Several years ago, Tim Wong, EWC grantee in the 60’s and Professor of Chinese Language and Chinese Literature at Arizona State University, began discussing a trip to China with other members of the EWCA Arizona Chapter as an educational tour and fund-raiser. These discussions evolved into a planned 2010 tour of the Silk Road, which was subsequently recognized by the EWCA as a 50th Anniversary activity. The tour took place recently from September 27 to October 16, 2010.
Historically, the Silk Road refers to the east-west trade routes between Xi’an in China and the Mediterranean cities of the Roman Empire over which caravans of merchants and camels traveled some two thousand years ago trading such goods as silk, glass, and spices. Our trip covered a section of that vast geographic area in China.
The group began the tour in Beijing. After three days of basic sightseeing–Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, etc.–we embarked on the Silk Road portion of the trip by flying to Urumqi in Xinjiang Province, the western-most city for our trip. This is an area with a large population of Moslem Uygurs and forty-six other minorities who are more Middle Eastern physically and culturally. From Urumqi, we visited historic cities such as Turpan and Dunhuang, which played prominent roles on the Silk Road. Although the history of the Silk Road itself goes back a little more than two thousand years, archeologists have discovered well-preserved mummies in this area from four thousand years ago.
We visited Heavenly Mountain and Heavenly Lake outside the Taklamakan Desert where the caravans once traveled. We visited a Khazak family and stayed for tea. We rode camels to the top of the Singing Sand Dunes and gazed down on the New Moon Spring. We climbed up the Hanging Great Wall in the middle of the Gobi Desert. We admired the world’s richest treasure-trove of Buddhist paintings and statuary in the Mogao Caves, where we learned that Buddhism was introduced to China via the Silk Road. We took an overnight train from Xining to Lanzhou—two couples or four people packed in each compartment. It was “freezing” cold when we visited the Kumbum Tibetan Buddhist Monastery near Xining. Then a truly awesome moment arrived when we stood before the rows and rows of terracotta warriors and horses from the mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shihuang outside Xi’an. The terracotta army was discovered only in 1974 by local farmers digging a well.
Our trip experience was further enriched by Tim Wong, who gave four lectures throughout our journey to help us put our newly-acquired knowledge in perspective. Allen Clark of the EWC, who had traveled in this area before, was generous in sharing his expertise in geology, which was very helpful. Also among the travelers were attorneys, bankers, historians, teachers, librarians, businessmen, Chinese brush painters, and more—all of whom made a very interesting group.
The trip ended in Shanghai, the commercial center of China. Thanks to the kind assistance of EWC alumni Larry and Brenda Foster and Zhao Zhenge, the group was given a VIP tour of the USA and China Pavilions, respectively, at the World Expo. Luckily, we did not have to stand in line at these pavilions, since, as we learned afterwards, there were over 490,000 people on the Expo grounds that day.
Out of the twenty-eight in the group, many of us had been to China before—some with very close ties to the country. Yet, we would all agree that we left China this time with a new awareness of the country’s sheer size and cultural diversity. China is certainly not monolithic. As Tim said in one of his lectures, China prospers when it builds roads and opens itself to the world outside but declines when it builds walls to keep the outside world away. By tracing the routes taken by the Silk Road travelers of long ago, we saw a different China. We all consider ourselves fortunate to have had the opportunity to glimpse into the history of this giant. How appropriate that the East-West Center Association chose the Silk Road as its very first group tour.