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Retracing the silk route
My first glimpse of the antiquities that British explorer Sir Aurel Stein brought back from his travels along the Silk Route was at the Archaeological Survey of India in Delhi, in the 1960s. I was filled with wonder at these unheard of lands and Vikram Seth's book From Heaven Lake, read years later, captivated me further. Dunhuang, Kashgar, Turfan, Urumqi were legendary names of places I never thought I would get to.
Earlier this year, I was invited to a three-day conference on the legendary Buddhist scholar Kumarajiva in Delhi. Nirmala Sharma had written a book on Kumarajiva who translated a large number of Sanskrit texts into Chinese. Born in Kucha in the fourth century AD of an Indian father and a Kuche princess, Kumarajiva virtually converted Imperial China to Mahayana Buddhism. So when a Singaporean friend at this conference, Yuan Jian, asked me if I would like to go on a trip along the Silk Route to some of the very places Kumarajiva had lived in, I jumped at the opportunity. Six of us set off on a 17-day journey to explore the Silk Road, which is a collection of trade routes from China and Japan through Central Asia to Europe.
To get to Dunhuang, the starting point of the Silk Road in north-central China from where the camel caravans started, you have to fly to Xian. I had seen the 8, 000-strong Terracotta Warriors built by China's first emperor on an earlier visit so I chose to see the Beilin Museum. Spread over a vast area with many buildings, we began with the newest one which opened just a year ago to display the Buddhist sculptures excavated between the '50s and the '80s. How did Maoist China come to be excavating Buddhist temples? "They dug these up while building schools, hospitals and homes, " was the very logical explanation.
Then Dunhuang, which is famous for Mogao cave temples with some of the world's best-preserved Buddhist art and a UN World Heritage Site. Four days were spent climbing steep steps up hillsides to see cave after cave - very few with statues still intack - with their riot of images, their beautiful frescoes of Bodhisatva and Jataka tales. Many treasures from these caves were carted away by Aurel Stein and other adventurers, but there is still plenty to see.
From Dunhuang, we drive across a dry, flat endless desert for ten hours. Dark clouds create dramatic black and indigo patterns in the sky against snow-capped hills. We stop at a small town, Hami, for lunch, and find Chinese characters co-existing with the Arabic script. We have arrived in the 'Muslim' region. Girls wear headscarves along with the normal short dresses and jeans and extraordinarily shaped, colourful and sequined high-heeled shoes. After lunch in an open-air restaurant, (a bit like a posh dhaba), we head for Tu Yu Gou valley. The drive passes along the Flaming Mountains, so-called because the red peaks flare like flames. In Tu Yu Gou, the Huojiami Mazar, called the Sage Tomb, is a famous pilgrimage spot, one of the seven holy places of Islam. Those who can't get to Mecca come here. We traverse the village with its expanse of tombs, mosque, ancient tandoors still standing, cross a little stream, picking mulberries off the trees, to arrive at the foot of steep sandhills which house the Thousand Buddha Grottoes. We enter some of the superb caves which are under restoration, but the landscape takes your breath away.
After naans and mulberries for lunch, we set off again into the desert to arrive at mythical Gaochang city where Xuan Zhang (Hsieun Tsang as he is better known in India) spent months at the invitation of King Qu Wendai on his way to India in the 7th century. Once a flourishing city, it is now in ruins, haunted by memories of bygone splendour.
Turpan, the second-lowest place on earth, is our halt for the night. We visit the superbly decorated tombs and the great mosque, and go around the city and its colourful bazaars piled with freshly made naans, luscious fruit, clothes - mainly jeans and tee shirts - and DVDs (even Bollywood films dubbed into Uighur as these are apparently very popular and even screened on television).
The night is spent in Korla from where the new "Petrol Highway", used to transport fuel to this poor region, starts and goes 600 km to to Minfeng, Yutian and Khotan to join the Southern Silk Route. Of the three Buddhist temples in Khotan - or Hotan - excavated in 2002, one has been turned into a wondrous museum, alongside two more which have been covered beautifully to preserve them from the elements. These Buddhist sites had been destroyed by the Central Asian armies which arrived in the region in the 10th and 11th centuries. Photographs of the ruined frescoes line the walls. Outside is a vast expanse of mounds and little hillocks. Who knows what further treasures lie within them.
Dinner is at a little restaurant which resembles a cave. "No beer", they tell us. "This is a Muslim restaurant". Oh well. The food is delicious but outside, in the night bazaar, the food stalls look even more tempting! This is the area where the jade comes from so it's a great place for picking up something to remember Khotan by.
We go on to Kashgar where the northern and southern Silk Routes meet. A must visit is the Apak Hoja Mazar with its exquisitely decorated tombs of five generations of the Hoja family. We visit some homes in the now restored old city and see craftspeople making exquisite bronzes and weaving shawls. The designs are an extraordinary mix of Uzbek and Chinese influences. The bazaar in Kashgar is a big draw.
From Kashgar to Kucha is a long 800 km, through the endless desert. Twelve hours later, we are at the magical Kumtula caves. This site was discovered a mere 40 or so years ago. The Bodhisatvas painted on the dome of one of the caves are also the cover of Nirmala Sharma's Kumarajiva book so it was a very special moment. The little stream below was once a river that came up to the cave level and monks and devotees climbed directly from the boats into the caves. Now the stream is so shallow and narrow that no boats ply on it. It reminded me of the Red Fort in Delhi, of the time the Yamuna flowed along the walls where the Ring Road has now taken the place of the water. The setting is spectacular, very dramatic. For me, this is the highlight of the travel, this and Tu Yu Gou. But more was to come.
Kucha, the birthplace of Kumarajiva, is a must visit. The entrance to the site of the caves is dominated by a statue of him. The caves with frescos and statues go on and on. One would need a month to see them. The Kizil Institute nearby is working on documenting them but it will take a lifetime.
A short walk around town and we marvel at this extraordinary meeting-place of different races and cultures: Uighur, Uzbek, Mongolian, Tokharian, Tajik, Kazak, Afghan, Chinese and Turkic.
The next day was the last drive in our two cars whose chauffeur/guides by now had become friends. "Arna (sic), lessgo, lessgo", Shaolong would call when I hesitated in front of some very steep climbs, and would pull me up to get a glimpse of the wonders on view for us on this very unforgettable journey.
The final destination is Urumqi, or variously spelt and pronounced, Urumuchi. In one room of a recently excavated temple is a seated Buddha with fierce Dwarpalas in Uighur dress standing guard outside. Uighur, you wonder? But yes, of course, the Uighurs were devoted Buddhists before they converted to Islam around the 11th century with the invasions from Central Asia. We started the trip seeing temples and caves destroyed and damaged by, they say, the Uighur, and to end the trip with a visit to a Buddhist temple built by the Uighur left you wondering about the meaning of religion and its relationship with violence.
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