Ghostly route

Story and photographs by Audrey Topping

If any place deserves to be haunted, it is the old Silk Road. For amid the ruins of ancient cities, once strung like Buddhist prayer beads across the forbidding terrain of Central Asia, there have occurred more mysterious happenings, rich pageantry, magical rituals, sinister intrigue, heroic battles and cruel massacres than the imagination can encompass.

Ten centuries ago, the Silk Road became the first artery of globalization linking East and West. Known as “the Emperor’s Route,” it was far more than the first trans-Asian highway that joined ancient civilizations and linked the two superpowers of the world – imperial China and the Holy Roman Empire. It was a 5,000-mile network of trade arteries that split and converged like dueling dragons romping across the breadth of Eurasia. The Silk Road was composed of the most exotic, but also the most treacherous, overland routes on earth. Over the centuries, the history has been blended with mystery, magic and myth. Ancient sites, mummies, silks and treasures are still being discovered.

Today, the old Silk Road is known in China as National Highway 315, but to Westerners it has become the stuff that legends are made of. Tourists may still see horse carts and Bactrian camels loaded with yurts and the household goods of the nomads’ descendants – reminiscent of centuries past – yet noisy tractor-trailers and private cars have replaced the fabled caravans.

To travel the old Silk Road today is to trace not only the passage of early trade, heroic battles and warring conquerors, but more lastingly, the exchange and blending of diverse ideas, religions, philosophies, sciences and musical styles.

One memorable morning I rode along the old Silk Road between the furry humps of a Bactrian camel. In the timeless space of the Singing Sands in the Gobi Desert I imagined I was a character in the Chinese epic novel “The Journey to the West,” first published 400 years ago. In my desert mirage, I visualized the hero of the story, the pilgrim Xuanzang, who around 645 brought Buddhist scriptures to China from India. Aloft another camel I visualized Fa-hsien, the monk who in 399 wrote the first eyewitness account of wondrous Buddhist cities that flourished for 1,000 years along the Silk Road.

The death knell came when the king of Kashgar converted to Islam and Arab armies conquered the unarmed Buddhist cities. After the Muslim invasion came Genghis Kahn and his “Golden Hordes.” By 1211, the Mongol warrior had unified Mongolia and begun the conquest that devastated north China and Central Asia on his way to carving out the largest empire on earth. Any city, Buddhist or Muslim, that refused to join his armies was destroyed. So complete was the devastation that all traces of this once glorious Buddhist civilization vanished for a millennium.

But the essence or perhaps the soul of the dead cities along the Silk Road still hovered in the collective memory of mankind. Like stars that emit light beams centuries after they cease to exist, the lost cities continued to spark ghostly legends for 10 centuries before the haunted ruins were finally discovered in 1873 by Sir Douglas Forsyth. The Englishman stumbled on two clay figures from a sand-entombed city that had disappeared some 800 years before – one of the Buddha and one of the legendary Monkey King immortalized in “Journey to The West.”

Some 300 cities had been decimated by man and vanished beneath the ruthless desert sands. Then in the early 20th century, the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin and British archeologist Aurel Stein discovered more ruins and an archeological gold rush to rescue the remains began. These legendary figures populate only a fraction of the history of the old Silk Road.

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