Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Seductive Ancient Silk Road (2) - Xian

Xian (pronounced 'she-an', meaning western peace) used to be called Changan (perpetual peace), and was an important capital of several major dynasties including Han, Qin, Tang and Sui. It was the eastern starting point of the ancient silk road (northern route), which no doubt helped it to become the largest city in the world over 1400 years ago.

China's first emperor, Qin Shihuang (221BC-210 BC), made Changan his imperial capital.

It is because of him that nowadays, tens of thousands of tourists come to Xian to marvel at the terracotta warriors. The warriors protect the yet to be excavated main tomb of Emperor Qin. They are of course buried below present day ground level.

You can only view the excavations from an elevated distance nowadays, unless your name is Bill Clinton or something like that, in which case they will let you go down and have eyeball contact. It's quite an experience, and I have even helped arrange some of my clients go there on a day trip out of Beijing. No wonder millions of visitors go there every year.

Around this time, there were several shifts of the capital back and forth further east to Luoyang. Because of this, Luoyang is a city full of history and connections with the silk road (e.g. the 2000-yr old White Horse Temple is China's first buddhist temple, and the large Longmen grottoes with 30,000 buddhist statues carved out of stone rock), but that's another story for another time

The most famous outbound Chinese 'tourist' to start from Changan and travel along the ancient silk road was probably the monk Xuanzhang, who made the Journey to the West (yes, title of a subsequent novel in which the famous Monkey King accompanies Xuanzhang on his trip to India) in the 7th century, and back again. He brought back Buddhists scriptures from India by the camel load, so much in fact that a new storeroom, the Big Goose Pagoda, had to be built to house them.

Changan was also the capital of China during the Tang dynasty 600-900 AD, the golden age of ancient Chinese civilisation. The uniquely well preserved, intact city wall is from the Ming dynasty, and was effective in making it difficult for outsiders to get in (and get out).

Nowadays, however, the wall with its limited number of openings, is effective in making it difficult for cars to get in and out, thereby causing endless traffic jams! It may be more fun to get around by cycling along the top of the wall.

This is the most famous western 'tourist' to Changan, travelling in the 13th century.

Do you know who he is? See below for the answer*

The local culture is not pure Han Chinese. Being so far West, it's not surprising that Muslim Chinese form a sizeable minority group, with their own 1400-yr old Great Mosque.
There are plenty of flour products and lamb in the local diet, and also 'rou jia mo', an early MacDonalds Chinese style, but made with lamb.

I often wonder how long it took the merchants along the ancient silk road to travel from Changan to Urumqi/Turfan or Kashgar or Persia or even to Rome. Today, it's so simple to contact and do trade with these faraway places - one click on the computer and an email goes off instantaneously to anywhere in the world. If you visit Xian and want to write home, it's not a problem, since Xian claims to have the world's largest internet bar (3000 PCs), covering 4 floors, and charging only a few RMB per hour.

I'll continue with the seductive ancient silk road in August after a summer break. Happy holidays!

*Marco Polo

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Seductive Ancient Silk Road, Seductive Xinjiang

Now that Xinjiang is getting back to normal and the September peak tourist season is coming, I thought I would try to 'seduce' you to go there with some photos and stories of my previous trips to this huge N.W. region, part of China yet so different from the rest of China. It's area is one sixth of China, comparable to Iran or Western Europe, and has borders with 8 countries, including Russia, Mongolia, India, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan. It has been known by various old names such as Sinkiang, Uyghuristan, Chinese Turkestan, Chinese Tartary, Kashgaria and Little Bokhara.

To start with, some history from "A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World" by W. J. Bernstein."

"Millennia ago, only the most prized merchandise - silk, gold and silver, spices, jewels, porcelains, and medicines - traveled between continents. The mere fact that a commodity came from a distant land imbued it with mystery, romance, and status. If the time were the third century after Christ and the place were Rome, the luxury import par excellence would have been Chinese silk [hence the start of the ancient Silk Road].

"History celebrates the greatest of Roman emperors for their vast conquests, civic architecture, engineering, and legal institutions, but Elagabalus, who ruled from AD 218 to 222, is remembered, to the extent that he is remembered at all, for his outrageous behavior and his fondness for young boys and silk [he seems to have a lot in common with some Chinese emperors, but that's another story]. Nothing, however, commanded Rome's attention (and fired its envy) as much as his wardrobe and the lengths he went to flaunt it, such as removing all his body hair and powdering his face with red and white makeup. Although his favorite fabric was occasionally mixed with linen - the so-called sericum - Elagabalus was the first Western leader to wear clothes made entirely of silk.

"From its birthplace in East Asia to its last port of call in ancient Rome, only the ruling classes could afford the excretion of the tiny invertebrate Bombyx mori - the silkworm. The modern reader, spoiled by inexpensive, smooth, comfortable synthetic fabrics, should imagine clothing made predominantly from three materials: cheap, but hot, heavy animal skins; scratchy wool; or wrinkled, white linen. (Cotton, though available from India and Egypt, was more difficult to produce, and thus likely more expensive, than even silk.) In a world with such a limited sartorial palette, the gentle, almost weightless caress of silk on bare skin would have seduced all who felt it..

"Although the Romans knew Chinese silk, they knew not China. They believed that silk grew directly on the mulberry tree, not realizing that the leaves were merely the worm's home and its food. ...

"[Silk] was costly enough in China; in Rome, it was yet a hundred times costlier - worth its weight in gold, so expensive that even a few ounces might consume a year of an average man's wages. Only the wealthiest, such as Emperor Elagabalus, could afford an entire toga made from it."

Now silk is not just for emperors, empresses, kings and queens. It is available for many uses, not just seductive clothing. You don't have to travel along the 4,000-mile (6,000 km) long Silk Road to find it. But you can still see many marvellous sights if you start from the ancient capital of Changan (now called Xian, site of the terracotta warriors) and go West into Xinjiang and beyond, following in the footsteps of those brave Han dynasty traders over two thousand years ago.