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Flying Horses on the Silk Road

ISSUE:  Autumn 2002

The warriors of Xi’an stood in darkness for 2,000 years, watching over their dead emperor. He was Qin, pronounced Chin, whose successors built the Great Wall and gave a name to China. The warriors are ranked in battalions, archers, cavalry with their horses, charioteers, and infantry wielding lances and swords. Though unmistakably Chinese, each has different features. Their hair styles are different, close cropped or luxuriating like their mustaches and beards. The baked earth they are made of is easily broken, and thousands have gone back to dust. But thousands remain, lifesize and still at the ready.

In 1974 farmers digging a well near Xi’an brought them up to the light, catapulting a provincial backwater into the modern world. Tourism is big business in today’s megacity; and Xi’an’s hotels are as upscale as any. In the Golden Flower a string quartet, three young men and a woman, plays Haydn and Mozart in the lounge after dinner. A huge building like an airport hanger, erected over a deep pit, houses the terracotta army. Souvenir shops cater to the tour groups that bus out to see it. Though the yuan is China’s currency, the shops don’t mind taking your dollars.

The horse’s head in my living room comes from one of these shops. Mounted on a wooden platform, it looks across the room and out the window to China. The ears stand straight up, listening for the trumpets, and the nostrils are flaring, as if it smells the battle to come. Give it wings like Pegasus, the horse of the Muses, and it would be off in a shot.

“You can hardly believe it’s not real,” I tell my seatmate, a middle-aged Japanese from Hokkaido.

He nods politely. “An interesting souvenir. Not a work of art, of course. But then the artistic side rarely matters in China.”

I have crossed an ocean and two continents to pay my respects to this country’s art, and hearing it belittled doesn’t please me. What about the glazed pottery of the High T’ang, their calligraphy, their landscape scrolls, the cave paintings of Dunhuang?

“No offense, old man,” he says. “But the cave painters were Buddhist. Their eye was on eternity. Chinese as a rule are materialistic.” Emphasizing the obiter dicta, he wags a finger under my nose.

Recognition begins to dawn as I look at his watery eyes, magnified by thick glasses like the bottom of a fruit jar. Sun glints on the glasses, setting them afire, and his outsize cranium hints at a CD-Rom’s worth of facts. From the flotsam and jetsam my head is stuffed with, an old movie comes into focus. Sean Connery is starring as Bond, and the villain is—

“Dr. No!” I say, loud enough for him to hear me.

“Professor Yamaguchi!” he says. “Textiles Engineering, Sapporo University.” Though Japanese, he studied in Europe, including a stint at New College, Oxford. The rep tie is Oxford, “from the Burlington Arcade,” and his English accent is modeled on the BBC’s Third Programme. Was I aware that New College is actually one of the oldest?

Dr. No loves the past, especially as American Westerns depict it. John Wayne is his favorite, and he would like to lead a cattle drive across the wide Missouri. At the university in which he teaches, he gives a course in sericulture, the life cycle of the silk worm. Romans doted on the see-through look of their “glass togas,” fruit of the loom in far-away Xi’an, and he would barter all he has to climb the steps of the Capitol with a toga draped over his shoulders. As it is, he wears a silk jacket, its pocket handkerchief matching the old-school tie.

Following the silk worm “from the mulberry leaf to the market,” he has traveled to Xi’an, step one on a journey halfway round the world. He plans to take the Silk Road from its jumping-off point in China all the way to Italy, “where the Adriatic meets the Grand Canal.” Like Marco Polo 800 years before him, he hopes to cross the desert on the back of a camel. “A Bactrian camel,” he specifies, the two-humped kind favored by the great Venetian.

In the local silk factory, an obligatory stop on every tourist’s itinerary, the show room is crammed with shifts and camisoles, mandarin dresses, and shimmering toques, some studded with synthetic gems. Color photos brighten the walls, telling us all we want to know about silk. Peasants in cone-shaped hats are setting out rattan trays heaped with mulberry leaves, and a silk worm, poking its head out from under, is eating its way to the surface. Translating the caption, Dr. No says this worm will multiply its weight 10,000 times in a month. Spinning its cocoon, all it needs is a single thread, but the thread is half a mile long.

The souvenir shop in a corner of the show room features cheap reproductions from Banpo Village, a Neolithic dig east of Xi’an. Displayed on the counter top, the pottery bowl is 7,000 years old, “if a day,” says the sales clerk. The painted horse below the rim, satiny black, its eye rolling wickedly, had to be drawn from life. Except for its enormous wings. Sprouting from the horse’s withers, they flap like the sails of an ocean-going junk.

“The Heavenly Horse of the ancients,” says Dr. No. “Ages since, it lived on the western slope of the Pamirs.” Eyes blazing, he says, “I think it still does.”

“I’ve read about horses like that one,” I say. “Weren’t they supposed to sweat blood?”

“Color of red resin,” says Dr. No. “A lake dragon begot them on a wild mare. Mix the dried penis with honey and wine, and your sexual prowess will grow with the years.”

Wanting such horses for China, the emperor Wudi sent an army over the Pamirs. They brought back 3,000 horses to his capital city, Chang’an. “Imagine!” Dr. No, helping me, stamps on the floor. “It stood where we’re standing today.”

“I never heard of that city,” I say.

“A poet said its walls were like iron,” he says. “The moat that surrounded it was like an abyss. But nothing lasts forever.”

In the parking lot another tour bus disgorges its passengers, bringing Dr. No down to earth with a thud. “The course of empire has moved westwards,” he says. “Now the eyes of the world are on your Magic Kingdom.”

“Not mine!” I tell him.

“But will they make silk in Disneyland?” he says. “More likely polyester.”

Just inside the shop door, a train of two-humped camels is winding across the wall, heading for the exit. Changing the subject, I point to the photograph. “Where are they going?”

“That settles it!” he says, adding as an afterthought, “To Lanzhou. We’ll take the Northern Silk Road and leave the desert on our left.”

“We?” I echo him.

“It’s the same route Marco Polo took,” he says. “And I know you want to see the cave paintings at Dunhuang.”

I nod feebly.

“There’s a plane out of here in the morning. We’ll be on it.”


Lanzhou is China’s Heart City. Draw a line from the Yellow Sea, passing through Dunhuang to the mountains of Central Asia, and you will find it in the mathematical center. A million and a third people live there, at least as many in its suburbs. But coming in for a landing we see nothing below us, no street lights or car lights, not even that pale telltale spreading over the sky, like a TV screen when the channels shut down for the night. Where have all the people gone?

The Heavenly Mountains hem the city in, and the coal that powers its industry turns into greasy smoke without any outlet. Settling over Lanzhou, it resembles a cloud of cigarette smoke bouncing off the low ceiling of a restaurant you don’t want to eat in. Freezing rain drives in our faces as we climb down the steps to the tarmac. My throat is rasping, even though a gauze face mask covers both nose and mouth. I feel self-conscious wearing the mask but have a lot of company, and the streets of the city look like the contagious ward. Health care providers are mostly women; however, Chinese men, like Italian men who don’t bother with seat belts, have their macho image to think of.

On the long drive into town, blackest night shrouds the highway. We come near ramming a huge hayrick, but in the nick of time its darker shape against the darkness warns us to slam on the brakes. From the roof of the Berlin Hilton 40 years ago, the night sky was like Lanzhou’s. Below us the Kudamm, West Berlin’s major thoroughfare, sparkled like the Milky Way, but a black hole to the east sucked in the light, letting none of it out again. The hole was the DDR, East Germany’s Socialist Republic, known as “the Zone.” Next door in East Berlin (“the Sector”), Socialists had unscrewed all the light bulbs.

Light never did come to that part of the world, not until the Wall went down, and whether it will shine on China is for the future to tell us. Dr. No, a skeptic, points to the napkins on the restaurant table. “There is the future!” he says. Each napkin is a sampler, embroidered with the legend, “Home Sweet Home.” I think of the little card on the night table in my hotel room, inviting guests to “Have a Good Dream.” When it comes to Tibet or Taiwan, however, they cut out the banalities.

Pale green tea arrives at the table, meager portions the size of a thimble. But fresh fruit tumbles from a horn of plenty, pulpy watermelon, slices of apple still in the skin, ripe tomatoes, fuzzy peaches, and a platter of grapes. Every foreigner with his head in order knows he mustn’t touch it, though, sanitation in China existing largely in the abstract. Water isn’t potable, and in every hotel room they leave a thermos of boiled water, kaishui. But downstairs in the restaurant, the supply of fruit is inexhaustible. In the land of a billion hands it costs almost nothing, and its bright color pleases the eye.

Tobacco smoke eddies over the tables, drifting our way. Big shouldering men are vociferating while they chomp on cigars. “Would you mind?” I want to ask them, but decide not to. At the table next to ours the smart young women wear silk chiffon dropwaists, the men wear pinstripes, like American bankers before bankers began putting their feet up. Cupping their hands, they light each other’s cigarettes, reprising an old Hollywood movie.

Summoning a waiter, I ask for the toilet. Filthy toilets are the rule in China, and people fail to see the point of a clean one. What you are used to is the way things should be. This hotel caters to commercial travelers, however, and the toilet gleams like a Roman sudarium. The dados are finished in black-and-white tile, and a gold handle flushes the water closet, raised up like a throne on a dais. But beside the Western-style toilet is a hole in the floor, flanked by two foot-shaped depressions.

Sooner or later, the modern world will ring out the old one. But when spic and span wins the day, what will happen to China under the skin? Will the soul dilate its being, making people feel more nearly human? Or will cleanliness outrank godliness, in the scrubbed and affluent society to come?

The museum in Lanzhou is a must, says Dr. Know-It-All, and we check it out in the morning. Soviet engineers, everywhere in China when Mao and Stalin were having their love fest, faced the building with a staircase fit for a palazzo. The first floor has clay jugs and old mastodon bones, while ethnic costumes take up much of the second. At the head of the stairs is the museum’s piece de resistance, the Flying Horse of Gansu. Bronze and dating from the Han Dynasty 2,000 years ago, it strains like an airship against invisible wires, wanting to soar into the heavens. One hoof rests on a swallow, the other three treading air. Farmers came upon it in a field in the Hexi Corridor, running through Gansu Province north and west from Lanzhou. In the corridor, arid but livable unlike the frying pan above it and the fire below, civilization got a jump start.

On the south are mountains, on the north still more of them, and the endless desert going by different names. Han soldiers, the same who brought back the Heavenly Horses, patrolled the corridor on horseback, securing the eastern Silk Road against the forerunners of Attila the Hun. Creating his masterpiece, the anonymous sculptor sided with civilization. But the Flying Horse, though an object of art, draws strength from the earth it spurns with its hooves.

Fog thickened with rain makes life hard on our cabbie as we drive along the Yellow River, heading back to the airport. The river isn’t yellow but viscous gray, and the many who drown in it every year in flood time give it a nickname, China’s Sorrow. What kind of fish live in the water, I ask the cabbie. Grinning at me, he bares his teeth but says nothing. Locust trees line the embankment, however, taut with life like the horse in the museum. Buds are metamorphosing into white flowers, promising a brighter future, if not tomorrow, any day now.

Outside town, a Muslim graveyard, dug into the hill, is decked with plastic flowers. Leaning every which way or flat on the earth, the gravestones look like the end of the line. Pylons like giant stupas stand on top of the hills, tunneled with caves where farmers store tools and potatoes. Sheep skitter across the highway. The herdsman with his switch wants them to go faster, but when they reach the far side of the road, they put their heads down and graze.

Coming over the hill is a single ploughman, hands gripping the wooden shafts of his horse-drawn colter. He is breaking up the clayey soil, but it doesn’t part easily. A poem I like gets the scene, “Only a man harrowing clods,” his old horse nodding beside him. Back in Beijing they are talking automation and hope to get rid of this man and his horse. I can see how that might be a plus. The poet, like Dr. No, is skeptical, however. “Though dynasties pass,” he says this scene isn’t going to change much.


The pickup truck is like a water glass, rising above the rim but not overflowing it. Mattresses lie on top of bedsprings, and I see an ancient console beneath a table veneered with formica. Having come to a halt, the truck blocks the road between Dunhuang’s airport and town. Our limousine, a new Red Flag owned by China Travel Service, showcases the People’s Republic. It has air bags, automatic windows, leather seats, and an instrument panel like a DC-7’s. But it isn’t going anywhere until the truck does. Sighing, Dr. No takes out his preposterous Calabash, the only one I’ve ever seen other than Sherlock Holmes’. Not lighting up, he sucks on the stem, and I hear the dottle gurgling in the bowl.

Beside the narrow ribbon of road, a blur of faint green breaks the monotony. The ground has been irrigated and in flooded patches that look like rice paddies, wheat has begun to germinate. Rainbow-shaped huts covered with plastic or straw sit on baulks of turf between the paddies. These signs of intention look wistful, however, and beyond them stretch “the lone and level sands.”

A wooden refrigerator balances on top of the pickup. Straddling the door, a dark-skinned, dark-haired boy offers moral support to a pair of men lashing the fridge to the truck bed. “Okay,” he says in his best American, and they climb back in the cab, setting off firecrackers as the truck begins to roll. They keep the firecrackers going all the way to Dunhuang. Our driver, related to one of them— everybody in the desert is somebody’s cousin—says this is moving day, and the firecrackers salute the occasion.

In the center of Dunhuang a tenement lies in ruins, and a man is attacking slabs of concrete with a maul. Dust stirs around him, not much else. Whitewashed cottages line the main street, presenting an unbroken front to the world. The wall that ties them together, pierced by little doors, otherwise blank, has a message for strangers: Keep Out. Each cottage is like its neighbor’s, reminding me bizarrely of those semi-detached “villas,” color of a slow burn, that go on forever in London. The people in the cottages must like living in them, saying how “A Chinaman’s home is his castle.”

Dunhuang means “Blazing Beacon,” and 2,000 years ago it shone a light across Gobi land. The Great Wall ended here but the Silk Road, driving for the unknown world, kept going. Leaving Gansu Province, it passed through the Jade Gate, terminus of the known world. Beyond lay the Taklamakan, no desert on earth more ferocious.

Propitiating the powers above or saying thanks for getting home safely, well-to-do travelers commissioned painters to glorify the caves of Dunhuang. They paid for the work out of their cargo of gems, precious metals, ivory, coral, and textiles. Sometimes the donor is part of the “canvas,” and you see him kneeling in prayer, like Massacio’s patrons in the Carmine church in Florence. His prayers have been answered in ways he couldn’t have dreamed. Dunhuang’s survival depends on its paintings, and tourism is the only game in town.

Prepping for the hegira to come, Dr. No wants to try out his seat on a camel. The concierge at our hotel—he is also the doorman, desk clerk, and bellhop—sends us by taxi to the dunes outside town. They go up like a rollercoaster, then fall away, seeking their angle of repose. Some curve gracefully, others making a triangle with its apex off to one side. The falling-away part is always in shadow. After the blinding light is its absence, no chairoscuro leading from one to another.

At the foot of the dunes we find the Rent-a-Camel office. The owner is Han Chinese but his assistant, a raggedy boy, is Caucasian. Kim, I call him, after the young hero in Kipling. From a hook beside the entrance he lifts a metal token with a number on it, finds the camel that matches, and points. Startled, I realize that he is pointing at me.

Putting on my best sangfroid face, I size up the opposition. Legs tucked under him on the desert floor, he looks negotiable, no taller than I am. His wooden saddle is roomier than a horse’s, and padded helpfully with thick carpet. The metal bar across the front must be for hanging on to. Throwing a leg over this saddle, I mount.

“Cheese!” Kim calls out to me, holding up an Instamatic. As if on cue, the camel lurches to its feet, the hindmost part first, and I come near pitching over its head. The head is enormous, crowned with a ratty mop of camel’s hair like an ill-fitting toupee. I grab for a fistful but the camel rises on its front legs, shooting me backwards. Tieing a rope to its tail, Kim passes it through the nose ring of the camel behind me. Across the sands we go, camel bells tinkling. We are laden with bolts of silk, furs, ceramics, bronze weapons, and panniers of cinnamon and rhubarb. Our destination lies on the other side of nowhere, but we laugh at dangers to come. “Take ‘em to Missouri!” says Dr. No, the sun doing a dance on his glasses.

Mingsha’s great dune, 250 meters high, looks like meringue baked to dark amber. Marco Polo said its “rumbling sands” gave off a sound like a drum roll. On the lee side of the dune the sound is muffled, but I hear the faint soughing of wind. At a fork in the camel track, a many-tiered pagoda looks over the sands and down on a mouse-colored spring, Crescent Moon. Fragments of ice litter the water line. High up on the dune, cartoon figures are gesticulating. How do they get down again? “They slide down,” Kim tells us, patting his bottom.

Guileless, the eyes in his dark face are palest blue, like dungarees soaked in chlorox. Two and a half millenia ago, Alexander the Great will have been here. When I look at the painted figures in the Mogao Caves, Greek faces look back at me. Though Greece is only a genetic memory in the heart of Asia, a muscled torso is Greek, and the Buddha, like Antaeus, is renewed by the earth as he touches it with his right hand. A celestial musician has a Thai dancer’s tapering fingers, but the big nose tells of some Western antecedent, and in the Cave of the Palace of Devas the flautist’s burning eye is a satyr’s.

“Apsaras” is their word for the elegant young women. Lissome in body, these flying angels keep moving. In spirit, however, the murals strive toward Nirvana, a contradiction. Why such a to-do, if all is illusion? Darting at us like swimmers in an aquatic ballet, the apsaras hold out their hands, their legs curving up in a fishtail. The water parting before them is stylized, an Eastern version of the River Jordan in early Christian mosaics. But like everything in nature, it flows.

Streaming rearward as if on fire, the skirts of the women are scalloped. Selvage is closure, and the ragged scalloping doesn’t want it. Deer flee across the rock face, pursued by a man on horseback. Bending his bow, he releases the arrow. He means to bring them down but not yet.

Though lit only by dim electric light and the electric torch in my hand, the caves take light from their paintings. Against the neutral taupe of the sandstone, the greens and whites, color of Lop Nor’s sand flats, blacks, pinks, and blues, seem more nearly themselves. The technique is tempura, and I wonder if the artist, when he made his emulsion, mixed egg with the water that trickles down the sides of the cliff. His work says he was meticulous, spreading a special mix known only to him over his clay undercoat. He liked the way it hardened to the texture of polished cement. The background color he chose depended on how he felt getting up in the morning, pale red on a good day, dark gray when his woman had crossed him. Centuries later, the colors still glow. In the Cave of the Sacred Mountain I feel like St. Paul, struck down on the road to Damascus.

Connected by zigzagging staircases, ladders, and walkways like ramps in a parking structure, the caves are cut into the Mingsha Hills, 16 miles south of Dunhuang. Work on the walls and ceilings went on for a 1,000 years, while dynasties rose and fell. Historians remember their names. Not all the paintings and sculptures gladden my eye. In the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas, one of the statues, not the largest one either, stands 100 feet tall. The iconoclasts in Afghanistan demolished statues like it, but they weren’t appealing to taste.

Getting off the world isn’t my goal in life, but the Mogao painters are anti-world in their psychology and like to represent the overthrow of our carnal being. Mara, illusion personified, tempts the Buddha with desire, the way the Devil solicits Christ. Eventually the good comes out on top in this contest, though it looks like inanition to me. But Dunhuang’s heroes aren’t naysayers. Compassionate men and women who help others on the road to Nirvana while postponing this goal for themselves, they are the Bodhisatvas, saints of the Buddhist pantheon. The ascetic life, practiced by that Simeon Stylites who sat on top of a pillar watching the world go by, isn’t for them. Immersed in our destructive element, they seek to better the lot of their fellows. Let us praise the Bodhisatvas.

Money is important for the story of the caves, but the master motive of the painters is love for the fact. My senses instruct me that this motive inspired the builders of Angkor Wat and Chartres Cathedral, both dating from the 12th century when Dunhuang was still a going concern. One of the East, the other of the West, they have their different take on things. But both celebrate the inquisitive and affectionate side of our nature.

Not everyone thinks celebration is appropriate. Cave painting came to an end with the coming of Islam, another psychology that rejected the world. But this one brought with it a sword. Revolted by our “human face divine,” Muslims cleansed the land of statues and paintings. But Dunhuang’s art, hidden in the desert, escaped them. A 1,000 years later, “foreign devils” gave it back to the world.

They were Swedes, Russians, French, an American, a mysterious Japanese, Count Otani, whose obsession with the past looks uncannily like Dr. No’s. Von Le Coq, the German, chiseled entire murals from the rock face, transporting them to the Museum of Indian Art in Berlin. Preserved in the arid air of the desert for more than 15 centuries, they were lost to Allied bombing in WWII. The Soviet Army scooped up what was left, and where it is now, no one knows.

Sir Aurel Stein, the Silk Road’s greatest explorer, wanted to distinguish the different links in its chain. But like Lord Elgin at the Parthenon, he lingered over ancient artifacts, saving them for the British Museum. In a sealed cave he found 50,000 manuscripts and he read them by the light of a candle. With his translator at his elbow, he read in Chinese, Uighur, Sogdian, Tibetan, Sanscrit, old Turkic, other tongues, some unknown. Among his trophies was the 9th-century Diamond Sutra, the world’s oldest printed book. It said the phenomenal world was illusion, but Stein, an equivocal hero, both terms applying, knew better. He died in Kabul at 82, seeking permission to explore Afghanistan, the last link in the chain he was forging.


Between Dunhuang and Liuyuan, the eye doesn’t pause on man, beast, or dwelling. Night falls, but no one turns on the lights. We follow the dirt road through the center of Liuyuan, flanked by shops and a filling station. The shops are putting up their shutters, and anyway have little to sell. The radiator in our touring car needs water, but we learn that every drop is trucked in from outside. Liuyuan is a hub, though. The railroad stops here on its run from Beijing to Turfan.

Near midnight the ticket taker, a woman soldier in olive drab, jerks a thumb at us. Time to be on our way. Hurrying over the tracks in darkness, we slip on the ice between ties. Wheels begin turning as we hoist up our bags. Like the train in Bad Day at Blackrock that stops just long enough for Spencer Tracy to jump off, this one can’t wait to be gone.

A sign in the corridor says smoking is forbidden, but the air is blue with smoke. Two drunks are talking themselves into a fist fight. The plank-like beds in our compartment don’t have sheets, only a soiled blanket, and you wouldn’t care to lay your head on the bolster. I cover it with my raincoat, close my eyes, and in an instant am sleeping.

Like the Drunken Porter in Shakespeare, I wake to pounding on the castle door. The conductor is rousting us out of our compartment. Sitting up in bed, Dr. No has his shoes on and is polishing his glasses. “Turfan,” he announces. “Except for the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth.”

The clock in the corridor says it is 7 a. m. , but the sun hasn’t risen yet and the compartment is dark. Whatever the clock’s idea, nature isn’t persuaded. All over China, though, across time zones and thousands of miles, natural time defers to Beijing time. Far to the east of us, its citizens have had breakfast and are doing Tai Chi in the park. Here in western China we could use a good night’s sleep. But if it’s morning in the capital, it has to be morning in Turfan.

Aboard the local bus for town, I look from the window as the Flaming Mountains emerge out of darkness, not really mountains but red sandstone hills. Carved by wind and weather in vertical lines, the hills are like the raddled face of a very old woman. Looking at them later, after the sun has climbed up the sky, I think they are ready to burst into flame. In the famous Chinese novel, Monkey the hero tries to cross the Flaming Mountains. His tail catches fire, though, and that is why monkeys have red bottoms.

Shedding a baleful light, the fireball of a sun isn’t beautiful but sinister, like a disk of plutonium leaking carcinogens as it runs down. The last pages of Wells’s Time Machine come into my head. Shot millions of years into the future, I am alone on a shingled beach in a dying world. But beside the road, plastic bags and wrappers are caught in the dessicated stubble. This modern disarray makes me feel right at home, and gloom and doom go back to their kennel.

In the irrigation ditches that slice up the fields, women are scrubbing what look like pajamas. Ducks paddle in the water and willows on the banks lean toward it, growing in rows three deep. Ahead of us a funeral procession, many men but no women, bumps along jerkily, like a Chinese dragon. Following the hearse is an old car, a tractor and backhoe, and a motorcycle, its engine popping softly. Honoring the dead, Turfan people are putting their best foot forward.

The sidecar hitched to the motorcycle has an orange awning, and men hunch together beneath it. Knife handles, inlaid with silver and mother of pearl, stick out from the backs of their belts. Most wear the yarmulka, except for an older man in a white turban. He is the imam, a Muslim priest, says Dr. No. Uighur, not Han Chinese, the men look like Romantic heroes in a poem by Lord Byron.

Channels on either side of the road move the water downhill from the mountains. In front of mudbrick shanties, chickens and roosters peck in the dirt, a donkey grazes a bale of hay. Across a freestanding mud wall I see a scribble of graffiti, like clothes hanging from a clothesline. Dr. No, all eyes, leans out the window. “Tokharian,” he says. “The old language of Turkestan. Before Islam, another people lived and died here.”

The ruins begin not far from the road, and a donkey cart, waiting beside the entrance, takes us out to what is left of Jiaohe. On the flat plain the cyclinders and oblongs of sundried brick resemble loaves of bread on the breadboard. The high adobe walls enclosed a private dwelling, says Dr. No, pointing to the outline of a bake oven and somebody’s wash tub. The big rotunda-like hall, hollowed out into apses around the periphery, was where they met to talk over state business. I should notice the dagoba, a dome-shaped stone sacred to Buddhists. Inside it are relics, a hank of hair, a carious tooth. Subdued, I think of the things that sustained them.

Vanished cities dot the desert, and perhaps the souls of the dead haunt about them. I remember that first book of Sir Aurel Stein’s, Sand-Buried Ruins of Khotan. Digging in the sand near this long-defunct oasis, Stein found mummies, recognizably Caucasian after 3,000 years. “A strange sensation,” he wrote, “to look down on figures which but for the parched skin seemed like those of men asleep.” Everything hereabouts belonged to the king of Gaochang. Spreading his hands, Dr. No takes in the four points of the compass. Twelve hundred years ago the royal capital, adorned with paintings, was home to 50,000 people. All this is gone.

“Mother Nature?” I ask him.

“Men are part of the story,” he answers. Unluckily for the painters, their pigment made good fertilizer, and the farmers who lived here took note. They were Muslim, and thought painted men and animals came down from the walls at night, doing mischief. The way to prevent it was to slash the mouths and pick out the eyes.

Some ancient painting, undetected by the pious, survives in tombs below ground. Like Orpheus descending, I follow Dr. No down the stone-flagged steps into darkness. He clicks on his torch and in front of me a mummy springs into the light, wrapped round with bandages like the Invisible Man. The painting on the tomb wall looks as fresh as the morning. Men in the lotus position are praying, birds circling their heads, around them green growing things. According to Dr. No, they came from far away, some verdant country refreshed by running water. In death, they remember their homeland.

I think of the dead perhaps too often these days, some of them dear to me, others I never knew, gone hundreds of years. The poet Li Po died in 762. China, almost as old as time and indifferent to its passing, puts this gloomy habit in perspective. Aware of my labored breathing, a little Uighur boy takes me by the elbow and we ascend the stairs together. Looking back at the ruined city, I forget, like Orpheus, that this is verboten. In a wink of the eye, the metropolis that used to be resolves to blocks and cubes, like a view from above of the Badlands.

Sooner or later even these fragments will go back to the earth, and nothing will be left of Jiaohe. That won’t matter to the scorpions, as big as a pigeon’s egg, nor will the cockroaches register a difference. Before Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists, they called this place home. Some are two inches long, with red eyes and inquisitive feelers.

Banners festoon Turfan’s main street, like a street in Russia when the Party still ran things. “Glory to the Soviet Union!” But this isn’t Russia, and our CTS driver says the banners are announcing a sale on washing machines. People in the street don’t walk under a cloud. Unlike Han Chinese, they aren’t throwing their weight around. The government, playing demographer, has relocated thousands of Chinese to Turfan and points west, but Hui and Uighur still predominate, each doggedly Muslim. The white pill boxes belong to the Hui, says Dr. No, while the hats of the Uighur are gaudy with rickrack.

The mosque is a letdown. Like much religious building in modern Islam, it tells of a slackening temper. This isn’t peculiar to Muslims. Present-day Catholic churches, sentimental in their core, come from a different universe than churches in the older time. Between then and now, somebody switched gods on all those unsuspecting Catholics. Some such imposition has befallen Islam.

But an austerely elegant spirit, very different from today’s, imagined the minaret of Emin. Part of a Muslim school complex a mile east of town, its pale-brown facade, in muted contrast to the eggshell-white of the madrasa, acknowledges its surroundings but doesn’t capitulate to them. Tapering as it goes up, the circular column pulses with stylized flowers and geometric designs. Some in Islam, Christianity too, prefer the naked truth. But against the desert, the minaret sets the work of hands.

School is getting out and the children rush toward us, greeting the stranger. Their native Uighur dress, emphasizing pinks and reds, honors the feast of Korban, when Muslims celebrate the New Year. Alert and happy, they want to try out their English. One of them looks up at me. “My name is Alya,” she says. “What is your name?” I warm to a culture that nourishes such children. But this child will grow to womanhood hidden behind the borqa, and her schoolmates, boys no longer, will look on her sexuality with fear.


If you are taking the Northern Silk Road, you must go through Urumchi, a little like going through Texas. The temptation is to get through it fast. Once, doing ninety in the Panhandle, I was stunned when another car passed me. Both of us, of course, were breaking the law, not a problem in Texas or China. As we approach a toll booth on the new highway, our driver, seeing the cop in the booth, fastens his seat belt. Back on the road, he unclips it.

Gas tanks, topped with plumes of orange flame, squat on the stony sand. Dust in the air is like a Seurat painting, but ahead of us the Heavenly Mountains grow ever sharper. Water from melted snow snakes down their sides, feeding a frozen stream that keeps the road company. Just when we are sure we have run out of mountains, “Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise.” Heaps of rubble, a broken wall, and concrete block houses loom up like an apparition. The locals, says our driver, call this place “Salt Lake City.” Against the horizon a long freight train, retracing our journey, is going all the way back to Lanzhou.

On the outskirts of Urumchi, the pollution comes on us like the descent of night. Black puddles stand in the potholes, and the grainy air smells of coal. If you kick at the snow, you see things you don’t want to. I remember how Dylan Thomas found a nose in the gutter. Walking through the market, I try not to look at the stripped animal carcasses and the heaps of knobby produce, an obscene cornucopia. A young Chinese, smiling like a villain, thrusts a packet of powdered Snow Lotus in my hand. “Good for you know what,” he assures me.

I am over-fastidious, no doubt about it. But the temperature is falling, fast oh fast. I badly need a cup of coffee and a bed with sheets on it in the Holiday Inn. Mirabile dictu, it turns out there is one. Not a mirage, it rises four square in the center of town, and I push through the doors to the lobby.

The gladhander behind the counter is a take-charge American. I don’t have to know him to know what he’s like. Rung by rung, he has been climbing the ladder of success in the Holiday Inn Corporation. But his boss, the VP for Overseas Development, has begun to feel threatened. At the next meeting in the board room, he smiles his Ivan-the-Terrible smile. “Prendergast,” he says, “you’re getting promoted. We’re posting you to Urumchi.”

Kashgar is different, the cordial that warms the heart of Sinjiang. Three times bigger than France, this Chinese province borders Tibet on the south, Mongolia on the north, also Kazahkstan, Kyrghyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Some of these stans I don’t want to go to. Between Kashgar and Urumchi is the Taklamakan Desert, compared to which, said Sir Aurel Stein, the Sahara is a cupcake. Skipping the scenic route, we decide to fly.

Sinjiang Air brings us in over the desert, and as the last of the sun is going I look down on crevasses and tossing peaks, like the petrified sea that washes the Antarctic land mass. Some dunes, resembling icebergs, shift while I stare at them, driven by the pitiless wind. Though the land is amber-colored, shading to dun, it appears denuded of color, like death. The scene is unearthly, bordered by mountains far on the horizon. The highest mountains on earth, they are literally out of this world.

For more than 2,000 years, travelers on the Silk Road have hated and feared the Taklamakan. In Turki it means: “Go in and you will not come out.” Confronted with this alien place, I find myself thinking of former colleagues of mine, back home in “American City.” Spring term is approaching, and they are working up a syllabus for the Cultural Diversity course. I wonder what they would make of China’s Wild West and the exotic characters who struggled across it, Parthians, Indians, Jews, Syrians, Iranians, Greeks.

Not all were friendlies, and it behooves me to distinguish among them. Some, bad in the grain, smelled to high heaven, first of all morally, though physically too. Others, done in by their culture, are to be pitied, at the same time condemned.(Cultures, like men, don’t weigh equally in the scale—if one were as good as another, none would merit attention.) A few wanted “to know the causes of things,” and they are the saving remnant. The bodies of many, dead thousands of years, have turned up in the sand, still intact. Cherchen Man, from south of the desert, has the high-bridged nose characteristic of Caucasians, and auburn hair still frames the face of the Beauty of Loulan, buried 4,000 years ago near the lake of Lop Nor. Guessing at their ethnic background, archaeologists give them names and a local habitation.

In American City ethnicity is in, but particularity is a term of reproach. Outside the classroom a greater world that runs the gamut and covers the spectrum is asking the colleagues to notice, but they don’t consult the eye or the ear. Talking up a one-big-happy-family kind of world, they have little to say on behalf of him and her, special in and for their idiosyncrasy. Getting involved up to the elbows makes generalizing tricky, so they construct models or theories of “the other.” That way, they needn’t go to Sinjiang.

Horse-and-donkey-drawn carts klop through the streets of Kashgar, alive with the jingling of bells. No one on the streets is speaking Chinese, but a sixty-foot statue of Mao-Tse-tung overlooks the People’s Plaza, his outflung arm sketching the future. Korban is going full blast and everybody is out of doors, the men promenading arm in arm like Italians. Those who aren’t wearing pillboxes wear cloth caps or Abe Lincoln hats, the flat brim edged with fur. Song shrills from the loudspeaker on the wall of our restaurant, belted out in Uighur by a woman whose voice could shatter a wine glass. Sidemen, backing her up, lay down a barrage on stringed instruments, a sax, and steel drums. Soothed by this white noise, the customers tuck into their dinner.

Every time the door swings open, smoke from the little brazier on the sidewalk floods the room. A large pot holding a goat’s head sits on the brazier, beneath the head a coil of simmering intestines. Unlike the weak green tea ubiquitous in China, the tea they serve us is black and cut in rough bricks like pressed wood. You break off a piece and crumble it in the teapot. The shishkebab is gristly and mutton fat swims in the vegetable soup. But John’s Cafe advertizes itself as “A Little Bit of Home on the Silk Road,” and we are grateful.

Walking off dinner, we walk through the old Town to the Aidkah mosque at its heart. China’s largest, it went up half a century before Columbus discovered the New World. Slender minarets flank the yellow and white facade, and a muezzin on top is calling the people to prayer. There must be 10,000 men crowding the courtyard and spilling into the plaza in front of the mosque. Many are dancing, men with men, whirling, taking hands, stamping the earth with leather boots that come up to their knees. More men, perched on the roof above the tall rectangular doorway, are banging drums and tooting on horns.

Rows of felt-covered tables, as many as 50, take up the far end of the square. Men and boys, caps pushed back on their heads like the Dead End Kids, are playing billiards. In Kashgar, profane and sacred coexist without fuss. Children, clots of brightness in a gray woolen sea, mill about the square, looking for a handout, coins or candy. When they get what they want, they aren’t demonstrative but accept their due. The old men with forked white beards have come down from the mountains or in from the desert to buy and sell at the bazaar. They scowl without meaning to, their faces screwed up from staring at the sun, and might be Old Testament prophets.

The bazaar, every Sunday and Sinjiang’s biggest, sells sheep, horses, ponies, and goats. The ponies descend from that breed Mongol soldiers rode bareback over the plains of Asia. I imagine myself, one hand gripping the mane, the other holding aloft the great Khan’s banner, a yak’s tail. “Posh! posh!” says a voice in my ear, “Out of the way!” and a man with a camel leads it past me, yanking the rope tied to its wooden nose peg.

Over the market hangs the smell of dung and blood, and cutting through it a subtler smell of spices, kumin, coriander, and saffron. Piles of Karakul lambskin lie under foot. I can buy a hunting falcon, a felt carpet, a slab of red meat. The lambskin isn’t cured and after a while will smell, the carpets, colored with vegetable dye, are less uniform in color than chemically-dyed carpets at home. Many are garish, and though the product of great painstaking, look like Sears Roebuck.

At breakfast in the morning, our CTS driver finds us in the coffee shop. He is Ibrahim, early 20’s, smallish, black-mustached, his voice high-pitched, his smile an index for once of who he really is. Without a hat, he looks out of place in a land of hatted men. But he hopes to be a modern man, and this means going hatless. Having our interest at heart, Ibrahim wants us to visit the holiest place in Sinjiang.

Called a mazur, the tomb is named for one of their rulers, famed for piety and dead a long time. His descendants, lying around him, stretch to the crack of doom. Green glazed tile, the Prophet’s color, covers the dome of the tomb hall, and the tombs below it blaze with the idea of a flower. Among the descendants is the Fragrant Concubine, mistress of the emperor. When she died in the Forbidden City, 120 people spent three years carrying her coffin back to Kashgar. They still have the palanquin it lay on.

Unlike Americans, people in Muslim lands don’t take the stranger to their bosom, not after five minutes, and the invitation to lunch at Ibrahim’s is special. The house, built around an interior court, looks inward, its second-story balcony not looking over the street but the courtyard. Carpets hang on the walls and the outsize tablecloth we eat off is laid on the livingroom floor. I lose track of the number of courses. There is wonton soup, mutton soup, mutton-and-onion dumplings, hot noodles like spaghetti, almond nuts, pistaccio nuts, melons, yoghurt, crusty bread, and a carcass of boiled lamb on a platter. Having pulled the lamb to pieces, we eat the platter, flat bread like a large slice of pizza. Did Marco Polo introduce them to spaghetti and pizza, or was it the other way round?

When my teacup is empty, Mrs. Ibrahim pours. Doing as the others do, I make a stab at sitting crosslegged, but she offers a leather stool. She is almost as tall as I am, big breasted with wide hips. Her unwaisted dress is silk, the colors blending like tie-dye, and she wears her hair plaited under an embroidered square cap. Her lips are painted, the necklace at her throat matches her earrings. Speaking no English, she is in her own house and at ease.

While we are eating, a pair of beards appear at the door, dropping by unannounced to visit with the neighbors. “Peace be with you,” the old men say in one voice, “Es salaam aleikum.” Stroking their gray beards, they bless the house and the people in it. “Wa aleikum es salaam,” Ibrahim answers, passing his hands over his face.

At the airport we exchange addresses, though it is near certain I will never see him again. My flight is already boarding, stage one on the long journey back to Beijing and home. Overloaded with culture, I am glad to be going. Dr. No wishes I’d stay. With Ibrahim at the wheel of our rented limousine, he is heading the other way, over the Pamirs through the Torugart Pass. On the far side of the mountains, in the ancient kingdom of Fergana, the Heavenly Horses are waiting. Will he find them in some hidden fastness, high above the tree line? He thinks so.

“When I come back,” I say to Ibrahim, shaking his hand, “I want to ride a Mongol pony.”

“That you ride a Mongol pony is my heartfelt desire,” he tells me.


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