As a child, I was always inspired by the epic stories of travellers whose odysseys helped shape the world as we know it today. Marco Polo is perhaps one of the most famous and exotic. It was he who brought to Europe the exotic tales of the East, which many still attest to its veracity, such as the eccentricity… Xuangzang, Chinese Buddhist monk, who backpacked to India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. Or Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, President of New Finland, who as a spy for Tsar Nicholas II departed from St. Petersburg to Beijing on the old Silk Road and made a unique ethnographic survey as the first Westerner among many of the places it passed.
These three travellers bring us over 13 centuries of stories and legends, and yet the East is still full of surprises… inspired by these three travellers, I decided to create an adventure-filled tour that tells their story, and open to us the door of the Mysteries of the East.
5514kms by train
In addition to “my” Trans-Siberian, I’ve always been a fan of long train rides! And this is a journey still unknown, right away one of the great mysteries to unravel. It is also an ode to Mannerheim’s journey, which made St. Petersburg to Beijing by all means of transport but returned from Beijing to Moscow on the classic Trans-Siberian. If the classic Silk Road still replicate the journey with caravans or other land means, the train allows us to travel slowly and sustainably as we immerse ourselves in local culture. The direct contact with other adventurers and places, the ever-changing landscape, the land borders… A way to explore the unknown in a contemporary way!
I decided to start the journey with the discovery of the century! The Terracotta Army was made for the mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huan Di in far 210 BC but was not discovered until the 1970s. XX. Emperor Qin was the first emperor of China, and his own name gave rise to the name “China” (Qin reads “chin”). Xi’an, the Army’s closest city, is now an Oriental surprise box, with a mix of Eastern traditions, strong Muslim presence, Middle Eastern flavours and Chinese aesthetics. This is where Xuangzang, the Chinese Buddhist monk, set off on his odyssey, walking to India, a 17-year journey, and gave birth to Wu Chenh’en’s “Journey to the West,” one of the four classics of Chinese literature.
Situated in the small town of Xiahe, Labrang Monastery is the second largest Buddhist pilgrimage centre just after Lhasa. More than 2000 monks now live and study at Labrang Monastery. It was one of the places that Xuangzang also visited, and the only place on this trip that still remains Buddhist. To get to Xiahe we have to go through Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu region, one of the poorest in China, often nicknamed the “Siberia of China” for its geographical hostility. Lanzhou is the largest city on the Yellow River, China’s second-largest, and for many, the beginning of the Silk Road as we know it today. Mannerheim brought from this region documentation of some ethnic groups hitherto unknown to Westerners, and an excellent photographic repertoire of the days he spent with these nomads.
Many say that the Taklamakan means “place of no return” or “when you go in, you can’t come out” or something like that. Far from any sea or ocean, and surrounded by the highest mountain ranges in the world – Kunlun to the south, with 200 (!!!) peaks over 6000m; Pamir to the West, with 17 peaks above 6000m; and Tian Shan to the north, with 30 peaks over 6000m – there is only one opening in what is the 2nd largest desert in the East called the “Hexi Corridor” that leads to another desert… the Gobi. These incredible facts assure this to be the most inhospitable desert in the world. Which makes it stunning that this is where the Silk Road crossing is made. Xuangzang crossed the entire desert on foot in the 19th century. VII, and even today we find in various places small monuments and memorials in his honour. Eighty-five per cent of this desert is made up of constantly changing forms of dunes… no wonder they call it the “sea of death”. Our crossing is safe and made by train, but it is still a landmark in the places to visit for a memorable trip!
The Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves
On the threshold where the great Taklamakan desert meets the giant Tian Shan, we find a small village with great secrets: Tuyoq. Xuangzang went here looking for Buddhist manuscripts to take with him to India, and upon leaving the Taklamakan he came upon mountains that “seemed to be on fire” because of their reddish colour, and dubbed them “Flaming Mountains”.”, A name that is still known today. Marco Polo also walked here, and legend has it that he tasted the local wine and food here, which he took with him to Venice. The food would be noodles and chuchures, which we now know as spaghetti and ravioli.
Charyn, the less known “Grand Canyon”
As an alternative to the classic Silk Road, we cross the Tian Shan to meet unexpected landscapes filled with canyons and glacial lakes. Chary n’s canyon set is easily compared to the famous Grand Canyon in the United States but is still unknown to most Westerners. Here we still find the Kazakh nomadic yurt, where we stay overnight for a nomadic experience comparable to what Mannerheim would have had in his odyssey in search of the Mysteries of the East.
Secrets of Uzbekistan
Samarkand inhabits the imagination of many travellers today, and this is where we find one of the most amazing stories of this trip. Ulag Beg, Sultan Timurid in the 19th century. XV was an astronomer and mathematical enthusiast as well. This sultan created an observatory in Samarkand, which can still be visited today, which he used to study the stars and the moon. It was he here who calculated the sidereal year to be exactly 365.25 days, so he owes us the days of the year we live today. His research was honoured in 1830 when one of the craters of the moon was named after him. It is appropriate to say that this is a journey that takes us from here to the moon…
You can discover other tours with Tânia Neves here!