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.

1 comment:

  1. I have just come back from a week's holiday in Beijing. I would thoroughly recommend it - fantastic history and wonderful buildings both modern and ancient. It is useful to have someone to help orientate you.