Churches and Caravanserais on Silk Roads

Churches and Caravanserais  on Silk Roads
Continuing Silk Road Explorations

 My recent travels have not specifically been along the route of a silk road, as my earlier travel in China was.  Rather, I have been on parts of routes said to have been taken by Marco Polo.

Describing the various trade routes as “The Silk Roads” is is a comparatively modern development. In around 1877, a German geographer and historian Ferdinand von Richthofen called the routes used by traders the Silk Roads, although a great deal more than silk was traded along these routes.

Travelling in Eastern Turkey provided many opportunities to explore places where traders, travellers and adventurers had been before. Possibly even Marco Polo had visited some of these places.

Approaching Kars, it became apparent we were travelling along a road which silk does not travel today. Along both sides of the road for miles stood army tanks, guns all pointing one way – towards Armenia, although Armenia would not be in range. I would have preferred camels. Head down, no photographs.

I did not find much to inspire me in Kars. Obviously influenced by Orhan Pamuk’s novel, “Snow”, I had expected a somewhat miserable place. It wasn’t particularly miserable, and did offer the Armenian Church, a 15th century Ottoman bridge and citadel and an interesting old hamam.

The purpose of my visit to Kars was to explore Ani, a ruined Armenian city, 43km east of Kars, on the Armenian border.

Ani, now in eastern Turkey, was Armenia’s capital city from 961 to 1045AD, although the first settlement on the site dates back to the 3000’s BC. The city was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake in 1319.

Ani was known as the city of 1001 churches. The site contains the ruins of dozens of churches, which are considered to be among the masterpieces of of Armenian Medieval architecture.

Ani was also known as the city of 40 gates. As I approached the site, the remains of the city wall loomed above me. Apparently more than 1km of the wall remains.

On entering the site, through one of the gates, I was met with a landscape of a windswept plain, dotted with the ruins of what was once a great city. The extant ruins were overwhelmingly places of worship.

Most of the places of worship were of christian churches. There was however the remains of what was thought to be a zoroastrian fire temple. Ani cathedral became the Fethiye mosque in 1064, and returned to christian worship in 1124. The mosque of Minuchihir was probably named after the ruler of Ani in around 1072. The minaret predates the mosque itself.

Ani was once on various trade routes. Did Marco Polo visit? There is a path leading down to the Akhurian river (the border between Armenia and Turkey) described as the silk road. The path leads to an ancient bridge, sometimes referred to as the Marco Polo bridge. There is no evidence that Polo himself was at Ani, but the city was situated on several trade routes, all of which could have been part of the silk road network. A walk along the path, thinking about the great caravans of the past, fulfilled another dream, adding a further part of the silk roads to my experiences.

The presence of Armenian watchtowers and border guards just across the river was a reminder that borders are a moveable feast. Where I was standing was formerly part of Armenia.

I was reminded of this fact again on approaching Mt Ararat, now in Turkey. Marco Polo described a very high mountain, shaped like a cube, in Greater Armenia, and said it was the mountain on which Noah’s Ark is said to have rested. Polo said the mountain was called the Mountain of Noah’s Ark.

Mt Ararat, with its snow covered top glistening in the sun, invited a far closer inspection. We drove past the best viewing spot. Apparently the young men of Dogubeyazit, the nearby town, tended to take a dim view of tourists and were inclined to arm themselves with large sticks with which they beat the sides of any vehicles which stopped there.

No such threat occurred in Armenia, and on a visit to Yerevan we could view the mountain from wherever we wished.

Mt Ararat from near Dogubeyazit, Turkey.

Doğubeyazıt is close to the border with Iran, and is situated on the main road between Turkey and Iran.

Groups of the PKK live in the mountains in between Turkey and Iran. The market in Dogubeyazit is a centre of drug trafficking. Ataturk’s reforms apparently never reached this area, with men still having more than one wife. Women are known to fall out of windows to their death, apparently while cleaning the windows. Well, that’s what I was told by a female archaeologist from Istanbul, who had been on a dig in the vicinity. She also told me that because of her age – late 20’s, she would only be considered as a second or third wife in this area. An offer had been made to her father when she was working near Dogubeyazit – a man who wanted a third wife would consider her, despite her age.

With this information in hand, I was interested to experience the town first hand. Women did not rain down on my head – no window cleaning that day perhaps. Groups of young boys were very unpleasant. Older men were openly hostile. I didn’t feel particularly threatened, but it was a less than pleasant experience. No venturing out after dark for me.

I did not see any caravanserais in Eastern Turkey.

I visited numerous caravanserais in Iran and the Caucasus. I scrambled around semi ruined caravanserais, I ate and slept in converted caravanserai and was mesmerised by the variety and intricacy of ornate brickwork in others.

Caravanserais were a roadside inn, and were built a day’s camel trek apart. They look a bit like forts, with thick walls, drum tower like structures on the corners of some and could withstand a siege for several days. Merchants and their animals could eat and sleep in a caravanserai, and the merchants could safely trade.

Marco Polo would certainly have stayed in these establishments, but I can find no evidence that he mentioned them.

The caravanserai Ribat-I Sharif is on the old Merv-Nishapur desert trade route. It was constructed during the Seljuk period and contains a remarkable variety of brickwork and plaster motifs. It also contains 2 mihrabs, still intact.

Marco Polo is said to have found Isfahan in Iran a very large and beautiful city. I thought it among the most beautiful cities I have visited. The beauty of the mosques with their exquisite tiling made me weep. The bridges over the non flowing (when I visited) Zayandeh River are of varying designs, each one of interest. The carpets and the miniature paintings are among the loveliest I have seen, and totally irresistible. Carpets and miniature art accompanied me home.

I stayed in a converted caravanserai in Isfahan, the Abassi Hotel. What a lovely building that is, and its courtyard gardens and fountains are of great beauty. However, single travellers beware. Even though you have paid a hefty single supplement, you may still get a dog of a room. Mine overlooked a car park. I took my bag back to reception, and advised them that a view of the carpark was not acceptable. “Oh, but you can see part of a fountain from the balcony.” After a fairly robust discussion, I got a room with a view over the beautiful courtyard.

Marco Polo described what was obviously Baku in Azerbaijan, when he described oil gushing, while not edible, was good for making fires and as a salve for men and camels affected with an itch or a scab. Polo also observed that men come from a long distance to collect this oil. Nothing much has changed in this regard as Baku, on the Caspian sea still has oil, and men still come from a long distance to collect it.

The prehistoric petroglyphs at Gobustan, about 40 miles from Baku, would obviously have been there when Marco Polo visited, but he would not have seen them as either they were exposed by an earthquake during the 20th century, or they were discovered in the 1930’s by quarry workers. I, on the other hand, saw them. The carvings are on rocky boulders, arising out of the flat plain, and they depict ancient peoples, animals, hunting scenes and boats. I thought one of the boats resembled an Egyptian solar boat, but apparently the boats have been interpreted as being Norwegian reed boats.

A converted caravanserai was my home for 2 nights in Sheki, in north western Azerbaijan. It had a most impressive entrance, and for a short person, a quite challenging stone staircase up to my room. I had to sit on a step, and then pull my legs up to that step, and then drag myself up to the next step. Such steep stairs would provide a good defence, provided the attackers were short people.

Converted Caravanserai, Sheki, Azerbaijan.

Marco Polo described Tbilisi (Tiflis) in Georgia as a fine city of great size and as a place where silk was woven. It is a fine city. I do not know if silk is still woven there, but it is a most joyous place, and I hope Polo found it as happy and bursting with life as I did. I also hope he sampled as much of the wonderful Georgian wine as I did.

The Metekhi church, in this form would not have been seen by Marco Polo, but there would have been a church on this spot.

Dancing Peasants Sculpture, Tbilisi.

This modern sculpture encapsulates the joyous experience I had in Tbilisi and Georgia overall.

Whether or not there was a Marco Polo, and whether he ever travelled beyond Constantinople doesn’t matter because his story has inspired so many adventures for others. The large number of travel companies who arrange tours of Silk Roads, and the numerous hotels and restaurants bearing Marco Polo’s name attest to an enduring interest in the ancient trade routes, and Marco Polo’s travels – whether or not some of those travels are a myth.

Buddhist Art, Ruined Cities, and Theft on the Silk Road

Buddhist Art, Ruined Cities, and Theft on the Silk Road

Continuing  the journey which commenced with Mosques Pagoda’s and Art – Silk Road Journeys.

The road from Urumqi to Turpan passes through a varied landscape with views of the Tianshan mountains and stony desert during the first couple of hours and then through the Tianshan mountain pass.  The mountains rose on either side of the pass, a small stream was visible, its banks hosting the only vegetation to be seen.  Once through the pass, it was desert all the way to Turpan.

Tianshan Mountains.
Tianshan pass.

Turpan was startlingly green. The area is irrigated from an underground water system, called karez.  The underground tunnels bring water from the mountains and because they are underground, there is little evaporation. The tunnels were built around 2000 years ago. Fruit and vegetables are produced in abundance. The melon fields produced some of the sweetest melons I have tasted.  There were cotton crops, and an area called Grape Valley produced grapes in massive quantities.  Grape drying houses were made of mud brick, with latticed walls.  The area around the “sultana” houses smelt of port.  There were piles of sultanas on the dusty roadside for sale.  There was no wine in 1992, when I visited, although when Marco Polo visited Karakhoja, which became Gaochang, he observed that the land produces grain and excellent wine.   Lucky Marco Polo – I had to drink tea.

Grape Valley in Turpan.

During there 5th to 14th centuries, caves were being dug by buddhist monks at Bezeklik, near Turpan.  The caves are known as the Thousand Buddha Caves, which is something of an exaggeration, since there are less than 100 caves.

Thousand Buddha Caves, Bezeklik

The artwork in these caves has been vandalised, and the less vandalised panels were cut from the walls of the caves and stolen by Albert von Le Coq, a German Archaeologist, between 1902 and 1914.  Manuscripts were also stolen.  

One of the caves I visited had a huge chunk cut out of a wall.  This was pointed out with a great flourish, to illustrate the vandalism of the Devils on the Silk Road.  The stolen art works were taken to Berlin and were destroyed by the bombing during World War II.

The earlier vandalism was carried out by Muslims, who scratched out the eyes, and often the mouths of the Buddhas – so called religious vandalism. 

I was presented with a huge bowl of bones for dinner that evening.  Large bones in a clearish liquid.  Bones for a large dog came to mind. I decided that it was perhaps soup.  The liquid had no flavour, so if it was soup, it was less than enticing. Another large bowl appeared full of a noodle.  One continuous noodle.  The noodle was luke warm and was very greasy, and all but impossible to eat with chopsticks.  I contemplated sucking a mouthful up, and biting off the end, but as it was a shared meal, I thought better of it.  

Breakfast next morning consisted of peanuts, pickled beans, fried lumps of dough, dumplings and cake.  No sign of congee for the pickles and peanuts. The fried dough was quite satisfactory, covered with pickled beans and peanuts.  

 Thus fortified, I set out to explore the ancient ruined cities of Jiahoe and Gaochang.  First stop was Jiahoe.

Ancient City of Jiahoe.

 Jiahoe dates back some 2,300 years. The city was abandoned at the end of the 14th century, after being destroyed following a Mongol invasion, led by Genghis Khan.  We had the place to ourselves.  No other tourists.  No vendors harassing us to buy worthless trinkets. No evidence of anything modern.  Bliss. 

Jiahoe all to myself.

We didn’t have the Ancient City of Gaochang to ourselves.  There were about 6 other tourists and some local people there.  The site is large, with donkey carts to transport people around.  Gaochang dates from around 2BC, and it existed until destroyed by Mongol invasions – not long before Marco Polo was supposedly in the area.  The flaming mountains provided a spectacular backdrop. 

Ancient City of Gaochang
Gaochang – not all to myself.

The Astana-Karakhoja tombs were the local cemetery for Karakhoja.  From items found on the site, it appears the tombs were established in 273AD and abandoned in 788AD. In the early 1900’s Albert Von le Coq, followed by Aurel Stein, the Hungarian born, British archaeologist carried out excavations at the tombs. Russian and Japanese archaeologists were also excavating  They were beaten to it by earlier tomb robbers, but they still managed to steal a large number of relics. 

When I visited, there were 3 preserved bodies on display, and a mural.  I had never seen a preserved body.  I was fascinated to see long hair and fingernails.  The very arid dry climate accounts for the remarkable preservation.

Country near Astana/Karakhoja tombs.
Emin Minaret, near Turpan –  commenced in 1777. Said to have been designed in a pre-Safavid Iranian style.  

I was catching the 9.40pm train to Dunhuang.  The train was the Urumqi to Shanghai service, which stopped for 10 minutes at Turpan.  I have never seen so many people at a railway station.  There was hardly an inch of space on the platform – and it was a very long platform.  People were sleeping, vendors with little carts were selling food, people were boiling up water on little burners to make tea.  The train arrived on time. As our sleeper carriage was at the rear of the train, instead of being in the middle where we were told to wait, we had to move very quickly down the platform, through the teeming multitudes to make it. 

I had barely dragged myself and my case onto the train, when it began to move. I still had to find my compartment, but at least I was on board.

I love trains, and this train trip did not disappoint – although it was a little startling at times.  Just settling down to sleep, when 2 random men turned up, and hopped into the bottom bunks.  They had disappeared by the time I woke up.

The breakfast experience was interesting.  Our sleeper carriage was supposed to be next to the dining carriage, in the middle of the train.  It wasn’t.  The train was to stop at a station for five minutes at breakfast time, and we were advised to get off, and run up the platform to the dining carriage.  With thoughts of being stranded we knew not where, we certainly ran, dodging people disembarking and embarking, and numerous food vendors, selling their wares to people in the carriages.  

Chinese breakfast was still being served and the “restaurant” staff wouldn’t let us have the Chinese breakfast.  We need not have run along the platform I thought – a stroll through the train would have provided perfect timing for the “tourist” breakfast. 

Tourist breakfast for 4 of us, plus 2 British tourists and 4 Japanese tourists consisted of 1 fried egg, a slice of frozen bread, jam and a glass of sweet milk.  The Chinese breakfast would have been preferable. 

Walking back to our carriage through the train after breakfast provided a vision of hell, and the reason for running up the platform to the dining carriage.  The people in the hard seat carriages far outnumbered the seats available. Children were sleeping on the floor.  The noise was deafening and discarded food and other rubbish threatened to bury the sleeping children.  Add to that the chaos of people trying to get off the train, and people getting on, we would probably have been annihilated. 

The train was stopping for 5 minutes only at Liuyuan (the station for  Dunhuang).  How were we going to work out, in 5 minutes, what the name on the station was, fight our way through the people boarding and get our ourselves and our suitcases off the train in time.   I was advised that the train would arrive at 9.30am, so we should get off then.  What if the train was late, or early?  It wouldn’t be we were told.

The train pulled in to a station at 9.30 am, and we got off, hoping our advice was correct.  We had barely alighted before the train departed.  There appeared to be the population of a small city on the platform, and it took several minutes for the crowd to disperse.  We were the only people left on the platform.  The name of the station was unreadable in 1992. I went off to find someone (anyone) in an attempt to confirm that we were at Liuyuan, and discovered our guides inside the station, waiting for us.  Logical really, as it was the 9.30am train, so obviously we wouldn’t be concerned, would we.  Furthermore, they pointed out, if they had gone onto the platform they would have been among the thousands of other people, and we may have missed them and gone on to Dunhuang on our own.  I gave in gracefully, and didn’t point out that it would have been impossible for us to obtain any transport as they had our permits to travel to Dunhuang. 

During the 2 hour drive to Dunhuang desert gave way to crops of  cotton and sweet corn.  The cotton was being harvested. Huge cartloads of harvested cotton were lined up at the gates of a cotton mill, waiting for the mill to open. Camels were loitering along the roadside, disdainfully ignoring  all who passed.

Cotton growing near Dunhuang, with White Horse Pagoda in background.

The highlight of Dunhuang was a visit to the Magao caves, near Dunhuang.  The caves had been built and decorated by by Buddhist monks for over a thousand years from the mid 4th century. In 1907, Aurel Stein, the Hungarian born British Archaeologist, by bribing Abbott Wang, the custodian, “stole” thousands of manuscripts, buddhist silk paintings and the worlds oldest printed document, the Diamond Sutra, dating from 863CE. Mercury, the god of merchants, travellers and thieves, must have been looking after Stein and his ilk along the Silk Roads. 

Magao Caves, Dunhuang

 The Magao site contains around 500 caves of which  I entered about a dozen.  What I saw was like nothing I had ever seen before, and it had a profound effect on my understanding of art and religion.  The stories being told were similar to the stories, myths and legends shown in the art of the christian and orthodox world. Buddha with disciples, attendant bodhisattvas and heavenly kings, Buddhas with hands in meditation postures, early style bodhisattvas, Buddhas resisting temptation, and so much more.  

I did not see any manuscripts, paintings on silk, or any embroideries in Dunhuang. I have since seen examples in the British Museum, the V & A and the British Library.

Marco Polo stayed for a year in Su-chau (as Dunhuang was known), but no mention was made by him of  the caves.  He did however see the Mingsha sand dunes – he referred to them as the rumbling sands due to the noise made when the wind sweeps over them.    Did he ascend the sand dunes by camel, as many people did when I visited.  Alternatively, he may have walked up, as I did, and slid down.  Polo did observe that rhubarb and ginger grew in great profusion in the adjacent mountains, and that one Venetian goat would buy 40 pounds of fresh ginger of excellent quality.  

 On the drive from Dunhuang to Jiayuguan, I experienced some very realistic mirages – a forest, a city, lakes and rivers shimmering in the distance.  Little wonder early travellers perished following a mirage looking for non- existent water.    

The western terminus of the Great Wall is near Jiayuguan.  Beyond this people were banished to the areas I had just travelled through.  Other than being an important link in the old silk road, and the view of the terminus of the great wall, there is little in Jiayuguan of interest.  Polo said of another city “this city offers nothing specially remarkable we shall pass on” which reflects my thoughts on Jiayuguan.

Looking toward the terminus of the Great Wall from Jiayuguan Fort.

Getting out of Jiayuguan proved to be a challenge.  Arriving at the airport for a 9.50am departure, we find the plane has been delayed maybe 2 hours, maybe 3.  Reason – a bit of the plane broke at Lanzhou.  A very sad and decrepit looking plane finally arrived at around 2.30pm.  Its wings appeared to be drooping – down at mouth drooping.  The plane would take us, but not our luggage, which would go by train to Xian, even though we were not going to Xian from Jiayuguan.  After much discussion, measuring and weighing, it was decided our 6 suitcases could go on the plane. By then I was thinking that maybe me and my suitcase should go by train, but was dissuaded on discovering only hard seats were available.

The plane which took people but not their luggage.

The drive to Lanzhou from the airport is 75km.  We drove through lovely misty looking hills, hill after hill fading into oblivion.  

“Original” silk road near Lanzhou.

After driving through an industrial area containing petro chemical plants, the most polluted place I had ever experienced, we emerged into acres and acres of peach orchards. Marco Polo apparently travelled through a river crossing point at Lanzhou during his travels with his father.  He took a more northern route on his second journey.  Lanzhou is not mentioned  in his travels.  Lanzhou is situated on the banks of the Yellow River, a rather brown river when I was there.  The markets in Lanzhou provided my first experience of live produce other than cattle type markets – that is fish in buckets, snakes writhing in baskets, birds in cages and other small animals, which were distressing to observe.  The guide very cheerily announced that people liked to have fresh food, and as they did not have refrigeration, they needed to buy their food “live”. 

 Marco Polo was impressed by Xian (Singan-fu) – which he called a great and splendid city.  He mentioned fruitful gardens and fields, and mulberries.  I did not see fruitful gardens and fields or mulberries, but I did see the terracotta army – serried ranks of warriors and horses emerging from their trenches.  Marco Polo did not.  They were all still safely buried under their mounds when he visited.  It is fortuitous for China that the warriors had not been discovered when Aurel Stein and his ilk were exploring the silk road.

The Big White Horse Pagoda in Xian was originally built in 652AD, so Polo would have seen it, but he makes no mention of it.  I could barely see other than a looming shape through the pollution until I got very close.  I climbed up to the top, but could see very little.

Big White Horse Pagoda, Xian.

The old city wall in Xian is most impressive. Marco Polo described it as a stout and lofty wall about 5 miles in circuit, crowned with battlements and strongly built.  Unfortunately the pollution was so bad, I could hardly see a block beyond the wall, so there seemed little point in hopping on one of the golf carts for a circumnavigation of the wall.

On top of the Old City Wall Xian.

 Banpo, near Xian, contains a neolithic village of the Yangshao culture, discovered in 1953.  The settlement was established between 5000BC to 4000BC.  It felt more like a museum rather than an archaeological site in 1992.  The parts I saw had obviously reconstructed dwellings illustrating different forms of dwellings, some underground with just a roof to 2 room constructions    above ground.  The reconstruction, while useful to show schoolchildren what life looked like in neolithic times, did not inspire me. 

At Banpo Village

An evening at the theatre in Xian provided a most entertaining spectacle.  We appeared to be the only non Chinese in the audience, so hoped that the performance would not be the usual pretend cultural experience for  tourists.  The show was a recreation of Tang Dynasty song and dance. The programme included a fan dance, in civilian form.  The dancing was graceful, resembling ballet.  A mask dance was also performed.  The costumes the dancers wore in both dances were bright and colourful, and appeared to be silk.  Sitting beside the toilets, with the attendant aroma, did not diminish the experience.  The behaviour of the audience indicated that it was a show for tourists – Chinese tourists.  They were videoing, photographing, walking round to get the best angles for their photographs, and chatting among themselves.

My silk road adventure concluded in Xian.  Marco Polo went to Xanadu (Shang-tu).  I did not.  Xanadu is now an archaeological site but Marco Polo was full of admiration for the city, saying “in this city Kublai Khan built a huge palace of marble and other ornamental stones.” He also described gardens and a second palace made of bamboo.  Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge inspired me long before I set out on my Silk Road Journeys. Who would not be inspired by  “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree:…”.  Whether or not Coleridge wrote this while in an opium induced state doesn’t matter.  What matters is that his words inspire – “For he on honey dew hath fed And drunk the milk of Paradise” nailed it.  I am going to Xanadu.