, Father of the Ice Mountain, sits at 3500m. It stands alone, on a lonely bend on the road between the Khunjerab pass and Kashgar looking out over nothing, conquering everything. Just like China.
All of a sudden China has appeared out of nowhere. There was always a looming colossus just over the horizon but nobody really took notice till it was right under our noses. Today’s China produces everything and buys everything else. Bustling cities, fast trains and big populations are all in modern China but tell me about ancient China and life on the frontier. What happened at the dreaded Gate of Sighs? How do the people live? What are the other wonders of today’s factory of the world?
In China Steve’s journey takes on a new dimension along the Southern Silk Road across China's North Frontier to Beijing. This route represents every superstition, every obstacle and every real terror that ancient travelers once faced. Northern China possesses some of the most physically challenging geographies on planet Earth. Since antiquity pilgrims, merchants and traders have made the journey across Asia seeking fortunes in foreign lands, trading everything from jade and spices to horses and tea across vast distances to the markets of Rome and China. There life was one with the road, where every new horizon was a new day's goal. A lifestyle you can choose, but have little control over.
In 2008, a new journey is about to take place to recapture a forgotten life and relive a new adventure. Beginning at the ancient Silkroad cross-roads of Taxkorgan on Pakistan's border, Steve's trail once again picks up the hoofsteps of merchants long vanquished. Crossing the Pamir Mountains, his route follows a mountain trail through the heart of the Kunlun Shan mountains along Tibet's border, descending only when the road does into the oasis of Hotan, on the forbidden edge of the Taklamakan.
Skirting the edge of the second largest sand desert on Earth, along a trail popularly labeled as the 'Silk Road' on tourist maps, Stephen's travels will branch off once again into the icy peaks of the Altun Shan, into the outer reaches of Peter Fleming's Tsaidam Basin and the local Mongol populations said to inhabit the area.
To most Chinese, this area still marks the extremity of civilised China, where the sedentary meet the nomadic and the long arm of the law falls somewhat short. The hostility of the place offers little solace and it's only at Dunhuang to the North, that 'civilisation' begins again.
For merchants approaching from the West, Dunhuang marked the beginning of Chinese culture and a welcome sight after months in the wilderness, wandering across Marco Polo's mysterious desert of Lop. This bastion of Bhuddist celebration fed for centuries off the fears of travellers, spawning huge cave complexes for the pious and good trade for the locals. The oasis still forms a natural break at the entrance to the China, yet from Dunhuang Stephen's camels must take another path.
Historically the Silk Route always descended towards the ancient Chinese capital of Chang’an (Xi’an), but later a good proportion of trade was diverted towards Beijing during the reign of the Mongol Empire and the time of traveller extraordinaire Marco Polo. Whilst the Italian may well provide inspiration to reach Beijing, he doesn’t provide a route and though the Great Wall is one guide, it is in the footsteps of another great luminary that R4E will reach the Beijing capital across the open Gobi.
In 1923, Owen Lattimore documented one of the last great caravan routes of its time from Mingshui in NW China to Hohhot, capital of Inner Mongolia, approximately 500km NW of Beijing. His journey captured a one-off record of a once popular trade route known only as the ‘Winding road,’ through the heart of the dreaded black Gobi and the abandoned Tangut ghost city of Khara-Khoto.
Whilst it may not be possile to retrace entirely the full course of the trail, it's guide and inspiration will see the caravan to Beijing by early Winter 2008. Mongolian nomads still roam the dusty Gobi steppes in summer and Steve will hopefully be riding with them as he begins his final gallop across the airy grasslands to Beijing.
Read Steve the Sixth Century Fur Trader
From Taxkorgan to Beijing, a good number of people inhabit what is colloqially known as Western China. The area is traditionally poor and home to 90 percent of China's minority alongside 75 percent of her poverty. Progress is stymied only by the lack of investment in the area's inhabitants and a major theme of the journey across China, will be to visit local schools and document the need for local education in the area.
Moving West to East, Xinjiang dwarfs every other province in China, occupying over a sixth of her land area. Her residents are primarily a Turkic speaking people known as Uyghur, and the province is perhaps the only one in China where a 'minority' outnumbers the dominant Han Chinese. Whilst the the discovery of oil beneath the desert has yielded some results for local people, the story in adjoining Gansu province is somewhat different.
Sitting along a natural corridor between the twin geographies of the Qilian Shan mountains and the Gobi desert, Gansu province has long marked China's farthest boundaries and today is her poorest. Although progress is beginning to penetrate into unreached corners, education remains sorely under-funded and local educations are quickly forgotten and seldom used.
Moving into Inner Mongolia, education improves, but the province is large and many remote areas sorely lack even the standard school facilities that every Chinese city can lay claim to. There are 116 million illiterate people in China, and 600 million people living on less than US$2 per day. The country has come leaps and bounds over the last 30 years, but as the hype over this year's Olympics settles, the world needs to remember how far China still has to go.