses this commingling.

*****

The Hexi Corridor has, of course, changed irreversibly since the Great Traveller first made his way through it. But, as with the discovery of the Mogao Caves, what is old and forgotten has its own way of coming back. China’s rallying cry—and billions of dollars of investment—around the “One Belt, One Road Initiative" and the $40 billion (around 2.6 trillion), Silk Road fund are its 21st century ways of influencing the world to the west of it. India’s presence and influence on the Silk Road of 2,000 years ago is undeniable and still evident; but as I rode through the Hexi Corridor on the 300 kmph Gaotie that is only one example of China’s relentless drive to modernize its economy and build forward-looking infrastructure, I kept questioning if it will still be true 2,000 years hence.

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