This is a story I had a lot of fun writing and it is one I am particularly fond of. While on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle tour across China’s SILK ROAD, I was reading Marco Polo’s THE TRAVELS, which incidentally, is a FANTASTIC BOOK!
It dawned on me, like a cartoon light bulb flashing on top of my head, that 750 years before us, Marco Polo had actually traveled this exact same Silk Road, and that some of the very cities we were visiting and staying in were described in detail by Marco Polo in his book.
So I pretended that Marco Polo was a participant on our motorcycle tour and was riding his own Harley Davidson motorcycle, and I wrote the following story from his biker point of view. I tried to mimic in my essay the same tone and writing style that was used in Marco Polo’s book.
This story has appeared, in one form or another, in 16 different publications over the years, the most recently being Asian Geographic, issue #62, 2009. I hope you enjoy it.
Marco Polo had a most fantastic career working as the personal envoy for the most powerful man ever to walk this planet, the great Kublai Khan. He was sent all over the great Khan’s realm which meant traveling to almost all corners of the medieval world; most of those places were unknown to Western civilization during those days. Marco Polo held this position for 27 years, and a good part of those years were spent traipsing up and down a road as old as time itself, which in today’s era we call the Silk Road.
The Silk Road is a misnomer because it’s actually a network of roads and they were used for much more then merely the transportation of silk. The Silk Road was used by so many different people for so many different reasons over such a long period of time that to study its traffic is to study the entire history of human civilization.
The Silk Road was no easy street; it was one tough thoroughfare. It wound its way across the most hostile terrain and through the worst possible climates. If the physical dangers did not kill a traveler, attacks from bloodthirsty bandits finished off where nature failed. Religion and riches, as usual, were the compelling reasons why no danger was frightening enough to staunch the non-stop flow of pilgrims and traders.
Marco Polo was born in 1254 and died 70 years later. The Silk Road died as a trading route a short time thereafter because new sailing technology made such a long and perilous overland route obsolete. The Silk Road was forgotten as commerce withered. The surrounding kingdoms collapsed and the relentless desert swallowed cities whole.
A motorcycle club decided to ship their gleaming Harley-Davidsons to Northwestern China to travel over the exact same route used by Marco Polo. Marco Polo in his day rode on camels and horses, which gives a similar, open-air feeling one experiences riding a motorcycle. If instead, Marco Polo piloted one of the Harleys himself and joined this modern caravan, this is how his story might have been written ……..
Here yea! Hear yea! Governors and politicians, businessmen and civil servants, soldiers and villagers, and all people who want to know about that ancient byway called the Silk Road and the curiosities of the surrounding areas, please read on.
Messer Marco Polo, a man of great experience and discretion and an honorable citizen of Venice, will personally recount to you all he has seen with his own eyes or heard about from men of letters, so that this report will be an accurate account free of any distortions. And all who read this may be confident that it contains nothing but the truth.
When Deng Xiao-Ping was ruler of China, 28 kindly adventurers shipped 20 mighty Harley-Davidson motorcycles to Gansu Province to the city of Lanzhou, situated on the banks of the Yellow River. Their caravan included every item of importance needed to complete such a lengthy and arduous journey; a sturdy truck to carry provisions such as water, petrol, and all manner of spare parts, a police vehicle carrying security officials whose job it was to ensure unhindered and safe passage of this caravan, and a passenger van bearing escorts holding government certificates of transit. The goal was to drive 2500 kilometers along the Silk Road. The following is Marco Polo’s report, in his own words, of all the great wonders he encountered along the way ………..
Dear Readers, here is my story: The capitol city of Gansu province is Lanzhou and it is home to over 2 million Han Chinese who are much devoted to industry and fabrication. They practice ancestor worship and are steadfast in the pursuit of money. Lanzhou is situated at the mouth of the Hexi Corridor, a 1200-kilometer long natural canyon which is the only practical land route into and out of Cathay. All the goods that are traded and manufactured in Lanzhou are then easily transported to the rest of the realm on the Yellow River and its many watery tributaries. The rural people of Gansu are very poor because most of the land is either desert where nothing can grow or rugged mountains where living is very difficult.
Our motorcycle convoy leaves for Wuwei very early under an overcast sky. We travel smoothly and without any incidents worth mentioning. The long snow capped mountain ranges on both sides of a flat plain funnel us deeper into the narrowing Hexi Corridor. We pass many flocks of grazing sheep and mulching yaks. We see remnants of that mighty edifice known as the Great Wall, but here it is so worn and damaged it gives no hint of its former strength.
The sky darkens, the wind whips up, and the heavens open, drenching us with a cold and rare desert rainstorm. This drives us to seek shelter in a roadside inn where we have lunch. And what a magnificent meal it was! We are served large bowls of succulent sheep meat boiled with chili peppers, onions and scallions. The flesh flakes off the bone and melts in our mouths. It is washed down with a special tea seeped with many varieties of dried fruits and nuts and sweetened with big lumps of rock sugar. Hand-torn noodles in a steaming broth chases the last of the cold from our bodies.
Blooming fields of yellow chiao mei flowers blanket the valley as we travel westwards. We arrive in our hotel in Wuwei after clocking an easy 277 kilometers. For dinner we are served excellent local delicacies such as donkey soup, sliced camel paw, and tomatoes sprinkled with sugar.
Wuwei once went by the name of Sinju and was inhabited by idolaters and Mohametans with some Christians. This country was once teeming with wild life. Cattle, wild and domesticated, some big as elephants and very handsome in appearance were a wonder to behold. The best and finest musk in the world came from a small gazelle-like animal that lived in this region. Pheasants twice as large as ours as well as other gaily colored birds were once numerous.
Today this area is very different indeed. Han Chinese, Mongols, Tibetans, Moslems, and Uygurs reside in this vicinity. The desert is fighting to take back the land, and the people have countered this encroachment by planting an amazing 68 million fast growing poplar trees.
The horizon line used to be considered each olden days ideal traveling distance. A camel was able to sustain a 600 lb. load for 20 miles daily for an average pace of 2 mph. Our Harleys can carry this exact same weight but we cover the same twenty miles in a mere half an hour.
Later in the day we have to negotiate three very bad road sections. The rough roads damage some motorcycles as metal parts crack and break. We stop for repairs in a town called Shandan which was once the imperial pastures and home to over a hundred thousand of the kingdom’s finest horses. Not one horse can be seen today but donkeys abound.
The local people are much surprised to see our strange convoy and they crowd very close to us in wonderment to witness all that we do. For many of these people we are the first foreigners they have ever seen, and believe me when I tell you we make for a very strange sight, being so large in stature, clad in black leather, talking in a strange tongue, and masters of such fantastic vehicles.
In the afternoon we ride parallel to the Great Wall which is so eroded that in parts it is merely a knee-high fence. It’s condition improves and we soon ride through one well preserved gate and see firsthand how formidable this barrier once was to the enemies of ancient Cathay.
We arrive in Zhangye after the shortest mileage leg of our journey. This same 238 kilometers would have taken the old caravans one week to complete, only if luck was with them.
Zhangye used to be called Kan-Chau and was once a large and splendid city and the capital of the whole province. The people were very religious and had temples built to all faiths. Huge statues of Buddha were said to be completely covered with gold, but alas, no traces of these fabulous idols remain.
Today there is little resemblance to past glories. The townspeople now make their living as shovel and pick men and are busy moving the earth everywhere using no machines at all. Here too, they plant millions of trees, and each morning, work groups gather with their long-handled tools slung over their shoulders and go out to dig and to plant.
For this entire day and for two days thereafter we pass thousands of people all toiling under the intense desert sun excavating the longest ditch this world has ever seen. Other work groups numbering 100 men, carry long coils of black cable on their shoulders, waiting to bury it in the newly-opened earth.
Halfway into our day’s drive we are at the narrowest point of the Hexi Corridor. The northern and southern snow-capped mountain ridges which have peaks over 18,000 feet and which box us in are here only 15 kilometers apart. To the north of those summits is the emptiness of Mongolia and below the southern mountain range lies the Himalayan plateau which is impossible to traverse.
Where the Hexi Corridor ends, the desert turns nasty and hostile. Tornadoes by the dozen form all around us and are a frightening sight. They twist across the roadway and if we are caught in the middle of one the sand rips at our exposed flesh and wrecks havoc with our engines.
The mountains grow small in the distance and our eyes gaze on the vast and featureless desert for the first time. One wonders how ancient travelers could ever have crossed such an inhospitable landscape. And it is a fact that most journeymen did not complete their journey and did meet their end, and old records reveal that quite often whole caravans, sometimes consisting of over 1000 camels laden with riches, disappeared forever and still lie under the shifting desert sands.
We arrive at our caravansary in Jiuquan safely and with much respect for the merciless power of the desert.
Jiuquan was once known as Su-chau and was famous for its rhubarb that grew wild in the
mountains. The brown-skinned inhabitants lived by the produce of the soil. They were idolaters and Christians and paid tribute to the Great Kahn.
The old kings of Cathay had their subjects build 99 signal towers between here and the capitol in Beijing, some of which still stand. Messages could be sent by smoke and fire across this vast distance in only one and a half days, while a rider strapped onto a horse, going at breakneck speed night and day, and changing mounts hourly, could only cover at most 250 miles each day. This is an amazing statistic in itself and is nearly half of our best mechanized pace.
Our first stop this morning is at Jiuyuguan which is the western terminus of the Great Wall.
This is the site of a great fort and it is indeed very well preserved. One is moved to strong emotions imagining all the history that has taken place here. Jiuyuguan has always been considered the end of Chinese territory and the beginning of the frontier. Beyond was under no ones’ control or protection. Nomads and barbarians did what they pleased with any trespasser they could catch.
So many battles took place here over the centuries that untold thousands of good men perished on this very spot. One can envisage the wall’s defenders watching in horror as a hundred thousand Mongol horsemen came pouring over the low mountain pass, charging pell-mell across the flat desert plain, each defender knowing he had but minutes to live, with no hope of escape or surrender.
Eastbound travelers arriving from no man’s land, exhausted and barely alive after a month-long desert passage, the first sighting of this fort was ecstasy and a sign of salvation. While to outbounders, the sight of this same fort filled them with despair because it could be the last piece of civilization they would ever see again.
After finishing with these reveries we remount our Harleys and head back down the Silk Road into the desert which now stretches for 1500 uninterrupted miles to our west. Today is one of our biggest mileage days and we leave post-haste.
In mid-afternoon we pass a herd of wild Bactrian camels, which are the two humped breed. They grazed on scrub plants sprouting amidst a deserted city worn down to nubs and half buried by the blowing sands. These were the choice animals for caravans because they could withstand greater temperature variations while requiring less food and water then the single humped Arabian camels.
Our good progress is halted by a road construction and we steer our machines through desert sand so fine it offers no resistance or support. Many of the bikes fall down. Back on the road the heat liquefies the tar and forces it to the surface and our tires make moist, sucking sounds as we pass over this.
We can smell the greenery of the oasis town of Dunhuang long before we arrive. In the old days it would take ten days to reach Dunhuang from Jiuquan, but we cover the same 400 kilometers in a leisurely 11 1/2 hours. It is said by the elders that many years before motorized vehicles, thirty days were needed to reach the next water stop on our itinerary.
We pause for a rest day in Dunhuang because there are many items of interest that should be experienced here. Dunhuang lies at a fork on the Silk Road. The southern route goes into India and this is the reason why so many Buddhist pilgrims have passed this way. We visit the Mogao caves where scholars from all over come to study the oldest examples of Buddhist art and religion, left as offerings by these pilgrims. Some are still perfectly preserved by the arid climate.
The people of Dunhuang today make their living from tourism. They even charge the traveler money to enter their desert and climb on their sand dunes. These sand dunes are a marvel to behold. They stretch as far as the eye can see and the biggest measures 250m in height.
The next morning we leave for Hami, which was once called Kumul. This town lies between two great deserts, the Gobi and the Taklimakan, which means in an ancient tongue “those who enter do not return”. The inhabitants in ages gone by had the reputation of being a very gay folk who gave no thought to anything but making music, singing, and dancing, and taking great delight in the pleasures of the body. If a stranger were to come to one of their houses he was given a very warm welcome. And the host was said to bid his wife to do everything that the guest wishes, including lying in the same bed. The women were beautiful and vivacious and always willing to oblige.
Needless to say all our road-weary wheelmen were agog with anticipation to see if the passage of time had much changed the character of these people. Alas, we discovered that things are indeed much different these days. But we do make excellent time today hurtling towards our visions of paradise and the long, straight road quickly slides backwards beneath our bikes.
The desert terrain is constantly changing character as stony ground turns to gravel, which turns to sand, gets blown into dunes, until, by midday, we find ourselves in a moonscape of sharp, scorched, granite peaks and valleys gouged from black rock. We finally reach the end of Gansu Province and before we can pass into the next province called Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, we must bid our fine escorts farewell and greet our new escorts headed by a Kazak giant who firmly takes charge.
Underway again we hit a fierce windstorm. The winds howl out of the northeast and are strong enough to push man, beast, and machine to the ground. Often these winds stir up the sand, turning the day into night, but this fate we escaped. We fight the gusts and keep up a good traveling pace as we cross the final section of the Gobi desert. The road is so straight it is incredible to witness and the emptiness of the countryside is beyond description. Suffice it to say that it was nearly forty kilometers after entering this new province before we came upon any man-made structure and even a longer distance until we passed the second one.
There isn’t another place on earth with so much empty and desolate land. We finally arrive at our night’s lodging after a very exhausting ride.
Over 400 kilometers lie between Hami and Turfan which had the old name of Kara Khoja. The people of Turfan once were idolaters, but many Christians, Nestorians, and some Saracens dwelt there as well. This land has been growing grapes for over 2000 years and a very fine wine is made here. These people say that the king who originally ruled over them was not born of human stock but arose from a sort of tuber generated by the sap of trees.
We ride gradually downhill all day because Turfan lies near the bottom of the Tarim Depression. Learned men say that this depression is the second lowest land point on earth, being 505 feet below sea level. It is also taught that Turfan is the furthest city away from any ocean and it is also furthest away from any Harley dealer.
In the morning we sight a new snow-capped mountain range to our north. The ancient kingdoms tapped into the melting snow by digging long tunnels from the base of the mountains across the desert floor. These buried canals, called karez, bring water were none fall and allow the people to practice desert agriculture, and this irrigation system is still in use.
The character of the people is changing. These people call themselves Uygurs. They are of European-Turkish stock and look and dress like gypsies and speak a language of their own and worship Mohammed. All the signs are printed in Arabic as well as Chinese. We pass through many small oasis towns all being karez irrigated.
By five o’clock we enter Turfan and see life unchanged from centuries past. All traffic on the local streets is either human or animal powered. The favored mode of travel is two wheeled donkey carts. Naked children bathe playfully in the canals. The old men wear square embroidered skull caps and long coats with baggy pants tucked into their black boots. They leave their chin whiskers very long and stroke them as a sign of respect. As we chug pass them on our cycles, startled, their necks wrinkle as they crane around for one last look at our most unusual convoy. The city streets are canopied with grape vines and provide cooling shade. Grape vines are everywhere as are their drying sheds.
In the evening, entertainers tell the story of their people with music. They attire themselves in lustrous silk fabrics; skirts of crimson, pants of gold, and vests the color of the setting sun on the sand, all trimmed with golden braid. The women are very beautiful with pointed chins and pouting lips, dark eyes over high cheekbones. They wear their hair in up to 10 long braids that reach down to their calves. The men are rugged and strong as they are tempered by the desert. The Uygurs are a curious people and are eager to speak with and know about foreigners who are few and far between.
At Turfan the traveler on the Silk Road chooses between three branches. One skirts the northern edge of the Taklimakan Desert. This was the preferred route into India but was prone to bandit attacks. Or one could choose to cut straight across the desert’s center to avoid the robbers but then the harsh physical elements had to be dealt with. This middle route is now forever closed because China uses the center of the desert to explode its nuclear bombs. The third route cuts north over the Tian Shan mountains to Urumqi and then westwards into Central Asia and Europe. This is the way we go.
The last day of our journey dawns. It is only a short ride so we sleep late and do sightseeing in the morning. We visit the ancient city of Jiohe whose earliest records are fixed at 770 BC. Jiohe is a natural island fortress gorged out by a river. If you kick at the dirt you can find human bones just under the loose surface.
The drive to Urumqi was difficult because the road surface was very bumpy and not at all pleasant. There were no incidents worth recounting. Urumqi is a large city devoted to heavy industry. The chimneys touch the clouds and belch out a thick smoke that darken the day and dampen the spirit. The king here is commerce and the people worship money. The buildings are concrete and square and soot covered.
We have finished our journey all safe and sound and the only traveling left is a short ride to Heaven Lake for a day to spend lolling in a high alpine setting. Heaven Lake is a relief to the eyes after 10 days of desert. Animals, water, and greenery abound in profusion. The land is so fertile that people live off its bounties without any hardships. Families still live in felt covered tents called yurts, and wander about tending their herds.
You have now heard all about the Silk Road, about the cities and the customs of the people. Many more wonders not mentioned await the intrepid explorer. Today, trains, buses, trucks, jeeps, horses, and camels all ply the Silk Road. It is open to all. But if you want to go on a Harely, it will be a long, long time before other such machines will have permission to travel along this most famous byway called the Silk Road.