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The story of the Silk Road begins with the Chinese ambassador Zhang Qian’s journey into the Taklamakan Desert in 138 B.C. in search of political alliances. On his return to the old capital of X’ian 13 years later, along with stories of the ‘heavenly’ Ferghana horse, which became a prized weapon in the arsenal of the Chinese armies, he brought with him tales of the Sogdian love of silk, and so the Silk Road was born.
Today the Central Asian provinces of China west of X’ian are perhaps the most fascinating regions of China. They are a melting pot of Han Chinese, Uygur, Kirghiz and a host of other cultures whose roots stem from the ancient kingdoms that once existed here. The early 1st Millennium A.D. saw the rise of a number of Buddhist kingdoms, whose cultural impact can still be seen in the famous Buddhist caves such as at Bezelik and Mogao. The later Mongol invasions spread Islam across the region and saw the development of important Islamic centres such as Kashgar. The shifting sands of the Taklamakan desert have preserved remarkable historic cities such as Gaochang and Jiaohe, which still enchant today’s visitors to this little-known area.
The oasis towns on the edge of the Tarim basin continue to thrive using the ancient kharez irrigation systems which watered the melons and grapes so beloved the Chinese court. Farmers from across the region flock to sell their wares amidst a melee of carts, traders, acrobats and magicians in Kashgar’s famous Sunday market. Kashgar is also the starting point for journeys across the Torugart and Irkestan passes into Kyrgystan. Travelling along these ancient routes allows the modern traveller to follow in the tracks of the snaking caravans which passed the western end of the Great Wall at Jiayuguan and headed into the sunset along the Silk Road into Central Asia.
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Remote Kashgar, shielded on two sides by the Karakorum and Pamir mountain ranges and Taklimakan Desert, whose name means ‘Go In And You Won’t Come Out Desert’ hosts possibly the best Sunday market in the world. This oasis town was a key stop on the Silk Road and the bustling, lively, colourful market developed out of its role as a trading post. It is said that the size of the town increases on market days as local Uighurs pour in from the surrounding region to trade for almost every imaginable product. Today the market still maintains an authentic atmosphere and must rank as a highlight of any trip along the Chinese Silk Road – just be careful you don’t leave realising you have purchased a camel!
The oasis town of Dunhuang was an important trading centre on the Silk Road and a melting pot of people and religions, perhaps most importantly Buddhism. The town is most famous for the Mogao Caves also known as the ‘Thousand Buddha Caves’ which contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art spanning almost 1000 years. Just outside Dunhuang lies the beautiful Crescent Moon Lake and the haunting singing sand dunes of Mingsha Hill. Some 80kms from Dunhuang is the Jade Gate – traditionally where caravans travelling the Silk Road left the safety of China for the uncertainty beyond.