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The Silk Road Excursion

By Tirzah Dove, Westmont College, TBC ChinaContact

A couple of weeks ago, I had the very special opportunity to adventure along the Silk Road with other students from my college for about 13 days.  ChinaContact created a wonderful trip for us that definitely enhanced our short-term stay with The Beijing Center! The excursion was filled with many incredible experiences as we journeyed from Xi’an all the way to Kashgar, making stops in Tianshui, Lanzhou, Xia’he, Dunhuang, and Turpan along the way.  Each city we went to was unique in its own way, whether it be by way of cuisine or architecture.  I very much enjoyed experiencing the various cultures and historical sites nestled in each place. Traveling from city to city was also quite the experience! We took high speed trains, buses, and sleeper trains – transitioning from altitudes slightly below sea level all the way up to 9,630 feet. To me, the whole excursion was filled with highlights, so I’ll just share a handful that will hopefully paint something of a resemblance to this adventure! 

Our first city was a personal – as well as a group – favorite! I had the chance to come to Xi’an with my family in 2017 and was quite taken with it, particularly the Muslim Quarters with all of the incredible food! So, I was very excited to be able to come back and experience everything once again, with friends. As a group, we got to visit sites including the Terracotta Warriors – which I’m continuously amazed at, just thinking about how many there are. We also biked around the Old City Wall and toured the old monastery in the Muslim Quarters. Speaking of which, we spent pretty much each night – even in heavy rain – wandering around the brightly neon-lit main street of the Muslim Quarter, that was filled with all the hustle and bustle of people looking to find any and all delicious food options. Another reason why this city is so dear to me, is because of a local artist and shop owner in the Muslim Quarter. I met her through my older brother last time I was in Xi’an, and she is one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet!  I couldn’t wait to visit her each evening I had free, and the fact that she remembered me after two years was so heartwarming! Xi’an definitely holds a special place in my heart!

Along the Silk Road, we had the chance to visit two distinct ancient Buddhist cave sites.  The first one was the Maiji Mountain Caves, located near Tianshui. After a bumpy bus ride on an unfinished road, we got out and walked up into the lush greenery of the mountains to reach the base of the cliff where the caves are located. Thankfully, it wasn’t too humid, so it was fairly pleasant for climbing up the steel steps that decorated the cliff-face. At the top, the view was so gorgeous with all the trees and gently-curving mountains that surround the caves. Seeing the different size caves along with their varying statues was quite fascinating! Each one seemed to have a different style and personality to it. The other caves – The Mogao Caves – that we got to visit were further west in a desert near the city of Dunhuang. The Mogao Grottoes were quite impressive to see, with their wide range of dynastic styles and cave sizes. We even got to see the legendary “Library Cave” that housed thousands of historical documents. Who would’ve thought that such a simple cave housed so much knowledge! Also, as an art major, the cave paintings of grottoes were a special treat.  There was so much detail put into the creation of the paintings and the statues. Even with the passing of time, the colors can still be recognized; I can only imagine how vibrant the caves must have been back when they were freshly painted! I very much appreciated these stops to the caves to take a step back into history.  

Some other notable moments of the Silk Road trip included our visit to the Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in Xia’he – also known as Labrang Monastery. It was a very interesting experience to be able to visit such a different hub for a religion that is not my own. During the tour guided by a local monk, I was entranced by all the colors, fabrics, and art that filled each room we visited. There was so much symbolism behind every artistic choice made in the monastery, making the various buildings all the more incredible!   

Labrang Monastery

While in Dunhuang, we got the chance to watch the sunrise while riding camels amidst the sand dunes. Now that was an experience, especially, since I had never ridden a camel before! The ride was bumpy, but also a bit surreal; this was how people traveled a good portion of the Silk Road back when trade flowed from east to west and vice versa. What those trips must’ve been like! When we reached our stopping point, the sun was rising from behind the sand. The sunrise was such a beautiful sight – definitely one worth getting up extra early for and one that I’ll remember for a long time.       

Of course, all the food we ate was absolutely one of my favorite parts of our Silk Road trip! From the Muslim-style hamburgers in Xi’an, to the Lanzhou beef noodles and the super tasty homemade yak yogurt in Xiahe, to pretty much all dishes we had in Kashgar. We got to try a variety of dishes and I loved every single one of them! This trip absolutely counts as a food tour as well. 

Now you may be wondering whether I have a favorite city or moment from this trip, but it would be too hard to choose a single place or moment! I feel like the combination of visiting each of these unique cities and seeing the subtle, yet sometimes pronounced differences, was my favorite aspect. Just having the opportunity to taste – figuratively and literally – each city and historical sites, was such a blessing to experience. Unsurprisingly, there were some rough points with all the constant moving around plus the general bumpiness of any study abroad trip. Nonetheless, I am so happy to have been able to go on this adventure, and it wouldn’t have been the same without the two wonderful TBC staff members who joined us. The Beijing Center did an incredible job in creating our itinerary; it encouraged me to widen and deepen my perspective on China. I was able to appreciate ancient history, as well as ponder the issues of contemporary life. After this trip, at some point in my life, I would love to come back to these cities we visited to take more time to really explore and appreciate each one. I am so thankful for this opportunity that TBC provided my classmates and I, even if we weren’t part of the semester program. Truly an experience and adventure of a lifetime!