Today, silk is readily available in most parts of the world thanks to sea and air freight, but two thousand years ago it was carried from China into Central Asia and Europe by merchants travelling on camel caravans through inhospitable mountain and desert terrains.
Megan McCormick travels along China’s section of the Silk Road trade route, exploring the country’s ancient past and dazzling future. What would have taken a camel around 6 months to travel, she is able to achieve in 14 days thanks to China’s modern airports, rail and bus routes. Megan’s journey begins in Xi’an, which was China’s capital city before Beijing and where the Han dynasty Emperor Wudi ruled from when in 138BC he dispatched an explorer to bring back accounts of the West, forging the way for a commercial trade route.
Megan visits Xian’s most famous archaeological wonder, the Terracotta Warriors, and searches for original Silk Road treasures in the Muslim Market. Continuing northwest along the Silk Road, she reaches China’s Gansu Province and visits the oasis towns of Jiayuguan and Dunhuang. The spectacular Fort of Jiayuguan once marked the end of civilized China and the beginning of barbarian lands for those travelling West into the Gobi desert and beyond.
Taking a camel ride across Dunhuang’s sand dunes Megan has newfound respect for traders making that same journey 2000 years ago. Making her way into the province of Xinjiang, the semi-autonomous region of the Uyghur people, Megan stays with a local Uighur family in Turpan, digs for jade in Khotan and visits the famous livestock market in Kashgar.
From here, Megan heads towards China’s Western border ending her journey in the stunning Pamir Mountains. Along the way she drinks yak milk tea with a Kyrgyz tribe who show off their infamous horsemanship in a rodeo-style game of ‘Chase the Skin’. Ethnically, culturally and architecturally, Xinjiang is very different to Central China and feels like in a different country. But like the rest of China, Xinjiang is being modernised. The dusty streets are being swept up and built on, donkeys and carts are being replaced by electric mopeds and mud-brick houses sit happily alongside new 5-star hotels. But the cities are no less charming for it and between the well-kept park areas filled with smiling locals dancing and exercising, the marketplaces abuzz with trade and the food venues from night markets to air-conditioned restaurants, China’s modern Silk Road experience is as remarkable as it surely would have been thousands of years ago.