From Urumqi to Xian


After two months of travel we arrive in Xian, where the Silk Road starts/ends. In former times a journey from Constantinople to Xian with horses, camels and carriages took at least two years. But let's start our report with the capital of the autonomous Xianjing region: Urumqi.

The most western city of China is currently undergoing a huge transformation. New buildings, skyscrapers made of glass and reflecting mirrors are being built, new hotels and restaurant open, new roads and railroads are being built. In short, the region is booming as the central Chinese government is spending huge sums to develop the region. The hilly surroundings of Urumqi with mountain lakes and impressive valleys are interesting.

To our surprise, all signs are written in both Chinese and Arab. Colloquial language is Uigur, a Turk language, which is written in Arabic letters. As many Han Chinese settled in the region, a diverse and rich mix of cultures developed. In the train station, we manage to buy a 3rd class ticket to Xian from a local reseller even if the trains are officially booked out for the next days.

3rd class means on hard wooden seats in an overcrowded car with no air conditioning. People are squeezing to sleep a few hours under the seats, on top of the luggage cabins and suitcases. We hardly have any chance to sleep at all, as the whole train journey is essentially a big and ongoing party. The Chinese invite to sing, offer us beer and food. We cannot reject their generous offer and find us singing all night long songs we have never heard of and laughing to jokes where we don't understand a word. We are also performing a few traditional Swiss songs, which are met with frenetic applause. We are the only white foreigners on the train (of several thousand people) and a great attraction for everyone. The result is that all Chinese are gathering in our car, which becomes impossible to get through. Before leaving in Xian, the Chinese want to take pictures with us and ask for autographs, which we are obliged to give. Being famous must really be a pain!

After a few hours from Urumqi, the train is descending into the Turfan depression, a desert at -154 m altitude, deadly hot and one of the driest places on earth - quite similar to the Death Valley in Nevada. The city of Turfan is a flowering oasis city, where sweet grapes and other sweet fruits grow in abundance due to an ingenious irrigation system (similar to the khanates in Iran). Water is harnessed a few hundred miles away from the snow of the Tien Shan Mountains.

Some Chinese students on the train speak English and help us to communicate. We are overwhelmed by the friendliness of the passengers; especially in comparison with the people we had met in the other Central Asian countries. What is less pleasant is the way Chinese eat and get rid of their garbage. After a few hours, the train carriage looks like a pigs place. Rests of meals are simply thrown on the floor, the toilets are hardly usable. The noise of smacking and sipping is painful in our ears. Also, the Chinese spat on the soil every few minutes and belch with great pleasure. Other countries, other customs.

After 50 hours of partying in the train, we are glad to leave in Xian, especially as the train is getting more and more crowded. Most of the passengers are students traveling back to their schools/universities, which start on Sept 1st. We must be glad to have gotten a ticket at all!

Xian is a remarkable place. It was the largest city of the world until the 18th century and residence of eleven dynasties. Settlements are dating back to the 4th century before Christ. The nearby village Bambo, which is said to have been dominated by women, is believed to be more than 8000 years old, some of the oldest settlements of men on earth. The most impressive remnants in Xian are the tombs of the emperors of the Qin dynasty. The grave hill of the emperor Qin Shi Hunagdi (221-210 a.d.) is situated some 30 km north of Xian is 72 m high and believed to be several hundred meters in depth. The tomb has not been opened yet due to the danger that the whole system may collapse. More than 720'000 workers had constructed the largest and most impressive tomb in history. A nearby museum shows the main hall reconstructed after descriptions and historic sources. The emperor's sarcophagus is sitting on miniature landscape showing the vast area he was ruling. Rivers and lakes are formed from mercury (actually archeologists have found large quantities of mercury under the grave hill), and the ceilings more than 100 m high depict the sky the rest of the world. The most famous sign of power of Qin Shi is the terracotta army, which was guarding the tomb. More than 8000 soldiers, horses and chariot and carriages made from clay/terracotta have been excavated so far. The presence of this army some 10 km west of the tomb was unknown until 1974, when local peasant drilling a whole into the ground to find ground water, accidentally discovered the first piece. The creators of the terracotta figures apparently were killed when they had finished their work.

The sensational find today is one of the most visited tourist places in China with more than 3 million visitors per year. The army corresponds exactly to the imperial army Qin was commanding with a right and left wing as well as a central unit in its battle formation. A general behind its chariot had the command. The terracotta army is displayed in its original place, where the Chinese built enormous halls and museums with many other exhibits found in the many tombs around Xian. Who knows whether there are even bigger armies to be discovered?

Xian was also place of political turmoil in the 40s. General Chiang Kai Shek (who then fled to Taiwan) was a victim of a coup in 1936. Following the aggression of the Japanese, who had taken Manchuria in 1931 and were to invade China, Communist leaders captured the Kuomintang leader in a nearby hill (Chian Kai Shek was hiding in a cave, which we visited high above in the mountains) and made him fight together with the communists against the Japanese.

Xian itself is a marvelous city with an intact city wall and many pagodas and temples. It hosts also two marvelous museums: the Stelen museum and the Shaanxi History Museum. The Stelen museum is a collection of large stones with inscriptions, which served the people as a library before the invention of paper. The stones mark the history of Confucius and other religious leaders, who had great influence on the Chinese leaders.

The Silk Road indeed had brought many different religions to China (Buddhism and Islam). Xian is still a center of Muslim culture and features a mosque in the middle of city surrounded by pagodas and temples. The Muslim women are wrapped into white linen.

Xian also remained a very lively city. Markets and shops are abundant with fuits and goods. The selection of restaurants is enormous: from little street cuisines, where all sorts food (noodles and rice in thousands of variations) are offered, up to 1st class restaurants for fine dining. Chinese probably eat everything that is edible and/or moving. The more exotic, the better. In the entrance halls of better restaurants, fresh fish, crabs, moraines, snakes, turtles and frogs are awaiting for their consumption. We will report on our experience with the Chinese cuisine next time.