Journey to the West
Life rolled by effortlessly as the sun pierced the sky and the earth displayed its diversity.
Mountains and meadows, villages and valleys, wastelands and watering holes flew by timelessly. At 200 kilometers per hour, the world changed by the minute. Long gone are the days where caravans challenged the old game of life verses death. In this region, any slight miscalculation could result in starvation in two of the world’s largest deserts – the Gobi and the Taklamakan. Sitting in the closed, safe, metal-bounded compartment of the train, it feels as if we are cheating at the game while watching the landscape fly by. Me and my wife, Mary, entered this west-bound train to China’s far western and remote region to trace history’s most infamous route – the Silk Road. But in this effortless moment to reach this region, a sense of unfairness encapsulates my mind. We’re not risking life and limb for this journey, nor is there no glorious destination; we’re just here for the ride. And by ride, I mean a casual and cool journey by train to Xinjiang to trace the ancient route, not the torturous and cruel journey by foot or camelback as those traders did a millennium ago on the Silk Road.
We sat that warm afternoon in the cabin of our train, waiting patiently for our ever-nearing destination.
Chinese trains are unlike anything else; a quirky hodgepodge of locals and itinerants, young and old, groomed and smelly. It’s a chaotic and hectic mess at times, especially in the seat sections. Weary Chinese are sprawled on the floor, fighting for every inch of sleeping space. The attendants are swooping by every five minutes selling everything from the latest gadget to the strangest snack, evading the lying bodies and the stretched-out feet. Then there’s the groups who don’t seem to tire, playing cards and speaking at maximum volume the entire night. Every now and then there is that lone foreigner, like myself that day, who appears so out of place. I feel as though I am the main attraction in a zoo, a fact Mary, a Chinese, puts up with daily in the Middle Kingdom.
Despite its hectic nature, these train rides are a journey in and of itself, offering opportunities to meet locals, share stories, and form memories that last far longer than those quick and comfortable flights. This route lasted all of 40 hours, starting in Sichuan Province, extending north to Gansu, then cruising through the historic Hexi Corridor, the start of the Silk Road, all the way to Xinjiang, the furthest and most remote province in China. Each of these regions in China boast countless scenes and eccentric personalities, enough to fill numerous books, but it’s the largest and furthest west region of Xinjiang we are most interested in.
Xinjiang is a heartland of Uyghur culture, a sanctuary of geographical extremes, and a realm of antiquity – namely of Silk Road lore. Prior to this journey to the West, I spent hours devouring articles, books, and excerpts of the Silk Road. The significance of these ancient highways (plural is the more accurate tense – the Silk Roads) extend well beyond Asian and Middle Eastern advancement; they quite possibly brought the greatest breakthrough, both technically and artistically, for Europe and the Western world.
The Silk Roads evoke glorious days of past, mirages of exotic locales, and extraordinary tales - a far-cry from the grim reality most of the merchants experienced.
These interconnected series of ancient routes are the veins of the world where peoples, faiths, and countries are intricately blended together. Rulers and explorers, from Genghis Khan to Marco Polo, were captivated by these syntheses. The Silk Roads are 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.
Despite our relatively tame approach to revisiting the Silk Road – after all, we are not clambering on camels or walking by foot for thousands of miles – we are still energetically curious to unfolding the secrets surrounding this region, to uncovering the hospitality of its people, and to witnessing the grandeur of the untamed force of nature.
Sitting on this hours and hours long train, we contemplate what these weeks might have in store for us.
Will we gaze at ancient ruins of days long past, haggle in bazaars that still evoke the days of Silk Road merchants, explore ancient grottoes of Buddhist history, traverse dangerous mountains passes, or cross the Taklamakan Desert - the point of no return? Has modernity caught up to Xinjiang like it has in Eastern China? Or, most tragically, has the culture been stripped of its identity and diluted in the name of Chinese confluence? Sitting in the train, watching the ancient land zoom by, it becomes foggy whether we will have a clear answer to any of these questions. It may be that we find a combination of all these scenarios, or we may find a different situation all together.
Regardless, we hope in that moment, however insignificant our journey may seem to the outside world, to gain a clearer understanding of this misunderstood part of the world.