“I have only told half of what I saw, because no one would have believed me.” - Venice 1324, Marco Polo, on his deathbed
Silk Route; a name with a magical air of mystery and exoticness. You instantly think of caravans bringing the finest spices, smells of tea and spicy peppers, women in colorful dresses with their faces covered in finely tailored silk scarves and proud men with long mustaches and white head covering. You think of the wonder felt by those in the West, amazed by so exceptional goods coming from an unthinkably distant kingdom, of ancient Chang An, capital of the great Celestial Empire, and its merchants trading the finest silk in the world in change of the heavenly steeds coming from Central Asia; you think of deserts, sultans, concubines, dancers, oasis and bandits. Xinjiang is the heart of the road, it’s the place where the northern and the southern silk road finally meat and depart again, it’s where the wonders of the Middle Kingdom were once discovered.
Province of the People’s Republic of China, it is by all accounts a unique place; you land in Urumqi and already feel that Beijing is far far away, the ocean is a faded memory, the desert a menacing neighbor.In the old village of Tuyok, one old Uighur man admonishes me that this is a Muslim province, and I am forbidden to take pictures of people, to talk to the women and to venture close to the religious sector, dominated by a walled mosque on the side of the nearby mountain. After me underlining that I understand the rules of their community and I will respect them, his face changes from the first serious look into a smile of wrinkles, and he offers me the sweetest grapes I’ve ever tasted as a welcoming treat.From Turpan, both the Northern and the Southern Silk Roads are beautiful options for exploration of the region. Caravans are gone for good, replaced by legendary long bus rides with local Uighur and Chinese citizens. During these rides, the ominous Taklamakan plays the role of sole actor on stage, an immense stretch of desolation and sand where no living thing can be seen.Every while, a fainted green line appears in the distance, struggles for visibility with the dust devils, takes the shape of trees and small vegetation; shelter and water, food and shade, the oasis are always welcome breaks from the heat of a long difficult journey.
A labyrinth of small lanes crowded with shops and carts, animated by the shrill yells of merchants calling for customers to check for their wares, filled with the sour smell of kebabs and the sweet one of grapes and melons, this is Kashgar. Even though the Chinese city outside the center has stolen some charm, even though the most celebrated Sunday Market is just a blurred photocopy of what it once was, still the fascination of this town is absolutely and totally overwhelming.Carpets and copper utensils fill the inside as well the outside of the shops facing the major streets, busy vendors of food incessantly prepare fresh round nan, the decorated bread of this area. The smoke of kebab fills the streets with the smell of meet and spices while traditional Arabic greetings are exchanged between the elders. Every corner has a mosque, small and big tiled domes flaked by slender minarets adorn a simple fascinating skyline of a city that was and still is, houses of earth bricks and mud walls resemble the oldest traditions in construction techniques.Red lanterns give way to metal lamps, sweet and sour chicken to shish kebab, Qingdao beer to herbs tea. A deep sense of belonging to that particular place is inside everyone’s soul.Nevertheless, old Kashgar is today at the edge of extinction.Nevertheless, Kashgar has always been a melting pot of cultures, sometimes quarreling and disputing a much fragile predominance in such a hub of civilization and cultural exchange. Globalized long before globalization was an actual word, Kashgar will eventually develop a new face, probably neither Uighur nor Chinese, hopefully both, a new symbol for China and its minorities.
The Silk Road leaves Kashgar to start a slow, steady rise westward; the last villages give way to a road of deserted stony landscapes and seldom vendors of carpets and jade. Suddenly, the Pamir plateau opens in infinite landscapes, stretches for hundreds of kilometers, surrounded by snow covered peaks and low sand dunes.At 3800 meters the Silk Road meets the celestially azure Karakul Lake. Glittering mirror of glacial peaks, the lake is surrounded by over7500 meters high mountains, the Northern stretch of the Himalaya. Its water, astonishingly clear, mirrors the white gentle profile of Tagik yurts, offering a nice place to stay for the night. Camels and horses populate the shores; the sunset adds tints of red and yellow to the white flanks of the high mountains.
You reach Tashkurgan in another two hours ride, the westernmost city of the People’s Republic of China, just a few kilometers before the gate to Pakistan.
The immense China finally finds its border, the East from Far becomes Middle.