© Gary Cralle
Silk Road rising
10 wonders along the fabled trade route that’s being resurrected in the Sichuan and Shanxi provinces
Marco Polo wouldn’t recognize the place. Development is overwhelming. Old China and New China collide and coexist as the latter displaces the former at a relentless, dizzying pace. And now China is resurrecting the Silk Road.
The very name conjures up visions of plodding camel caravans laden with chests of pressed tea, aromatic spices, gold, jade, porcelain and silk brocade. To visitors it’s exotic; to China it’s pragmatic.
The Western Han Dynasty initiated the ancient route in 139 BCE and the born-again Asian dragon boldly sees it as a proven path to economic growth. It’s part of a national strategy to develop the interior, similar to North America’s Westward Ho! pursuit in the 19th century. The fabled road will be the project’s grande allée with China pushing to weave loose threads into an economic belt linking Europe and Asia — and not in a small way.
Tourism is a primary component of the plan, and active promotion of many natural and cultural World Heritage locations has already begun. Laying the groundwork, a 5000-kilometre section of the central Asian route was declared a UNESCO site in 2014, largely at China’s urging.
When the world’s longest route was a corridor for traders, pilgrims, monks and invaders, a journey from either end could take years. Traversing it was dangerous business, subject to brutal terrain, harsh climates, disease and murderous bandits. For nearly 1600 years, the tenuous path linked eastern and western empires before shipping by sea rendered it obsolete. The Venetian Marco Polo famously travelled (or claimed he did, depending on which historians you believe) a central Asian route through Persia (Iran) and the Takla Makan Desert to what is now Beijing.
Surprisingly, the Silk Road didn’t get its name until the eminent German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen bestowed the title in 1877. No single road existed. Instead, there were rough trade corridors that split into Northern and Southern Silk Roads plus a maritime route.
Centuries of trade brought commercial, cultural and religious influences to the entire country. China’s portion of the Silk Road stretches eastward from the westernmost and largest province of Xinjiang to the very heart of the Middle Kingdom. In the beginning, Sichuan — “Land of Abundance” — produced the silk that gave the road its name.
A hop and a skip to the north, Shanxi province is a cultural gem of architectural and religious wonders, without even mentioning the Terra Cotta Warriors. It also sits on enough coal to fuel the country for the next 500 years. On my recent trip along the southern road, I discovered that these central regions have unrolled the red carpet for visitors.
Datong City Walls
Datong is the second largest city in Shanxi with a population of about three million. Together with the Old Town, the Ming-era city walls have been levelled and rebuilt presumably to enhance their appeal to visitors.. Ambitiously begun by the previous mayor, the project is the largest of its kind in China. It’s nearly finished, but controversial. At least one expert has dismissed it as a “fake relic,” maybe so, still, the result, with its guard towers illuminated at night, is undeniably photogenic. The Huayan Monastery in the city centre is itself a walled temple complex of restored and rebuilt architecture marking the Liao Dynasty (907-1125). Buddhist sculpture, an 18,000-volume library and paintings from the later Ming and Qing Dynasties are meticulously maintained within its structures. The tallest pavilion features a fine view of the surrounding city, including a residential patch of what Datong once looked like.
This UNESCO site near the city of Datong is one of the best examples of Buddhist cave art in China, displaying cultural and religious influences imported along the Silk Road, literally carved in stone. The caves were dug in a kilometre-long row and now have a wide paved walkway in front. They vary in age, condition and complexity, but each is dug out of the pockmarked sandstone base of Wuzhou Mountain. Some of the 51,000 statues suffered environmental or Cultural Revolution damage, but many are intact. The largest, number 20, a 14-metre-tall seated Buddha, faces the elements in a stoic pose outside the caves.
Yuan, Ming and Qing emperors have climbed this pagoda, but, unfortunately, you can’t because it’s now considered too fragile. At 67 metres, the Sakyamuni Pagoda of the Fogong Temple in Yingxian is the world’s tallest and oldest wooden tower. The structure is exemplary in other regards as well: it ranks in the first tier of the nation’s protected historic sites, provides a rare glimpse of what are said to be Buddha’s remaining teeth, discovered hidden in a statue on the pagoda’s fourth level, and is earthquake-proof. Built without iron nails, Sakyamuni is proudly paired with the leaning tower in Pisa and Eiffel tower in Paris as a trio of outstanding towers.
One might be forgiven for thinking a large petrified insect was clinging to the side of a cliff. The “Hanging Temple” Buddhist monastery that began as the genius of a single monk some 1500 years ago is now a crowded, one-way pedestrian circuit of appreciative tourists. Original oak stilts (reinforced, I’m sure) hold it in place. Built at the foot of Mount Heng above a river gorge protected from floods, it was designed as a way station for pilgrims. The temple eventually included Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist sculptures within its 40 rooms as a hedge against any single religion falling out of favour with the authorities thereby triggering demolition.
With an enclave scattered through a mountain forest of evergreens, the 53 monasteries atop Mount Wutai include some of China’s oldest wooden buildings. Wutai is one of four sacred mountains in Chinese Buddhism and home to the Bodhisattva (Buddhist seeker) of Wisdom. This is an active monastery with Chinese and Tibetan monks dressed respectively in brown and red robes going about their chores as visitors observe activities that range from prayers to house cleaning. There used to be 200 temples, but many were destroyed in the ninth century when the reigning emperor felt religion held too much sway. The Great White Stupa, built in 1301, is an unmistakable landmark visible from any of the hillsides, including the road northward over the peaks toward Datong.
Pingyao is one of China’s “ancient cities.” At an age of 2700 years that’s not surprising. Guidebooks gush for good reason: it’s authentic. People live and work here. The town centre is a charming mix of restaurants and shops catering to tourists; the outer streets with services for locals are quiet and less flashy, even drab. Pingyao is enclosed by its original city walls and small enough to be walkable. Viewing the historic south gatehouse by moonlight is to step back into the Middle Ages. The tempo increases on the main East-West and North-South Streets, illuminated at night by restaurants, shops and hanging lanterns. Everywhere there’s a muted cacophony of sound: the purr of electric scooters, the tinkle of bicycle bells, children’s laughter, conversations and music.
Chengdu Panda Base
The Sichuan, Shanxi and Gansu provinces are home to pandas, but their ecosystems are fragile. The Chengdu Panda Base is actively involved in conservation and an international breeding program to put bears back into the wild and ensure survival of the species. China places great importance on the goodwill engendered through these programs. Visitors can wander footpaths while observing the bears in open pens and nose-smudged nursery windows.
Wuliangye is a sprawling state-owned distillery in a suburb of Yibin. With 60,000 employees, the company is the town. From contemporary headquarters worthy of the world’s largest distillery, the company directs global sales of Wuliangye baijiu, a potent five-grain liquor that’s 40 to 60 percent alcohol by volume (vodka averages about 25 percent). It’s made with water from the Min River at the source of the mighty Yangtze using the only living natural treasure of China: pit mud, a microbial mass that produces the liquor’s characteristic aroma. Consuming baijiu in shots at banquet tables has doubtless put many a diner under them.
The subtropical monsoon climate of southern Sichuan has created a forest of bamboo in Yibin covering an area of about 120 square kilometres. The region is popular for hiking and boating. Needless to say, umbrellas or wet weather gear are a must. Rain, streams, lakes and waterfalls generate a high concentration of oxygen anions, which are said to produce a positive outlook. The soothing sea of green doesn’t hurt either. A legend says the sea was once a jade garment woven by fairies. That’s much more interesting than any scientific explanation.
Popularly known as the Stone Sea or Stone Forest, the limestone karst formation of rocks and caves in Xingwen in southwest Sichuan marks the area as an outstanding global geo park. The timeless rock show boasts the world’s largest sinkhole, various unusual stone formations including a few that bear a striking resemblance to people and animals, plus the spacious Tianquan Cave with its walkways, dazzling lights, laser show and underground river ride. A rock luge run is an optional way to enter the cave.
For more info on travel to the region, visit the China National Tourism Office (tourismchina-ca.com).
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