Turpan girl

More than 2,000 years ago, merchants laden with silk, ivory and later gunpowder, had only three main trading routes linking China to the West. Caravans travelled to today’s Middle East region via Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The roads weaving through dangerous mountain ranges and desolate desert regions became known as the Silk Road.

Tian Shan vendorMore than commodities though, the Silk Road brought Buddhism and Islam east, leaving new legacies of art and culture in China.

When Genghis Khan led the nomadic Mongols to victory in much of Asia, the Silk Road became the path of communication between the empire’s cultures. Traders of different nationalities and religions, including Jews, Muslims and Christians, settled in northern China.

Jiayuguan - the start of the Great WallThis is where I went in late September. On a breakneck 14-day tour tracing the northern Silk Road backwards, I was transported to a movie-set world of ruined cities, blazing desert oasis, dusty markets and breathtaking 1,500-year-old Buddhist art.

The northern provinces of Xinjiang and Gansu offered pictures of China I never knew existed. Rocky cliffs grander than the Grand Canyon, mountain lakes bluer than Lake Louise, and faces traced with more history than I could ever learn.

We joked that we were paying homage to Indiana Jones, travelling by plane, train, bus, dragon boat, speedboat, gondola, donkey cart, golf cart and camel.

Of course, there was the food: whole-roasted lamb, braised pork hock, camel hoof tendons, freshly made lai-mein (stretched noodles), goat head and intestine soup, desert oasis grapes, hami melon, and deep-fried snake. We tried it all.

I have pictures and in time, I’ll have the stories here. Please visit again soon.

Urumqi International Bazaar