Journey to the past

Explore ancient China through Xi’an, Jiayuguan and Dunhuang

Tuesday 23 March 2010, by ジン

Langues :

The images are common in any historical documentary on the Silk Road - a line of trudging camels, their backs burdened with rolls of goods, their human herders turbaned under the scorching sun. The heat comes up in visible waves from the sand, blurring the line between reality and mirage. The journey was long and those making it relied on oasis stops to reach their destinations, which spanned from China to Italy. But the rewards were worth it - silk, perfume, spices, medicine - to be bought and sold for profit along the route. Towns prospered where the merchants passed, ideas exchanged, Buddhism spread. Although these places eventually lost their lustre due to the emergence of sea routes, visiting them today takes one back to ancient civilisations and the spirit of exploration. Here are three from the northern China route that are worthy of note.

Xi’an (Chang’an)

Xi’an, then Chang’an, is the starting point of the Silk Road in the east. As Buddhism was introduced along the route, Chang’an gained importance as the centre of Buddhist learning in east Asia. With a history that dates back three millennia and its status as the capital of various dynasties, you can be sure to find an abundance of all things ancient - from architecture, to artefacts, to calligraphy etched in stone.

The old city is, in fact, walled and fringed by a moat. At its heart are the bell and drum towers, which sounded at dawn and dusk, respectively. The top of the bell tower allows visitors to see the whole of Xi’an but even for locals, the spot is a central meeting point.

The Hui, or Chinese Muslims sell their wares here. I was captivated by fresh pancakes stuffed with minced mutton and spring onions. Sweet buns were made even more aromatic with dashes of rose fragrance. If you need more reason to visit the city, Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s army of terra cotta warriors is here.


Jiayuguan, or Jiayu Pass, is bordered by the Qilian mountains in the south and Gobi Desert in the north. It was a remote outpost at the western end of the Great Wall that marked the boundary of the Chinese empire. It served as a caravan stop along the Silk Road and transit pool for wool, silk and tea linking Mongolia, Sichuan and Tibet. Today, visitors can soak in scenic views of the snow capped Qilian mountains and get a feel of an ancient and remote China. Locals march around in armour and spar to re-enact ancient military scenes.


An oasis with a caravanserai, Dunhuang once served as a rest stop for travellers to recover from their desert journeys.

By the fourth century, it became an important administrative, commercial and Buddhist centre. The city has modern concrete buildings now, but visitors can go back in time at Crescent Moon Lake, 6km south. It is a postcard perfect picture of a little oasis, a splatter of green in a sea of sand with a pagoda and pavilions. Fringing one side is a small crescent-shaped body of water. The best view is from the nearby Mingsha Hill, which also offers sand sledding and dune paragliding.

The Mogao Caves 25km from the city are reputed to contain the biggest treasure trove of Buddhist artefacts in the world. The caves were carved into the cliff starting from the fourth century, and continued over a thousand year period. Many were commissioned by merchants who passed through this area, their grandeur reflecting the wealth of the donor. There are 492 caves, 45,000 sqm of murals and about 3,000 painted statues. All are well preserved by the dry air of the desert.

by Benny Lee traveller@mediacorp.com.sg

The article is originating from http://www.todayonline.com

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