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The Silk Road ……. 2010

For many years I dreamed of crossing the Taklimakan desert and arriving at the fabled city of Kashgar. Kashgar Sunday markets…a phase evocative of colour and drama, an exotic bazaar on the Silk Road, crossroads for tribes who would gather from the most remote parts of the world. These were mountain people from the Tien Shan range and people from the steppes of the now ‘Stans. They even travelled through snow from snow leopard country and from India and the high culture of China. They came to trade everything from camels to silks.

Today they still come to trade at the Sunday market at Kashgar.

Today they still come to trade at the Sunday market at Kashgar.

Here several routes of the Silk Road came together…….  north from Islamabad, east from Persia.

In 2010, perhaps a century too late, I finally travelled some of the Silk Road. Although my hundreds of photos give me pleasure, I want to contextualise them for memory tweaks in years to come

I met my friend, Gill, in Beijing, perhaps to be the standout city of the 21st century – if the air pollution doesn’t kill it first. Ticked the usual tourist boxes – the Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square etc. – little changed (except for the crowds) since I first saw them in the early 80’s but that was another story, a real spin-out  — the place was still pretty closed back then.

Tiananmen Square has seen a bit of action since I was last here in 1981

Tiananmen Square has seen a bit of action since I was last here in 1981

Onto the beginning of the Silk Road, Xian and its fabled warriors.

It would be wrong not to include a picture of at least one chamber of the famed warriors. The scale is amazing.

It would be wrong not to include a picture of at least one chamber of the famed warriors. The scale is amazing.

A walk around the city walls of Xian watching the locals practise tai chi in the parks below and a quick look at the glassy department stores and then it’s off to Lanzhou. The Yellow river flows to the north of the city which straddles the sides of a narrow valley. Here in this industrial town the earliest archaeological remains of the first Chinese settlements are found. Now it is also home to the Moslem Hui people.

Somedays unexpectedly in small towns you pass there are people who make your heart sing!

Somedays unexpectedly, in small towns you pass through there are people who make your heart sing!

From here we go by boat to visit the famous Bingling Si Caves where the Buddhists carved their beliefs into the cliff face around 420AD.

And there are eternal landscapes.

And there are eternal landscapes.

A Buddha at the Bingling Si caves

A Buddha at the Bingling Si caves

We had planned to go to Xiahe or “little Tibet”, a monastery town surrounded by mountains on the Tibetan plateau and mostly populated by ethnic Tibetan with some Han and some Hui peoples. Other travellers tell us it is closed; we cannot go as it is the anniversary of the uprising by the monks fighting what the Dalai Lama called ‘Chinese cultural genocide”.

A Tibetan family going home...the Dalai Lama calls Chinese action towards these people "cultural genocide".

A Tibetan family going home…the Dalai Lama calls Chinese action towards these people “cultural genocide”.

In March 2008, the Sydney Morning Herald reported:

In Xiahe, Gansu province, protesters hurled rocks and bricks at police headquarters and smashed windows of Han Chinese shops and buildings. The double steel doors of the local police headquarters was shredded by Tibetans armed with traditional gogur weapons – a type of axe formed from yak skin and metal and used to fend off wolves. Last night locals watched riot police performing drills in Elephant Square and along the main road.

The protesters left the blue glass frontage of the police building shattered and many windows of the Communist Party’s imposing headquarters, both in the main street, punctured with dozens of holes. Rocks and bricks littered the front of the complex.

Many were killed.

Anyway despite the warnings, we went and visited the Labrang monastery, one of the six leading Buddhist Lamaseries in China.

Inside the monastery many yak butter sculptures.

Inside the monastery many yak butter sculptures.

Wandering the town and the satellite monasteries was another time.

Here is a typical row of monks' dormitories...must be cold in winter!

Here is a typical row of monks’ dormitories…must be cold in winter!

Who is the monk calling?

Who is the monk calling?

On the road back from Xiahe we come across one of those compare and contrasts of Chinese  — one of the “new cities” clusters of stand alone high rise that appear ghostly.

2010-04 China 563We moved deeper into western China and the autonomous region to arrive at Jiayugan. Here in a remote and beautiful mountain pass at the western end of the Great Wall is the fairytale Jiayu Fortress.

The fortress was once the gateway to the Unknown!

The fortress was once the gateway to the Unknown!

Now, these transmission lines cross the Gobi desert in the once "Unknown".

Now, these transmission lines cross the Gobi desert in the once “Unknown”.

Further along the Silk Road we come to Dunhuang an oasis town surrounded by rolling sand dunes.

The singing sands at Dunhuang.

The singing sands at Dunhuang.

This was the town where the northern and southern Silk Road routes divided. From here we visit the UNESCO World Heritage listed Caves of a Thousand Buddhas where the first caves were cut out in 366AD and 492 temples built over 1000 years. In 1900 11th century documents were found in the Library Cave. Buddhist, Dao, Manichaeism and Nestorian manuscripts are all there. The art and sculptures in the caves give hint of an intricate and beautiful heritage.

The World Heritage caves at Dunhuang.

The World Heritage caves at Dunhuang.

Next  Turpan; in 803 the Uyghurs seized this town from the Tibetans. It is the second  lowest city in the world after the Dead Sea and remembered by me mostly for the sight of (Uyghur) people under archways of vines in central malls walking backward, as is the custom, for the exercise. The people here are among the longest lived in the world. When asked, the longevity is put down to the fact that babies’ heads are shaved and sunned for the first few years of life and to local milk, drunk daily.

The gracious walkways of modern Turpan.

The gracious walkways of modern Turpan.

Amazing to know that the Roman legions got this far.

We visited the ruined 2nd century BC city of Jiahe and the Gaochang Ruins from the 2nd century AD in the Gobi desert. Once an important Silk Road stop the city was ruined in the 14th century.

Transport through the ruined city.

Transport through the ruined city.

Then an overnight train trip through the lower Tien Shan mountain passes and skirting the Taklimakan itself.

The Taklemakan is the world's second largest shifting sand desert with about 85% made up of shifting sand dunes. arid, remote, it has archeological remains back to the Greeks and modern wind farms.

The Taklemakan is the world’s second largest shifting sand desert with about 85% made up of shifting sand dunes. arid, remote, it has archeological remains back to the Greeks and modern wind farms.

The Chinese are apparently working on a technology which will allow them to build wider highways across the desert (there is already one) – all the better to get to the minerals underneath and to the foothills of the Himalayas.

Kashgar finally! An illusion of my dreams.  Here is a meeting place that has been lived in by people from the B.C. Old Han dynasty, the Arab Caliphate, the Mongol. Here was a city that Marco Polo wrote about and more recently was an outpost in The Great Game.

Dream on.

kasher = the old fabled Uyghur town surrounded by the modern Chinese city.

Kashgar = the old fabled Uyghur town surrounded by the modern Chinese city.

In 2010 there was still a life being lived amidst the demolitions of the old city.

In the (then) remains of the old town some old crafts remain. The bread is baking.

In the (then) remains of the old town some old crafts remain. The bread is baking.

And baked

And baked

Copper pots are crafted.

Copper pots are crafted.

And teeth fixed.

And teeth fixed.

There is a hint of times gone by at the famed Sunday bazaar where a few camels, racing ponies and other livestock are for sale.

A few sad camels are still for sale.

A few sad camels are still for sale.

Our hotel room looks down on the remains of the old city. Overall the Chinese seem hell-bent on knocking down the evocative Uyghur mud-brick city and replacing it with a new “western” city. (I thought I was in the Sydney suburb of Chatswood, a Chinese dominated mini high-rise consumer magnet). They say it is to earthquake proof.

In case you don’t think this Chinese development causes problems with the dominant and traditional Uyghur the constant circling of the city by army trucks on the lookout for trouble might be a clue. In 2011, dozens were killed after rioting against the Chinese masters.  The news that the government plans to move an additional 500,000 Chinese into the ethnically Uyghur city seems to confirm the intent to overwhelm any dissident movements.

(By 2012, two thirds of the Old Uyghur City had been destroyed despite world calls for its sensitive restoration.)

Despite it all, children still love balloons.

Despite it all, children still love balloons.

Some say it’s all about the line of defence/attack on the nearby Indian border. From here soldiers move out to protect the water flows from the Himalayas which will one day be the literal lifeblood of this part of China.

An insistent desert dust storm meant we were delayed  in a bar in Kashgar for a day or so and only had time for dinner in Urumchi, the capital of this Xinjiang province and the world’s most landlocked city. It was sad to miss the museum for there are the Tarim mummies dating from 1800 BC; some are said to be from Indo-European line; others Mongol. Research continues.

The Silk Road remains remote. Some towns, landscapes and ruins along the way hint at the drama of the caravanserai. Modern Chinese culture is closing in.

2010-04 China Kashgar animal market 073 (96)

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Syria……. 2008

Today  (July 2013) I read that “about 40 people” had been killed in a rocket attack in Homs; thousands of women and children have died in this Syrian ciivil war. There is fighting in Damascus and Aleppo.

It was so few years ago that his happy family was on the road to  Al Bara . Where are they now I wonder.

It was so few years ago that his happy family was on the road to Al Bara . Where are they now? I wonder.

There are more than 100,000 estimated deaths in this war so far, nearly 2 million refugees. Chemical weapons have been used. The religious tolerance that appeared to exist in Syria is itself at the heart of the trouble. Allegiances as ever strange to the West emerge – Hezbollah supports Assad; factions of El Qaeda seem to be masquerading as legitimate anti-Government reformists; Iran is sending troops; Russia and the USA assume contrary position; Israel lurks.

This war had gone quietly on for two years destroying lives and a country redolent in history. Is the world suffering “suffering fatigue”? Medicine sans Frontier battles on.

Have these children, met at a desert road house, managed to avoid the fighting?

Have these children, met at a desert road house, managed to avoid the fighting?

In 2008 I made a brief visit to Syria and was enchanted by the country more than any other I have seen. True you only slide over surfaces as you travel through. Yet the surfaces of Syria were a snapshot of some of the richest history on the planet.

Re-ramped street at Mari, a sUmerian city from about 3000 BC = one of the oldest cities ever.

Re-ramped street at Mari, a Mesopotamian Sumerian city from about 3000 BC – one of the oldest of the world’s cities.

From the plains where the Hittites and the Egyptians are said to have had their battle/standoff in 1289 BC to Mesopotamian city ruins at Mari to Hellenic digs and Nabataean walls,  and the grand ruins of Roman Palmyra and Bosra…….history’s remnants walk across the Syrian landscape.

501. The famouse Bosra theatre

The remains of the famed Roman theatre at Bosra

Then in the northwest there are the  Dead Cities, Byzantine villages that date from the 1st to 7th centuries and were abandoned between the 8th and 10th centuries.

These Dead Cities are probably the most evocative sites in the country. Who were these people and why did they disappear? Seven hundred cities abandoned.

Not long after (in historical counting), Crusader castles capture the popular imagination.

75 Serjilla - dead city

Sometime between the 8th and the 10th century this house and the town it was in,  the Dead City of Serjilla, were left abandoned.

This parade of civilisations is accessible and marvellous.

I intended to go back.

I am writing this inadequate and overly long blog

  • As a salute to the pre-civil war Syrian people I saw;
  • to acknowledge my awe of their history;
  • to make some of my myriad photographs available to those who might not know about this fine country pre-war;
  • to remember

I apologise if, in the face of the war, writing about a travel experience seems trivial.

It is hard to know how to present a small(ish) selection of the nearly 700 photographs I took….faces or places? in the order I saw them? by standout memories? by historical era?

I have decided to cut and shuffle in a random way, by an idiosyncratic selection of topics that come to me when I reflect on the photos.

Let’s start with some of the people  (and hope these ones happy to be photographed remain safe to-day).

282. Probably ot locals at the gypsy and bedouin market at Musharaf

These chaps photographed the photographer

Young girls pose in the window at the Basilica St Simeon where the saint was said to have lived on a platform atop of a pillar 15 metres high for 37 years

Young girls pose in the window at the Basilica St Simeon where the saint was said to have lived for 37 years on a platform atop of a pillar 15 metres high

Family outing

Family outing?

In the bootmakers at Deirez Zur markets

In the bootmakers at Deirez Zur market

Deirez Zur markets

Deirez Zur markets

My Syrian history starts with the settlement at Mari, a Sumerian  city-state of Mesopotamia  where Western cities began. While the Iraq war did its best to destroy so much of that country’s ancient history, the ruins at Mari were built in the same period, a satellite city to Ur, one of the very earliest.

Syria was where the Egyptians and the Persians met in battle

Tell Nebbi Nemb site where In 1274 BC the Egyptians and the Hittites are said to have joined in the battle of Kadesh

Tell Nebbi Nemb site where In 1274 BC the Egyptians and the Hittites are said to have joined in the battle of Kadesh

The Greeks got this far and an Australian archaeological team was digging at a Hellenic  site on the banks of the Euphrates. The annual dig provided some income for the rural inhabitants of the area. No longer I fear.

The Australian archeological dig at Jebal Khalid dig on the banks of the Euphates

The Australian archeological dig at Jebal Khalid on the banks of the Euphates

Some of the assistants at the Jebal Khalid dig

Some of the local assistants at the Jebal Khalid dig

The Romans left their mark all over this landscape; Anthony gave Cleopatra these lands as a wedding present (from Cleopatra’s Wedding Present: Travels through Syria by Robert Moss). To see the ruins from the east to the south is to marvel at the great Roman Empire.

Palmyra in the distant desert where Zenobia was Queen

Palmyra in the distant desert where Zenobia was Queen

Walking through Palmyra

Walking through Palmyra

Wedding preparations are being made in this house in the Roman ruins at Bosra

Wedding preparations are being made in this house in the Roman ruins at Bosra

Everyone knows about the Crusades. In Syria, castles abound. There is Saladin, the Islamic hero’s own castle and the famous Crac de Chevalier; and of course, the Assassins’ castle which the Aga Khan was paying to restore.

 Crac up closer

Crac de Chevalier

View from the castle

View from the castle

Saladin's castle

Saladin’s castle

Musyaf Assassins' castle being restored by the Aga Kahn

Musyaf Assassins’ castle was being restored by the Aga Kahn

Damascus and Aleppo are the major cities…perhaps both being damaged as I write. Aleppo is said to be the longest continuously inhabited city in the world and the citadel has had some damage. Damascus, famed for its biblical references, was where Paul was headed when he reputedly saw the Christian light.

Some shop at the Damascus souk

Some shop at the Damascus souk

A local pilgrim takes her own pictures of the tourists

A local pilgrim takes her own pictures of the tourists in Damascus

Iranian women waiting to pray at the famed Damascus mosque

Iranian women waiting to pray at the famed Damascus mosque

The Aleppo citadel. How damaged is it now I wonder?

The Aleppo citadel. How damaged is it now I wonder?

And the Aleppo souk has many treasures

And the Aleppo souk has many treasures

One of the standouts in Syria was the  richness of the iconic references. There is the Baron hotel where Lawrence of Arabia’s bill is still framed near the staircase; for me there was the sight of the shepherd in the distance and the Bedouin camp by the side of the road. Perhpas the Bagdad Cafe along a stretch of desert or the road sign overhead – Iraq one way :Baghdad the other.

Lawrence's hotel du jour, the Baron, Aleppo

Lawrence’s hotel du jour, the Baron, Aleppo

159. Shepherd or salesman at Ebla

At Ebla, the eternal shepherd

Bedouins on the road to Kadesh

Bedouins on the road to Kadesh

One of my impression had been that Syria was a tolerant society. How wrong could I have been now it has come down to belief against belief? Five years ago I saw the Palestinian camps that Syria has long hosted; and people of different faiths confident in who they were. Perhaps I saw illusions?

Druze elders off to a funeral.

Druze elders off to a funeral.

This Christian cliffside village was famous for the speaking of Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Islam had not reached along the once bumpy road from Damascus.

This Christian cliffside village was famous for the speaking of Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Islam had not reached along the once bumpy road from Damascus.

In this Christian town there is a representation of  Saint George (303AD) who was, according to tradition, a Roman soldier born in Syria Palaestina and a soldier in the Guard of Diocletian. Amusing that he became the patron saint of England and the most recent british hereditary royal baby is named after him.

At the hilltop town of Safita I was attracted by the singing at an Orthodox mass

At the hilltop town of Safita I was attracted by the singing at an Orthodox mass

Then there is architecture of everyday life ranging from the grand mosque to new development to the grand houses of the past.

Women in the courtyard of the Grand Mosque

Women in the courtyard of the Grand Mosque

The restored Danish Institute

The restored Danish Institute

A hotel in Aleppo

A gracious hotel in Aleppo

New development near Latakkia

New development near Latakkia

The water wheels at Hama. Around the corner the buildings have bullet marks from an earlier uprising. Ham

The water wheels at Hama. Around the corner the buildings have bullet marks from1986 when police shot thousands in a purge of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Syria was a country that offered so much of history and I thought a glimpse of basic human tolerance. I grieve for those innocents caught up in the warring ambitions of others

For me there are memories that will always stay –

  • watching the people;
  • seeing the stone tablets holding the first known alphabet found at Ugarit;
  • standing in the athletes’ field at Amrit, tiers of stone seats intact, said to predate the stadia of Greece ;
  • seeing the boats being built at Award just as they have always been there since the Phonecians;
  • idiosyncratically, visiting the grave of Lady Jane Digby in the Protestant cemetery;
  • enjoying a fantastic meal at an elegant cafe just off the Bible’s Street that is Straight in Damascus
450. Making sure I have it

What a dame…Lady Jane Digby’s grave with marble from Palmyra placed by her Sheik.

Sunset on the Euphrates

Sunset on the Euphrates

 I could go on and on…. Such is Syria

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