Silk Road Ramblings: Lost Empires, Gobi Fugitives, and The Secret Meth Habit of Marco Polo
I have conquered the Silk Road.
I’ve hid from Chinese guards in the starlit dunes of the Gobi.
I’ve visited mud-thatched villages and seen old Uighur men as hairy as camels shriek in wonder and delight as they passed around a plastic, light-up Hasbro guitar.
I’ve stopped in a bustling bazaar and watched in horror as a Hui woman folded her infant in half, lifted him in the air, and proceeded to ‘shit’ him onto the sidewalk.
I have conquered the Silk Road—venturing through the wild frontiers of Central Asia all the way to the dynastic heart of China, through a land of unforgiving beauty and a blood-splattered past; a land of lost empires, camel caravans, mummies, treasure-filled caves, and Imperial tombs.
I am a modern-day Marco Polo, except I can’t grow impressive facial hair or call people ‘Orientals’ or ‘barbarian mongrels’
The Silk Road bloomed in the 1st century B.C,, an ancient, trans-continental trade route through which flowed silk from China, gold from Central Asia, jade from the Uighur Empire, carpets from Persia, ivory from India, spices from Arabia, and Jesus and the Bubonic plague from Europe.
Lore of the Silk Road was first popularized by a 13th century book, The Travels of Marco Polo.
If you’re not well versed in the legend of Marco Polo, my summary is as follows: the Italian merchant Marco Polo leaves Venice and follows the Silk Road to China, encountering many death-defying adventures along the way. He then meets the emperor Kublai Khan—after abruptly learning to speak Mongolian—who appoints Polo to serve as governor of a Chinese province—despite the fact that Polo has no leadership credentials whatsoever, other than the time he saved his companions in an earlier chapter by beheading several monsters (most likely pandas). He then returns home to find Venice at war with Genoa and the book unceremoniously ends with Polo being thrown in prison.
Some historians are skeptical, however, suspecting that Polo’s narrative contains equal parts fact, history, and pillow fights. At no point in Polo’s account does he mention tea, chopsticks, the Great Wall of China, or bouts of explosive diarrhea. He does however encounter monsters, wizards, and a race of headless men with faces on their torsos, which all reads like the ramblings of a meth addict.
Fueling the anti-Polo pyre is the fact that outside of “The Adventures of Marco Polo,” there is no historical evidence of an explorer of that name. The book was written my Rustichello da Pisa, a Venetian fiction writer who claimed Polo dictated the stories to him while they were prison mates. Furthermore, the Chinese were neurotic record-keepers, yet there are no documents to suggest there was ever a governor named Marco Polo. It should also be mentioned that Venice was never at war with Genoa at the time of Polo’s writing.
The irony is that none of these falsehoods should come as a surprise: while students around the world are taught The Adventures of Marco Polo, the book was really just a second-hand testimony from a guy who showed up in prison sputtering nonsense about monsters and men with faces for bellybuttons, while declaring himself a governor of China.
I ask my sixth grade teacher, Ms. Devitt: Is that a scholarly source? Or just an incarcerated schizophrenic?
It is also possible that Marco Polo never existed at all and that Rustichello da Pisa fabricated the whole thing, bolstering his story with legitimate accounts and descriptions borrowed from other contemporary travelers. Despite the fact that we label Marco Polo a great explorer, European traders had already been plying the Silk Road for hundreds of years. Or perhaps even earlier than that…
In the late 20th century, a farmer living the Tarim Basin discovered the mummy of a young woman dressed in distinctive felt clothes. Several years later, a similarly dressed mummy of a man was found nearby. Then another one turned up, then another, until by 2007, over fifty of these mummies had been collected.
What made these finds so important is that all of the mummies were of European descent, exhibiting distinguishable Caucasian features.
What made these finds so controversial is that the mummies dated back as far as 2000 BC and textiles expert Elizabeth Wayland Barber traced their clothing to similar samples recovered from salt mines—in Hallstatt, Austria—suggesting that a Europoid civilization existed in western China long before the arrival of the Han Chinese.
The discovery not only altered China’s realms of history and science, but its politics as well. The Tarim mummies became an icon for Uighur separatism—the historical inhabitants of Xinjiang, who differ from the Chinese in religion, language, ethnicity, food, script, architecture, and culture, and who now claim to be the descendants of the mummies.
Whether or not this is true, the fearful Chinese government responded by covering their ears, screaming, “LA, LA, LA, I’m not listening,” and prohibited all non-Chinese scientists from conducting further genetic testing on the specimens.
Following the Silk Road north through Gansu into the southern dunes of the Gobi, I reached the oasis of Dunhuang—famous for its beautiful, crescent-shaped lake, which appears out of the sands like a mirage. The tiny lake is presided over by a non-historical temple selling souvenirs, which is surrounded by dunes overrun with noisy Chinese tourists stampeding around in knee-high, orange shoe protectors and throwing up peace signs, murdering any romantic notion of exoticism or adventure. Surrounding the dunes are several kilometers of metal gates patrolled by security guards, ensuring that nobody evades the exorbitant 140 yuan entrance fee (nearly my entire daily budget).
“Let’s sneak into the temple!” I drunkenly declared, slamming down a shot glass and wiping baijo from my chin with a sleeve. It was nearly midnight and between the four Australians and I, we’d drunk enough baijo and Three Penis Wine to kill a horse. Consequentially, everyone agreed that this was a phenomenal idea.
Under the cover of darkness, we left the hostel, wandered through palm trees until we reached the fence, and then dug a hold in the sand large enough to slip through. After ensuring we were clear of any guards, we began our slow, grueling stumble up the dunes.
Reaching the top an hour later, we collapsed on our backs beneath the spectacular desert sky. Concealed on all sides by steep ridges of sand, we spent the night there, falling asleep to a chorus of palm frogs and the whistle of the warm Gobi wind.
By the time the morning guards arrived for their rounds, we were already waiting, watching from high on the ridge, hung-over as hell. Tourists were slowly trickling into the temple grounds, so as soon as the guards strayed from view, we made our move—leaping from the steep ridge, sprinting down the soft sand face of the dune, and disappearing amidst the tourist throngs.
While Gansu province lies near the center of China, it marks the ancient boundary of the Chinese Empire, the point through which Silk Road traders past west through the Great Wall, embarking into the perilous deserts of Central Asia. Merchants built breathtaking Buddhist caves to incur good favor from the gods before setting off.
After the Silk Road deteriorated, the caves fell into disuse, swallowed by the shifting desert sands and forgotten by time.
It wasn’t until Western explorers arrived in the late 19th century that the sands were cleared away, revealing spectacularly preserved repositories of ancient art, architecture, literature, sculpture, calligraphy, and paintings.
Traversing Gansu into Shanxi, I reach the gates of Xi’an, the terminus of the Silk Road and the first imperial capital of China.
The old capital of the Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang dynasties still remains a culinary capital, a melting pot of Uighur, Hui, and traditional Chinese cooking styles. Gastronomes can dine in world-class restaurants, gorge on decadent street food, and wander wonderful food markets (just convince yourself that they’re also selling pets). The best eating is found in the old Muslim Quarter—one of the most exciting foodie destinations in Asia.
Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter offers an overwhelming array of edible oddities—just follow your nose and the crowd, and don’t ask what anything is until after you’ve enjoyed eating it. Be sure not to miss Xi’an’s specialties, yangrou paomo (savory mutton noodle soup with breadcrumbs) or rouchuan (the sultry, spicy Chinese cousin of Middle Eastern kebabs), and eat a panda’s weight in roujiamo (gloriously fried and chopped pork stuffed in a warm pita with fresh peppers and cumin).
If as you’re eating your way through Xi’an, you discover that there aren’t any restaurants serving Crab Rangoon or General Tso’s Chicken—don’t panic. Breathe. Drink a glass of water.
Our Western notion of “Chinese food” is mostly a fabrication. China is roughly the size of Europe and has roughly as many regional cuisines. These cuisines are broken into four schools and pertaining to the ancient Chinese custom of complicating everything, these four schools are then broken into dozens of distinct regional styles.
The greatest attraction of Xi’an is the recently re-discovered tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang—and the terracotta army of 9,000 foot soldiers, chariots, and cavalry horsemen that have stood guard over it for the past 2,300 years. Each soldier of Qin’s life-sized army varies in height, hair-style, and uniform; no two soldiers look the same. An optimist at heart, Qin expected to rule even in the afterlife, hoping his army would spring to life like some terrifying, Chinese spin-off of Toy Story. Instead, he and his army were buried and forgotten.
On the 29th of March, 1974, farmers digging a water well prompted one of the greatest archeological discoveries of all time. The dig is still underway nearly three decades later, with new statues, weapons, and artifacts uncovered every month.
More intriguing than the statues is the mystery surrounding the tomb they guard. Ancient Chinese texts describe Qin’s mausoleum as a complex of towers, palaces dripping with jewels, rich art, priceless objects, and even a few unlucky officials. While the tomb itself has yet to be found, some suspect that it might lie within the massive, man-made pyramid located directly behind the soldiers, which the Chinese archeologists refuse to excavate. Ancient records claim the tomb is cursed, ingeniously rigged with booby-traps, and flowing with deadly, man-made rivers of liquid mercury.
The suspense is only surpassed by the involuntary rage one must feel towards Chinese superstitiousness.
That being said: recent scientific work has revealed high levels of mercury in soil samples collected around the dig site.
Leaving behind the Silk Road, I head north to Beijing to catch my New York-bound flight, making a pit stop in the ancient walled town of Pingyao.
In the land of martial arts, the most popular discipline is Tai Chi, a soft martial art technique resembling an inflexible person attempting floor gymnastic after taking too many sleeping pills. While this narcotized method of self-defense is prized for its wushu (aesthetic appeal) and health benefits for the body and mind, it seems pretty useless, unless you’re trying to lull your attacker to sleep. Trying to fight a mugger with Tai Chi would be like trying to fend off a Grizzly Bear by squinting.
I have conquered the Silk Road.
I’ve watched a caravan of camels snaking through the dunes, saddled by three dozen shrieking, Chinese teenagers wearing sunhats and knee-high, orange shoe protectors.
I’ve eaten Sichuan lava-cuisine spicy enough to induce a stroke, punished my colon with camel-milk ice cream, and at one point nearly vomited up a seahorse.
I have conquered the Silk Road—touching down in the red heart of China, the land of temples and teahouses, dumplings and dragons, fireworks and fortune cookies.
Having flown home for two months, I’m now back in Beijing, but my sixty-day Chinese odyssey is going to be deferred. I’m following spontaneity to the steppes of Mongolia tonight, not bidding Beijing a goodbye, but a See You Later.
I’ll come back in November to finish what I’ve started.
Check out Backpackology’s shiny, new “Travel Stories Index!!” — The fruit of several hours of determined procrastination.
For more Photo Travelogues and videos, click the Photo Travelogues tab at the top of the page.
To hear about my detour back to America and my fun-filled court case, check out the travel tale, “Guilty as Charged“
To read more about the Uighur people of Xinjiang, check out the Wednesday Wandering video, “The Former Nation of East Turkestan”