The Silk Road
The Silk Road crisscrosses one of China's most extravagantly colorful and richly varied regions, populated by the majority Han Chinese, nomadic Kazakhstani horsemen, gaudily attired Tibetan monks, and proud Uighurs who can trace their Islamic ancestry back to the Middle East.
The advent of better air links, improved roads and luxury hotels means individuals can now easily reach China's far west, where they witness the dramatic isolation of the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts. Tucked deep in the desert are the oasis towns of Dunhuang and Turpan, two of the furthest-flung places on Earth.
Unknown cities may still be buried under the shifting sands; European explorers earlier this century came across intact settlements and treasure-filled caves which they proceeded to plunder, shipping trunk-loads of priceless manuscripts and irreplaceable paintings back for display in the museums of France, Britain, Germany and the United States.
The prime spot for this archaeological looting was Dunhuang, an oasis town that lies on the very edge of the Gobi. Modern-day visitors have the chance to stroll around the desert perimeters, or take a sunset camel ride up and around its softly curving slopes.
For the camel-trains of old, Dunhuang was effectively the last stop in civilization as they knew it. From then on mountains, deserts, ice and snow conspired to make their journey out of China more perilous. Bandits also operated along the route.
The fantastic Buddhist carvings in the nearby Mogao Caves were begun by these merchants, who believed that investing in a statue of the Lord Buddha would bring fortune and health. Those who made it safely back, pockets lined with trading wealth, commissioned another couple of statues, or paintings, for good measure.
Not all merchants and adventurers stuck to the exact same Silk Road course. In truth there were many routes ¡ª indeed, it is often referred to by the less-glamorous-sounding The Silk Routes ¡ª and the staging system meant that few traders would venture all the way from Xian to the ultimate destinations of Constantinople, Damascus or Rome.
But the generally accepted main route of the Silk Road in China is from Xian, across to Dunhuang and Turpan and on toward the far western border. Outgoing camel trains taking this route were loaded with the much-prized soft silk of eastern China together with furs, ceramics and bronze ornaments; freight coming the other way included grapes, pepper, gold, spices and glass.
Tourism looks set to be the biggest Silk Road industry this century, as travelers from near and far are lured by its unmatched mystique. Contemporary visitors witness scenes that have changed little over the centuries: tradition is deeply ingrained into the fabric of everyday life.
In the foothills of the Tian Shan range near Urumqi, the Kazakhstani herders shun much of the modern world and its luxuries. The semi-nomadic herders have exquisite horse-riding skills, regularly tested to the limit in impromptu races, or rowdy games of sheep's-head polo.
Life here is played out against the backdrop of jagged snow-capped peaks, which serve to accentuate the turquoise blue of the perpetually chilly Heaven Lake.
Ironically, it is the forbidding nature of the terrain and its isolation that is leading to a revival of interest in the Silk Road, some two thousand years after it was first established.
Visitors leave with respect and admiration for the travelers who negotiated the route in earlier times, and return home imbued with the unquantifiable satisfaction that comes from having visited one of the world's most extraordinary places.
Explaination of Pict:
Exquisitely dressed icons transport visitors to another age.
Follow ancient tracks crisscrossing the shifting sands.
Local growers turn grapes into fine desert wine.