Exotic sights are fabric of Silk Road

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Sunday, November 05, 2006
Elizabeth Dalziel
Associated Press

Along the Silk Road, China- From the ancient oasis towns of Central Asia, we retraced the epic journeys along the Silk Road through desolate mountains and deserts, through busy bazaars and crumbling mud-brick towns.

Along the way, we followed the steps made by camel caravans to and from Central Asia and Europe by Marco Polo, Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great.

In ancient times, this legendary road - a series of routes collectively known as the Silk Road - was China's link with Central Asia and Europe.

Travelers crossed through several branches. One was up the Gansu corridor to Dunhuang on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert. Another began on the fringes of the Gobi Desert, followed the Tianshan Mountains and headed to the oasis trading post of Turfan before arriving at Kashgar at the foot of the Pamir Mountains.

Our group of three - my mother, a friend and I - opted for a haphazard itinerary that started with an airplane journey from Beijing to Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang autonomous region. From there we flew to Kashgar and jumped on a train that took us past the Taklamakan Desert and dropped us 22 hours later in Turfan, famous for its grapes and melons. Finally, we headed to Dunhuang, famous for its ancient Buddhist cave paintings, where we also rode in camel caravans as they did in ancient times.

Although some evidence points to a trade in jade along China's portion of the Silk Road as far back as 7,000 years, the trade route really was established about 2,000 years ago in Roman times.

Silk, one of China's prime exports, was moved to Europe and elsewhere via the route. But so were exotic animals, ivory, gold and plants. It also facilitated the flow of ideas and languages among far-flung cultures.

Xinjiang, a predominantly Muslim region in China's far west, seemed a world away from Beijing. The ethnic Uighur language, dress, the faces and the food all seemed more attuned to Central Asia than East Asia.

Still, images such as the enormous statue of China's late Chairman Mao Zedong in Kash- gar's central square reminded us of Beijing's grip on this region. Although thousands of miles away, it shares the same time zone as the capital.

Kashgar has been a trading center for more than 2,000 years, and this business drive continues to energize the city with endless negotiations at the famous bazaars and on just about any street corner.

If you want to haggle for a camel or check out a horse's teeth before purchase, you are just a tractor ride from the livestock market. The Kashgar animal market is a wide, open space crowded with shouting hawkers, food stalls and merchants shearing their sheep.

There's another market for carpets, fine silks and other textiles. It's open daily in a formal building but sprawls out with impromptu stalls on every side.

One of the great aspects of travel in China is the food, and the Silk Road is no exception. At the livestock market, peddlers hawk Xinjiang's famous sweet melons and homemade vanilla ice cream churned in wooden buckets.

You also can try opke, a broth made from goat's intestines and head. Less adventuresome travelers might want to try Xinjiang's staple delights such as kebabs, rice pullao, dumplings, noodles and a variety of flatbreads or nans. You also can find a culinary cousin of the Jewish bagel - the girde nan, which is cooked in an open pit oven.

We enjoyed choosing a freshly slaughtered goat at the butcher's stall and taking it to a nearby cook who boiled it into a delicious soup in front of our eyes.

To nourish your mind, you will find many wonderful archeological treasures at museums and digs. The United Nations and Central Asian countries plan a program aimed at reviving the ancient Silk Road by boosting investment, trade and tourism. The two-year Silk Road Project involves the governments of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.