Death, also known as Taklamakan
Through the Gansu corridor I finally reached the caves of Dunhuang -- one the great Buddhist centers in China for over six centuries; a feast of wall-paintings and stucco images excavated in caves carved from a cliff on the eastern edge of the Lop desert and the southern edge of the Gobi desert. Dazzling doesn't even began to describe it.
One of my all-time heroes, the great Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang (602-664), had a stop-over in Dunhuang on his way to India -- where he collected holy texts for translation into Chinese (that explains that calligrapher back in Xian).
Around Dunhuang, the Silk Road split. I had to make up my mind. The northern route follows the southern edge of the spectacular Tian Shan mountains -- running along the north of the terrifying Taklamakan desert (whose name, in Uyghur, means "you may get in but you never get out"). Along the way, there are plenty of oasis towns -- Hami, Turfan, Aksu -- before reaching Kashgar.
That's the route I took, under temperatures hovering around 50 degrees Celsius, riding a battered Land Rover with a monosyllabic Hui who negotiated the desert track like Ayrton Senna. And this was the "easier" route -- compared to the southern one. I had in mind the Buddhist monks doing it by camel, branching out to head through the Karakoram mountains to Leh (in Ladakh) and Srinagar (in Kashmir) and then down into India.
In one of his adventures, when Hedin was hoping to cross the southwestern corner of the Taklamakan in less than a month, the camels died one after another; the caravan was hit by a sand-storm; his last servant died; yet he was the only one who made it, "as though led by an invisible hand."
Guided by my very visible Hui, I finally made it to Kashgar -- a hallucinating throwback to medieval Eurasia; once again, at the time the forced Han neo-colonization was just beginning, around the Mao statue at People's Square. The Sunday market sprang up straight from the 10th century. There was not a single Han Chinese even around the pale green Id Kah mosque at early morning prayers.
From Kashgar the Silk Road did another major branching out. Buddhist monks would travel through the Hindu Kush past Tashkurgan to the Buddhist kingdoms of Gandhara and Taxila in contemporary Pakistan. I did it the China-Pakistan motorized friendship way -- that is, taking the fabulous Karakoram highway from Kashgar through the Khunjerab pass, by jeep and local bus, all the way to Islamabad, stopping on the way in the idyllic Hunza valley. Northern Pakistan was all quiet in those pre-war on terror days; although the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan, there was virtually no hardcore Islamist in sight.
Silk road traders would have done it differently. They would go north of the Pamir mountains to Samarkand and Bukhara, or south of the Pamirs to Balkh (in contemporary Afghanistan) and then to Merv (in Iran). From Merv, a maze of Silk Roads would go all the way to the Mediterranean via Baghdad to Damascus, Antioch or Constantinople (Istanbul). It would still take me a few more years to follow stretches of most of these routes.
So suddenly I was in an Islamabad duly doing business with the Taliban while all financial hell was breaking loose all across Asia. I made it back to Singapore and then Hong Kong. Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea were breaking up. But Hong Kong, once again was surviving -- now under close inspection by Beijing.
Motherland knows best
Fifteen years later, none of those Western bogeymen predictions about Chinese heavy-handedness in Hong Kong came true. The third smooth transition of power in Hong Kong under China is already on. Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping -- the next Dragon Emperor -- has given it his full blessing.