The Silk Road--China and the Karakorum Highway by Jonathan Tucker

The Silk Road--China and the Karakorum Highway by Jonathan Tucker

Author:Jonathan Tucker
Language: eng
Format: epub
ISBN: 9780857739339
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Published: 2015-11-15T00:00:00+00:00

Figure 19

Remains of the fort at Yumenguan (Jade Gate Pass). Han dynasty (206 BC– AD 220). Dimensions: 28 x 28 m.


The Northern and Southern Silk Roads through Western China.

The road to the south-east from Yumenguan to Dunhuang is equally desolate. Early travellers must have gazed at a road that stretched endlessly before them and been overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness.

The gateway to the Southern Silk Road is Yangguan, built during the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) and situated about 70 km south-west of Dunhuang. Yangguan, or the ‘Gate of Yang’, is said to derive its name from Yang Ming, an official of ancient times who fled through the gate to evade a warrant for his arrest. The remains of a citadel can still be seen at the site and so many artefacts are strewn around the area – coins, arrowheads, pottery shards and even gold jewellery – that the local people call it ‘Curio Depot’ or ‘Relic Bank’. To the Chinese it was a remote, forbidding spot – a place for farewells:

A morning rain has settled the dust in Wei Town,

Willows1 are green again in the tavern dooryard

Wait till we empty one more cup –

West of Yang Gate there’ll be no old friends.

(Wang Wei (701–62), ‘A Song at Wei Town’)

By the end of the Tang dynasty the incursion of sand and flood had led to the abandonment of the area and Yangguan was forgotten. Yumenguan and Yangguan were gateways to the Western Regions, and Chinese beliefs in the evils that awaited travellers to these areas go right back into antiquity. To the Chinese, the lands to the west were terra incognita and were inhabited by monsters:

O Soul, go not to the West

Where level wastes of sand stretch on and on;

And demons rage, swine-headed, hairy-skinned,

With bulging eyes;

Who in wild laughter gnash projecting fangs.

O Soul, go not the West

Where many perils wait!

(Attributed to Qu Yuan, Ta Chao (‘The Great Summons’), third century BC. Translated by Arthur Waley, in Waley, 1941)

Another version runs:

O soul, come back! For the west holds many perils:

The Moving Sands stretch on for a hundred leagues.

You will be swept into the Thunder’s Chasm, and dashed in pieces, unable to help yourself;

And even should you chance to escape from that, beyond is the empty desert,

And red ants as huge as elephants, and wasps as big as gourds.

The five grains do not grow there; dry stalks are the only food;

And the earth there scorches men up; there is nowhere to look for water.

And you will drift there for ever, with nowhere to go in that vastness.

(Attributed to Qu Yuan,2 Chao Hun (‘The Great Summons’), third century BC)

The northern and southern routes of the Silk Road skirt the rim of the Tarim basin. This extends over an area of 530,000 km2 (about 15 times the size of Taiwan), across Xinjiang, China’s largest and westernmost province. The basin is almost completely enclosed by mountains: the Tianshan to the north, the Kunlun to the south and the Pamirs to the west. Within the Tarim basin is the Taklamakan, China’s largest desert and some 337,000 km2 in extent.


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