This fall, I started off from Lanzhou in western China’s Gansu province, and have now arrived in Wuwei after visiting the Yellow River stone forest, making my way westward along the 800 km long snow-capped Qilian Mountains.
My goal is to trace the footsteps of pioneers, merchants and travellers of early years, and feel their sky-high ambitions and aspirations. What is hard for me to imagine is that back in those years these people did not have any roads signs or marks to guide them along.
Today, we are lucky to be able to make the trip very much more comfortably and safely.
Perhaps up till this point you might have guessed that I am now treading on the world-famous Silk Road, having passed the Mars Base 1 Camp in Jinchang, the Badan Jilin Desert, Zhangye Qicai Danxia, Matisi Temple, Jiayuguan, Jiuquan, and have arrived in the mysterious Dunhuang City and marvelled at the treasure trove of ancient religious arts of Mogao Caves.
As we know, this very important section of the Silk Road is known as Hexi Corridor.
2,162 years ago, Zhang Qian led a 100-man delegation at the order of Emperor Hanwu to the Western Frontiers (today’s Xinjiang) from Chang-an (Xian). It was a time when the compass had not even been invented, and Zhang and his team were twice captured and detained by the Xiongnu army in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia.
With much effort, he finally managed to escape and went back to Chang-an to report to the Emperor. He successfully opened up a world-famous Silk Road to China’s Wild West. Zhang’s first expedition took him 13 years in total!
Following that, Zhang made additional expeditions to the Western Frontiers, and managed to foster closer political, economic and cultural cooperation with various states in the West, officially opening up an east-west trade thoroughfare.
Notably, back then the mode of transport for Zhang and his people was primarily horses, mules and camels, and they had to traverse rugged terrains and brave through hostile desert sandstorms, so that a 10,000 km highway could eventually be established.
Historical records show that the Tang Dynasty saw the pinnacle of prosperity along the Silk Road stretching from Xian all the way to Rome in Europe.
The Silk Road remained a thriving trade route for hundreds of years. However, due to the development of the Maritime Silk Road much later on, the Land Silk Road started to fade into oblivion among the merchants, and was actually abandoned for several centuries thereafter.
Time has changed. Today, the Hexi Corridor has been given a new lease of life with a modern four-lane expressway crisscrossing the region, bringing unprecedented prosperity and wealth to once impoverished towns and villages littered along the route.
During the journey, our highly professional guide from Lanzhou, Li Yuan, chatted with me about the famous saying, “30 years in Hedong, 30 years in Hexi” (三十年河东，三十年河西), which is all the more significant in today’s context having witnessed the phenomenal rise and fall of the Hexi Corridor, as well as its miraculous rebirth!
Today, travellers from across China are going after more in-depth thematic travelling routes to explore the country., and naturally the Hexi Corridor has emerged as the fifth most popular domestic travel destination in China.
Staring out of the bus window, all that shows up before my eyes is an endless expanse of empty, seemingly barrel land. Nevertheless, a closer look reveals the fact that dotting the vast expanse of land on both sides of the expressway are countless of massive wind turbines that work in an orderly manner to generate electricity.
It’s said that each of these turbines costs at least RM3.5 million! Together with the huge swathes of solar panels, they are carrying out the mission of generating electricity catering to the needs of major population centres to the East, brightening up the night sky of eastern metropolitan areas.
As if that’s not enough, along the expressway, you will also come across white colon signs that mark an even more gigantic engineering project of China—thousands of kilometres of underground natural gas pipelines that also cater to the needs of major population centres to the East.
Although the Hexi Corridor is sparsely populated, it carries with it a humongous responsibility in the modernisation of China!
Even though many things are beyond our control, people throughout the ages must do their utmost for the good of the future generations. People gifted with great wisdom will always overcome the obstacles and impossibilities.
Fortunately, the leaders of China have come to realise that in order to become rich, they will need to first build roads to facilitate the people’s travels.
About ten years ago, China started to encourage the development of the country’s western frontiers, and decided to diversify the region’s coal-dependent industry.
Among others, the most notable developments are in agricultural and food production, industrial innovation and cultural tourism. As a result, the region has witnessed an unprecedented influx of investments, while bringing talent and labour back to the West.
We can see from here that the most important thing is for the government to play a proactive role in the development of the local transportation infrastructures such as roads, railways and aviation.
Look! The many big and small towns in previously backward places in Gansu, Qinghai and Xinjiang have now been rejuvenated, bringing unimaginable prosperity to China’s “Big West.”
As a matter of fact, the so-called Silk Road is not actually a physical road, but rather an unmarked network of passages through towering mountains, great rivers and prohibitive deserts. Additionally, “silk” was only one of the many types of merchandise transported along this route.
The establishment of the ancient Silk Road had lured a multitude of merchants, pedlars, travellers and students to ply on this route. The ensuing taxation needs gave rise to local governments for enforcement and management.
Although the Silk Road later fell into obscurity for several centuries, the once thriving trade activities and administration have left behind an invaluable cultural legacy, including the millennium-old Mogao Caves with its precious collection of timeless Buddhist artefacts.
Leaving Dunhuang City, we continue our journey along the highway toward Liuyuan train station 128 km to the west, where we will board the Lanzhou-Xinjiang Express Train to Hami City 412 km away in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, as we continue our journey to trace the One Road, One Belt!
P/S: Written at the foothills of the Flaming Mountains in Turfan, Xinjiang, the original home of Hami melons. Imagine how the ancient merchants brought back the seeds of Hami melons, so that more than 180 varieties of melons can now be found throughout China and beyond, including the fabulous Yubari melons in Japan’s Hokkaido.
(Lee San is Founder and Group Executive Chairman of Apple Vacations. He has travelled to 132 countries, six continents, and enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.)