Friday, October 23, 2009

The Start of the Silk Road

Our 5-hour train journey to Xi'an takes ten hours. We seem to be stuck forever on sidings with nothing but a desolate landscape of flat land fractured by deep ravines. This is China's Yellow Earth - the loess blown southwards from Mongolia that makes up much of Shaanxi province. We are starving - thought we'd have arrived before lunch. Luckily Vivien stops to chat. She's on her way back to university and she has some french bread to share. She produces from her bag tiny little polythene packets of sweet white bread - the kind of crap you get on aeroplanes. We wolf them down, and in between chews, chat to Vivien about, y'know, life, the universe and everything. Well, no, not really. We only talk about China. Vivien tells us she wants to have a baby by a blue-eyed westerner with a "high nose". No marriage though. Her mum's divorced and she thinks men are not so good. Fair enough. She has a younger brother. It seems the one-child policy isn't uniformly applied. Exceptions are allowed for ethnic minorities and couples who are both single children. And some people break the rules. After visiting India and Indonesia it seems like the one-child policy is a critical social policy for development here. But it's also a frightening restriction on people's liberty and perhaps best demonstrates the state's control of lives.
Xi'an had become a bit of a Mecca for us since we seem to have traversed large portions of the old Silk Road on this journey. As the old capital of China, Xi'an was the starting point of trade with countries to the west along a variety of routes that stretched across the western regions of present-day China. Perhaps it was the start of globalised world trade. At its peak there would have been a huge amount of trade in goods and ideas and inventions between China and the Middle East and Europe. We still remember the silk cloth recovered from the ruins of Palmyra in Syria on display at the National Museum in Damascus, over 2,000 years old. It came from China and it travelled by camel from trading post to caravanserai right across Asia. In the opposite direction came Roman vases and glassware. Buddhism and Islam came with monks and traders. Why not the knife and fork? Eventually sea trade brought an end to the Silk Road and China's capital city moved further eastwards with successive dynasties. Xi'an is now a huge city once again and amazingly still retains it's impressive city walls around the centre. We walk most of their 14kms on a sunny day. There's not a lot of anything from olden days left here and surrounding the walls is another of high-rise buildings. But in the centre there are the grand drum and bell towers and an old Muslim quarter with a couple of mosques, built in Chinese pagoda style, and, more importantly, a couple of streets of food stalls and restaurants that get packed at night mainly by Chinese tourists looking for the L.S.D. Yep, that's right, it's the in-thing on your holidays here. Wherever you go, you must try the Local Speciality Dish. To be honest, I'm not sure what it is in Xi'an, but the fresh bread meat sandwiches are good, and the beef noodles hit the spot.We're hostelling again, but this time in a busier place that seems to be filled with mainly English people with northern accents. Bizarre. But kind of comfortable and very sociable. Hayley and Ben are travelling around the world with their young daughter. Their speed is dizzying to sloths like us. Before we leave, we take a bus out to a road junction on the west side of the city. In a little park area there's a huge stone sculpture of a Silk Road Caravan setting out. A little boy is clambering over the camel backs and heads of the traders. Down below an old fella is flying a kite about a kilometre above us. We give another old man in a greatcoat a fright - he takes one look at us and shuffles off quickly. If we wait long enough a tour bus will turn up for photos. Sure enough here it is. Out step the middle-aged tourists, to pose for photos, have a quick fag, then back on board and off. We will also be heading west, but only on a cheap and slow night train. This begs the question - what state will we be in when we get off the train?

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