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Veins of the World

The Silk Roads

Donkey karts and camels replace trains and planes, lamb skewers replace dumplings, and ancient ruins dot the landscape. Here, harsh environments coexist with hospitable people.

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By Kevin McFarland

Visited June 2016

The Silk Roads evoke glorious days of past, mirages of exotic locales, and extraordinary tales, captivating explorers from Genghis Khan to Marco Polo. These interconnected series of ancient roads are the veins of the world where peoples, faiths, and countries are intricately blended together. The Silk Road is also the passageway from East to West, and it is here where both sides of the world dramatically clash to form a truly unique landscape where innovations thrived. It is also here where civilizations and religions have formed, setting the blueprint to our ever so complex modern world. The Silk Roads are not just remote corners of the globe, forgotten and unimportant. Rather, the Silk Roads are perhaps the center of our complex globalization. The landscape of our planet would look vastly different if merchants, nomads, nobles, and explorers did not traverse the thousands of miles for hundreds of years. It's perplexing how such an important part of history can be so often overlooked and minimized.

A large portion of this vast system of roads lies in far western regions of China, a place defined by extremes. Here is a completely different landscape than that of Eastern China, where donkey karts and camels replace trains and planes, where lamb skewers replace dumplings, where ancient ruins and forgotten caves dot the landscape, and where harsh environments coexist with hospitable people. Some unforgettable journeys can be had through this landscape of dunes, oases, ghost towns, and ancient relics, and we are blessed to have journeyed a portion of this ancient road.

We first ventured into Silk Road territory in the summer of 2016, where we came across deserts, snow-capped peaks, centuries old temples, and remnants of lost civilizations. Taking the train from Xining to Zhangye, we were amazed by the sudden change of scenery in the Tibetan plateau to the Hexi Corridor. The Hexi Corridor is part of the Northern Silk Road running from the Yellow River all the way through Gansu into Central Asia. With the harsh Gobi Desert to the north and the extreme Tibetan Plateau to the South, this corridor of oases, trees, and valleys served as one of the most important trading routes of the Silk Road. It is no wonder this region is filled with historical sites, and have left a major imprint on rulers and explorers alike. It was here where Genghis Khan entered from Mongolia into China to form the largest empire the world has seen at that point. It was also here where Marco Polo spent years of his travels, living amongst the peoples and recording their life.

While I was siting on the train, observing before me the transformation of landscapes, I imagined life as it was a thousand years ago. The luxury of a high speed train transporting you hundreds of miles in only hours was obviously non-existent. This meant caravans of camels and donkeys, with any slight miscalculation of direction usually meant death either in the Taklamakan or the Gobi Deserts. The journey through the Silk Roads were not a guarantee of survival, but a treacherous journey that took months to complete. Our first stop was in Zhangye, a little known town in the middle of Gansu made popular by a spectacular danxia landform of rainbow hills. Asides from the geographical beauty, the town itself is delved into Silk Road folklore, where legend says Kublai Khan was born here and also the living place of Marco Polo for over a year.

Our second stop along the Hexi Corridor of the Silk Road was Yinchuan, now capital of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, a land granted to the indigenous Hui Muslim population. The Muslim flair was strong, from the smells of kebabs and lamb, to the sights of mosques. But this place wasn't always inhabited by the Hui. Nearly 1000 years ago a Tibetan-Burmese people, called the Tanguts, migrated here to form the Western Xia Kingdom, lasting almost 200 years until its fall by the hands of Genghis Khan in 1227 AD. We had the chance to visit what is left of this kingdom, weathered down to what are now ruins of pyramids, some very large, even rivaling Egypt and taking on the name as the "oriental pyramids."

The cultural landscape has changed significantly here in Yinchuan, and many places along the Silk Road for that matter, but what remains is the strong abode to history, one that is often on the verge of disappearance but will never be forgotten. Spending those days reliving the ancient Silk Road were memorable and impactful, and I long to go back to discover more of these histories that shaped our world.

In two days time we will be traveling once again to this ancient highway, exploring even further towards Central Asia. Our path will cross through the entirety of the Hexi Corridor, where the Silk Road diverges into three paths - the northern, middle, and southern routes. We will retrace parts of all three of theses routes, stopping to gaze at ancient ruins of days long past, haggling in bazaars that still evoke the days of Silk Road merchants, exploring ancient grottoes of Buddhist history, traversing dangerous mountains passes, and crossing the Taklamakan Desert - the point of no return. In the following weeks and months, I will recount stories and share glimpses of our travels, hoping to unfold the secrets and mysteries that surrounds the Silk Road. The thought of retracing the steps of the world's greatest explorers and rulers is one that captivates my mind.

"It's a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness." Lucius Seneca

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