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In the Footsteps of Xuanzang in Kyrgyzstan

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Chinese cargo truck coming from the Kyrgiz-China border.
Chinese cargo truck coming from the Kyrgiz-China border.
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At the start of the Tang dynasty, in the early 7th century, a young wandering monk embarked on a 16-year-long voyage from the imperial capital Chang'an (today's Xian) to India to collect Buddhist manuscripts. At the time Chang'an was six times bigger than Rome at its height, with a population of over one million the epicenter of Asian civilization.

History ended up converting Xuanzang into a legend and a national hero in China, although in the West he would never reach Marco Polo levels of popularity.

Xuanzang had embarked on a quest that still resonates today. He wanted to know whether all men or just an enlightened few could attain Buddhahood. There was only one way to find out: ride all the way to India and bring back Sanskrit texts to China, especially from the Yogacara school of Buddhism, which professed that the outside world did not exist: it was merely a projection of one's consciousness.

On his epic journey, Xuanzang went through hell and high water: sandy storms in the Taklamakan desert ("You can get in but you never get out"), avalanches in the Tian Shan mountains, pirates in the Ganges. His travels on the ancient Silk Road are mesmerizing, particularly in the years 629 and 630 as he hit northern Silk Road oases such as the kingdom of Hami.

It was at these oases that Xuanzang would reboot his small caravan of camels and horses and interact with local kings, influential merchants and serial warriors. He was already on his way to becoming the most famous pilgrim ever on the oldest trade route in the world.

Sino-Turkic Meeting of Minds

During my own trip, mixing ancient and new Silk Roads, I crossed Kyrgyzstan from south to north, from the desolate Tajik-Kyrgyz border on the Pamir highway which looked like a scene from Tarkovsky's Stalker all the way to the crossroads of Sary-Tash, with a detour via a made by China road to examine the Kyrgyz-China border at Irkeshtam; then all the way to Osh, the getaway to the Ferghana valley via the mind-bending Taldyk pass; bordering Lake Toktogul, facing myriad other snowed-over passes; and up to the final dash towards the capital Bishkek.

What I really wanted to reach was the pasturage at this time of the year far from verdant by Lake Issyk-Kul, where Xuanzang lived an extraordinary historical moment as he met nothing less than the immense tented court of the great khan of the Western Turks.

It was thanks to the king of Turfan another Silk Road oasis, not far from the current capital of Xinjiang, Urumqi that Xuanzang was given 24 royal letters to be shown to 24 different kingdoms on his way, finally leading to the great khan of the Western Turks. The king of Turfan was in fact a vassal of the great khan, and he was asking for protection for his Chinese friend, invoking a medieval code of honor that applied equally to Europe and Asia.

The empire of the Western Turks at the time extended from the Altai mountains today in Russia to territory that's now part of Afghanistan and Pakistan. To reach the great khan, Xuanzang went through frozen hell. He described mountains of ice that rose up to the sky and ice peaks tumbling down with a mighty roar. It took him one week just to cross the Bedal pass (4,284 meters high) in what was then Chinese Turkestan. The Western Turks used this pass to connect with the Tarim basin. Farther down the road, Xuanzang would still have to face the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs?

Xuanzang and his ragged mini-caravan finally arrived at the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul ("Warm Lake"), an inland sea that never freezes, and the second-largest in the world after the Titicaca in Bolivia. That happened to be the winter headquarters of the great khan, while his summer capital remained Tashkent.

Southern shore of Lake Issyk-kul.
Southern shore of Lake Issyk-kul.
(Image by Photo: Asia Times / Pepe Escobar)
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I was hosted by a lovely young mother and her baby at a yurt by Lake Issyk-Kul. Xuanzang's description of the lake, which I got from a 1969 Oriental Books reprint of the original 1884 London version of Si-yu-Ki; Buddhist records of the Western World, by Xuanzang, translated by S. Beal, could have been written today. Except for the dragons and monsters, of course:

A yurt by Lake Issyk-Kul. The design at the top is featured in the Kyrgyz national flag.
A yurt by Lake Issyk-Kul. The design at the top is featured in the Kyrgyz national flag.
(Image by Photo: Asia Times / Pepe Escobar)
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"On all sides it is enclosed by mountains, and various streams empty themselves into it and are lost. The color of the water is a bluish-black, its taste is bitter and salt. The waves of this lake roll along tumultuously as they expend themselves. Dragons and fish inhabit it together. At certain occasions scaly monsters rise to the surface, on which travelers passing by put up their prayers of good fortune."

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Pepe Escobar is an independent geopolitical analyst. He writes for RT, Sputnik and TomDispatch, and is a frequent contributor to websites and radio and TV shows ranging from the US to East Asia. He is the former roving correspondent for Asia (more...)

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