Pakistan Gandhara & Indus Valley Civilizations

Pakistan Gandhara & Indus Valley Civilizations

EMPIRE OF THE SPIRIT | PAKISTAN AND THE INDUS VALLEY CIVILIZATION

At 15,397 feet above sea level, the Khunjerab Pass is the highest paved international border crossing in the world, and our ancient, rattling public bus creaked and groaned up to it through spectacular mountain scenery, around hairpin bends with terrifying drops...

Welcome to part II of my Journey to the West, a six-week overland trip from Beijing, China, to Islamabad, Pakistan.

Click on photos to enlarge.

View of Hidden Peak (Gasherbrum I) near the Sino-Pakistani border at sunset | Karakoram Range | 8,080 m/26,510 ft

Physical Map of Pakistan (German version) | Click to enlarge

The Karakoram Highway to Pakistan | Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County, Xinjiang, China

Passing through the Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous country on the notorious Karakoram Highway (KKH), I spent one night at this final Chinese outpost at 3,090 m/10,140 ft on my Journey to the West. According to the Chinese bus driver, the Pakistan border was an estimated 10 hour drive, depending on the changing conditions of the road.

Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County, Xinjiang, China

Tashkurgan | Tajik Man

Tashkurgan | Tajik Woman

Much of the Karakoram Highway was a narrow, rugged track, chiseled out of an unstable complex of different types of rock formed through violent seismic activity and extreme weather. I witnessed massive landslides, ice avalanches, and unpredictable flooding, and these events delayed the two-day crossing from Kashgar, China, several times.

Karakoram Highway | Kashgar, China, to Islamabad, Pakistan

From interpretation signage posted along the way, I learned that the Karakoram Highway was developed by Pakistani and Chinese engineers, and took 20 years and over 1,000 lives to construct, with particular hardship occurring in the remote areas of Pakistani‐controlled Kashmir.

Karakoram Highway Memorial

Indeed, things didn't always go as planned when travelling the Silk Road, a common theme in the journals of ancient Chinese monks, such as Xuan Zang, the who traveled this very route in the mid-seventh century.

Half way to the Pakistan border from Tashkurgan, the bus was forced to stop at a section of road that had been washed out from a flash flood during the night.

In the spirit of the monks and merchants of yesteryear who had experienced great challenges on the Silk Road, I felt it was a great opportunity to get off the bus and get my hands dirty. Fortunately, the road workers allowed me to help them construct the cages of rocks in wire needed to temporarily repair the road so we could pass.

Roadwork on the Karakoram Highway near the Sino-Pakistani border after an overnight flash flood

The Khunjerab Pass | Sino-Pakistani border

At 4,693 m/15,397 ft above sea level, the Khunjerab Pass is the highest paved international border crossing in the world, and our ancient, rattling public bus creaked and groaned up to it through spectacular mountain scenery, around hairpin bends with terrifying drops.

Khunjerab Pass, Sino-Pakistani border crossing | 4,693 m/15,397 ft

The Hunza Valley | Gilgit-Baltistan

The first evening in Pakistan, I arrived in the Hunza Valley with my new Pakistani guide, Iqbal, and driver, Usman (featured image at top of page). Waking up at first light and walking outside, I was stunned by the view of Rakaposhi, towering 7,788 m/25,551 ft above, surrounded by deep blue sky.

Rakaposhi | 27th highest mountain in the world | 7,788 m/25,551 ft

The Hunza is a high-mountain sanctuary fed by glacial streams and known for the longevity of its people. In the morning, I woke to views of snowcapped mountain peaks, melting glaciers, and fertile valleys with apple, apricot, and pear orchards. The headwaters of the fertile Hunza River, rich with minerals from the high glaciers, sparkled on the valley floor, it's waters flowing to join the Indus from Tibet.

Hunza Valley, Gilgit-Baltistan region, Pakistan | Averaging 2,500 m/8,200 ft

Landslides from sedimentary rock, shale, and glacial debris shaken lose from earthquakes characterize the landscape, and it is logical to assume this led to the name Karakoram, Turkish for black gravel, given by early Central Asian traders. Today, K for Karakoram, stands for the second highest mountain in the world, K-2.

My driver, Usman, said to me, with his eyes peeled to the road, “I use both eyes, one for the road, one for falling rocks.”  He suggested buckling my seat belt: “Muslims believe that life is very precious.”

A landslide blocks our travel south | Karakoram Highway | Pakistan

The junction point of three greatest mountain ranges of the world

Following the Gilgit River south, we reached a place that geographers dream about – the  junction point of the three highest mountain ranges in the world.

In the photo below, the ranges are as follows: Himalayas (right), the Karakoram (distant center), and the Hindu Kush (left).

This was also my first glimpse of the Indus River (right) as it emerges from the Tibetan Plateau. The Gilgit River is on the left.

Junction point of three greatest mountain ranges of the world | Himalayas (right), Karakoram (center), and Hindu Kush (left)

Taxila | Archaeological site visit

As described on my Silk Road page, the UNESCO-listed Taxila was one of the most ancient universities in the world, where people from all over Asia came to study medicine, religion, and science. Instruction was available in at least five different languages, and this multicultural environment contributed to the pre-eminence of Taxila as a center of learning by the 5th century BCE.

Taxila, Pakistan | Excavated remains of the ancient Greek city at Sirkap, founded by Bactrian King Demetrius in 190 BCE

At the height of the Maurya Empire in 250 BCE, King Ashoka recognized the significance of Taxila as an international city at the crossroads of Persia, India, and China, and declared it the provincial capital of his empire.

The Jaulian Monastery

The Jaulian Monastery is the treasure of Taxila, an ancient education and art center with preserved stupas depicting Greek, Indian and Chinese cultural images. The site was of special interest to archaeologist Sir John Marshall (discussed below).

A place of ancient pilgrimage, my local Muslim guide compared it to Mecca, "Many people in history made a great journey to reach this location."

Jaulian Monastery | Taxila Archaeological Site, Pakistan

Interview at Jaulian Monastery | Taxila

Stupas at Jaulian Monastery | Taxila

Sir John Marshall (1876-1958)

Any account of the research and excavations at Taxila, and the Indus Valley Civilization sites of Harappa and Mohenjodaro, would be incomplete without mentioning Sir John Marshall, the Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1902 to 1928. He was the first person in modern times to recognize the significance of these abandoned cities, and worked extensively to document, protect, and popularize these mysterious ancient sites.

During my site visit at Taxila, I had the opportunity to personally interview the grandson of Basharai Khan, who was Sir John Marshal's personal assistant. Alongside learning about Marshal's fieldwork, I was also fortunate to visit the Taxila museum, which he founded in 1918.

 

Portrait of Sir John Marshall (1876-1958) | Taxila Museum, Pakistan

The works of Sir John Marshall in PDF

John Marshall’s outstanding work is currently online and publicly available at: Archive.org.

Below, I have provided direct links to three relevant books from Sir John Marshall’s legacy.

  • Marshall, J. (ed.) (1931). Mohenjo-Daro and the Indus Civilization. | 30Mb
  • Marshall, J. (1951). Taxila: An illustrated account of archaeological excavations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. | 65Mb
  • Marshall, J. (1960). The Buddhist art of Gandhara: the story of the early school, its birth, growth and decline. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. | 65Mb

Gandhāra Civilization | Greco-Buddhist art

Taxila was a key site where the ancient Greeks met the Buddhists, a cultural coincidence that occurred at the dawn of Mahāyāna Buddhism and the development of the Gandhāran civilization. Gandhāra reached its zenith during the Kushan period in the 2nd century AD.

Fasting Buddha, Gandharan period, 2nd Century CE | Lahore Museum, Pakistan

Click on the links provided here to view my PDF presentations of Gandhara and Taxila, featuring site visits to the Second City of Sirkap, founded by Demetrius in 190 BCE, and the ruins of Jaulian, a two-thousand-year-old monetary which served as an education center.

Academic Resource Online | Gandhara Sculpture from Pakistan Museums

In 1960, a comprehensive exhibition of Gandharan sculpture was brought to America. Subsequently, sixty-five free-standing and relief sculptures dating from the 2nd -5th centuries A.D. were photographed, catalogued and published as Gandhara Sculpture from Pakistan Museums. The book visually represents the golden age of Gandhara, when the flourishing Buddhist colonies created some of the first representations of the Buddha in human form. Benjamin Rowland, Harvard University,1960

Sakyamuni's First Meeting with a Brahmin | Late 1st century, fine-grained schist, Peshawar Museum

The Indus River Valley Civilization | Harappa

Continuing to travel south from the Taxila archaeological sites, I began to understand what makes the Indus River Valley such a unique area of historical significance, and why the entire subcontinent is named after it. This valley was the cradle of many great Indian cultures, not only Hindu, Jain and Buddhist, but also older and more mysterious cultures whose scripts remain undeciphered.

The Pashupati Seal | Meditating Yogi with horned headdress surrounded by animals | Indus Valley Civilization | Moenjodaro

A day's drive south from Taxila and the capital city of Islamabad, I felt like a time-traveler, heading back thousands of years before the 2000-year-old Gandhara Civilization to experience first-hand the 5000-year-old Harappa archaeological site and the Indus Valley Civilization, an enigmatic slice of ancient history that has profoundly influenced the way people think throughout Asia and the world.

Harappa | Archaeological site visit

Beginning over five thousand years ago, the UNESCO-listed site of Harappa was once one of the world’s most important cities and cultural centers.

Through personal interview with my Pakistani guide, Shafik Malik, he told me a story of a young Sir John Marshall working on a British railroad project in the area:

"Villagers were bringing wheelbarrows loaded with red bricks for use as fill under the railroad tracks, and Marshall, suspecting that they looked unusual, asked where they came from. The villagers told him about a place where there were scores of old bricks spread out all over the land, and no one had idea where they were actually from. Marshall went to investigate..."

Since the discovery and excavation of the site in 1921 by Marshall, Harappa has come to be recognized as one of the oldest and most important civilizations and archaeological sites in the world.

Red bricks form foundations of ancient workshops at Harappa | Indus River Valley Civilization

UNESCO divides Harappa’s history into five key phases:

c. 3300-2800 BCE – Ravi
c. 2800-2600 BCE – Early Harappan
c. 2600-1900 BCE – Harappan
c. 1900-1800 BCE – Transitional
c. 1800-1300 BCE – Late Harappan

5,000-year-old red Harappan bricks | Indus Valley Civilization

Shafik Malik | Pakistani Guide | Harappa Archaeological Site | June 24, 2001

As explained by Mr. Malik and outlined in the interpretation signage at the site, the earliest settlement at Harappa was the Ravi phase, founded on an ancient levee of the river Ravi between 3500 and 3300 BCE.

With more than a decade of experience working at Harappa, I wanted to know more about Malik's personal feelings about the site:

“At 2600 BC the Harappa Civilization is magnificent, a great city center with monumental public buildings, craft areas, bazaars, and connecting trade routes to the world... Small manufactured seals still puzzle us with undeciphered inscriptions… When I think about Harappa, I get a mystic feeling.”

Ravi/Early Harappan Phase 3300-2600 BCE | Click to PDF slides

Archaeological work on the Ravi phase has revealed that these early inhabitants imported stone from what is now Afghanistan and western India, and shells from the Arabian Sea to make beads. They manufactured earthenware vessels and figurines of clay by hand.

Water well and sewage systems at the Harappa archaeological site

Red bricks of Harappa

Locals at Harappa

Pakistan Photo Journal | June 2001

The 15 photos shown below were taken during the drive south from the Sino-Pakistani border to Faisal Mosque in Islamabad.

Welcome to Pakistan | International border police

Karakoram Highway | People's Republic of China & Islamic Republic of Pakistan | 1958-1978

Entering Pakistan en route to the Hunza Valley | Karakoram Highway | Gilgit-Baltistan | View from the bus window

English-made Bedford truck decorated with Pakistani Islamic art

Usman | Pakistani driver and international guide

Pakistani youth | Hunza Valley

Hopper Glacier | Naga Valley | Gilgit-Baltistan

Hunza Valley stream | Gilgit-Baltistan

Upper Indus River Valley | Road of Alexander the Great still visible on the opposite bank above the river

Nanga Parabat | Killer Mountain | Third highest peak in the world

Gem stones for sale at Nanga Parabat

Upper Indus River Valley | Gilgit-Baltistan

4th-8th Century Buddhist rock carvings above the Indus River | Shatial (west of Chilas), upper Indus Valley | Sogdian Iranian Civilization

Crossing the Indus by single-cable chairlift | Shatial

Pakistani kids | A few hours north of Islamabad

Faisal Mosque | Islamabad

Mohenjo Daro 101 | National Geographic 3:14

Thank you for visiting my Pakistan Page.

If you feel motivated to know more about the Silk Road or other Learning Adventures, or would like to arrange for me to give a public talk, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

–Steven Martin

Skateboarding the Great Wall 万里长城

Skateboarding the Great Wall 万里长城

SKATEBOARDING THROUGH TIME ON THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA

Skateboarding on the Great Wall of China in 1995 | Badaling 八达岭 万里长城

Learning Adventure for Students of 806-123 / 809-122 Eastern Civilization

Click on images to enlarge.

Backstory – My first time to skateboard on the Great Wall

Between 1995 and 2002, I studied Chinese philosophy during summers at Peking University. Hiking – and skateboarding – on the Great Wall quickly became my favorite activity, outside of attending lectures and campus life.

Each time I traveled to the Wall, I learned something new, and the more I visited different areas, the more I wanted to learn about the history and culture behind this amazing symbol of the Chinese people.

Catching air at Badaling Great Wall 八达岭 万里长城

Skate the Wall

Our sleek private taxi wove its way between big trucks and buses, tiny cars and vans, zooming motorcycles and buzzing scooters. The silent bikes and carts yielded without stress, smoothly avoiding us as if doing Tai Chi.

Radiating from Beijing, the traffic faded into tranquility. We, students from the University of Hawaii, headed due north with our driver, a kind-hearted Chinese man with dark glasses and a love for classic Western rock music.

We gave him a thumbs-up and nodded when his stereo played Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall.

En route to the Great Wall with our favorite taxi driver | 2002

Around us, wheat and corn formed a checkerboard landscape, as hills graduated to small mountains with riverbanks planted with weeping willows, walnut and peach trees, thriving under deep blue sky. Slender poplar trees cast zebra-striped shadows which flickered on our faces while we blazed on.

It was a perfect day to skate the Wall.

Skateboarding on the Great Wall | 2001

Philosophical Attitudes

Just as philosophical attitudes of Chinese and Americans may differ, so too have their reactions to my skating on the Wall.

Photos from my early trips in 1995 shocked some Western friends to contend, “You mean they allow you to do that?”

Badaling Great Wall | 1995

In contrast, Chinese friends were enthusiastic and positive.

The first time I skated the Wall, a guard stationed at the Wall shouted in Mandarin and took my board. To my surprise, he traded me his rifle for my skateboard and tried to ride it, shooting down the hill out of control, skidding to a halt, and tearing holes in his clothes.

Bruised and bleeding, he reacted with a smile, and raced up the hill for another try.

World's oldest skateboard park

Unexpectedly, we had a marvelous hour together, sharing the moment and cultural experiences.

I realized that the function of the Wall had changed from combat to sport, from exclusive to inclusive, from military to peaceful – attracting tourists and hikers, students and teachers, philosophers and politicians.

The Wall had become fun and exciting, as if suddenly transformed into the world’s greatest skatepark.

Skateboarding at the Great Wall

Meng Jiang Nu

In contrast to the touristic carnival-like atmosphere experienced at many sections of the Wall today, truth is, the Great Wall is no laughing matter.

Hiking the Wall on a hot summers day, exhausted at the onset of heat stroke, I could feel the blood, sweat and tears of the conscripts and prisoners who built it.

Sometimes called the "World’s longest tombstone," the Wall was a place where men were sent to toil and suffer until they died and their bodies were buried near the Wall.

Hiking on the Great Wall of China, north of Beijing

Set in the Qin dynasty (221BC-206BC), one story still resonates among the collective memory of the Chinese, the dramatic separation of a loving couple and their tragic ending as a result of building the Wall.

Ancient literature, paintings, poems, music, and modest temples throughout China, Japan, and Korea honor the heartbreak of Meng Jiang Nu (Lady Meng Jiang), who searched the entire length before finding her beloved dying husband, Fan Qiliang. Legends tell she cried so hard that the wall collapsed where she found him.

Modern cartoons, videos and films in recent years continue to romanticize her story, representing the ruthlessness of the emperor, the tragedy of the Great Wall, and the kindness of a gentle woman.

Lady Meng Jiang and the Great Wall | Source: Stent, 1878

Her story is a recurring theme in Chinese folklore, with literary evidence dating back more than two-thousand years. One of the many treasures of Chinese historical literature, a Bianwen manuscript (c. 9-11 century) of the story was discovered at Dunhuang, Gansu province, an important stop on the Silk Road.

The story of Lady Meng Jiang | c. 9th-11th century Bianwen manuscript

Iconic guardian of China

A great unification of the Wall took place under Emperor Qin Shi Huanghi, the legendary ruthless ruler who founded the Chin Dynasty (221-206 BC) and hence gave his name to China. He also left behind his personal terracotta army of Xian, the larger-than-life clay soldiers built supposedly to guard him in the afterlife.

A continuous project, the Chin fortifications that began in strategic mountain passes now string together to stretch thousands of miles across China, from Heilongjiang Province in northeast China, winding westward to Jaiyuguan, Gansu Province, in the Gobi Desert.

View from a garrison | Jinshanling Great Wall

The Wall is an iconic guardian of China, towering over the fertile river-valleys and plains of the south, protecting them from invasion by the marauding bandits of the Mongolian plateau to the north.

The northern face of the Wall is always sheer, often 30 feet tall, or perched on the rim of a high cliff, while the southern face is sometimes only ground level.

Today, the Wall with all its branches, if placed end to end, would stretch more than 30,000 miles.

Jinshanling, north of Beijing, a 10 kilometer stretch of unrestored Wall

The World's first internet

The Great Wall can be justly described as the world's first information superhighway. Timely information could be sent across the entire country in a single day – smoke by day, and fire by night.

The Wall served as a secure connection network, offering enough band-width to allow soldiers to ride two-abreast and travel in both directions, garrisons serving as safe terminals, battlements providing the firewall, vats of hot oil ready to be poured on the heads of potential hackers.

From the east, China streamed live to the world – and from west, the world steamed live to China.

The Great Wall – Connecting east and west

The Silk Road

The Great Wall was heavily fortified, serving as the military power line of the Silk Road as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), when caravans of horses and camels transported men and women, trade wares and silks, plants and animals, technologies and religions. Han Dynasty garrisons extended the reach and power of the Great Wall system deep into the desert areas of western China (see photo below).

Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) garrison on the ancient southern Silk Road

Perhaps no other exchange of information was as profound as what occurred leading up to the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy (Tang Dynasty, AD 618-907), when Indian Buddhism flowed into China along the trade routes of the Silk Road, carrying information and ideas that changed how the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans think.

For example, ancient Buddhism and art, illuminated with Greek and Persian influences, flourished in Western China, a sign that east-west cultural communication and collaboration is much older, and much better developed, than previously thought. (Visit my Silk Road and Pakistan pages to learn more about Grecco-Buddhist culture and China, or see the works of Sir Aurel Stein and Sir John Marshall).

Uyghur dancer | Turpan, Xinjiang

Jiāyùguān Fort

The Ming Dynasty (AD 1368-1644) earned the reputation for hosting China’s most masterful wall builders, creating faultless square-cut bricks, which still appear clean, tight, and engineered into perfect function.

The most famous Ming Dynasty wall remains Jaiyuguan Fort, the western terminus of the Great Wall in the Gobi Desert, fabled end – or beginning – of the civilized world, depending on one's perspective.

Sunrise at Jiayuguan Fort | 2001

One story of Jaiyuguan Fort tells of a architect placed in charge of construction. Upon ordering the massive number of bricks required to build the fort, which he calculated down to a specific number, he was warned that it had better be enough. With confidence he agreed and added one brick to the order just in case.

When the complex was completed, only one brick remained. The story is a testament to Chinese ingenuity.

Four characters inscribed near the front gate roughly translate to mean: Strongest fort under heaven.

Jiayuguan Fort | Ming Dynasty | AD 1368-1644

Acuity and continuity

Layers of architecture attest to the acuity and continuity of Chinese culture and philosophy as the wall, like the art of the earth, rises in chronological order from a subterranean foundation.

I have stood at sections where the base was built during Chin Dynasty, the middle during Han, the upper during Ming, the watchtowers Qing (AD 1644-1911) while the surface was only one week old.

I’ve watched as farmers bashed bricks off the Wall with sledge hammers, loading them on donkey carts to use on their farms, while in the distance I could see contemporary building crews adding a fresh face, handrails, stairs, and toilets for tourists.

Farmer at Jinshanling Great Wall

Can we see the Wall from Space?

It is often said that the Great Wall is the only man-made structure recognizable from space, but when I asked Colonel Scott Horowitz of the US Air Force, commander of four Space Shuttle missions, he told me:

“It's nearly impossible to see the Great Wall, even from low orbit, because the color of the bricks and building materials match the colors of the corresponding landscapes, and also due to the heavily polluted skies over China.”

Scott said that it was just about possible to make out the line traced across China by the Wall, with a little imagination, on a crystal-clear day. On the other hand, he said that the Great Pyramid, in Giza, Egypt, was clearly visible throughout the hours of daylight, and especially in the early morning and late evening, due to its long shadow.

Surf Doctor Steven with NASA Astronaut Scott Horowitz in 2002

Above Huanghuachen Great Wall | 2001

Prof Yang Xin | Peking University

Returning to Peking University after a trip to the Wall, I asked my philosophy professor, Yang Xin, a specialist in Great Wall aesthetics, “Why Great Wall, and not simply long wall or border wall?”

He explained, “Although the original name may have implied long wall (wall of 10,000 Li), the significance matured and greatness was attributed. One brick is only one, with function limited, yet when they combine, a great animation is formed, just like the Chinese culture.”

He added, “The Wall unifies mankind with heavenly forces, as if an enormous composition of cursive calligraphy, its aspects constantly altered through time and seasonal changes."

Professor Yang Xin, specialist in Great Wall aesthetics | Peking University

We’re all just bricks in the Wall

When I first visited the Wall in 1995, I was shocked by its grandeur; later its spiritual aspects overcame me as I saw it as a symbol of both the Chinese people and the human race.

From some viewpoints the Wall looks like a coiling dragon, reaching to the sky, riding on the backs of mountains. From other angles, it resembles a growing plant, following the earth’s natural curves.

Simatai 司马台 Great Wall

After skating the Wall, I could imagine the ancient battlements reflecting rhythmic, piano-key-shaped shadows playing rock-n-roll upon the earth, zigzagging up the mountain in harmony with nature.

Ultimately, the greatness of the Great Wall stands for the greatness of humanity, as well as the suffering of humanity – we’re all just bricks in the Wall. ♦

Jiayuguan fortress, westernmost garrison of the Ming Great Wall | 2001

Thank you for visiting my Great Wall Learning Adventure page.

I hope you enjoy the photos and the information in the links provided. If you feel motivated to learn more about this topic or would like to arrange for me to give a public talk, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

–Steven Martin

Other skating, sandboarding, surfing fun in China...

Sandboarding at the Singing Sand Dunes in Dunhuang, China | 2001

Surfing behind a water buffalo in a Chinese rice paddy | 1997

Surfing small waves on an island near Shanghai, China | 1997

Hiking with students from the University of Hawaii | Jinshanling Great Wall | 2000

Skateboarding at Huanghuachen Great Wall | 2002

Skateboarding with Chinese youth | 2001

Short Videos

TED-ed | 4:29

Smithsonian Channel | 4:52

Silk Road Journey to the West  絲綢之路

Silk Road Journey to the West 絲綢之路

Teaching Demo | Silk Road | Eastern Civilization

ON ANCIENT TRACKS

THE SILK ROAD (絲綢之路  Sīchóu Zhī Lù)

AND MY JOURNEY TO THE WEST

Following in the footsteps of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (玄奘)

Kashgar, Xinjiang, China | Silk Road

1995 Xian to Kashgar

I first traveled along the Chinese Silk Road in 1995, on a trip organized by Professor John Cheng through the University of Hawaii at Hilo (UHH). We journeyed by bus, train and short flights. Reaching Kashgar on China's westernmost border just in time for the Sunday Bazaar, I vowed to return one day with more time to explore.

2001 Xian, China, to Delhi, India

In June, 2001, I returned to explore the Silk Road. On this trip, I traveled overland from Xian to Kashgar, China, and across the Karakoram Mountains to Pakistan (see Silk Road Part II, Pakistan).

Although a long journey across deserts and mountains, it was certainly not as difficult as in the past. By 2001, modernization in Xinjiang had brought hotels, tourist amenities, and transportation networks, including a new rail link between Urumqi and Kashgar.

I hope you enjoy the highlights of the 1995 and 2001 photo journals below, and find the links to Silk Road maps, presentations and resources helpful.

For more information, please contact me or visit my university course at Eastern Civilization.

Jiayuguan Fort, Great Wall of China | A beacon of Eastern civilization and culture


Teaching | My course in Eastern Civilization

Sir Aurel Stein | Photo 1909

I have been sharing my Silk Road experiences with students of all ages for over twenty years. I am interested in the early works of European explorers, particularly Sir Aurel Stein (1862-1943).

Stein's archaeological and geographical work is well represented in his 1933 publication: On Ancient Central Asian Tracks: Brief Narrative of Three Expeditions in Innermost Asia and Northwestern China.

Many of Stein's original works are currently royalty-free and available on Archive.org.

1933 Chinese Silk Road Map by Aurel Stein | Innermost Asia | Click to enlarge


1995 Experience | The University of Hawaii Silk Road Study Tour

The photos shown here are highlights from my first trip along the Silk Road.

The travel began at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian, and ended at the Kashgar Bazaar, also known locally as the Sunday Market, and now officially known as the International Trade Market of Central and Western Asia.

Click on photos to enlarge.

1995 Highlights

Monks at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian

Big Wild Goose Pagoda | Xian

Rainy start on our Journey to the West | Xian

Riding the Iron Rooster to Western China

Exploring the Gobi Desert at 33 years old

Jiayuguan Fort | Western end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall

UH Hilo Prof John Cheng | Dunhuang, Gansu Province

Turpan and Urumqi | Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

Flaming Mountain, from the epic tale, "Journey to the West"

Farmer in Turpan | Eastern Xinjiang

Taklamakan Desert | Xinjiang

Kazakh yurts in the Tianshan | Heavenly Mountains

Toordi Ashan | Our Uyghur driver in Urumqi, Xinjiang

Tianshan | Flight from Urumqi to Kashgar

Kashgar | Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

Islamic culture | Kashgar

Musical instruments for sale | Kashgar

Knife seller | Kashgar Sunday Market

Islamic culture | Kashgar Sunday Market

Sunday Livestock Market | 1995

Tobacco seller | Kashgar

Afaq Khoja Mausoleum (c. 1640) | Kashgar


My 2001 Silk Road Independent Study Project

In the summer of 2001, I made an agreement with the University of Hawaii at Hilo (UHH) to conduct independent research on the Silk Road. I proposed to travel overland from Xian, China, to Delhi, India.

My Liberal Studies Adviser, Prof. John Cheng, agreed, providing I visited Harappa, the Indus River Valley Civilization site, and Taxila, the Gandhara Civilization site.

Taxila was one of the most ancient universities in the world, where people from all over Asia and the Middle East came to study and teach. At least eighteen subjects were covered, including medicine, religion, and science. Instruction was available in at least five different languages, and this multicultural environment contributed to the pre-eminence of Taxila as a center of learning from the 5th century BC until the 2nd century AD.

Taxila was a key site where the ancient Greeks met the Buddhists, a cultural coincidence that occurred at the dawn of Mahāyāna Buddhism and the birth of the Gandhāran Civilization.

I was fortunate to be able to visit the Sirkap archaeological site at Taxila, evidence of an ancient Greek city in South Asia.

Sirkap archaeological site | Taxila, Punjab, Pakistan

Visitors today can explore the ruins of a two-thousand-year-old university, and stroll around the Taxila Museum filled with unique art history.

I kept a comprehensive photo journal of my travels, and after returning and presenting my photo journal at the university auditorium I earned enough credits to complete my undergraduate studies at the University of Hawaii.

Journey to the West  西遊記

My plan was to follow in the footsteps of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (玄奘) (c. 602–664), who traveled to India in the 7th century, during the Tang Dynasty, and kept a detailed account of his travels.

His journal, Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (大唐西域記), is an outstanding treasure of Chinese history.

Nine hundred years later, Xuanzang's true story was brought to life in the16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West (西遊記), one of China's "Four Great Classical Novels."

Journey to the West | Xuanzang in the 16th century Chinese classic

Journey to the West is a tall tale retracing Xuanzang's travels with an unlikely group of companions, namely the tricky and powerful Monkey King, the greedy and ravenous Pigsy, and the hideous and obedient Friar Sand. Mixing fact with fiction, the story incorporates Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and folklore into the groups' improbable pilgrimage of spiritual enlightenment.

Xuanzang travel map | Click to enlarge

National Geographic | Treasure Seekers: China's Frozen Desert

Based on the lives of Sir Aurel Stein and Xuanzang: "As commerce flourished along the Silk Road, Central Asia became a melting pot of cultures. Here on the edges of the Taklmakan Desert, an exotic blend of Indian, Mongol, Chinese, and European influences fueled an astonishing cultural Renaissance. In the 7th century, a Chinese monk, Xuanzang, plunged into the desert while on a Buddhist pilgrimage to India..."

2001 Journal Highlights

Starting in Xian, at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda built in Xuanzang's honor, I began my own journey. I tried to visit the same cultural sites and physical landscapes, and to keep a journal, like he did. While his trip to India and return took 15 years or more, I had just two months.

The photos shown here are highlights from the Chinese leg of the journey, placed in chronological order.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Statue of Xuanzang | Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian

Bell Tower in Xian | Beginning of the Silk Road as a trade route

View from the train | Xian, Shaanxi Province, to Jiayuguan, Gansu Province

Sunrise at Jiayuguan Fort, Great Wall | Gansu Province

Jiayuguan Fort | Western end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall

Singing Sand Dunes | Dunhuang

Dunhuang | Mogao Caves

Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) garrison on the ancient southern Silk Road

Uyghur man with his taxi at the Gaochang ruins

Uyghur youth at the Gaochang ancient ruins

Uyghur dancer | Turpan, Xinjiang

Raisins for sale in Turpan

Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves

Urumqi, Xinjiang Gateway to the Tianshan

Hui culture | Urumqi

Frank Li | Hui culture in Urumqi

Kazakh family erecting their yurt | Tianshan

Kazakh family arriving at lower pastures | Tianshan

Home for the summer | Lower pastures of Tianshan

Kashgar, Xinjiang China's western frontier town

Overnight train | Urumqi to Kashgar

Kashgar International Trade Market

Livestock market | Kashgar Sunday bazaar

Chili peppers for sale | Kashgar

Kashgar knives at the bazaar

Uyghur youth at the Kashgar Sunday bazaar | Xinjiang Province

Watermelon seller | Kashgar Sunday bazaar

Working at the Kashgar bazaar

Wooden pitchforks for sale | Kashgar bazaar

Id Kah Mosque (c. 1442)

Islamic culture at the Id Kah Mosque

Reading the Koran across from the Id Kah Mosque

Yusuf Balasaguni | 11th century Islamic philosopher

Yusuf Balasaguni Mausoleum | Kashgar

Online resources

Thank you for visiting my Silk Road Learning Adventure page.

I hope you enjoy the photos and information in the links provided. If you feel motivated to know more about the Silk Road or other Learning Adventures, or would like to arrange for me to give a public talk, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

–Steven Martin

Mount Everest Photo Tibet 西藏

Mount Everest Photo Tibet 西藏

QOMOLANGMA | SNOW GODDESS OF MOUNT EVEREST, TIBET (西藏 Xīzàng)

This is the story of the most spectacular photo I have ever taken.

In the summer of 2000, I made an agreement with the University of Hawaii at Hilo (UHH) to conduct independent research in Tibet after my summer study abroad at Peking University (北京大学). I proposed to travel overland from Lhasa to Kathmandu, Nepal.

My Liberal Studies Adviser, Prof. John Cheng, agreed, providing I kept a detailed photo journal of my travels.

Ancient Buddhist rock art near Lhasa | 1066 AD | Click to enlarge

Lhasa, Tibet, and the journey ahead

After a month-long study abroad program with the University of Hawaii, ending in Chengdu, southwestern China, I set out with two students, to Lhasa, Tibet.

Potala Palace, former residence of the Dali Lama | Lhasa, Tibet

I planned to travel southwest from Lhasa, by Toyota Land Cruiser, across the fertile valleys of Xigazê and Gyantse. These ancient cultural and religious centers are the gateway to the Tingri Plain, a 4,500 meter-high basin located north of Mount Everest.

Tibetan village | En route to Xigazê | Tibet

The trip began inauspiciously. As mandated by the Chinese visa restrictions in Beijing, I had booked through the China International Travel Service, CITS, for the hire of a Toyota Land Cruiser and local driver for two weeks, as well as a national guide and an international guide – not a cheap excursion by any means. I had paid in advance for what I hoped would be a relatively new model vehicle to get us over the mountains and difficult terrain ahead. What actually appeared outside the CITS office in Lhasa that morning was an ancient, battered truck with bald tires, stinking of fuel from what was clearly a leaking tank. The less said about the social skills of the Chinese driver, the better.

Within ten minutes of sitting in the fume-filled truck, I was physically sick. I made the decision that there was no way I was going to spend two weeks like this, and insisted that the driver turn around and head back to the CITS.

Smiling, but unyielding, I explained quietly and politely to a series of CITS officials that the truck was unsafe, and unlikely to get us to Everest.

After several hours of this, I was very relieved to see the arrival of Mr Quan, a distinguished-looking driver in a beautiful late-model Toyota Land Cruiser. We were back on the road.

Getting petrol in our Toyota Land Cruiser in Lhasa before the trip to Mount Everest

And so it came to pass that Mr Quan, myself, my two students Kawika and Aaron, our national guide, Mr. Wu, and our international guide, Nancy Lan, set off for Everest.

Over the next few days, I learned that Mr. Quan was indeed a driver of quality, who had previously served many dignitaries on past tours, including the Kennedy family from the United States and other international government officials.

Mr. Quan (right) and Tibetan villagers at the window of our Toyota Land Cruiser

Valleys, villages, and mountain passes

With Mr. Quan at the wheel, we crossed though expansive valleys with fields of yellow rapeseed flowers and visited small traditional Tibetan villages. We cautiously drove up steep, dangerous switchback roads to high-mountain passes, some at 16,000 feet or more.

At each pass, we stopped to check the vehicle, especially the brakes, before descending to the next valley. I followed local tradition by tying prayer flags to shrines to thank the spirits for our safe passage, and send peaceful mantras in the wind.

Prayer flags at a mountain pass on the way to Xigazê

Fields of Tibetan barley (qingke) in a picturesque valley

Tibetan farmer standing in a green field of 'qingke' barley on the way to Xigazê

Visiting a rural Tibetan village

Meeting an elderly Tibetan woman

Prayer stones at the Tibetan village

Tibetan scriptural texts stored in a rural monastery

Mount Everest and the Qomolangma National Nature Preserve

Entering Qomolangma National Nature Preserve, we headed to the Rongbuck Monastery to photograph the north face of Mount Everest. Our Land Cruiser powered up the last mountain pass of the trip, through sunny skies and cold winds, and as occasional gaps appeared in the clouds, we caught distant glimpses of Everest across the most impressively massive valley I ever saw. (See my photo top of this page).

Entering the Qomolangma National Nature Preserve

Supply truck on the Tingri Plain

Sheep crossing the Rongbuck glacier and stream

Everest towers above the Rongbuk Monastery

Rongbuk glacial valley at the foot of Everest

View of Mount Everest near the Rongbuk glacier base camp

At the foot of Everest, June 2000

Story of most spectacular photo I have ever taken – Qomolangma, the snow goddess of Mount Everest

South from the Rongbuck Monastery, across a glacial valley of naturally-crushed grey rock, I hiked to nearly 18,000 feet and stood at the foot of Everest. The north face of the mountain towered nearly 10,000 feet above.

The air was thin and the wind reddened my skin. I set up the camera and took pictures, in color slides and black and white prints, but Everest had a mind of its own.

As quickly as the summit appeared through the rapidly moving clouds, it was gone from sight. I had seen just enough to know it was there; but for several hours, until nearly dark, I saw only grey clouds breaking across the summit.

It was getting dark and dangerously late to return to camp, and I scrabbled down the glacier feeling somewhat defeated, reflecting on the stories I'd read of climbers who spent years planning and training, only to fail in their bid for the summit.

The truck started, and we drove away in the darkness with the mountain at our back. As I was reaching for something behind me, I caught from the corner of my eye the sight of a sudden change of wind. In seconds, the east wind whipped away the covering clouds from the mountain, revealing the full magnificence of Everest in crystal clarity.

Qomolangma, the legendary goddess of the mountain, was miraculously lifting her veil.

"Stop!" I told Mr. Quan. "Wait!"

I gathered my gear and launched out of the truck, fumbling to get a shot before the surreal moment was gone.

I knew it was the perfect photo of the top of the world.

Mount Everest from the Rongbuk Glacier | June 2000 | Click to enlarge

Thank you for visiting my Tibet Learning Adventure Page.

I hope you enjoy my photos and the information in the links provided. If you feel motivated to travel to Tibet, or would like to arrange a public talk, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

–Steven Martin