Tri-City Herald, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2000
Old, New China Meet Along Ancient Silk Road
©2000 Valerie Kreutzer
Say Tiananman and most Americans think of June 4, 1989, when Chinese tanks mowed down hundreds of pro-democracy students on Tiananman Square in Beijing, China.
On a recent visit I found the square packed with Chinese tourists who snapped pictures of each other under Mao Zedong’s portrait. His huge image still dominates the scene and gets repainted every year. Perhaps that’s why this icon doesn’t show any cracks.
“I was in Beijing and took part in the protests,” confessed my guide, MaFengjian (“call me John”). “It was a very emotional time,” he explained with a dismissive laugh. “If it (the pro-democracy movement) had succeeded, China would be in turmoil today,” he added seriously. “Instead, we are moving slowly—not smoothly—toward a more open society and a market economy.”
If John were right, China would be the first country to move towards freedom and prosperity under communist rule. During two weeks on the ancient Silk Road, my fellow Americans and I had plenty of opportunity to observe China’s bumpy travel towards these goals.
Our journey started in Urumqi, the capital of the “autonomous” Xinjian region in China’s Far West. The province has towering snow-capped mountains, grasslands ruled by herdsmen who live in yurds, and lush fruit-growing oases surrounded by the vast Gobi desert.
Xinjian is twice the size of Texas and China’s largest province. Its inhabitants are mostly Muslims who look less like Chinese and more like Turks, which ethnically they are. The region is rumored to have the largest oil reserves and, making sure that this “wild west” province stays in the fold, the Chinese government has settled it with many majority Han, and is lavishing enormous sums towards its industrial development.
Urumqi’s skyline was dominated by cranes competing in a building frenzy. Our hotel, the Holiday Inn, was a joint venture of American management, public and private funding. There were no Mao portraits, but he Marlboro man held his reins from a billboard overlooking the People’s Park.
During the early morning stroll through the park we watched how China awakes. Old and young, single or in groups, everyone exercised tai-chi-style. With friendly gestures we were invited to participate. Nearby, a group of middle-aged couples moved in steps of classical ballroom dancing. Old men brought their pet songbirds in delicate bamboo cages they hung on trees. The park resounded with waltzes and bird song.
In the evening, the whole downtown erupted in trading and cooking. Would-be restaurateurs stir-fried and dished out food from the wagons attached to their bicycles. It seemed that everybody sold something to somebody—with a required license, it turned out. When a farmer couldn’t produce his document, a policeman turned over his cart and ripe peaches rolled into the gutter.
There were no Westerners in sight and when it got late and I got lost and asked a group of young women “Holiday Inn Hotel?” they giggled and ran away. But a young man in suit and tie with a cell phone to his ear knew some English and gladly pointed the way.
Four bus-hours from Urumqi lies Turpan in a depression of the Gobi Desert. At 504 ft below sea level, Turpan is the lowest and hottest spot in China. Also the sweetest, our guide added, because Western travelers on the Silk Road had brought grapevines, melons and peaches to this oasis town.
Turpan’s streets are trellised with grapevines and many of the adobe houses have open mud rooms used for drying a variety of grapes. The government leases the land according to family size. “Rich people live here,” boasted red plaques on some homes in the Grape Valley.
Irrigation of the oasis depends on hundreds of ancient underground channels that bring fresh water from the glaciers of distant mountains. An enterprising boy had sold us sweet mulberries and we dunked the whole basket into the cool waters of the channel.
The mulberry leaves feed voracious silk worms as they grow into cocoons. At the roadside we watched a woman untangle threads from silky balls that soaked in water. Her husband was turning the wheel that spun the thread onto a spindle. In ancient times, precious Chinese silk, jade and porcelain were transported over the Silk Road to satisfy the tastes of Europe’s nobility.
Fruit, vines, cotton and tea were brought back from the West. In the first century AD, Buddhism also came along from India. The Mongao Caves near Kunhuang in Gansu Province house China’s richest treasure of ancient Buddhist murals and sculptures, some dating back to the 4th century. When Islam arrived via the Silk Road in the 10th century, Buddhist monks and artist were driven away, but the artwork endured, thanks to the dry heat of the desert.
At the beginning of the 1900s, Western explorers befriended an enterprising local monk and carted off tons of manuscripts, murals and statues to the British Museum and other institutions. “This statue was stolen by an American,” said our soft-spoken docent, pointing with his flashlight to an empty spot. “It is now in the Fogg Museum at Harvard.” We grunted disapproval and mumbled our regrets.
Our young docent forgot to mention that during the Cultural Revolution, red guards had destroyed and defaced much of the art. Forty of the almost 500 caves have been restored. In the largest, a freshly painted Buddha gazes from a 105-foot height with a smile of forgiveness.
A woman guide led us through an adjacent exhibit of bronze Buddhas from Tibet. “So the Chinese stole Tibetan treasures to bring them here?” I wondered out loud. “No,” she said firmly, “These are Chines sculptures. The Tibetans are culturally different, but Tibet is part of China.” She repeated that loudly since I didn’t seem to agree.
China’s greatest treasure trove near Xian was discovered in 1976, when peasants were digging a well and unearthed the first terra-cotta soldiers, now part of an impressive 7,000 piece army. The life-size soldiers, horses and wagons were created to protect the burial site of Emperor Qinshihuangdi who defeated an array of local warlords to unite China in 221 BC.
“The Eighth Wonder of the World” proclaims a banner at the entrance of the structure that now protects the army of terra-cotta warriors. They are indeed an awesome sight! At a store nearby, one of the peasants who discovered the site autographed glossy picture books. A savvy bookseller had hired him to attract more business. I worked! Since the exhibit is dimly lit and tourists are not allowed to use flashes, the stoic peasant in broad daylight presented our best photo-op.
Xian, China’s former capital, is the eastern terminus of the Silk Road.
Our wondrous journey by bus, train, plane and camel had taken us through mountains, deserts and dunes along the route traversed by Marco Polo 700 years ago. The journey had led past remnants of watchtowers connecting the Great Wall, thriving oases, Neolithic villages and modern industrial cities. We saw flourishing farms and met armies of eager entrepreneurs.
We were amazed how well this country of 1.2 billion functions. Trains were prompt and planes started rolling on schedule, even as the last passengers scrambled for their seats.
We also gasped at the clouds of pollution that veil the clear vistas we saw only on postcards. With coal the main source of energy, yellowish clouds waft from the concrete towers of the power stations. Xian’s landmarks were barely visible.
“If the government doesn’t do something about the environment, we will not be able to enjoy the future,” said Yang Rui, our young guide. “I think it is better to have everyone on bicycles than having cars and refrigerators and TVs, if you can’t breathe the air, see trees and enjoy the singing of the birds,” she said.
Rui, a college graduate with a major in English, expressed some modern-day ambivalence in the face of galloping development.
“These are apartments you can buy,” she said as we passed a new elegant highrise. A three-bedroom apartment costs between $50-60,000, an astronomical sum for the average Chinese who makes between $50-100 a month, Rui explained. “We have a lot of very, very rich people now. They go into business for themselves and nobody knows how much they make. There is a lot of corruption.“I think if Mao could see us now, he’d turn in his grave,” said our philosophical guide, a beautiful wisp of a woman. “Twenty years ago we dressed alike and had equal means. Now we have more freedom. I can say what I want, and I am glad. But I think our obsession with material things may harm our humanness and perhaps our future.”