LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
A Greek on the Silk and Dragon Road
My summer travel was not, as it usually is, to my native Greece. Odysseus wanted to see new places, and so did I. And so it was that I found myself in a group of twenty-two people who rendezvoused in Beijing, on our way to the Silk Road that had once been the world’s greatest trade route.
For centuries, the Silk Road had been the meeting place of civilizations, crossing mountains, rivers, and inhospitable wastes to connect East and West. Not only were goods traded, but customs and religions. Along this road, Buddhism traveled from India to China; it was here that the Middle Kingdom connected with the Roman Empire. Wine, linen, wool, ivory, and silver went by cart and camel; ideas and art came back.
Our plane disgorged us into an impersonal airport that could be anyplace in the world except for the unfamiliar language and the signs in characters instead of letters. At last, I saw my name in my adopted alphabet. The man behind the placard spoke no English, but offered a smile instead.
We were in the Imperial City, traversing the long road to a hotel that mixed Western and Chinese culture (it’s actually Japanese-owned), its long halls ornamented with vases and dotted with shops that catered to every need. Our fellow travelers included artists, educators, and professional people. Six members of the group were Chinese, including Peter, the trip’s organizer; a businesswoman from Shanghai; and a famous filmmaker. The company, I decided, would be as interesting as China itself.
We got acquainted at a restaurant down the street from the hotel, and learned the Chinese art of dining, in which one does not order individually but eats from a dozen or more dishes that rotate around a circular table. Here, too, I received my first introduction to the realities of urban life. We were accosted on the street by child beggars of five and six, barefooted and holding out tin cups. It was not a new experience for me. I had seen it in India, too; in Peru; and, for that matter, in America. Beijing is a new city in many ways, but poverty is still its ancient scourge.
The next day, we rose early, and flew to Dunhuang, on the edge of the Gobi Desert. From a city of fourteen million, we were deposited before a wasteland of barren earth, strange rock formations, and great dunes. Life was almost wholly absent. Occasionally, the surprise of an oasis greeted us, the seeming mirage of a lake. Wherever there was water, there was cultivation, mostly corn and cotton. The sky was a washed-out blue, and the temperature in triple digits. We rode out to the caves where monks had carved and sculpted some of the great masterpieces of Buddhist art. Buddha himself is there, an astonishing twenty-five meters high, with dragons at his feet. Each cave is a miniature world, the colors still vivid after centuries, though much has been looted. Yet, we wondered at such richness of imagination in such parched solitude.
The cynosure of Dunhuang itself, a preternaturally clean city of 100,000 obviously meant as a tourist showpiece, is a thousand-foot high dune that rises abruptly, like an alp, at the end of a four-lane roadway. It’s been turned into a theme park, with visitors, mostly Chinese, riding camels, tobogganing down the slopes, or flying noisily overhead. The once clear lake, at which Marco Polo stopped, is choked with weeds. Beyond is empty desert.
Our hotel was modest enough, and I found myself wondering how the joints of the merchants of the Silk Road would have felt after weeks of travel by camel, and what tales they would have told each other. As I settled into my bathtub and let my own dust dissolve, I imagined their pleasure in the lake.
A Reminder of Greece
Next day, we came to an oasis after an excursion of nearly a hundred miles where we found a restaurant under a grape arbor with floral trellises. I wasn’t the only one reminded of Greece: a small, out-of-the-way taverna, beautifully set and lovingly tended, where wine flows in abundance, and time slows down enough to seem abundant, too.
How alien the world is, I thought, and then how unexpectedly familiar. On the edge of a thousand miles of silence, I settled down with my new friends to a Greek afternoon. The heat, too, was Greek: forty degrees Celsius in the sun, but cool under the arbor.
Later, we dined at the Silk Road Hotel, which was a replica of a Tang palace, a labyrinth of corridors, terraces, and gardens. The food was wheeled around the table, some of it familiar, some distinctive to the region. After dinner, we ascended to a veranda for a view of the dunes under a magenta sunset. Nothing further from the bustle of Beijing could be imagined.
The next day, we flew to Langzhou, the capital city of Gansu Province and the gateway to our destination, the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Region. We were met by our Tibetan guide, Norbu, who spoke fluent English (a relief after some of our other guides), and who dreamed of studying at Harvard and becoming a writer. Norbu reminded us that Tibet was once a third the size of present-day China, and that it had conquered China’s imperial city, then the largest in the world.
In Yeliguan, in the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Region of Gansu, we climbed to 8000 feet to see the emerald lake sacred to Tibetans, and a sculpted sandstone valley that reminded us of the formations of the American southwest. Below the lake was a thriving market. The locals were dressed in colorful costume, especially the women, who wore hats against the sun like the women of the Andes. A group of them were making mud bricks in a field and carting them off to trucks. The weight of their iron buckets bent them double. Their bosoms heaved, and sweat soaked their reddened faces.
I felt suddenly ashamed of holding a pen and notebook instead of a hoe. Bread, I thought, is still the world’s most expensive commodity. It was that way in the time of the Silk Road. It will be that way forever. The only difference in the centuries was the tourists and their Pullmans, only yards away from the women’s toil.
An older woman brought a baby to one of the workers, who took it in her arms. I approached them, and with body language asked if I could hold the child. He came into my arms, smiling. The baby’s clouts were open at the front and back; no diaper services here. I offered the mother some money to buy him candies. She nodded her refusal, but the baby reached out and took the money. We all laughed.
The Tibetans are gentle and generous, despite the terrible oppression they have endured in the past fifty years. The Chinese permit them some cultural autonomy now, although, of course, no political independence. We traveled deeper into the region to Xiahe, home to golden-roofed Labrang, the greatest monastery outside Tibet.
Here we met and were entertained by one of the chief Buddhist lamas. A monk poured water over our hands, and gave us white shawls to present to the lama for his blessing. He greeted us one by one, a tall, powerful man who looked far younger than his sixty-two years, with a commanding voice and laugh that reminded me of a Shakespearean actor preparing to play a royal role. I wondered how such a physically vigorous man could have subdued himself to the monastic life.
“Who knows?” our Chinese guide, Frank, answered with a smile. But Norbu replied simply, “He is beyond us.”
Labrang looks prosperous today, but it is only beginning to recover from persecutions that had reduced its population by three-quarters. The monks, once a quarter of the population, mingle freely with the laity in the market. We were given special hospitality, and served a sumptuous banquet by the monks themselves while the lama greeted each table personally. Three old women were waiting for him at the door. When they saw him, they immediately prostrated themselves. Two young monks ran up and tried to lift them. They stood on their own, and followed the lama into the kitchen, where they would be fed.
That evening we were invited to another banquet by the Chinese prefect. Under a huge tent, and after many speeches and introductions, we were treated to a program of Tibetan song and dance, and I was asked to perform something from the classical Greek theater. I chose a monologue from the play, Medea, by Euripides, and offered it in Greek, sure that neither the play nor its language had been heard in this part of the world. Monks and shepherds gathered at the opening of the tent as I performed, staring silently. I have never had a more attentive audience.
Of Blood and Vultures
The next day, in Langmusi, a town on the not-always peaceful border between Gansu and Szechuan at a height of over 10,000 feet, the main avenue was shared with black pigs, rooting among the garbage, but there were buses and motorcycles, too. Here, too, I heard for the first time about the sky burials, in which the dead are exposed to vultures on a hillside. Peter, our organizer, had shot footage of two burials that had taken place during our stay, and we saw the bodies brought beneath a tent of flags and left to have their remains consumed, while a monk chanted prayers.
The undertakers made quick slits to release blood and attract the vultures, who came almost at once to their feast. It was over in a matter of moments. Only bones were left behind. Frank said that some friends of his had witnessed a burial in person, and had been sick for days afterward. Norbu, however, explained that the consumption of the body released the spirit. I could only wonder at the ways in which we, in the West, deal with the fact of death and the terror that surrounds it.
From here, we began our journey back. At Linxia, we visited the carved mountain that is one of the supreme monuments of Buddhist art. Here, I watched the passing parade as I drank an aromatic tea made from fruit and flowers, with a large lump of sugar at the bottom. As it does at every major site, commerce thrives in the shadow of the compassionate Buddha. The stalls sell dolls and costumes from the various dynasties, and papier-mache imperial thrones. If you’ve forgotten your camera, photographers are ready to immortalize you as a future emperor or empress.
The real rulers of China, though, are another matter. Nick, the young journalist with our party, tells of a story he’s been covering for The Wall Street Journal. The government has been belatedly cleaning a polluted river in the south, and, to prove it is once again pristine, “invited” 10,000 local residents to swim in it, including children. The officials who were to have joined the swim dropped out one by one, leaving only the people as guinea pigs. There has been much protest and resistance, but the swim is still on. So it goes in the People’s Republic.
The next day, we were on our bus again. Passing under an arch, we left the Tibetan region, and found ourselves immediately in Muslim territory, a plain whose towns were dotted with mosques in a wide variety of styles. Here, too, the Chinese had laid a heavy hand, but the religion and culture still thrived. We returned to Lanzhou, and to modernity. One saw Western dress in the stores, and the drab urban uniform of any large city. The restaurants offered a touch of color with their red and yellow-ribboned chairs.
In Lanzhou, the specialty was noodles spun as fine as angel hair pasta from wheat cultivated on nearby mountaintops. The hills around Lanzhou were all terraced, and every scrap of soil planted–an ecological disaster that produced little food but much erosion and flooding. There was another extraordinary valley, too, with a huge sculpted Buddha, its colors still bright and vibrant, and a monastery above with an old Taoist monk like a figure from an ancient scroll.
At last we were in Xian, our last stop. This is Chang-an, the capital of Tang China and once the world’s largest city. It is also the location of the famous terra-cotta soldiers that, unearthed after more than 2000 years by a peasant in 1974, are now China’s foremost attraction after the Great Wall. The peasant is still on the spot, we’re told, now signing coffee-table books in the bookstore: dull and repetitive work, but, as our guide whispers, better than farming.
The terra-cotta soldiers, as most now know, are life-size warriors, each individually dressed and portrayed, and depicting every rank in the military hierarchy. There are unknown thousands of them, many yet unexcavated, and all commissioned by the founding emperor of the Han dynasty, Shih Huang-Ti, to guard his temple complex, which extends over nineteen square miles–the size of a decent town, and large enough to shame any pharaoh.
The labor of tens of thousands of sculptors, engineers, and workmen went into the work, none of which was ever meant to be seen (the sculptors themselves were killed to keep the secret, and many of the laborers were worked to death). In addition, many of Shih’s own officers and soldiers were entombed with their likenesses. What other secrets remain buried here? The emperor’s tomb itself has never been excavated. Do the Chinese still fear his curse?
We flew back on our own for a final two days in Beijing. Our first stop, Tiananmen Square, was still dominated by a giant portrait of Mao, now known to be one of the great mass murderers of history. When we asked about this, our local guide replied stiffly, “He is the father of our people.”
Our relationship with her went downhill from there. Next came the Forbidden City, the home for centuries of the imperial dynasties. Once again, we marveled at the extravagance by which, as much as brute force, the emperors had ruled: a child born in the Forbidden City, visiting its palaces at the rate of one room a day, would be nineteen years old before he had visited them all.
And, of course, our visit could not be complete without a trip to the Great Wall, which millions had labored to build and tens of thousands had died finishing, only to create the world’s largest tourist attraction. Like an enormous train of ants, the tourists climb the endless steps, carrying flags, gasping for breath, and trying to protect themselves from the heat and sun with party-colored umbrellas. The Great Wall never actually succeeded in holding back an army, and these invaders, too, conquer it daily.
Modern China is the most thriving of modern nations, with an unrivaled growth rate and an economy that will, eventually, overtake ours. It is at the same time–even with a hundred cities of a million or more people–still predominantly a rural society, much of it deeply sunk in poverty if no longer the misery of imperial times. Meanwhile, a thousand sights, sounds, and tastes remain in memory for a Greek in this land of hope and contradiction, on the road of silks and dragons.
Elizabeth is a junior at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. She is an English major with a double minor in Political Science and Creative Writing. During the school year she spends her time playing volleyball, writing and exploring the Hudson Valley.