Along the old Silk Road - an epic 4,000 km train journey across China
This article has first been published on our AES blog in July 2020. To read more exciting articles on various Asia-related topics, please click here.
The author Mathias Horsch is a TUM graduate student and the current Chairman of the Asian-European Society Munich e.V.. In the article, he writes about his train journey along China’s ancient Silk Road during his semester abroad at Jiao Tong University Shanghai in late 2019. In case of any questions or feedback, feel free to reach out to him via LinkedIn or email.
In absolute numbers, China is massive in almost every aspect...
However, it is hard to grasp what it really means that 1.4 billion people - roughly a fifth of the world population - live in an area of 9.6 million km2 which is more than 26x the size of Germany. And as crunching numbers can easily get boring, I decided to leave Shanghai’s hustle and bustle behind me, hop on a train and have a look by myself. My 4000 km-long journey along China’s old Silk Road led me from the country’s well-developed East coast through Central Chinese cities whose name I can still hardly pronounce to some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen in China’s Wild West. And it conveyed me a sense of not only the sheer size of the Middle Kingdom but also of its rich history, diverse culture, and welcoming people. But let’s start at the beginning!
My freestyle train route from Shanghai via Xi’an and Gansu Province to Urumqi. (gmaps)
How it all began on a cold rainy winter day in Shanghai…
In end of November 2019, I was sitting on my bed in my poorly-isolated Jing’an flat. As exams were just over and I had roughly three weeks before the next class would start, I decided to go on a spontaneous adventure trip. Given that most of my friends were still busy attending classes, I felt it would be a rewarding experience to escape Shanghai expat bubble (or what Zak Dychtwald would call “Shanghai Fallacy”) and spend some time on my own in the nature. After a quick stop at H&M to buy a super cozy Christmas sweater (which literally saved my life - see picture below), I packed some travel essentials for the cold West and booked my first train ticket via Ctrip. At this point, a huge shout-out to all China travel bloggers who made it with their great vlogs and blog posts surprisingly comfortable to plan a freestyle trip to China’s Far West. On the next morning then, I woke up early, rushed to Shanghai Hongqiao Railway station, and went off to my first stop: Xi’an, China’s ancient capital, home to the famous Terracotta Army, and starting point of the ancient Silk Road.
View from my 27th floor shared flat in Jing’an district, Shanghai – miss that view a lot! (own)
A train journey is China is an experience by itself…
In this chapter of the blog post, I actually wanted to write about China’s incredibly efficient railway network. As I am quite passionate about trains, the chapter got quite long. Therefore, I decided to dedicate an own blog post to this topic. If you are as passionate as me about trains or just curious how someone can write an own blog post about China’s railway network, feel free to read it here. I hope you enjoy reading it!
Ticking Xi’an’s Terracotta Army off my bucket list…
On the 6.5 hours-long, 1,500 km train journey to Xi’an, I’ve passed quite some Chinese metropolis - some of which I was not able to pronounce or have never heard of them in the first place. Crossing Jiangsu Province (which directly borders Shanghai), I still felt familiar with the names of cities such as Suzhou (roughly 10 million population) and the China’s old capital of Nanjing (roughly 8.5 million population). However, once the train entered Anhui province, Zak’s ‘Shanghai fallacy’ ends, and real China begins. Or have you ever thought about Xuzhou (roughly 8.5 million population on prefecture level), Zhengzhou (roughly 10 million population on prefecture level), or Luoyang (roughly 6.5 million population on prefecture level)? And the list could go on and on. Just to remind you: Berlin, Germany’s buzzing capital has roughly 3.8 million inhabitants.
And as I like data (as you might have witnessed in the excursus on trains), here the big picture: In 2017, there were roughly 160 Chinese cities with over a million people. In comparison, Europe had 35. Today, roughly 750 million Chinese live in cities that leads to an urbanization rate of around 55% (versus 70-80% in Europe, United States, and Japan). A few years ago, McKinsey Global Institute published a study that shows how by 2030, there will be over 1 billion Chinese city dwellers (+ 350m = add the entire US population in China’s cities within the next decade). If you want to learn more about this mega trend and what it specifically means for China, I can highly recommend you reading the ‘1-hour China book’ by Jeffrey Towson (who was guest in our Speaker Series) and Jonathan Woetzel – both of whom are great experts on China.
Again, I drifted away from the actual topic. So back to Xi’an. As I only stayed two days in the city, there are surely better information sources and travel guides than me, so let me keep it short. I particularly enjoyed three things in Xi’an:
- First, the food. The city was home to various religions during the Tang Dynasty, and a range of cultures have helped shape Xi'an cuisine, with Islamic influence being particularly strong. Especially the city’s Muslim Quarter has become a food heaven for locals and tourists alike. Below you find some pictures of Xi’an food. If you want to learn more about the city’s epic cuisine, I can recommend you this article (’21 Xi’an Famous Food you need to try’).
Xi’an’s famous Muslim quarter – you can find all kind of yummy yet affordable food there! (own)
Second, I really enjoyed a great and lonely bicycle ride on Xi’an ancient city wall. You can conveniently rent a bike and ride one time around the old town (12 km), thereby getting a great impression of both old and new Xi’an on each side of the city wall.
Xi’an’s city wall featuring a cute, lonely cat posing in my picture. (own)
Third, the Terracotta Army. Obviously, most tourists come to Xi’an to visit the collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. The roughly 8,000 soldiers are located at the outskirts of the city and are more than 2,000 years old. Although it is quite crowded and you fiercely have to fight with some ruthless Chinese grandpas for the best photo spots, it is definitely worth it to tick the Terracotta Army off your bucket list. In case you want to impress your friends and get some fame on Instagram (or I guess TikTok nowadays), you can also take an epic (and with 100 rmb quite overpriced) picture in front of a fake wall of Terracotta soldiers.
Finally: My H&M Christmas sweater – and yes all of the soldiers are real – I promise ;-) (own)
Finding my inner self at Labrang Monastery…
After leaving Xi’an, my next stop along the silk road was the city of Lanzhou, the 3.6m inhabitants’ capital of Gansu Province. Located of the banks of the Yellow River, the city is quite famous for its ‘Lanzhou beef noodles’ (which are indeed quite yummy - see below). While I’ve met some Western tourists in Xi’an, I did not expect that I wouldn’t see a single Western tourist for the next 15 days once I arrived in Lanzhou. After spending a night in Lanzhou, I left the comfort of China’s railway network for a couple of days behind me and hopped on a local bus that would bring me further south to the mountainous village of Labrang with its mystical monastery at roughly 3,000m above the sea level.
Left some Lanzhou beef noodles, on the right the skyline of Lanzhou (google pictures)
Labrang hosts one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries outside the Tibet Autonomous Region and is largely populated by ethnic Tibetans, as well as some Hui and Han Chinese. Without knowing of this place, it was exactly the Shangri-La I was hoping to find when I left Shanghai a couple of days earlier. Although the place has become a tourist attraction in the recent years, it was completely empty as travel season in Western China is mainly limited to the warm summer months from June to September. I stayed for a few days in a Tibetan hostel and deeply enjoyed the people’s warm hospitality (while looking partly curious partly confused at me probably asking themselves how I got lost in their village). At this point, let me just share some pictures I took – this place was literally magical, and I really hope to return there on a warm summer day to explore the nearby grasslands and sleep in a yurt looking at a clear and starry sky. Although it was freezing cold (up to -15 degrees during night), those days were definitely among the most memorable ones during my entire time in China!
Luckily, I visited Xia’he and Labrang Monastery during a big local celebration! (own)
Would love to share more of the pictures, so just hit me up if you want to see more :-) (own)
Having my first hot-air balloon ride at China’s Rainbow Mountains…
Having left all the everyday stress of Shanghai behind me, I jumped on the bus again and went back to Lanzhou to continue my train journey to Zhangye Danxia (better known as "Rainbow Mountains“) in Gansu Province. Over the past 24 million years, the red sandstone was sculpted through wind, rain, and time to extraordinary shapes with varying colours, patterns, and sizes - a similar formation can be only witnessed at the mountain Vinicunca close to the city of Cusco in Peru. Arriving in Zhangye, I found a cozy hostel where I met Eric from Taiwan as well as Li Wei from Jingdezhen, also known as China’s ‘Porcelain Capital’ in northeastern Jiangxi province. As both of them spoke a bit of English, I was super happy to be able to finally communicate without solely relying on my limited vocabulary as well as a bunch of creative hand gestures and facial expressions. After a yummy barbecue and a lot of local hospitality (mostly in form of numerous gānbēi (干杯 – aka bottoms up)), we woke up at 4:30 am the next morning to make our way to the Zhangye Danxia national geopark right before sunrise. Although I am definitely not a morning person and my feet literally went blue (Note to myself: Double socks with sneakers are still not really sufficient at -15 degrees), seeing Zhangye’s unique landscape with the first rays of dawn was definitely worth the struggles. As soon as the sun warmed up our frozen limbs, we then decided to take our first hot-air balloon ride of our life at an epic discounted price of just 50 rmb (= roughly 7 € compared to the high season price tag of 150 €). Combining my fear of heights with a shaky hot-air balloon, I was quite happy once I was on firm ground again. Check out the pictures!
Here two of my favorite pictures from the (super cold) sunrise at Zhangye Danxia... (own)
… and our first hot-air balloon ride in our life ever (feat. Eric & Li Wei) (own)
Riding a camel at the outskirts of Gobi Desert (Yes, there are camels in China) …
As we got along really well, we decided to continue our journey together for a couple of days to our next destination: Dunhuang, a major stop on the ancient Silk Road for thousands of years and best known for the nearby Mogao Caves, one of China’s 55 UNESCO World Heritage sites. Located at the edge of Gobi Desert, Dunhuang offers not only ancient sights to visit but also a beautiful oasis containing Crescent Lake and Mingsha Shan (鳴沙山). In addition to all that cool places, there are also quite some fun activities to do including surfing sand dunes and riding camels. As my fingers are slowly starting to hurt from typing my (already way too long) blog post, I leave you again to some of my pictures.
Some impressions from different sights and acitivites around Dunhuang, Gansu Province. (own)
Getting my real “Great Wall of China” experience at Jiayuguan …
After saying goodbye to my new friends, I travelled again on my own to one of my last stops along the old Silk Road: Jiayuguan, the Western end of China’s Great Wall. I had already seen the Great Wall with my dear friend Gabriel a few weeks earlier in Mutianyu, a two-hour bus ride from Beijing. As the Great Wall in Mutianyu is in great shape (due to restoration) and we went there on a bright and sunny day, we had to share our first ‘Great Wall experience’ with hordes of both Chinese and international tourists (FYI there are less accessible and more genuine parts of the Great Wall close to Beijing – unfortunately we did not enough research back then, in case you visit Beijing, read here). Hence, my first experience with China’s roughly 22,000 km-long Great Wall was not as adventurous as I’ve imagined in the first place. All the more, I was happy to get a second chance to see this monumental structure thousands of kilometers further West. And this time, I did not have to bore my way through hordes of tourists. Going there in the early morning, I was basically on my own at Jiayu Pass (嘉峪关), the first frontier fortress at the west end of the Ming dynasty Great Wall. After enjoying the view on the nearby mountain chain while listening to ‘Now we are free’ (‘Gladiator’ soundtrack – highly recommended for all epic places you go! Listen here), I left Gansu province and went on my final stage of the journey to Xinjiang province. To conclude, I can say that Gansu province is surely one of China’s most diverse provinces and a great starting point for tourists to see many cool things in a (for Chinese standards) manageable geographical radius. So what are you waiting for?
The Great Wall of China is a must-see and there are many good spots to go! (own)
Finishing my journey in Xinjiang, China’s most Western province …
My initial plan was to travel all the way to Kashgar, one of the westernmost cities of China, near the border with Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Pakistan. However, due to bad weather (very, very cold – highly recommended to go there in summer!) a lack of time, and tight travel restrictions in Xinjiang, I spontaneously decided to stay in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and wait there for my one-way flight back to Shanghai. Being the largest province in China, Xinjiang is home to a number of ethnic groups, including the Turkic Uyghur, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, the Han, Tibetans, Hui, Tajiks, Mongols, Russians and Xibe (Thanks Wikipedia for helping out!). As many of might have heard, Xinjiang is home to around 12 million Uyghur people and has been covered frequently in Western press over the last years due to ethnic tensions between Han Chinese and local minorities including Uyghurs (resulting in very strict government policies of mass surveillance and establishment of so-called ‘re-education camps’). While there is little reliable information about the exact magnitude, the notably tight travel restrictions on-the-ground (including regular check points, a strong police presence, and a great amount of monitoring technology) definitely suggest from my perspective that there is nothing such as ‘business-as-usual’ in Xinjiang. As this is a travel blog and no political analysis, you can educate yourself about the situation and its backgrounds. A good start might be the Wikipedia article on the conflict itself.
After doing two days sightseeing in buzzing Urumqi, a city with more than 3.5 million citizens (and a Pizza Hut – yes, I feel a bit guilty…), I took my pre-scheduled 4.5 hours flight all the way back to Shanghai. Falling tired but satisfied in my bed, I felt incredibly happy and thankful (and yeah, maybe even a little bit proud) that I escaped ‘Shanghai Fallacy’ once again and went on this exciting journey across the Middle Kingdom.
Left side: endless grasslands & mountains, right side: Leonardo di Caprio’s Limbo (Inception) (own)
Unfortunately, I took almost no pictures in Xinjiang due to the tight security regulations (own)
….so what’s the bottom line?
As every good blog article (I hope you liked my first blog article ever!) is supposed to have some key takeaways, here are my three key takeaways:
(1) China is huge: You and I have already known that fact before embarking on this journey. Although experiencing China’s East Coast and its densely populated Tier-1 cities give you a solid impression of the country’s rapid development over the last four decades, it is only half the truth. Seeing with my own eyes what the numbers in the opening paragraph mean in practice, was (pardon for the sensational word) literally mind-blowing.
(2) China is diverse: Despite all the political turmoil of the last years, it is worth it to experience China’s rich history and diverse culture (and especially local cuisines :P). To immerse oneself can help to find a common ground and develop mutual appreciation, so also more divisive issues can be discussed - and hopefully solved - at eye level. That is why I believe AES’ mission of fostering mutual knowledge and interaction is meaningful and you should join our cause here.
(3) China is beautiful: Traveling in China can be exhausting and is surely not as hassle-free as in Southeast Asia. However, I would argue it is at least equally rewarding! All along the old Silk Road (and many other destinations across the country), you will be amazed by some of the most stunning landscapes and oldest cultural heritages on this planet. Apart from that, you will meet many folks along your journey who are genuinely interested in you and will show you the true value of Chinese hospitality.
That being said, we are at the end of this blog article. I hope you liked it (I guess if you read it until here, you did!). Reach out to me anytime via LinkedIn or email and let me know what you think. Further, our entire AES team and I would be happy if you share some of your Asia-related experiences in a blog post with our broad community. To do so, write us an email via firstname.lastname@example.org or use the contact form at the bottom of the ‘content’ section.
Take care of yourself & your loved ones – we hope to welcome you again soon on our website!