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China Cultural tour: Exotic Silk Road by Train

Date: 2017-02-07

Easy Tour China’s general manager Wei led a team, including a historian and linguist, and seven travelers interested in Silk Road and Chinese culture, and ventured into the heartland of Xinjiang. The tour is not only about Xinjiang highlights but also about the haunting background cultural clues, historical mysteries and the changeless local life.

After the exploration on Silk Road, Wei updated below Information on Silk Road and shared us the tips about Silk Road Train Tour on November, 2016

China Silk Road tours

High speed train connects Xinjiang and mainland China

In 1962, railway was introduced to Xinjiang section of the Silk Road for the first time in history. Steam engines roared into Urumqi from eastern part of China. From there the railway went further to Kuqa, Kashgar, Hotan, reducing the transportation time greatly. Before that time, local people from smaller oasis villages would ride camel for 1-2 weeks before they could arrive at a big bazaar to trade their merchandise and buy stuff.

In 2014, high speed train was introduce to Xinjiang and is running daily between Lanzhou and Urumqi, reducing the previous 24 hours to 11hours for the 1950km ride. In 2017, railway project between Hotan and Ruoqiang (Qarkilik) will start. Upon finishing, it will reduce the train ride out to the eastern part of China for the southern regions of Xinjiang by 1000km.

As modern transportation makes it easier for the local people, it is also easier for travelers to visit these fascinating western regions where the eastern Chinese are not yet quite familiar.

Train lovers from Easy Tour China would like to present you with an option to visit this mythical Silk Road to help you experience the culture and the people.

Silk Road Train Trip ideas:

Let us begin with Xi’an, the once greatest city in the world, and the China end/start point of the Silk Road. Xi’an is endowed with rich historical records & monuments, depicting the grandeur of the Silk Road trading and Chinese culture.

Silk Road tour from Xian 

Then we go west by train, along the Hexi Corridor, to the western end of the Great Wall. Hexi Corridor has been a constantly fought for regions since 2000 years ago, as it controls the Silk Road trading routes. Numerous kingdoms controlled this area. Beacon Towers went from Xi’an via Zhangye, all the way to the vast territory of Xinjiang, all the way to the western border regions. Today, there are still military horse ranches there, though the number is dwindling.

Zhangye City, one of the four important oasis strongholds of the Hexi Corridor, offers a terrific landscape of the colorful rock formations - Danxia Landform (Zhangye National Geopark). Here we can stay for one night or two to take in the history and scenery.

Jiayuguan is the western end of the Great Wall and is close to Dunhuang, the western frontier of the Han Dynasty 2000 years ago. Dunhang has the world famous Mogao Grottoes with rich Buddhist murals and documents accumulated over 1500 years. The Great Wall built in the Han Dynasty can still be found together with the beacon towers.

Turpan

Out of Dunhuang, the high speed train ride will take us further west to Turpan, an oasis town first built 2000 years ago at the current site of Jiaohe Ruins. The first settlers are Indo-Europeans, evolved possibly from the clans that lived here from 3000-4000 years ago. At that time horticulture was well developed and some early travelers thru this region claimed “possibly the best raisin in the world”. From 2000 years ago, Turpan changed hands many times between the super powers of Eastern Chinese, Xiongnus (Huns, nomadic tribe roaming the steppes further north), Turkic and Mongols, primarily due to its strategic location on the Silk Road.

Both the Jiaohe Ruins (108BC – 450AD) and Gaochang (460BC – 15th Century) Ruins are now UNESCO heritage site of the Silk Road. Jiaohe was once the world largest & oldest rammed earth city and is the only ruins of Han Dynasty city in China. Sections of religion, government, markets and local people dwellings were well preserved due to the dry climate. It offers a rare opportunity of history study of the Silk Road. Gaochang Kingdom (Gaochang Ruins) is the place where the famous monk Xuanzang stopped for one month (on his way along the Silk Road to India) and preached for the local people (7th century) and the preaching square is still there.

Silk Road tour by train

The Buddhist Grottos, though heavily destroyed by Muslim presence in the history, offers a good look at the gradual influence from India, Europe and Central Asia. And do not forget the raisins, another commodity brought to this region from central Asia earlier than 500BC, which flourished till today (some claimed 1/3 of Chinese raisins are from Turpan).

From Turpan, we will take the normal train (speed around 80km/hr), via the strong wind belt of some 30km. Strong wind in the winter time can sweep the train off its track and it happened a few times in the past 50 years. And a few trains halted today because of the wind (Nov.05, 2016).

Kuqa or Kusen in Uighur language

8hrs of train ride takes us to Kuqa from Turpan. Some of the tunnels on the old rail line are permafrost layers and took tremendous labor to finish.

Famous in history for Iron smelting, Kuqa was once a flourishing Kingdom. As early as 272BC, King Ashoka of India (one of the greatest Kings in Indian history), exerted his influence here. The close link with India contributed to the numerous Buddhist Grottos and temples around Kuqa. The Buddhist Grottos in Kuqa are the earlier Grottos in China.

Buddhism was carried here from the high mountains of Pamir to here in the 1st century and reached a peak in the 3rd century. In 627, as per the records of Monk Xuanzang, “there are more than 100 temples with more than 5000 monks studying the Buddhist scripts”. In his debate with the Kingdom’s Buddhist leader, Xuanzang won in every aspect. From here, Buddhism made its way to China.

Music in Kuqa, under a strong Indian influence, went along the Silk Road to China and became the Royal court music and dance. It was named “Music and Dance from the heaven”.

Xinjiang and Silk Road tour

Ancestor of Kuqa spoke Tocharian language, a dialect of Indo-European language, similar to Germanic language, and the written form took from Brahmi of India. It was replaced by Uighur language in the 8th century AD.

Our trip focus Kuqa will be the Buddhist heritage, the mural paintings (strong influence of Ghandara and Persian art), sculptures and the ruins of once flourishing temples. Lamb, prunes and Naans are the local specialties.

Kashgar

From Kuqa, around 7 hours on the train, we will be riding along the Tian Shan (Heavenly) Mountains. The highest peak reaches 7439m (24,406ft) above sea. Many of the mountain passes rise above 3000m above sea near the snow line, thus we can imagine the difficulty met by the caravans traveling along the Silk Road. The Tian Shan Mountain has been inscribed on the natural heritage of UNESCO.

We will arrive at Kashgar, a dynamic trading city linking China with the central Asian countries, Kirgizstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. All three Silk Road routes out of Dunhuang and Hami converge at Kashgar. Out of Kashgar, the caravans will continue thru the Pamirs out to the west, splitting again into different routes, into Europe.

As early as 10th century BC, legend has it the King of Zhou Dynasty went on a western expedition and took part in a large scale trading in Kashgar. In the following years, Kashgar went between the rule of Xiong Nu, Turks, other nomadic groups in the north steppes, and the Eastern Chinese kingdoms with independence for some duration. It adopted Buddhism in the 2nd century.

China Xinjiang tours

After Islam was adopted by the local King in 915, religious war was fought 80 years against Khotan Kingdom dominated by Buddhists. Scripts from the famous Mahamud Kashgari, the royal writer (author of the first comprehensive dictionary of Turkic language), “We came down on them like a flood, We went out among their cities, We tore down the idol-temples, We shat on the Buddha's head!”

Today, trading is still a large part of the economy. Neighboring countries’ traders come in to sell and buy, just like what their ancestors did for the past few thousand years. In 1980, Pakistan traders came in painted trucks along the Silk Road and traded with local people in kinds. Silk was still the most popular goods from China. Today, one of the most intriguing bazaars is the livestock market on Sundays, where horses, yaks, camels, sheep, horses, and cows are on full display.

Arts and crafts thrive here. Handmade bronze wares and potteries are local specialties. Education, especially Islamic, had made Kashgar a major center in Central Asia. Music, especially the Muqam, spread all over Xinjiang province.

Great architectures are another cultural heritage. The Apak Khoja family tomb and largest Mosque in China – Id Kah mosque (1442) are magnificent monuments and symbols of Kashgar.

China is now planning/constructing railways to link with Pakistan, Kirgizstan and Uzbekistan. Hopefully the modern transportation will help the countries along the old Silk Road with faster trading and cultural exchange.

Hotan, Khotan

From Kashgar, we will take the 6hr overland train journey to the east.

Khotan, an intriguing city, was influenced by cultures from Greek, Egypt, central Asia, India and Eastern China. The earliest language used here is a sub group of east Iranian language. Then for some time in history, a few languages were used at the same time in Hotan.

One of the earliest traded merchandise in Hotan is the famous Hotan Jade. As early as 3500 years ago, Hotan jade was traded along the Taklimakan Desert all the way to the Eastern part of China.

Xinjiang culture tour 

Paper making in Hotan is said to start more than 2000 years ago. In an excavated accounting book in the Tang Dynasty (1400 years ago), it records the trading of paper in Hotan. Starting from the 3rd Century AD, Hotan paper was exported to the other parts of Central Asia and to Europe. In Qing Dynasty, paper notes were printed on this mulberry paper.

Hotan woolen carpet has a history of more than 2000 years. Wool weaving here went earlier to 3500 years ago. Dyeing materials in the beginning come primarily from the nature, including plants & minerals. As Silk Road official trading pushed commerce to a unprecedented high, Hotan carpets were exported to Eastern China for royal families and to Europe via Central Asia. Today, museums in London, Washington and Frankfurt all have exquisite Hotan carpets on display.

Hotan Silk: the most popular story is about the princess stealing silk worm from eastern China and carried to Hotan, as secrets of silk was well kept by the Dynasties in the Eastern part of China. Also called Etles or Atlas, meaning tie-dye in local Uighur language, the Hotan silk is a must for each Uighur woman in southern part of Xinjiang. The history goes back to more than 2000 years ago and the Silk Road trading made it a hot item for the ladies in the 10th century in Eastern China and Europe. The traditional colors of Etles/Atlas Silk is black and white.

Xinjiang and Silk trips

As Hotan is one of the least touched by modern commerce, our trip here focus on the history and original lifestyle of the locals. Our visits will include the jade market, old city area, bazaars, paper making, carpet or Silk making, the museum, and a camel ride into the desert.

Urumqi and return trip

From Hotan, we will fly to Urumqi – oops, the train ride is too long and repeated. Our grand finale is Urumqi. Like many cities in China now, the city is quickly expanding with modern high-rises. However, the capital status means we will see the best things excavated from all over the province, thus enabling us a general picture of the trips we have made so far. The provincial museum is a must, followed by visits to the local bazaars and good food. And we will be rewarded with choices of hotels of modern comfort, both good to relax and to keep up on the diary.

From Urumqi, there are many choices of flights to connect with your home bound flights, be it Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou or Chengdu.

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