CHINA - RETRACING THE SILK ROAD
KASHGAR - URUMQI - TURPAN - DUNHUANG - LANZHOU - XI’AN
CHINA - SILK ROAD MAP
THE SILK ROAD is the world’s oldest, and most
historically important overland trade route. For
over 2000 years, traders and merchants travelled
the deserts of central Asia exchanging goods
between the Chinese empire and the rest of the
world. As a result, the oases of the desert sprang
up into dynamic cities. A vast network of interconnected
caravan routes that stretched for over 6,500
km, enabled the exchange of products and ideas
between China and Europe, Persia, Egypt, India
The Silk Road remains one of the world’s most
legendary journeys, full of dusty desert roads and
ancient towns immortalized in the accounts of
Marco Polo. Desert landscapes stretch out seemingly
endlessly along this ancient crossroads of civilization,
broken up only by occasional oasis settlements.
The legacy of this trade route has shaped
the region’s multiculturalism, home as it is to several
ethnicities, religions and languages.
The road got its name from the lucrative Chinese silk
trade along it, which began during the Han Dynasty
(206 BC – 220 AD) largely through the missions
and explorations of Zhang Qian, a Chinese official
and diplomat who served as an imperial envoy to
the world outside of China. He was the first official
diplomat to bring back reliable information about
Central Asia to the Chinese imperial court, then
under Emperor Wu of Han, and played an important
pioneering role in the Chinese colonization and
conquest of the region now known as Xinjiang. In
essence, his missions opened up to China the many
kingdoms and products of a part of the world then
unknown to the Chinese.
The Ancient Silk Road started at Changan (today
Xi’an) that was the capital at the time, then it reached
Dunhuang through Lanzhou, where it was divided
into three: the Southern, the Central Route and the
Northern Route. The three routes spread all over the
Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, and then they
extended as far as Pakistan, India, Byzantine Empire
and even the Roman Empire.
The photographs that follow were taken in the so
called North Road i.e. Xian, Lanzhou, Dunhuang,
Turpan, Urumqi and finally to the last ancient oasis
town of Kashgar, the last place the ancient silk road
traders stayed before heading east across the brutal
Taklamakan Desert on their way to the Middle East
(or, for those traders heading the other way, Kashgar
was the first bit of civilization they’d seen in months
as they left the desert and arrived in China). Kashgar
was an important center that led to Samarkand, the
Caspian Sea and India.
Although maritime transport had an influence on
the route, many westerners, Chinese envoys and
caravans travelled along this ancient trade route.
However, the historically important route could not
contend with expansion in the field of navigation
which assisted its demise.
In history, many renowned people left their traces
on the most historically important trade route,
including eminent diplomats, generals and great
monks. They crossed desolate deserts and the
Gobi, passed murderous prairies and went over the
freezing Pamirs to finish theirs missions or realize
their beliefs. Many great events happened on this
ancient road, making the trade route historically
important. A great number of soldiers gave their
lives to protect it. These are some of the reasons the
road is still a time-honored treasure.
HISTORY OF THE SILK ROAD
The Silk Road began around 329 BCE, when Alexander
the Great conquered all of the known world,
built the City of Alexandria Eschate and promoted
trade to the east. By this time, Persia had become a
cultural crossroads in Asia with influences from India
and the Greeks. Over time this region, just south
of Karakorum’s ranges, was conquered by various
armies, including those from Syria and Parthia.
Soon, the Yuezhi, from the northern border of the
Taklamakan desert, arrived, after being driven
out of their home by the Xiongnu, who came to be
known as the Huns. The Yuezhi came as converts to
Buddhism. They became known as the Kushan and
their culture was referred to as the Gandhara.
Their culture adopted not only the Buddhism of
the Peshawar region but also the introduced Greek
culture brought by Alexander’s army. Notably,
the Kushan were the first Buddhists to depict the
Buddha in human form.
To the east of the route, Qin Shi Huangdi unified
China to found the Qin Dynasty. Although the Qin
seemed to introduce brutal reforms, the Chinese
language began to become standardized. This
unified empire’s capital was Xi’an. Prior to the Qin
unification, the Xiongnu invaded from the north
more frequently. The northern Chinese states
attempted to thwart these invasions by constructing
walls. Post unification, the Qin worked to fill the gaps
in the various sections of the walls. This build up
signifies the beginnings of the Great Wall of China.
The Qin Dynasty lasted a mere fifteen years and was
succeeded by the Han Dynasty. The Han continued
the construction of the Great Wall. During this
time, the Han became aware that the Xiongnu had
driven the Yuezhi even further west. A recognizance
mission was arranged by the Han in the hope
of an alliance with the Yuezhi against the Xiongnu.
The Han delegations returned home with different
objects and artwork, especially religious art of the
Gandhara. Even then, some Chinese silk and other
goods were slowly reaching the Roman-conquered
Greeks. Most likely these goods were passed
through the hands of individual merchants.
Inevitably, where money can be made, nefarious
activity will develop. The Han soon found problems
occurring along the trade routes. Bandits took to
ransacking caravans as they passed along the Gansu
corridor. Defending their goods caused merchants
extra cost. As the caravans moved further from the
center of the capital, the Han faced the difficulty
of protecting its goods. Forts and walls helped to
bridge this security gap.
The Silk Road did not exclusively deal in silk. Many
goods were traded along the routes. Ivory, gold,
animals and plants were among other commodities.
Of course, silk was what amazed those in the
West. Silk naturally absorbs dye, so that the colors
come out vivid and deep.
Eastward headed caravans brought gold, ivory,
precious stones and metals to China. Westward caravans
carried ceramics, jade, bronze and iron. Most
of these materials did not follow a direct route. They
were often traded repeatedly between different
posts. The middleman controlled each small market
along the way, so that, by the time goods reached
their destination, the price was exorbitant.
Trade on the Silk Road was a significant factor in
the development of the civilizations of China, India,
Persia, Europe and Arabia. Though silk was certainly
the major trade item from China, many other goods
were traded, various technologies, religions and
The great story of the Silk Road is that Buddhism
travelled on it, from India. It is said that a Han
Emperor named Mingdi had a dream of a golden
figure, and his advisers said that the figure was the
Buddha - the God of the West. In 68 AD, Mingdi sent
Cai Yin to Central Asia to learn about this religion.
Cai Yin brought back Buddhist scriptures and two
Buddhist monks. Buddhism became popular, and
people built the big ancient Buddhist temple sites
associated with the Silk Road.
Christianity even saw an early growth along the
Silk Road. A sect known as the Nestorians was
driven out of the Roman Church in the 5 th century
CE. Its adherents settled in Persia. Within two centuries,
their faith spread to Changan. It survived until
the 14 th c.
The main traders during antiquity were the Indian
and Bactrian traders, from the 5 th to the 8 th century
the Sogdian traders and afterward the Arab and
Persian traders. The dry climate has preserved many
ruins, while many ethnic groups make their home in
this part of China, often still living a lifestyle like that
of their great grandfathers.
When Arabs attacked Central Asia in the 700s, Islam
replaced Buddhism as the major religion. The Silk
Road was into disuse after the Tang Dynasty fell in
the year 907. Then Mongolians conquered China
and most of Asia and established the Yuan Dynasty
(1279-1368) in China. In 1271, Kublai Khan established
a powerful Mongol Empire – Yuan Dynasty
(1271-1368) at Dadu (the present Beijing).
The Mongol Empire destroyed a great number
of toll-gates of the Silk Road; therefore passing
through the historic trade route became more
convenient, easier and safer than ever before.
The Mongolian emperors welcomed the travelers
of the West with open arms, and appointed some
foreigners high positions, for example, Kublai
Khan gave Marco Polo a hospitable welcome and
appointed him a high post in his court. At that time,
the Mongolian emperor issued a special VIP passport
known as “Golden Tablet” which entitled holders
to receive food, horses and guides throughout the
Khan’s dominion. The holders were able to travel
freely and carried out trade between East and the
West directly in the realm of the Mongol Empire.
‘Silk Road’ is in fact a relatively recent term, and
for the majority of their long history, these ancient
roads had no particular name. In the mid-19 th
century, the German geologist, Baron Ferdinand
von Richthofen, named the trade and communication
network Die Seidenstrasse (the Silk Road), and
the term, also used in the plural, continues to stir
imaginations with its evocative mystery.
SILK PRODUCTION AND THE SILK TRADE
Silk is a textile of ancient Chinese origin, woven
from the protein fibre produced by the silkworm
to make its cocoon, and was developed, according
to Chinese tradition, sometime around the year
Regarded as an extremely high value product, it
was reserved for the exclusive usage of the Chinese
imperial court for the making of cloths, drapes,
banners, and other items of prestige. Its production
was kept a fiercely guarded secret within China for
some 3,000 years, with imperial decrees sentencing
to death anyone who revealed to a foreigner the
process of its production. Tombs in the Hubei province
dating from the 4 th and 3 rd centuries BC contain
outstanding examples of silk work, including
brocade, gauze and embroidered silk, and the first
complete silk garments.
The Chinese monopoly on silk production however
did not mean that the product was restricted to the
Chinese Empire – on the contrary, silk was used as
a diplomatic gift, and was also traded extensively,
first of all with China’s immediate neighbours,
and subsequently further afield, becoming one of
China’s chief exports under the Han dynasty (206 BC
–220 AD). Indeed, Chinese cloths from this period
have been found in Egypt, in northern Mongolia,
At some point during the 1 st century BC, silk was
introduced to the Roman Empire, where it was
considered an exotic luxury and became extremely
popular, with imperial edicts being issued to control
prices. Its popularity continued throughout the
Middle Ages, with detailed Byzantine regulations
for the manufacture of silk clothes, illustrating its
importance as a quintessentially royal fabric and an
important source of revenue for the crown.
Additionally, the needs of the Byzantine Church for
silk garments and hangings were substantial. This
luxury item was thus one of the early impetuses in
the development of trading routes from Europe to
the Far East.
XINJIANG UYGHURS AUTONOMOUS REGION
URUMQI, TURPAN, KASHGAR
A territory in western China that accounts for onesixth
of China’s land and is home to about twenty
million people from thirteen major ethnic groups,
the largest of which (more than eight million) is the
Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim community with
ties to Central Asia.
Xinjiang, about the size of Iran, is divided into
the Dzungarian Basin in the north and the Tarim
Basin in the south by a mountain range. Xinjiang
shares borders with Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan,
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India,
and the Tibet Autonomous Region and is China’s
largest administrative region.
Steppes, deserts and mountains cover most of
Xinjiang and it is the country’s most westerly region.
The largest ethnic group are the Muslim, Turkish
speaking Uyghurs. The region has had an intermittent
history of autonomy and occasional independence,
but was finally brought under Chinese control
in the 18 th century.
Known to the Chinese as Xiyu (“Western Regions”)
for centuries, the area became Xinjiang (“New
Borders”) upon its annexation under the Qing
(Manchu) dynasty in the 18 th century. Westerners
long called it Chinese Turkistan to distinguish it
from Russian Turkistan. Its indigenous population
of agriculturalists and pastoralists (principally
Uyghurs) inhabit oases strung out along the mountain
foothills or wander the arid plains in search of
Since the establishment of firm Chinese control in
1949, serious efforts have been made to integrate
the regional economy into that of the country, and
these efforts have been accompanied by a great
increase in the Han (Chinese) population there. The
policy of the Chinese government is to allow the
ethnic groups to develop and maintain their own
cultural identities but ethnic tensions exist, especially
between Uyghurs and Han.
Communist China established the Autonomous
Region in 1955.
XINJIANG UYGHUR AUTONOMOUS REGION
KASHGAR, or Kashi, is an oasis city with an approximate
population of 350,000. It is the westernmost city
in China, located near the border with Tajikistan and
Kyrgyzstan and has a rich history of over 2,000 years.
Kashgar was, and in some ways still is, the last frontier.
Geologically and politically, Kashgar is the last town on
one of the longest dead ends on the planet. On three
sides, it is shielded by the Karakorum and Pamir mountain
ranges, on the other by the Taklamakan Desert,
whose name translates as ‘The Go In And You Won’t
Come Out Desert’. To get to Kashgar, you can cross over
a 5,600m pass from Pakistan, on probably the world’s
highest-altitude bus route, or take a 3 day, almost nonstop
bus ride through the desert from Urumqi.
Until the 21 st century, it was almost frozen in time, a
living relic of its trading heyday four centuries earlier.
The old section of Kashgar remained much as Marco
Polo found it: an intoxicating, marvelous confluence of
Indian, Persian, Arabian and Chinese cultures. Recent
renovations of the Old Quarter by the Han Chinese
have taken place, resulting in many old mud buildings
being demolished, and residents relocating to newer
buildings that employ modern earthquake and fire
codes. This has caused an outcry among some who
fear ancient ways of life are vanishing. Some steps are
being taken to preserve Kashgar’s ancient relics, but
the forces of modernity march on.
Situated at the foot of the Pamirs (mountains) where the
ranges of the Tien Shan and the Kunlun Mountains join,
Kashgar commanded the historical caravan routes—
notably the famed Silk Road westward to Europe via
the Fergana Valley of present-day Uzbekistan, as well
as routes going south to the Kashmir region and north
to Ürümqi and the Ili River valley.
Located historically at the convergence point of widely
varying cultures and empires, Kashgar has been under
the rule of the Chinese, Turk, Mongol, and Tibetan
empires. The city has also been the site of an extraordinary
number of battles between various groups of
people on the steppes. Now administered as a countylevel
unit of the People’s Republic of China, Kashgar is
the administrative center of its eponymous prefecture
in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
The Chinese first occupied Kashgar at the end of the
2 nd c BC, taking it from the Yuezhi people, who had
been driven out of Gansu province. Chinese control,
however, did not survive the 1 st century CE, when
the Yuezhi reoccupied the area. After complex waves
of conquest by peoples from the north and east had
swept over the area, the Chinese again conquered it
during the late 7 th and early 8 th centuries under the Tang
dynasty (618–907), but it was always on the farthest
frontier of Chinese control. After 752 the Chinese were
again forced to withdraw, and Kashgar was successively
occupied by the Turks, the Uyghurs (in the 10 th
and 11 th c), the Karakitai (12 th c), and the Mongols (in
1219), under whom the overland traffic between China
and Central Asia flourished as never before. In the late
14 th c, Kashgar was sacked by Tamerlane, and in the
next centuries it suffered many wars. It was finally reoccupied
by the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) in 1755. In the
period from 1862 to 1875, Kashgar first was a center of
the Muslim Rebellion and then became the capital of
the Muslim general Yakub Beg. Another Muslim rebellion,
led by Ma Zhongyang, took place in the area from
1928 to 1937, but was finally suppressed by the provincial
warlord Sheng Shicai with Soviet aid. Control by
the Chinese government was not restored until 1943.
The hospitable Uyghurs in Kashgar are good at both
singing and dancing, their unique musical instruments
and clothes are exotic to visitors. The bustling markets
are packed with distinctively dressed Uyghurs, ambitious
Central Asian traders and veiled Muslim women
on Sundays. Muslim features are visible throughout the
city. A mosque towers high above the mud-thatched
houses. While strolling the city’s alleyways we can have
glimpses through the mud-brick doorways of people
engaged in all manner of ancient arts, including bread
making, metal forging, musical instrument manufacturing
and firing of hand-made tile. The lush green
valley of Kashgar, with tall poplars, is famous for the
cultivation of fruits, grains, cotton and livestock.
Id Kah Mosque, is the biggest mosque in the Region.
On Friday, the holy day for Islam, up to 20,000 people
can squeeze into the mosque and its precincts to face
Mecca and join in the prayers.
Apak Hoja Tomb (also known as the Fragrant Princess
Tomb), has an Islamic-style architecture, where the
beloved concubine of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing
Dynasty (1644-1911), Apak Hoja, was buried.
Still an active trading center, was the last place the Silk
Road traders stayed before heading east across the brutal
Taklamakan Desert on their way to the Middle East (or,
for those traders heading the other way, Kashgar was
the first bit of civilization they’d seen in months as they
left the desert and arrived in China). It is a fascinating
blend of cultures between the Muslim Uyghurs, who
represent about 80% of the area’s population. International
Bazaar, is composed of farmers’ markets, flea
markets, animal markets and meat markets. While the
bazaar is open every day of the week, traders from all
over neighboring countries make the trek into Kashgar
each Sunday to be a part of the main spectacle that
encompasses over 4,000 permanent stalls.
Kashgar’s Sunday livestock market at the edge of the
city, offers a glimpse of the past, with intense buying
and selling of sheep, donkeys, goats, cows and the
occasional camels. Local Uyghur men, dressed in traditional
garb, herd or haggle; when they get hungry, they
just head to the sidelines where various food stalls have
been set up, each cooking a dish made of fresh mutton.
KASHGAR OLD TOWN
KASHGAR TOWN BAZAAR
ID KAH MOSQUE
KASHGAR NEW TOWN
KASHGAR SUNDAY ANIMAL MARKET
TOMB OF APAK HOJA
TRADITIONAL UYIGUR DANCING
XINJIANG UYGHUR AUTONOMOUS REGION
URUMQI, the capital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous
Region in northwest China, is located at the foot of
the Tianshan Mountains. The city’s name in local
language means “fine pasture”. It is located in a fertile
belt of oases along the northern slope of the eastern
Tien Shan range. The area first came under full Chinese
control in the 7 th and 8 th centuries AD. Situated along
the ancient Silk Road, the city became an important
center for caravans on the Silk Road traveling onto the
Ili River Valley from the main route across Turkistan.
Urumqi thus was a major hub on the Silk Road during
China’s Tang Dynasty, having developed a reputation
as an important commercial and cultural center
during the Qing Dynasty. It is quite famous for its
claim as the most inland major city in the world, that
being the farthest from any ocean.
Red Hill is a symbol of Urumqi, owing to its uniqueness.
The body of the mountain, made up of aubergine
rock, has a reddish brown color. It is 1.5km long
and 1km wide from east to west. The city lies in the
shadow of the lofty ice-capped Bogda Peak with vast
Salt Lake to the east, the rolling pine-covered Southern
Hill, the alternating fields and sand dunes of Zunggar
Basin to the northwest.
Less than 1km away, Yamalike Hill stands facing Red
Hill. Legend has it that in ancient times a red dragon
fled from Heavenly Lake and the Heavenly Empress
caught him and sliced him in two with her sword.
Later on, the western part of the dragon turned into
Yamalike Hill and the eastern turned into Red Hill. The
sword turned into the Urumqi River. Oddly enough,
topographic pictures tell us the two hills were once
one and were separated into two parts due to
Eventually, ancient legend affected real life. In 1785
and 1786, floods hit Urumqi causing much destruction.
Rumors arose that Red Hill and Yamalike Hill were
growing closer and closer together. Once they met,
the Urumqi River between them would be blocked
and the city would become flooded as the water rose.
Therefore, in 1788 Shang An, the highest military
officer, ordered the Zhen Long (in Chinese, to subdue
the dragon) Pagodas built on both hills. These two
pagodas were made of gray brick, 10.5- meter high
with six sides, nine stories and an octagonal roof.
There are two major ethnic groups, the traditional Han
(3.0 million) and Uyghur (0.25 million). Other ethnic
groups in Urumqi include Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Mongols
and Hui Muslims.
Regardless of ethnicity, most people in Urumqi can
speak some level of Mandarin Chinese, however in
some parts of the city Uyghur, a Turkish language,
The Erdaoqiao Bazaar is the largest in Urumqi. It
is a bustling market filled with fruit, clothing, crafts,
knives, carpets and almost anything that you can
imagine. The old streets around the bazaar are really
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum
has collections of silver works of art, stone steles, coins
and currency, ceramics, wooden articles, and paintings,
a broad overview of Chinese civilization along
the Silk Road and local ethnic cultures. One of the highlights
is the well-preserved collection of 4,000-yearold
corpses, unearthed along the Silk Road.
Built in 1953, it has an exhibition hall that covers an
area of about 7,800 square meters. The building is in
Uyghur style, the internal decor having strong ethnic
features. In total there are over 50,000 items in the
collection. These not only represent the ethnic lifestyle
and humanity of the region but also illustrate its
With such an abundance of items on display, the exhibition
is widely acknowledged for its comprehensive
and informative nature both at home and abroad.
The one relating to folk customs includes costumes,
tools and every day necessities. Together they vividly
illustrate for us the dress, lifestyle, religion, marriage
customs, festivals and other aspects of the colorful
life of the 12 minorities that live in Xinjiang.
The historical relics include carpentries, iron wares,
bronze wares, bright and beautiful brocades, tomb
figures, pottery, coins, rubbings from stone inscriptions
and writings, as well as weapons and so on.
These give an insight into the past and show how the
society of Xinjiang developed. There is even the fossil
of a human head that dates back some 10,000 years.
The display of ancient corpses is fantastic, for it was
in this region that a great number of ancient and
well preserved remains were discovered. These are
quite different from the mummies in Egypt that
were created by skilled embalming procedures; the
corpses here were dried by the particular natural
environment. In all there are twenty-one specimens
in the collection and include men, women, lovers,
and generals. The ‘Loulan beauty’ is among the best
preserved and famous ones. It has a reddish brown
skin, thick eyelashes, charming large eyes, and long
hair. This particular ‘charming’ corpse has survived
for an estimated 4,000 years.
XINJIANG UYGHUR AUTONOMOUS REGION
TURPAN, also known as Turfan or Tulufan, is an
ancient city with a long history. Traces have been
found of humans living there, dating as far back
as 6,000 years ago. The city was known as Gushi
in the Western Han Dynasty (206BC-240AD); and
in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), it got its name
Turpan, which means ‘the lowest place’ in the
Uygur language and ‘the fertile land’ in Turkish.
Lying in the Turpan Basin, the elevation of most
places in the area is below 500 meters, the
lowest elevation in China. The city, which is also
known as Huo Zhou (‘a place as hot as fire’), is the
hottest place in China. It is praised as the ‘Hometown
of Grapes’ and the Grape Valley is a good
place to enjoy hundreds of varieties of grapes.
Turpan has long been the center of a fertile oasis
(with water provided by the Karez canal system)
and an important trade center. It was historically
located along the Silk Road, at which time it was
adjacent to the kingdoms of Kroran and Yanqi. The
name Turfan itself however was not used until the
end of the Middle Ages - its use became widespread
only in the post-Mongol period. The center of the
region has shifted a number of times, from Jiaohe,
10 km to the west of modern Turpan, Gaochang, 30
km to the southeast of Turpan and to Turpan itself.
The Tang dynasty had reconquered the Tarim Basin
by the 7 th c AD and for the next three centuries the
Tibetan Empire, the Tang dynasty, and the Turks
fought over dominion of the Tarim Basin. Tibetans
took control in 792. In 803, the Uyghurs seized
Turfan from the Tibetans. The Uyghur Khaganate
however was destroyed by the Kirghiz and its capital
Ordu-Baliq in Mongolia, sacked in 840. The defeat
resulted in the mass movement of the Uyghurs out
of Mongolia and their dispersal into Gansu and
Central Asia. Many joined other Uyghurs already
present in Turfan.
The Uyghurs established a Kingdom in the Turpan
region with its capital in Gaochang or Kara-Khoja.
The kingdom lasted from 856 to 1389 AD. They were
Manichaean but later converted to Buddhism and
formed an alliance with the rulers of Dunhuang.
The Uyghur State later became a vassal state of the
Kara-Khitans, and then as a vassal of the Mongol
Empire. This Kingdom was led by the Idikuts, or Saint
Spiritual Rulers. The last Idikut left Turpan area in
1284 for Kumul, then Gansu to seek protection of
Yuan Dynasty, but local Uyghur Buddhist rulers still
held power until the invasion by the Moghul Hizir
Khoja in 1389. The conversion of the local Buddhist
population to Islam was completed nevertheless
only in the second half of the 15 th century.
Ancient city of Gaochang (1 st c. BC). An important
point on the Silk Road. The city’s name means
‘the King City’ and was abandoned during the 15 th
century. Divided into three parts the exterior city,
interior city and the palace city with a total area is
about two million square meters. Recalling Pompeii
in scale, this city was lost to the sands of the Gobi for
hundreds of years until recent excavation. It is listed
as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Ancient city of Jiaohe Kerez (2 nd c. BC). The Jiaohe
is a natural fortress located atop a steep cliff on a
leaf-shaped plateau between two deep river valleys.
From the years 108 BC to 450 AD was the capital of
the Anterior Jushi, concurrent with the Han Dynasty,
Jin Dynasty, and Southern and Northern Dynasties
in China. It was an important site along the Silk Road
trade route leading west.
Turpan’s Flaming Mountains, the hottest place in
China, overshadow the cradle of the Turpan ancient
civilization and oasis agriculture. They provide a
spectacular backdrop to the oases and scenery
of the Turpan area, and have given rise to many
legends and stories.
The Emin Minaret or Imin Ta stands by the Uyghur
mosque. At 44 meters it is the tallest minaret in
China. The minaret was started in 1777 and was
completed only one year later. It was financed by
local leaders and built to honor the exploits of a
local Turpan general, Emin Khoja. The richly textured
sun dried yellow bricks are carved into intricate,
repetitive, geometric and floral mosaic patterns,
such as stylized flowers and rhombuses. This
mixture of Chinese and Islamic features is seen only
in minarets in China.
Turpan Museum is the second largest museum
in Xinjiang, only after Xinjiang Regional Museum.
Being on the route of the famous ‘Silk Road’, Turpan
assembled traders and monks from western and
It houses more than 5,000 artifacts, archaic
mummies, and many old documents in different
languages. Many of the mummies have been found
in very good condition, owing to the dryness of
the desert and the desiccation it produced in the
corpses. The mummies (1100–500 BCE) share typical
Europoid body features and many of them have
their hair physically intact, ranging in color from
blond to red to deep brown, and generally long,
curly and braided. Their costumes, and especially
textiles, may indicate a common origin with Indo-
European neolithic clothing techniques.
GAOCHANG ANCIENT CITY RUINS
TURPAN TOWN BAZAAR
TURPAN FLAMING MOUNTAINS
ANCIENT CITY OF JIAOHE KEREZ
DUNHUANG is a county-level city in northwestern
Gansu Province, Western China and in ancient time
it was a major stop on the ancient Silk Road and the
trade center between China and its western neighbors.
It was established as a frontier garrison outpost
by the Han Dynasty Emperor Wudi.
Situated in a rich oasis containing Crescent Lake and
Mingsha Shan (meaning “Singing-Sand Mountain”),
named after the sound of the wind whipping off the
dunes, the singing sand phenomenon. It commands
a strategic position at the crossroads of the ancient
Southern Silk Road and the main road leading from
India via Lhasa to Mongolia and Southern Siberia, as
well as controlling the entrance to the narrow Hexi
Corridor, which led straight to the heart of the north
Chinese plains and the ancient capitals Xian and
Luoyang. At that time, it was the most westerly frontier
military garrison in China. With the flourishing of
trade along the Silk Road, it was prompted to become
the most open area in international trade in Chinese
history. It provided the only access westward for the
Chinese Empire and eastward for western nationalities.
Today it is best known for the Mogao Caves.
During the Tang Dynasty, Dunhuang became the main
hub of commerce of the Silk Road and a major religious
center. As a frontier town, Dunhuang had been occupied
at various times by other non-Han Chinese. After
the Tang Dynasty, the site went into a gradual decline,
and construction of new caves ceased entirely after
the Yuan Dynasty. By then Islam had conquered much
of Central Asia, and the Silk Road declined in importance
when trading via sea-routes began to dominate
Chinese trade with the outside world. During the
Ming Dynasty, the Silk Road was finally officially abandoned,
and Dunhuang slowly became depopulated
and largely forgotten by the outside world. Most of
the Mogao caves were abandoned; the site, however,
was still a place of pilgrimage and was used as a place
of worship by locals.
The Mogao Caves also known as the Thousand
Buddha Grottoes, form a system of 492 temples 25
km southeast of the center of Dunhuang. The caves
contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist
art spanning a period of 1,000 years. The first caves
were dug out in 366 AD as places of Buddhist meditation
and worship. The construction of the Mogao
Caves begun sometime in the 4 th c. According to a
book written during the reign of Tang Empress Wu,
a Buddhist monk named Lè Zūn, had a vision of a
thousand Buddhas bathed in golden light at the site
in 366 AD, inspiring him to build a cave here. From the
4 th until the 14 th century, caves were constructed by
monks as shrines with funds from donors - laborately
painted, the cave paintings and architecture were
serving as aids to meditation, as visual representations
of the quest for enlightenment and as teaching
tools to inform those illiterate about Buddhist beliefs
and stories. They were sponsored by patrons such
as important clergy, local ruling elite, foreign dignitaries,
as well as Chinese emperors. Other caves may
have been funded by merchants, military officers
During late 19 th and early 20 th century, Western
explorers began to show interest in the ancient Silk
Road and the lost cities of Central Asia, and those who
passed through Dunhuang noted the murals, sculptures,
and artifacts. The biggest discovery, however,
came from a Chinese Taoist named Wang Yuanlu who
appointed himself guardian of some of these temples
around the turn of the century.
An important cache of documents was discovered in
1900 in the so-called “Library Cave,” which had been
walled-up in the 11 th century. The most famous text
in the library cave, the Diamond Sutra, which dates
to 868 AD, was made using this woodblock printing
technique and is the first complete printed book in
the world. The content of the library was dispersed
around the world, and the largest collections are now
found in Beijing, London, Paris and Berlin. Some of the
caves had by then been blocked by sand and Wang
set about clearing away the sand and made an attempt
at repairing the site. In one such cave, Wang discovered
a walled up area behind one side of a corridor
leading to a main cave. Behind the wall was a small
cave stuffed with an enormous hoard of manuscripts.
In the next few years, Wang took some manuscripts
to show to various officials who expressed varying
level of interest, but in 1904 Wang re-sealed the cave
following an order by the governor of Gansu.
Words of Wang’s discovery drew the attention of a
joint British/Indian group led by Hungarian archaeologist
Aurel Stein who was on an archaeological expedition
in the area in 1907. Stein negotiated with Wang
to allow him to remove a significant number of manuscripts
as well as the finest paintings and textiles for
a fee. He was followed by a French expedition under
Paul Pelliot who acquired many thousands of items in
1908, and then by a Japanese expedition under Otani
Kozui in 1911 and a Russian expedition under Sergei
F. Oldenburg in 1914.
In 1956, the first Premier of the People’s Republic
of China, Zhou Enlai, took a personal interest in the
caves and sanctioned a grant to repair and protect the
site. The Mogao Caves became one of the UNESCO
World Heritage Sites in 1987.
SINGING SAND MOUNTAINS - Sand Dunes of Mingsha
CRESCENT SPRING LAKE (Yueya Quan)
MOGAO CAVES (One Thousand Buddha Caves)
DUNHUANG TOWN - Night Bazaar
LANZHOU is the capital city of Gansu Province in
northwest China. The Yellow River, the Chinese
Mother River, runs through the city, ensuring rich
crops of many juicy and fragrant fruits. Covering an
area of 1631.6 square kilometers it was once a key
point on the ancient Silk Road.
The history of Lanzhou is tied up with the Silk Road.
The Han Empire (206 BC – 220 AD) rulers wanted
trade and allies and sent Zhang Qian, as an emissary
to western countries, two times about the year 100
BC. He had very long and adventurous journeys that
included being captured for 10 years and escaping.
The Han rulers sent a big embassy with him with
trading goods, and they interested the countries to
the west with trade with China.
On and off for about 1,600 years after 100 BC, the Silk
Road through the Hexi Corridor and Lanzhou was an
important trade route. For centuries, between the
Chinese Empires and Kingdoms in the Far East and
the empires and Kingdoms to the west, the quickest
and safest overland route north of the Himalayan
mountains passed through the town of Dunhuang
at the western end of the Hexi Corridor, though the
Hexi Corridor passage, and then on to Lanzhou. The
Hexi Corridor is about 1,000 kilometers long, and the
towns and rivers were used by traders, troops and
travelers. On both sides of this corridor is inhospitable
terrain. To the south are the Qilian Mountains
and the Tibetan Plateau, and to the north are the
Beishan Mountains and the Gobi desert. For going
between the West and China, the big, long valley
was one of the two main land routes. The other
route called the Southern Silk Road or the Tea Horse
Road went through Yunnan in the far southwestern
corner of China.
Zhongshan Bridge, also called the first bridge over
the Yellow River, lies at the foot of Bai Ta Mountain
and in front of Jin Cheng Pass in Lanzhou city,
the capital of Gansu Province. Before Zhongshan
Bridge was built there were many floating bridges
over the Yellow River, but only one existed for a
relatively long period. This bridge was called Zhen
Yuan Floating Bridge and was made up of more
than 20 ships, tied up by ropes and chains. It floated
on the river in order to help people pass over, but
it was neither solid nor safe enough. Almost every
year floods destroyed the bridge and killed people.
Used for over 500 years, the Zhen Yuan Floating
Bridges was finally retired in 1909, when an iron
bridge was built.
The Gansu Museum houses 75,000 cultural relics,
ranging from fossil to articles of historical and
heritage significance. More than 110 pieces are
rated of first class significance including Gansu
color-painted pottery, and bamboo medication
slips from the Han era.
The most famous piece in the collection from the
Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) is a bronze Galloping
Horse of Wuwei that is accompanied by an impressive
array of chariots and carriages. Excavated in
1969 in Wuwei County, Gansu Province, the piece
depicts a vigorous horse with long tail waving and
head perking. Its 3 hooves are in the air, galloping
like lightening. What makes this sculpture amazing
is the right back hoof of this galloping horse lands
on the back of a small flying bird. The bird turns
in surprise to look at the big creature on its back.
At the same moment, the horse’s head also turns
slightly in attempt to know what has happened.
The whole statue is honored as the mysterious and
rare treasure in the history of Chinese sculpture art.
Bingling Temple Grottoes are located on the Small
Jishi Hill, about 35 km west of Yongjing County
in Lanzhou City. Bingling means ‘Ten Thousand
Buddhas’ in the Tibetan language.
Being one of the very noted four caves in China, it
is the second to Mogao Caves in respect of artistic
value. It was added to UNESCO World Heritage
List on June 22, 2014. The starting construction
time dates back to the Western Jin Dynasty (265-
316). In the following dynasties, the caves had
been excavated many times. There are now 183
niches, 694 stone statues, 82 clay sculptures and
some 900 square meters’ of murals, which are all
well preserved. Famous for its stone sculptures,
Bingling Thousand Temple Caves stretches about
200 meters on the west cliff in Dasi Gully. With
elegant postures, flying robes and ribbons, the
statues are life-like.
The stone sculptures represent the social situations
and customs during ancient times. In the vicinity of
the caves are green hills, crystal water, grotesque
stones and precipitous cliffs, which adds more
beauty to this artistic site.
One of the biggest surviving carved statues of
Buddha from the Tang Dynasty era (618-907) in
China is the Great Maitreya Buddha, similar to the
Buddhas of Bamiyan and measures 27 tall. It is
similar to bigger giant statues built about 250 years
earlier in Central Asia showing the cultural link with
the region. Their inaccessibility spared them from
destruction during the Cultural Revolution.
LANZHOU TOWN - Yellow River
BINGLING TEMPLE GROTTOES
X I ’AN
XI’AN, one of the oldest cities in China, is the capital of Shaanxi province, located in the northwest
of China, in the center of the Guanzhong Plain. Known as Chang’an (meaning the Eternal City)
before the Ming dynasty, Xi’an is the oldest of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, having held
the position under several of the most important dynasties in Chinese history, including Zhou, Qin,
Han, Sui, and Tang.
Xi’an is the starting point of the Silk Road and home to the Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi
Huang. The Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24AD), which is the third dynasty, setting up its capital
in Xian, constructed its capital – Chang’an on the relics of the Qin’s Xianyang. Once, the city was the
largest one in the world, covering an area of about 36 square kilometers. The famous ‘Silk Road’
which starts from the Chang’an City appeared during the period of Wudi, opening the communication
between China and overseas countries. On the other hand, the emperors carried out a series of
policies to help with people’s rehabilitation. As the eastern terminal of the Silk Road and the site of
the famous Terracotta Warriors of the Qin Dynasty, the city has won a reputation all over the world.
X i ’an
The Terracotta Army (Terracotta Warriors and Horses) are the most significant archeological excavations
of the 20 th century. Work is ongoing at this site, which is around 1.5 km east of Emperor Qin Shi
Huang’s Mausoleum in Lintong, Xian, Shaanxi Province.
Upon ascending the throne at the age of 13 (in 246 BC), Qin Shi Huang, later the first Emperor of all
China, had begun to work for his mausoleum. It took 11 years to finish. It is speculated that many
buried treasures and sacrificial objects had accompanied the emperor in his afterlife. A group of
peasants uncovered some pottery while digging for a well nearby the royal tomb in 1974. It caught
the attention of archeologists immediately. They came to Xian in droves to study and to extend
the digs. They had established beyond doubt that these artifacts were associated with the Qin
Dynasty (211-206 BC). The figures vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the
generals. The figures include warriors, chariots and horses. Estimates from 2007 were that the three
pits containing the Terracotta Army held more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses
and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which remained buried in the pits nearby Qin Shi Huang’s
mausoleum. Other terracotta non-military figures were found in other pits, including officials,
acrobats, strongmen and musicians.
XIAN - Terracotta Warriors and Horses
THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA
THE GREAT WALL MAP
Both the Great Wall of China and the Silk Road are symbols of Chinese history. The Great Wall,
constructed between 221 B.C. and A.D. 1644, spans 9,000 km and was built as a line of defense to
protect the country from invaders. The wall was begun in during the Qin dynasty between 221
and 207 B.C. Work continued during the Han dynasty but ceased in A.D. 220 and construction
languished for a thousand years. With the threat of Genghis Khan, the project resumed in 1115.
During the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644), the wall was reinforced with stone and brick. Despite
the immense building and intimidating size of the wall, it wasn’t enough to keep invaders away.
The Mongols were able to ride right through gaps in the wall, and later, the Manchus overtook
the Ming dynasty by riding through the gates that traitor Gen. Wu Sangui opened.
Around the same time as the Great Wall construction during the Han dynasty, Zhan Qian opened
the Silk Road route to trade with other countries. Routes were extended and trade flourished
during the remainder of the Han dynasty. Wars with the Huns were fought along the Silk Road
to gain control and keep the trade route open during the Han dynasty. After the Mongols gained
power in 1271, the ruler Kublai Khan destroyed most of the toll gates and allowed for easier
travel. Khan welcomed Marco Polo, the great explorer and gave him the right to travel the route
whenever he liked.
The Great Wall is rumored to have been constructed with mud, bricks, stones and bones of
the workers who toiled day after day to build it. The first wall, constructed under Emperor Qin
Shi Huang, was built by hundreds of thousands of political prisoners over the course of 10
years. During the Ming dynasty, when workers were frantic to reinforce the wall to keep out the
Manchus, it is estimated that 2 to 3 million Chinese workers perished. On the Silk Road, Chinese
soldiers lost their lives defending the route from the Huns, mostly during the Han dynasty.
Although they were successful at keeping the Huns at bay, many sacrificed their lives to maintain
the trade route.