Mountains and Deserts Without End: Journeys along the Ancient Silk Road

The Silk Road which thrived from the first century BC through the 14th century, was one of mankind’s greatest land routes, connecting China in the east with Rome in the west via the vast steppes and highlands of Central Asia and the Middle East. Spanning a distance of more than 6,000 km, the Silk Road was more than a trade route. Besides previous silk fabrics, the many branches of the Silk Road was a conduit for the exchange of ideas, art, philosophy and religion, from Buddhism to Zoroastrianism, Islam to Judaism and Christianity. The huge diversity of cultures it traversed is still evident today in once important gateway towns and cities that dot various branches of the road, places like Dunhuang, Yarkland, Kashgar, Samarkanland, Bukarra, Yazd, Ishafan, Merv, Ctesiphon, Aleppo, and Tyre to name only a few. They served as rest points, marketplaces, and shipping ports and in their heydays, were abuzzed with people from from many lands

.This photojournal celebrates the exhilarating melting pot of people, cultures and history that is the Silk Road. The journey takes us from where it all started in Xian, western China. From there, the route winds its way through the vast Gobi desert into Xinjiang in the eastern frontier of China, then to Afghanistan in the south, and Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, regions in the heart of Central Asia. From there, it’s onward into the Middle East: Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, ending in the important ancient Mediterranean port city of Tyre in south Lebanon and the western end of the Silk Road. From Tyre and elsewhere north, exotic goods would flow to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), itself a major bridge between East and West.

The Silk Road: A Photo Journal

Towers of ancient city walls in Xi’an, in Shannxi Province, Central China, Xi’an (formerly known as Chang’an, was once an imperial capital city, and the eastern departure point for the Silk Road. These city walls were largely built after the Silk Road had fallen into disuse, after 1500 A.D.
Travelers heading west from Xi’an would first pass through Gansu Province. Here, a sandstorm hits the town of Shandan in Zhangye, Gansu Province, China. Photo taken in March, 2013.
A solar eclipse, called ‘Rishi,’ meaning ‘eaten sun’ in Chinese, seen from the Jiayuguan Fort on the Great Wall of China in the town of Jiayuguan, Gansu Province, on August 1, 2008.
The desert of Singing Sand Dunes on the outskirts of Dunhuang in Gansu Province. Dunhuang was once an important stopping place for Silk Road travellers, the evidence of which can be seen in the world famous Dunhuang Caves where thousands of Buddhist images and sculptures were preserved for centuries. Buddhism first spread to China from India during the latter part of the Han dynasty (ca. 150 CE) and took over a century to become assimilated into Chinese culture. This photo shows visitors climbing the Singing Sand Dunes located near the Crescent Moon Spring, an ancient oasis.
Six kilometers south of Dunhuang is Crescent Lake (Chinese: 月牙泉; pinyin: Yuèyá Quán). When British missionaries Mildred Cable and Francesca French sighted it in the 1920s, it took their breath away. It is easy to see why. Like a scene from a Salvador Dali painting, the crystal-clear water of the crescent-shaped lake is a sparkling contrast to the barren sand dunes all around it. The lake is about 100 meters long, with a width of 25 meters and a depth of up to 5 meters. Remarkably, it has never dried out since its discovery during the Han dynasty giving it the nickname of First Spring Lake. Adding to the picturesque scene is a group of Tang-style buildings that line the south bank and which house ancient sculptures and frescos.
Dunhuang rock caves. As a crossroad city of the Silk Road, Dunhuang was also a site of religious pilgrimage. From the 4th century AD through the golden age that was the Tang dynasty (618 -907), wealthy Buddhist devotees would commission monks to construct dedicated shrines by carving out the friable clay cliff face. Other monks were commissioned to decorate the cave walls and ceilings with Buddhist murals in vivid colors that complement sculptures representing the Buddha, a couple of which are of monumental proportions.
Dunhuang cave paintings. Details of a group of musicians on a Mogao cave mural, Dunhuang, Gansu, China, Late Tang dynasty (848 – 907)
At 116 feet, the tallest Buddha in the Dunhuang Mogao caves peers out of a nine-story pagoda, the facade of Cave 96 built into the string of grottoes.
Yumen, Dunhuang. Visitors to Dunhuang today can still see the remains of ancient Han fortresses, including the earliest parts of the Great Wall. Pictured here is the Yumen Gate (or ‘Jade Gate’) built by the Han emperor Wudi soon after 121 BC. Together with the Yang Guan Pass further east, these were the westernmost fortresses on the ancient Silk Road. Once you pass these two gates, you are deemed to have entered the Western regions of Central Asia.

East to Xinjiang and Beyond

The hottest place in China. Caves in the aptly-named Flaming Mountains valley, in Tuyoq Valley, Turpan located in the farwestern province of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China. The area is dotted with grottoes and caverns that served many purposes over the centuries. They were used as rest stops, Buddhist temples, and even small villages.
The Flaming Mountains in the heat of the late afternoon. The average height of the Flaming Mountains is 500 m (1,600 ft), with some peaks reaching over 800 m (2,600 ft). The mountain climate is harsh and the extremely high summer temperatures make this the hottest spot in China, frequently reaching 50 °C (122 °F) or higher.
The Flaming Mountains seen from the northern rim of the Taklamakan Desert, Turpan, Xinjiang.
Nestled at the foothills of the Flaming Mountains, the oasis city of Turpan is located in the Turpan depression and it is one of the hottest places of earth. In its day, the city was quite large and it is relatively well preserved considering that the main material used for its construction was nothing more than mud bricks. Shown here is the Mazha Village of Tuyoq in Turpan, a Muslim pilgrimate site for the local people. With a history of 1,700 years, it still maintains the original Uygur customs and lifestyle.
Mazha Village in Tuyoq, Turpan, Xinjiang, Western China.
The ancient city of Jiohe, 10km west of Turpan. An Indian proverb says, ‘Intelligence is bound to exist where two rivers meet’. Jiaohe, meaning in Chinese where two rivers meet, is such a place. Located 10km west of Turpan, Jiaho dates to 2300 years ago, and was home to 700 households, 6500 residents plus 865 soldiers, and a major passageway for communication between the East and West since the Han and Tang Dynasty. As seen in the following aerial photo, Jiaohe city is situated on a plateau atop a cliff of over 30 meters in height.
Jiaohe has the distinction of being the largest, oldest and best-preserved earthen city in the world, spanning an area of 220,000 square meters (2.7 million square feet). It was included in the World Heritage List on June 22, 2014.
Remains of a temple structure at Jiaohe city, Turpan.
Flag-festooned poles stand over a grave in a cemetery surrounding the tomb of Imam Asim in the formidable Taklamakan Desert outside the village of Jiya near Hotan, Xinjiang.
In the local Uighur language, Taklamakan is translated as “the place of no return.”. It is the world’s third largest desert after the Sahara and the Gobi deserts. It was the circumvent the fearsome Taklamakan that gave rise to many oasis towns around it, including Turpan, Hotan and Yarkland.
Endless sand dunes stretching across the Taklamakan Desert.
Uighur men in the Serik Buya market in Yarkand, Xinjiang, China. The Uighurs, who are Muslims, are an ancient people of Turkic origins.
Goats in the Opal Village Market, Xinjiang. Located 45 km southwest of Kashgar, the Opal Village Market is a vibrant place to buy bread, fruits, livestock, meat and sundries.
Kyrgyz man in the Opal Village market, Xinjiang.
The old town of Kashgar has long been considered the cultural heart of Xinjiang for the province’s nearly 10 million Muslim Uighurs. At an historic crossroads linking China to Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, the city has changed under Chinese rule with government development, Han Chinese settlement to the western province, and restrictions imposed by the Communist Party.
Livestock market, Kasghar. A market scene that has hardly changed for thousands of years.
Old men in Kasghar, Xinjiang.
Young boys in Kasghar, Xinjiang.
A man prepares to bake Naan bread in the wood-fired oven, Kashgar, Xinjiang.
A Uighur boy in Kashgar helping himself to freshly baked Nann.
Men making music outside a home in Kashgar, Xinjiang.
Coppersmith at work, Kashgar, Xinjiang.
Kazakhstan, Central Asia. A northern branch of the Silk Road would have taken travelers through southern Kazakhstan. Here, a farmer’s yurt, or traditional nomad felt tent, is seen in front of a Soviet-era observatory on the mountainous Assy Plateau, about 2,500 meters (8,202 feet) above sea level, 56 miles (90 km) east of Almaty, Kazakhstan.
A bird flies over a blossoming poppy field against the backdrop of a city and the Tien Shan (“Heavenly”) mountains at the outskirts of Almaty, Kazakhstan. The Tien Shan is one of the great mountain ranges in Asia. Lying north of the Taklamakan Desert, it reaches the Turpan Depression in the south and spans a total of 1,500 miles (2,500 km) from east and west.
The “Singing Sands” of Kazakhstan. A man stands at the edge of a 495 foot (150 meter) the Singing Sand Dunes in Altyn-Emel National Park, Kazakhstan’s Almaty region.
Pakistan. For centuries, the southern part of the land Silk Roads wound its way from Central Asia, across some of the highest mountains in the world, down through modern Pakistan and then curved east into India (Hindustan) or continued south to the Arabian Sea. Shown here is Tupopdan Peak, 20,033 feet (6,106 meters), also known as “Passu Cathedral,” just north of Gulmit village in the picturesque Hunza Valley region of northern Pakistan.
Bamiyan, Afghanistan. An Afghan man rides a horse overlooking Band-e-Amir Lake, in the central province of Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Bamiyan stands in a deep green and lush valley stretching 100 kilometers through central Afghanistan, on the ancient Silk Road.
The ruins of the Afghan city of Shahr-e Zuhak, also known as the “Red City”, stand in a valley on the outskirts of Bamiyan, Central Afghanistan.
Afghan girls look at the town of Bamiyan from the Shahr-e Gholghola ruins during a visit on August 7, 2017. Shahr-e Gholghola, the “City of Screams,” was a fortified city captured by Genghis Khan in the 13th century.
The Buddhas of Bamiya. The Buddhas of Bamiyan were two 6th-century monumental statues of the Buddha carved into the side of a sandstone cliff at an elevation of 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) in the Bamyan valley of central Afghanistan. The statues represented a later evolution of the classic blended Ghandara style fusing Buddhist art and Gupta art from India, with influences from the Persian Sasanian Empire and the Byzantine Empire. Both statues were blown up and destroyed in March 2001 by the Taliban in what is by far, the most spectacular attack against the historical and cultural heritage of Afghanistan committed during the country’s recent period of turmoil. This photo was taken before the Taliban destruction
Balkh, Afghanistan. Afghan children play in the old part of the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif in Balkh province. Once known as the “mother of cities,” the ancient city of Balkh was a popular destination along the ancient Silk Road. Balkh was destroyed by Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan during his rule, and the city’s ruins remain a tourist attraction today.
Herat, Afghanistan. An Afghan worker collects a silkworm cocoon from dried mulberry leaves in Zandajan district of Herat province, in west Afghanistan bordering Iran. Once a stop along the Silk Road, western Afghanistan has a long tradition of producing silk used to weave carpets, a process that dates back thousands of years.
Remains of a 4th century fortress in the Wakhan corridor of northeastern Afghanistan. Linking Central Asia to China’s Xinjiang Province, the Wakhan Corridor in northeast Afghanistan is bounded by Tajikistan to the north, China to the east and Pakistan and Kashmir to the south. This highly mountainous corridor has a rich cultural history, marked by the religious fingerprints of Zoroastrianism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Ruins of the legendary Silk Road sprinkle through the Wakhan, as do stories of renowned travellers said to have passed through the rugged terrain, from Marco Polo to Alexander the Great, though the latter more likely ended his exploration of the region in Balkh, Afghanistan.
Location of the Wakkan Corridor
Approaching the Pamirs from Kyrgyzstan. The small mountain republic of Kyrgyzstan is often dubbed “the Switzerland of Central Asia” for its alphine valleys, flower-filled meadows and snow-capped peaks. The classic Silk Road from Kashgar to Krygyzstan crosses the Torugart Pass, which is mmore beautiful but also more logistically complex than the other high road from China.
Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia. A father teaches his son to ride a horse in a pasture of the Suu-Samyr Plateau in Kyrgyzstan, 2,500 meters above sea level, located along the ancient Silk Road from Bishkek (the capital) to Osh in the Fergana Valley south of the country. The horses of Fergana were highly prized by Han Chinese emperors in the 2nd century BC who were convinced that these noble beasts were the legendary Heavenly Horse (Tien Ma) descended from dragons and linked with immortality. After a series of Han military campaigns to Central Asia marked by heavy losses and brutal travel conditions, contingents of Chinese soldiers were dispatched to Krygyzstan to secure Fergana horses. Over the coming centuries, demand for these magnificent horses became one of the major economic drivers of the Silk Road networks linking East and West.
The stately and powerful “Heavenly horse” from Kyrgyzstan.
A view of Osh, the second-largest city in Kyrgyzstan, seen from nearby Sulayman Mountain, Osh was once a major marketplace along the Silk Road, and was considered the midpoint on the route.
Bukhara, Uzbekistan, Central Asia. An ancient tree stands near a museum in the historic center of the Silk Road town of Bukhara, Uzbekistan. It lies west of Samarkand and was previously a focal point of learning eminent all through the Islamic world.
Turkmenistan, Central Asia. Merv, Turkmenistan, was once a great oasis city that thrived along the Silk Road. The Greater Kyz Kala or “Maiden’s Castle”, photographed here in 2011, is one of several large ruined fortress-like buildings that are all that remain of Merv today. Construction of the fortress began in the 7th century and was completed only in the 12th century. Although it was named as a fortress, it probably served as the semi-fortified home of an important official, perhaps even the governor of Merv.
Iran. In modern Iran, the golden dome of the mausoleum of Imam Reza stands in Mashhad, 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of Tehran in the northeast region of Iran. Mashhad was the most prominent city along the Silk Road corridor out of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.
Iran. Homes in the village of Kandovan, Iran. Kandovan is a village where homes are dug out of the rock formations in the foothills of Sahand Mountain. Residents claim that the village dates back to the time of the Mongol hordes, when their ancestors made their homes here, seeking safety.
Iran. A southern branch of the Silk Road took travelers through Yazd, Iran, home to a large community of Zoroastrians. The Towers of Silence were used by early Zoroastrians as a site for a sky burial tradition.
Iran. A man looks through a window at the deserted mountains as he prays at the Zoroastrian temple in Chakchak, Iran, the site of an annual pilgrimage.
Iran. The old citadel of Arg-e Bam in Kerman province, Bam, Iran. This Silk Road citadel stood at an oasis and a crossroads, serving as a place of rest, a market, and a point of defense
Iran. An ancient bazaar in Tabriz. Tabriz was on the Silk Road. This bazaar is one of the oldest in the Middle East and the largest covered bazaar in the world.
Ribat, Iran. Located in Razavi Khorasan Province, Iran, between Merv (in Turkmenistan) and Nishapur (in Iran), the Ribat-i Sharaf was both commercial outpost and a caravanserais (rest place) for travellers, one of the largest and most important in Iran.
Ribat, Iran. Built in the 12th century by the last Seljuk ruler, Sanjar, the Ribat-i Sharaf is an impressive display of the art of brick construction and decoration, much of which would have been covered by stucco and paint in its heydays.
Iraq. A man visits the Taq Kasra, or the Archway of Ctesiphon in Iraq. A Persian ruin on the Tigris River near Salman Pak, about 30 km south of Baghdad, Ctesiphon was once an ancient city on the Tigris and a hub on the Silk Road, connecting to many other routes throughout the region. Today, the arch is one of the few remaining structures left after the rapid fall of Ctesiphon about 1,300 years ago.
Iraq. A view of the mausoleum of prophet Daniel, who is supposedly buried here, in Kirkuk, Iraq. Located between Mosul and Bagdad, Kirkuk has been a prosperous city on the ancient Silk Road and one of the biggest oil-producing centers of the region.
Syria. Part of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, after government troops recaptured the UNESCO world heritage site from ISIS jihadists on March 27, 2016. Palmyra was an ancient caravan city, its wealth and fortunes strongly linked to the steady flow of Silk Road travelers coming and going.
Syria. Daily life around the outer walls of the citadel in the center of the old city of Aleppo, Syria, on January 06, 2011. The Citadel of Aleppo is a large medieval fortified palace which is considered to be one of the oldest and largest castles in the world. Usage of the citadel hill dates back at least to the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C. Aleppo is also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world; it has been inhabited since perhaps as early as the 6th millennium B.C. The city was a strategic trading point midway between the Mediterranean Sea and Mesopotamia. The city’s significance in history has been its location at the end of the Silk Road, which passed through central Asia and Mesopotamia.
Aleppo, Syria.
Lebanon. Ancient columns stand at the Al-Mina archaeological site, South Governorate, Tyre, Lebanon. Tyre, on the Mediterranean Sea, served as one of several ports at the western end of the Silk Road. Traders, having reached this point, might unload their goods onto a waiting ship, or board the vessel themselves to continue westward—or, turn around and head back toward Xi’an once again, more than 4,000 miles away, as the crow flies.

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