Silk Road 12 – Mission accomplished: Arrived in Xian!!

After 3 months on the road, I finally made it to Xian, the Eastern terminus of the Silk Road. Mission accomplished!!

I arrived happy for having been able to complete the whole journey from Istanbul. Looking back, I could appreciate how different those two cities were, yet there are no discontinuities between them. That is the advantage of travelling overland: you can see how the world changes little by little from one town to the next, with slightly different racial traits, slightly different food, culture, etc. That’s as opposed to flying. If you flew from Istanbul to Xian, you’d suddenly arrive to a completely different world and wouldn’t make any sense of your journey or how things connect.

Xi’an is the quintessential Chinese city. Sprawling and with a population of over 8 million and growing, it is becoming one of the Chinese megalopolis. But in the past it was even more populated in relative terms, actually it was one of the world’s biggest cities and capital of the Chinese empire. It was then called Chang’an.

As a testament to its former glory, the city preserves the city walls and a beautiful bell and drum tower. These two, however, seem stifled by the ever-growing shopping malls and traffic jams that surround both monuments.

The city is also well-known for an attraction nearby: the Army of Terracota Warriors, which is usually one of the highlights of any visit to China. I assume you have all heard about this.

Bell Tower, Xian

Already finished with my Silk Road accounts in these 12 episodes, I hope you enjoyed it. Next post will change course: India.

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Silk Road 11 – Tibetan flavour on the Silk Road

Hundreds of kilometres outside of Tibet and still you can find beautiful Tibetan villages and monasteries. Actually, the consensus among travellers is that it is better to visit Tibetan villages outside of Tibet proper, as it is not so much controlled by the Chinese army and visitors can travel independently and talk to people easily.

So, still in the province of Gansu, I visited Labrang Monastery, one of the six great monasteries of the Geluk (Yellow Hat) school of Tibetan Buddhism. It is located in the town of Xiahe, which I really liked for being very laid-back. Here, it really feels like being in Tibet, with Tibetan pilgrims and monks everywhere, Tibetan restaurants, houses, prayer flags, prayer wheels, etc.

Labrang Monastery

Pilgrims running the Kora at Labrang Monastery

While in Xiahe, I received a message from ‘Tom’, whom I had met in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu. He studies in Lanzhou but was now in his hometown of Hezuo, the capital of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (to which Xiahe belongs), and invited me to visit his city and stay at his place. As it is only a couple of hours bus ride away, I was there by the afternoon.

Tom exemplifies a modern generation of Tibetans in China: very much merged with the Chinese lifestyle but still proud of their own culture. He speaks Tibetan at home with his parents and grandmother. Educated, he also speaks and writes English fluently. Still, with a whole Chinese education, he cannot write his own native language.  He is a Buddhist and goes to the temple and runs the Kora when he’s at home, but not as often, as he says he is “busy” with studying (or internet :)). The family lives in a modern, middle-class apartment, far from traditional Tibetan homes, while they also add some Tibetan decor. Most meals are Chinese style, but for breakfast they never miss yak butter tea and tsampa.

Milarepa Monastery

Hezuo also has a famous Tibetan monastery, Milarepa. He took me to visit it. He showed much devotion to all the images inside but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) explain to me much about what they represent. I could remember some of them, though, from my visit to monasteries in Tibet two years ago.

Also here, I ran the ‘Kora’, always clockwise as it is required. Praying wheels contain the sacred scriptures inside, so rolling them is a proxy for reciting, even if one cannot read.

Me running the ‘Kora’

In the evening, we had a great meal in a local restaurant with his cousin, who doesn’t speak a word of English but was very welcoming.

In the Karaoke

And after dinner, the favourite entertainment in this part of the world: Karaoke. Not that I’m a good singer!! With a bottle of Chivas and free flow of beer… They wouldn’t let me pay for anything in my whole stay, no matter how much I insisted.

Finally, Tom received a phone call from his mother: there was no running water in the house. Before I even knew, they had booked and paid a nice hotel room for me, and would pick me up for having breakfast back home.

After lunch, they took me to the bus station and I went back to Lanzhou. After so much kindness, I could only invite the family to visit Spain, although in the knowledge that it is very unlikely that they will ever travel abroad.

Silk Road 10 – The edge of civilization

Continuing through the Hexi Corridor, I reached Jiayuguan, a pass in the narrowest point of the corridor. It was long thought of as the extreme western edge of Chinese culture and civilization, even if Chinese domains sometimes extended further. To the West, only feared empty steppes, deserts and nomadic tribes. It also marks the west end of the Great Wall of China.

The fort here is one of the most recognisable images of western China, and I saw many Chinese visiting it.

Jiayuguan fort

Marco Polo

After a short visit to Jiayuguan, my next stop was Zhangye, in the middle section of the Hexi Corridor. Marco Polo spent a year there in his way to Xanadu, and local authorities have erected a monument of the great Venetian traveller. It is in the middle of a roundabout though, so taking a picture is quite risking your life :).

The city also has a bell tower and drum tower, as other Chinese cities, and some nice parks and big squares.

Zhangye is best known for the Dafo Si (Great Buddha temple). The building is one of the oldest wooden structures still standing in China. Inside, the pagoda houses a huge 35 metre-long reclining Buddha.

Dafo temple, Zhangye