The first thread has been spun, our journey proper has begun. Being a romantic, I’d half hoped the start of the Silk Road to be a lonely carved arch standing solemnly on the edge of the desert. So the stark skyscrapers, honking traffic and glaring neon signs of Xi’an — formerly known as Chang’an — quickly snap me from my silliness. As travel writer Colin Thubron observed in his book Shadow of the Silk Road, Xi’an was ‘a place of inert history and fatal patience… [that now] had shattered into life. All that China wants to be, Xi’an is becoming.’ But you need only look at the faces of the people to see Silk Road history in action…
We weave past wafts of kebab smoke and women hawking walnuts, dip down a side street and pass through a humble gate to find ourselves in the courtyard of the Great Mosque of Xi’an. One of the country’s oldest, it was founded in AD742 — around the same time Islam arrived in China via the Silk Road. Unusually, it’s constructed in a Chinese style. Today, Muslim Chinese are known as ‘Hui’, meaning ‘Homesick People’ because they long to return to their homeland, even after over a millennium. I follow men wearing high white caps towards the prayer hall. Its blue-glazed roof tiles glint in the sun. Hovering on the threshold, I try to get a peek at the 600 pages of the Koran carved into wood and set around the walls.
Yet prior to Islam came Buddhism. Word of it first arrived via Indian missionaries travelling the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty, but it was the remarkable perseverance of a monk named Xuanzang that would veer China away from Confucianism. In AD629, Xuanzang undertook a 17-year pilgrimage to India along the same trails and collected over 600 original Buddhist texts. Unfortunately, they were all in Sanskrit so he spent the next decade translating them. The emperor was so impressed he funded the construction of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, south of the centre, in which to store the precious sutras. Likenesses of him hang in the museum behind the five-storey, scaffold-clad sandy brick tower. The stress of translating apparently left him with a bald head, but his eyes are kindly.
As dusk falls, I climb up to the Scarlet Bird Gate (south gate), which forms part of the ancient imperial city walls. For 1,100 years, 13 of China’s 24 dynasties used Xi’an as its capital. Off to the left is an old city map cast in iron. It shows the Daming Palace, five times larger than Beijing’s Forbidden City, sitting on the hill outside the gates; and — now restored — the West Market, where, the map tells me, ‘all treasures and rarities from all directions under the sun’ were sold by merchants arriving from Persia and Central Asia. It’s also the route by which silk would leave. LEDs framing the wall twinkle in the dark and red Chinese lanterns illuminate the faces of families, some of them Hui, posing for photos. And I wonder if they still remember they have the blood of Silk Road travellers running through their veins.