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The Silk Road

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Published on Nov 16, 2010

In the past the Silk Road represented a vital resource in the exchange of goods between Europe and Asia. Today it remains a communication canal which brings together various cultures and contrasting lifestyles. Goods and people are conveyed over snowy mountain passes and dirt tracks, often by truck, more rarely still on camels.


In the past the Silk Road represented a vital resource in the exchange of goods and knowledge between Europe and Asia. It continues to play an important role today in exchanges and trade between the different cultures and ethnic groups of modern-day China. It is in the Chinese province of Gansu, whose capital Lanzhou is the driving force of a vast area twice the size of Italy. Lanzhou has a population of 5 million people and is borne on the crest of an apparently unstoppable wave of development. Its geographical position is such that it constitutes an ideal trade bridge towards both west and north. In the south of the province, towards Qinghai, is the little town of Xiahe, where the most important Tibetan monastery on Chinese territory is located. Northwards is the classical Silk Road whose itinerary crosses the Hexi Corridor, flanks the Alashan Plateau and the Tenggeri Desert and culminates in the Taklimakan Desert. As soon as the city of Lanzhou is left behind, urban development scenes are overtaken by a more rural and characteristic landscape, and after crossing mountains and deep valleys one reaches the oasis of Wuwei on the edge of the Tenggeri Desert. There are many areas of experimental defence systems against the advancement of the desert, with the cultivation of trees and plants which are resistant to the local climate. The cities of Gansu along the Silk Road have kept little of the fascination that they must have had in the times of the caravans; they are all affected by the economic boom and especially by the exploitation of the mining and oil resources of the area. They enjoy a discreet development and their centres bloom with new buildings all very similar to each other. After Wuwei, there is Zhahngye, Jiayuguan and finally Dunhuang. Near Zhangye, for a long stretch, the ancient Chinese wall flanks both the road and the Urumqui railway. Seeing the Wall so close to these north- and westwards communication canals makes one think back to the times when the Mongols and the trade caravans from Europe lived and travelled in these areas. Jiayuguan lies beyond a cold and semi-desert plateau where the agriculture, despite the conditions, is reasonably well-developed thanks to the wells built by the Peking government in the 1960's. Jiayuguan is famous for the Jiayu Pass Fort, the last westerly fortress of the Chinese empire. It was built in 1372 and has recently been remodernised. Along the last stretch of the Silk Road to Dunhuang the approaching desert makes itself increasingly felt. The countryside becomes arid and at certain points also deeply eroded by the wind-blown sand. In Dunhuang the caves of Mogao, dating from the Wei (350-550 AD) and Tang (618-907 AD) dynasties are a symbol of the way in which life on the Silk Road has contributed to cultural exchange between peoples ever since extremely ancient times. The fall of the Han in 220 AD decreed the end of Confucianism and opened the way for the attractive Buddhist teachings from India on Nirvana and personal salvation. There are several hundred of these caves, niches dug into the rock, and the statues and murals inside them describe the Buddha's life and history, his teachings and his followers. Many of the paintings refer to Indian divinities and Hindu practices, bringing to mind the origins and diffusion of Buddhism. Their sizes vary from a little more than one metre in the smaller caves to as many as 40 metres in the biggest cave which boasts an enormous 35-metre-high representation of the Buddha. The dry desert air and stability of the rock have conserved these artefacts perfectly. The entrance to Dunhuang is characterised by the singing sand dunes as Marco Polo called them. These dunes, some of which exceed 1500 metres in height, remind the traveller that he is now in the Taklimakan Desert. Every now and then camel caravans transporting tourists or supplies for the kiosks that have appeared in recent times can be seen toiling up their peaks. Seen from a distance these caravans endow the scene with a suggestive atmosphere that takes one back into the past. We reached this place following a road that was an important commercial and cultural artery, and that still contributes to the development of China today.

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