HONG KONG - It was 15 years ago today. General China taught the Brits to play. That was, of course, the Hong Kong handover -- a milestone in Little Helmsman Deng Xiaoping's "crossing the river while feeling the stones" strategy. First, command "to get rich is glorious." Then develop the special economic zones. Get Hong Kong back from the Brits. Then, one day, annex Taiwan. And perhaps, by 2040, evolve to some variant of Western parliamentary democracy.
Those were heady days. There were only faint rumblings about a possible financial crisis in Asia. Mainland China media carped about the "humiliations" of the past -- including heavy promotion for a blockbuster telling the real story of the Opium Wars. In Hong Kong island, daily showers thundered with fear. Will the People's Liberation Army (PLA) cross the border at midnight in a blitzkrieg and militarize all the malls in Kowloon? Will we be duly indoctrinated as model communists?
In the end, the proceedings were as normal as Deng would have thought. Chris Patten -- the last governor -- left in an anti-climax. The British Empire was over. There was no PLA "invasion." The party at Club 1997 was monstrous. The day after, massive hangover included, the real celebration began. I boarded a plane to China.
Beyond the pale
My agenda was to plunge into deep China -- the entrails of that beast which was now lording over Hong Kong. Robert Plant was on my flight to Xian. Yes, the Robert Plant -- minus Jimmy Page. I resisted the temptation to address him with the opening bars of Kashmir. It turns out we were at the same hotel in Xian -- and kept meeting for breakfast. He was traveling with his son and his manager. And yes -- we were about to do the same thing. Get our kicks not on Route 66 -- but on the mother of all them routes.
I have always been a Silk Road fanatic. The "Silk Road" is not only the great, open highway of Eurasia -- from lethal deserts such as the Taklamakan to snowy mountain peaks -- but also waves and waves of cultural history connecting Asia to Europe. It's about forgotten empires such as the Sogdians, fabulous cities like Merv, Bukhara and Samarkand, fabled oasis like Kashgar. It's not "a" road but a maze of "roads" -- extensions branching out to Afghanistan and Tibet.
I had to start at the beginning, in Xian, formerly Chang'an -- though most of China's silk came from further south. Xian was a former capital of China during the Han dynasty, when Rome got a hard-on for Chinese silk. And was a capital again during the Tang dynasty -- when the Buddhist connection with India solidified the Silk Road.
Hong Kong galleries were filled with copies of Tang terracotta figures such as Yang Guifei, aka the "fat concubine," the most famous femme fatale in Chinese history. Turks, Uyghurs, Sogdians, Arabs and Persians all lived in this Chinese Rome -- and built their own temples (the mosque is still the most beautiful in China; but the three Zoroastrian temples are all gone).
It would take me a few more years - in successive trips - to finally do most of the core of the Silk Road, in separate stretches, an obsession I carried since I was in high school. This time though, I wanted to concentrate on the Chinese Silk Road.
From Lanzhou I even went to Chengdu, in Sichuan, by bus and then to Lhasa in Tibet by plane, and all the way back. That was a classic Silk Road branch-out. But what was really driving me was to go "beyond the pale." To follow the western-most spur of the Great Wall and finally reach Jiayuguan -- the "First and Greatest Pass under Heaven."
It was everything I expected it to be; sort of like the desolate setting for the end of the empire. The (literal) end of the Great Wall. To the west was "beyond the pale"; Chinese who were banned to go west would never return. Still in 1997 I was met with incredulous stares when I said I wanted to keep going further into Gansu towards the deserts of Xinjiang. "Why? There's nothing there."