I’ve hiked up the uneven stone stairs of the Great Wall.
I’ve traveled from China into Mongolia on the legendary Trans-Siberian Railroad, and
I’ve visited the great Chinese cities of Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and even Shangri-La.
But I’ve never reached the one destination I’ve yearned most of all to explore---China’s most renowned trading route for 2000 years—the Silk Road.
Finally, I can say I’ve accomplished this elusive goal.
A few weeks ago I replaced my longtime obsession with the real thing. My journey has just ended. I can truthfully say it was worth each painful throb of Achilles tendon, aching back, and queasy decision about which unusual delicacies I could sample safely without concern for possible repercussions.
I can also say, as my travel companion Jean reminds me at the end of every trip:
“You can check THAT off your list!”
I will, but not before I recount a few highlights and share some photos of what life is like as Jean and I found it in the most remote northwestern province of China, where merchants convened from all over Central Asia for almost 2000 years to trade precious silk, spices, perfumes, gold, ivory, furs, cinnamon bark and more.
Few of the camel caravans that journeyed on the Silk Road traveled the entire route. They stopped at oasis towns such as Dunhuang, Kashgar or Turpan, the most strategic trading posts.
Our plan was to follow them along these routes.
Our itinerary focused on these oasis towns on the edge of the infamous Taklamakan Desert, bordered on three sides by some of the highest mountain ranges in the world. To the north lie the Heavenly Mountains (Tian Shan), to the west, the Pamirs, to the south, the Kun Lun and the Karakorum, and to the east, the Lop Nor and the Gobi Deserts. Before our trip was over, we viewed portions of each.
Given this unforgiving terrain, you can imagine my anxiety about this trip. I knew that even for the hardiest of travelers, this would hardly be a luxury expedition. In fact, I had almost given up thoughts of taking the Silk Road trip at all because I knew it might demand more endurance, energy and physical strength than I have. But one day, I managed to put the trip into what I thought was a realistic perspective---I began to look at the journey much as a marathon runner would look at this 26.2 mile agonizing run. Of course, I couldn’t run a marathon. But, just calculating all the long hikes up and down mountains, into dark caves and grottoes, over blistering hot desert sands---even including the planned rides on a camel and donkey cart ---I predicted there would be times it might feel like an impossible marathon, one that I might just want to give up.
However, after reading an article on marathon LOSERS, I came to the conclusion that it didn’t matter how slowly I walked or how long a hike took, I’d win by just trying. Just to pass over the finish line would make this my own successful Silk Road marathon journey…which I wasn’t sure I could do when I started.
Though there were some tough spots along the way, I made it to every destination I vowed to see. Here are some of my recollections of a great trip.
BEIJING— THE QUICK FIRST STOP
Crossing the international dateline with my travel friend Jean, we automatically lost a day and were totally exhausted after the long flight but eager to finally set out on the Silk Road trip. Our journey that started in Beijing ultimately would cover thousands of kilometers traveling in the most remote corner of China. It would include a total of 12 flights, one overnight train ride, and some lengthy land cruiser and sedan rides across blazing deserts, through ancient rural villages, and over high-elevation mountain roads.
At the airport our plan to be met by a guide waving a “Roz & Jean” placard amid a sea of unreadable Chinese signs occurred without a hitch. We were on our way. I had insisted on doing this Silk Road trip on our own—that is, without a group. With an English-speaking guide and car and driver meeting us at each oasis town, we could go at our own pace and be protected from any unpredictable calamity we might fall into on our own. It was the right decision.
LANZHOU—OVER THE YELLOW RIVER AND
INTO THE CAVES
Our first stop, Lanzhou, was an important garrison town and staging post along the Silk Road. There, we had our first glimpse of the turgid Yellow River. Riding along a neatly landscaped pedestrian walk that snakes for 40 kilometers along the broad banks of the giant river, we stopped to snap our first photos in China. This smoggy industrial city of 2.9 million people is crammed into a narrow corridor ringed by barren brown mountains and steep cliffs through which all Silk Road caravans had to pass on the way west.At the impressive Ganzu Provincial Museum, we got a valuable quick immersion into the geography, culture, and history of the Silk Road by checking out maps of Silk Road routes and artifacts over a thousand years old in a major exhibit, “Cultural Relics of the Silk Road.”
Later, we strolled along the terraces of White Pagoda Hill and got our first taste of the blazing sun we’d encounter again on the desert.
On the first evening at Lanzhou we enjoyed what was billed as a “special” dinner. It was special because it was the first of many featuring local delicacies of the Uighur culture. All of our guides turned out to be of the minority Uighur population, an unexpected and positive development. The Uighurs, a Turkic race of Sunni Muslims, comprise some 75 percent of the population of the Xinjiang region of northwestern China and even more of the population of Kashgar where we were headed.
We were introduced to the Uighur cuisine by means of a “special noodle dinner” that night. Broad hand-made noodles were prepared with great precision and flair by a handsome young man who stretched, chopped, tossed high in the air, and cut with great dexterity strands of dough from a ball the size of a basketball that he pressed and kneaded after dipping his hands in a bowl of oil and water.
This was the first of several identical exhibitions of this regional culinary skill by a Uighur chef. In fact, each morning at the hotel breakfast we could have sampled these noodles---but declined, though the noodles became one of our favorite foods for dinner.
We dined at Uighur restaurants for every meal, except for breakfast where we headed for the comfort food of the “western” buffet. Our guides made sure we could sample all kinds of Uighur specialties— though sometimes, we were reluctant. The food was interesting—but our lazy Susan tables were piled high with enough food for six people at every meal—though we protested at the huge portions placed before us. Very shortly we learned to decline politely Uighur special dishes that were steeped in vinegar and/or mouth-searing spices and opted for our favorite choices, Uighur noodles, yogurt, watermelon and another delicious orange melon, as well as the fragrant freshly baked nam bread. We avoided water and often ordered Chinese beer, the safest choice to drink, along with tea. We both made it back home without getting sick.
Food, though, wasn’t our primary interest.
Our immersion into the history and culture of Buddhism came following a seventy kilometer drive through the mountains. But first, we arrived at the Liujiaxiz Dam, one of China’s largest hydro electric power stations, created as a result of China’s second longest river, the Yellow River’s frequent disastrous floods. There, we hopped into a small speedboat that seated just the three of us, and an enthusiastic teen-aged driver took off as though he was racing for the gold! The hour-long ride up the gorge turned into a hair-raising, teeth rattling, jarring experience as he raced at top speed across the choppy water. We were spattered and almost soaked by spray as the enthusiastic driver shot up the gorge so fast that we hung on for dear life and couldn’t fully enjoy the beautiful views of towering pinnacles along the shore. It was a relief to reach our destination without becoming totally soaked---but since it was very hot, I couldn’t have cared less.
Our goal was the Binglingshi Thousand Buddha caves and Hanging Temple. On our long walk we stopped often to peer into caves featuring Buddhist statues, sculptures and frescoes dating back to 420 AD, chiseled out of the rock hard western cliffs facing the Yellow River gorge. The path totaled four kilometers and we walked it in high humidity and hot sun from beginning to end. I kept reminding myself that this was the first challenge of my energy level when I thought I couldn’t walk another step. It was worth my exhaustion to view the many frescoes and huge straw and stucco Buddha (now under reconstruction) and the spectacular surrounding mountain scenery. I won’t describe the ride back---other than to say it was even more jarring than the boat ride there!
TO DUNHUANG—OVERNIGHT BY SOFT SLEEPER
AND ON TO ANOTHER THOUSAND BUDDHAS
Riding on a Chinese train is an adventure. But not always what you expect. This was billed as an overnight train trip in a soft sleeper compartment, definitely a first-class ride---except that one minor inconvenience unnerved us temporarily. We became prisoners in our own compartment!
Boarding the train in Lanzhou, we noticed we were the only westerners in our soft-sleeper luxury car. We had paid for a four-person roomette but reserved it for just the two of us. This was just fine as we prepared to spend a comfortable evening viewing a beautiful sunset while crossing the Gobi Desert, after which we planned to get some much needed rest in the not so soft bunk beds. The train got rolling and darkness descended. All was well.
We had been told to lock the steel door of the compartment before retiring. Following orders, we slammed the door shut as instructed and locked it.
I said to Jean,”We’ll have to get out at night. Test the door,” just after she had slammed the door and locked it.
She tried the handle. It remained locked. We both tried. Once. Twice. Over and over. We couldn’t budge the solid steel door. We realized we were locked in the compartment. It was dark. We knew nobody would hear us even if we pounded on the door all night.
At first we laughed. That didn’t last long. No matter what we tried, the door stayed shut. As a last resort after 20 minutes of futile attempts, I started pressing on the surface of the metal plate behind the handle.Two flat screws held it tightly in place. Nothing happened. Then accidentally, I pressed one of the screws simultaneously with turning the handle of the door---and presto. I had found the magic formula. Apparently, you could only unlock the door by pressing that screw and turning the handle in one direction at the same time! An evil Chinese puzzle, I muttered.
We didn’t lock the door for the rest of the night.
In the morning, the ancient Silk Road city of Dunhuang and the fabled Mogao Caves greeted us along with our next competent guide.
She took us to the New Silk Road Hotel that stands at the foot of the singing sand dunes. The hotel turned out to be a gorgeous four-star surprise—an impressively designed fortress-like hotel with handsome wings and pavilions surrounding quiet inner courtyards. It stands at the edge of this oasis town surrounded by a vast inhospitable desert and huge mountains of yellow sand. We got up at dawn to climb to the roof of the hotel and catch a breathtaking sunrise over the singing dunes.
Dunhuang is one of the most geographically situated points of Silk Road history A description over a hundred years ago at the turn of the 19th century called it “a geographically important position…near the point where the greatest old high road of Asia from east to west is crossed by the direct route connecting Lhasa, and through it India, with Mongolia and the northern portion of Siberia.” Its greatest attraction, the most renowned Buddhist caves in China--the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas--is better known as the Mogao Grottoes by the Chinese.
This spectacular complex of caves that honeycomb the cliffs of the Mingsha Hills lies 16 miles southeast of Dunhuang. What you see there is the world’s richest treasure trove of Buddhist manuscripts, wall hangings and statuary. They tell the story of Buddhism’s slow progression up from India eastward along the Silk Road into China.
The guidebooks say that the survival of the 492 caves and massive number of murals, paintings, manuscripts and sculptures found in pristine condition there is miraculous. They attribute it to the fact that Tibetans controlled the region in 781 AD, and the ruthless persecution of the Buddhists by the Chinese that took place in the 9th century bypassed the caves. The Mongols arrived in 1227 but left it unscarred.
The greatest threat to the treasures hidden in the caves came just over a hundred years ago with the arrival of European archaeologists seeking to get their hands on some of the vast treasures of the Silk Road. The caves carved in desert cliffs above a dry river valley had been abandoned until the 19th Century. At that time a Chinese monk rediscovered a treasure trove of scrolls, documents, carvings and paintings in one particular cave and set about saving the treasures as their custodian. He discovered the sealed chamber that contained a library of incredible rare ancient documents hidden for their safety. When the British archaeologist, Aurel Stein, heard about this discovery in his 1907 exploration, he persuaded the monk to let him see the contents of this cave. What he saw is now considered to be on a par with the opening of Tutankhamen‘s cave, according to guidebooks. Negotiating with the monk, Stein persuaded him to sell over 5000 scrolls and paintings for the paltry sum of 130 British pounds--thus earning the perpetual hatred of the Chinese for this transaction.
Among the crates of documents Stein carted out secretly at night was the Diamond Sutra, an important Buddhist scripture printed in 868 AD, which qualifies as the oldest known printed document in the world. It is on display at the British Museum, which also houses the treasure trove of ancient documents that Stein sneaked out of the cave.
Just 30 caves are open to visitors. No photography is allowed. Holding flashlights during our tour, we peered into the inner room of that special cave 17 and inspected the foot thick walls that had sealed up the treasure Stein had stolen. Our visit to the Mogao Caves was one of the highlights of our entire trip.
From caves to singing sand dunes was a great leap. Or rather a great ride. We managed the leap from cool caves to hot sands the next morning--going from what you’d label the sublime to the almost ridiculous---from cave to so-called camel caravan. We took a ride on Bactrian camels and then strolled over the dunes to Crescent Moon Lake. We could only take this mini excursion by donning cloth boots over our shoes before the camel ride. This was done in order to avoid filling our shoes full of sand when we walked to the tiny lake—hardly a lake at all, I’d say. More like a small pool of water—but if you were on a camel far away in the sand dunes and saw this welcome oasis in the distance, you’d probably praise whatever god you prayed to!
TO URUMQI –AND A NOT SO HEAVENLY HIKE
Our excursion to Heavenly Lake, outside of Urumqi, the capitol of Xinjiang Autonomous Province, was all that we expected—and more-- of a hike, that is. But first things first. Urumqi is the site of the recent Uighur ethnic uprisings of 2009 that landed many people in jail and left 200 dead. Most of Xinjiang Province is heavily Uighur, but the Central Chinese government has tried deliberately to alter this composition by populating the western capitol and beyond with majority Han Chinese. This political program continues to be a major cause of tension among the Uighur population living in the region. Before I left on this trip, a number of my friends were concerned about the danger of going to Urumqi. I wasn’t at all concerned, and my instincts turned out to be trustworthy.
Our first day in Urumqi we were ready for an excursion into the mountains to take a long cable car ride, view some beautiful mountain scenery, take a boat cruise on Heavenly Lake, and visit a Kazak family in their mountain yurt community---and do a good deal of hiking to get from mountain site to mountain site to do all this. That was the plan. I just didn’t know how extensive these hikes would be, but I found out all too soon.
The initial hike on a scenic mountain trail lasted over an hour--uphill. I thought that would be all—but it was just the beginning of a very long day.
“It’s only a short hike further to Heavenly Lake,” our guide assured us, continuing into the forest.
From then on it was:
---Hiking along an endless trail up the mountain.
---Hiking along an endless trail down the other side.
---Me whining, “Are we there yet?” numerous times.
---Finally, reaching our goal: a leisurely boat ride on Heavenly Lake.
---But wait, there’s more.
---Guide says another short hike will take us to a Kazak yurt
village up the next trail.
---No more hiking, Jean and I agree.
---Kazak friend with pickup truck offers to haul us up to the village.
---We enjoy Yak tea and Q & A session in yurt with charming Kazak sisters.
---Scenic ride down mountain on chair lift restores our energy.
---Summary of day’s events: beautiful scenery, increased appreciation
of Kazak culture, exercise in fresh air worth the sore muscles and tired bodies.
KASHGAR---MOSQUES, MUD AND MYSTIC MOUNTAINS
Snowy peaks reaching to the sky to the right; the endless Taklamakan desert to the left…our flight over the Tien Shan mountains to Kashgar reminded me how oasis cities of the Silk Road depended on snow melting from the mountains for their very existence.
Kashgar’s history dates back more than 2000 years. The main trunk of the Silk Road traveled directly through here before heading off into the treacherous Pamir Mountains. Heading east, traders swapped horses and yaks for camels to cross the vast deserts of China. Heading west, their caravans had to survive dangerous journeys through what was then Persia on their way to European markets. Heading southwest, caravans had to climb over the Kunjerab Pass, called “the valley of blood” in reference to the bandits who regularly took advantage of the fearful terrain to plunder passing caravans.
Today, the Karakorum Highway, a narrow winding road blasted out of sheer rock faces that rise high above the deep canyons below, follows the ancient Silk Road caravan trail south. It took 20 years to plan, bulldoze and pave, and in the process over 400 Chinese road builders lost their lives. Winding its way over the 15,524 foot Kunjareb Pass, the 808-mile highway links Kashgar with Islamabad, Pakistan.
I had long dreamed of setting foot on this notorious Silk Road route, aptly called the Roof of the World. After I did some research about Kashgar, I found that Lake Karakul is located on the Karakorum Highway, just 200 kilometers from Kashgar. You can guess the rest. Of course, I wanted to do my own modern-day mini Silk Road journey on this famed road, at least as far as the lake.
Which I did.
Arriving in Kashgar, we were met by our next Uighur guide, Adil, and the driver, Too Soon (my phonetic spelling for his Chinese name). I was thrilled to see we’d be riding in a Land Cruiser for the next three days for one reason. We’d be traveling along the treacherous Karakorum Highway—famous as the highest road in the world and one where detours onto muddy bypasses are commonplace.
My mountain journey of a lifetime occurred that day.
Passing through spectacular mountain scenery on this dramatic two lane road blasted out of the red, steel grey, or sandy hued rocky cliffs, we took in stunning scenery in all directions. Originally this was a goat track chipped out of the rocky cliffs. Today you can still see herds of camels, yaks, horses, and sheep grazing in the grassy pastures along the river banks in the canyon below and mountain goats perched high on the rocky mountain sides overlooking the winding road The snow covered peaks of five of the highest mountain ranges on earth, the Tian Shan, Kun Lun, Karakorum, Hindu Kush and Himalayas all join together in the Pamir Knot here, and we gazed into the distance in every direction to view white capped mountain ranges or precipitous rugged cliffs.
We reached our destination, Lake Karakul, after a 200 kilometer journey of several hours. To get there we followed numerous 18-wheel cargo trucks that ferry commerce back and forth between China and Pakistan. Occasionally, we had to detour off a blocked road and head down the mountain onto temporary mud roads because landslides, huge rockslides or a flash flood had roared down the mountain and dislodged the pavement from its precarious position along the cliff edge.
These weren’t the sole obstacles. We were stopped on several occasions by police barricades. Staying in line we had to disembark from our land cruiser to allow gun-toting policemen to check our passports and enter vehicular information into a computer. Too Soon revealed that this was a regular speed check---one that prohibited any picture taking, he warned me. While we were waiting to get through the barricade at one stop, the police confiscated the camera of the driver ahead of us who made the mistake of trying to shoot a forbidden photo. He was lucky he wasn’t arrested.
At Lake Karakul I breathed fairly easily. I was relieved I had thought to ask for an oxygen cylinder back in Kashgar to deal with the high elevation. At the lake we watched camels plodding along the lakeshore as we ate a light lunch in a café filled with Kirghiz nomads, Chinese truck drivers, and Uighur families. In dramatic contrast to the heat we had just left, snow began to fall as we walked in the brisk mountain air. I hated to leave the magical place.
The drive home continued to offer unusual experiences. Too Soon and Adil serenaded us with Uighur pop tunes for awhile. After an hour or so, Too Soon slowed down the land cruiser and came to a halt at a convenient scenic overview. We spent 15 minutes, deliberately delaying our arrival at one of the mandatory speed check points. We noticed a sudden silence a few minutes later and noticed our guide Adil swaying back and forth silently in front of us as we rode. We realized he was observing one of his five-times-a-day Muslim prayers as we slowly wound down the mountain highway back to Kashgar. All in all, the day fulfilled more than I had expected in my desire for an special experience on the Silk Road highway.
Kashgar represents the heart of the Uighur Islam culture in China, and its Id Kah Mosque is China’s largest. We walked through the empty mosque for a quick view. We wandered the nearby narrow streets lined with tiny stalls and colorful shops and stopped as Adil explained about ancient musical instruments in one and Uighur sweets and carpets in another. We wandered through the dusty streets of the ancient city in the old town that continues to offer a dramatic step back in time of at least a thousand years. With its maze of narrow winding alleys, tiny stalls and centuries’ old mud brick walled houses and miniature doorways, I felt transported back 800 years to the time Marco Polo explored the very same streets. Tragically, many of the mud brick dwellings were blown up and destroyed last year as part of the modernization program by the Chinese central government--despite violent Uighur protests.
After lingering as long as I could in the old town, I was anticipating our next adventure—fighting my way through Kashgar’s vast Sunday market and grand bazaar. This has been called the most mind-boggling trading post in Central Asia. It dates back 1500 years and draws thousands of buyers, sellers and visitors. Imagine if you can a turbulent sea of farmers, herdsmen, merchants, pedestrians, donkey carts, bikes, mopeds, and motorcycles jammed together between narrow stalls, tables, corrals and muddy fields.
And you are in the middle of it-- trying uselessly to make your way through the mud! The mass of humanity merges into one wild cacophony of unbelievable sights, smells and high decibel noise. Kazakhs, Tajiks and Uighurs from nearby villages surge onto the muddy roads and narrow aisles to set up temporary stalls, tables, and animal corrals and sell their wares. These might be donkeys, sheep, goats, camels and horses, not to mention knives, fur-lined hats, wooden saddles, horse shoes, leather boots and bags, pans, silk rugs and silk scarves, goat heads and edibles—piles of noodles, Kashgari bread, pomegranates, figs, spices, dumplings, sweet candies and other delicacies similar to the very ones sold by their ancestors in the labyrinthine bazaar for a thousand years.
I came, I saw, I was totally mesmerized. I didn’t even mind stumbling over deep donkey wagon ruts, stepping into the mud and slush, or scuffing through puddles so deep my shoes sunk in. I was surrounded by vendors, pushing, tugging and elbowing, bearded buyers and ancient sellers sporting embroidered doppa (skull caps), while women in heavy veils or scarves and chadors sold fruit and steaming dumplings, noodles or kabobs. I had to avoid creaking donkey carts that hauled loads of goats, sheep, cows, or hay and horse traders galloping round the crowd as they tested the worth of a possible purchase.
It was a memorable occasion, a case of being catapulted back into the 13th century for a few hours—and it happens every Sunday in Kashgar.
Reluctantly, we dragged ourselves away to visit the Abakh Khoka Tomb, popularly called the tomb of the “Fragrant Concubine.” I went just to find out the story behind that name. It seems, we were told, that a certain ancient emperor ordered his wife’s lavish coffin to be filled with her clothes and hauled from Beijing back to her home town of Kashgar after she died. It took 124 men three and a half years to complete the journey from Beijing to Kashgar so her belongings could be placed in the coffin in front of the mausoleum. In contrast to the frenetic life of the Sunday market we had just experienced, we found this a place of quiet repose.
TURPAN—FLAMING MOUNTAINS, GROTTOES AND GRAPES
You’d think after our wildly energetic stay at Kashgar, anything else would be a letdown. You’d be wrong. The oasis city of Turpan lies 505 feet beneath sea level. It is Asia’s lowest spot and the second lowest place in the world. We had to ride 190 kilometers from Urumqi along arid desert roads and red sandstone mountains through this “Land of Fire” on the northern border of the Taklamakan Desert, south of the Tian Shan Celestial Mountains.
Outside of town, Jean and I had an intriguing ride that almost outdid the previous camel caper. We were headed to the ruins of the ancient abandoned city of Gaochang, once a busy metropolis of 30,000 and now a silent ruin of abandoned caves and empty dwellings in the red cliffs. But to get there, our donkey ride across the desert was anything but boring. Several Uighur children were standing around, waiting for someone to hire a donkey cart when we got to the empty site. Just as we were climbing aboard the cart, our testy donkey began to bray angrily to signify his territory because another donkey and cart was approaching his space. The two animals eyed each other warily and reared up like fighting stallions in some western movie. In the midst of the fray they almost tossed us from the swaying cart. In fact, our guide slipped off the cart and fell, bruised and scratched—terrified at the donkeys’ dramatic confrontation— and probably worried about Jean and me getting injured. I was more amused than scared. and delighted when four kids jumped aboard to join us--one no older than nine grabbed the reins and drove the cart expertly for the entire ride in the hot sun.
Outside of Turpan we rode along the red Flaming Mountain cliffs to the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Grottoes. The caves were carved out and decorated between the 6th and 9th centuries and were lived in by monks who spent their lives creating this art. The walk along the deserted cliff trail was long and hot, but examining thousand year old frescoes on the cave walls was worth the time spent to get there. Once again we learned that some of these murals and sculptures had been literally cut out of the cave walls and carted off by a German archaeological explorer, Albert von le Coq, early in the 20th century. They were hauled off to the Berlin Museum where many were lost during bombings in WWII.
Turpan also turns out to have another unusual site--Karez Wells, a remarkable ancient underground irrigation system that was engineered 2000 years ago but still remains in use today. We arrived in blazing noonday sun but descending down into a serious of underground tunnels, we learned how this man-made underground network of tunnels stretching some 1800 miles, prevents water pouring down from the melting snow and glaciers of the Celestial Mountains from evaporating and keeps the nearby oasis of Turpan livable.
As a result of this environmental resource, Turpan is a center of grape, melon and cotton industries famed all over China. We had a pleasant afternoon walking along the trellised paths in the Valley of Grapes where over 100 varieties hang from the green trellises overhead. The hanging clusters looked like lush green sculptures out of an Italian painting, but the humidity and sun took their toll during another long stroll. I felt like dropping out long before the walk ended, but the prize-- recuperating in an underground cool bar helped restore my lagging energy. We enjoyed delicious green grape juice produced from the nearby vines and reluctantly headed back into the mid-afternoon heat.
Turpan was a delightful small Uighur town, and our Turpan Oasis Hotel was a gorgeous structure overlooking a neon-lit lake at night. Our first evening there I had possibly my most euphoric moment of the entire trip quite unexpectedly when a professional ethnic Uighur folklore dance troupe performed for us after dinner. The troupe presented a colorful program of lively folk dances. Dressed in typical costumes, they played on ancient instruments and sang beautifully. I loved the concert. Just when I thought the show was over, the lead singer danced over to me. He grabbed my arm and dragged me onto the dance floor to do a solo of a traditional folk dance with him. I said to myself---OK, nobody knows me here. I will definitely make a fool of myself dancing, but so what.
He twirled and turned me around and around as the entire troupe sang, watched and clapped in time to the rhythm. I almost managed to keep up with his steps. In any case, I loved dancing with an authentic Uighur performer. It was a happy ending to a delightful visit in this ancient Silk Road oasis town.
THE MARATHON COMES TO AN END
Back at the Beijing airport as I awaited my flight home, I had time to reconstruct the trip I had just completed. Granted, I felt as though I had actually managed to complete a 26.2 mile marathon just by getting through some of those--for me--tough hikes. But I fully realized how ridiculously easy my Silk Road journey was in comparison to that of the ancient camel caravans that made their way across perilous mountains and unforgiving deserts from Central Asia to Constantinople. Here I was sitting in an air-conditioned airport waiting for a non-stop flight that in just 14 hours would take me half way around the world over the pole and home. I could hardly comprehend the staggering differences between the harrowing Silk Road journey of a thousand years ago that took months and sometimes years to complete and the present trip that would fly me to my front door in a few hours.
Still, my journey was a personal marathon for me. Though it lasted only a few short weeks, it will remain a treasured trip in my memory forever.