Table of Contents
Personal and Professional
Honors and Memberships
Research Interests
Publications Summary
Recent Publications
ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age
Essays on NATO and Kosovo, 1999
On-line Essays

Andre Gunder Frank

Some Ups and Downs on the Silk Road

An "Academic" Travelogue [1990]

TAKLAMAKAN Desert means literally "you go in, you don't come out." The ecological reason is the extremely arid shifting sand dunes and frequent sand storms in this 1,000 km long and 500 km wide oval shaped desert. It is located in what is now northwest China's Xinjiang Region. It was elliptically skirted by the Silk Road for over 2,000 years. Popularly, this desert tends to be equated to the better known Gobi Desert. Originally "Gobi" actually meant a type of desert with a gravel rather than sandy surface, which is mostly farther to the East. Today's political reality is more like "you can't go in" to hardly any place even outside the desert, and you "will come out" of the whole trip with little to show for it. The reason is Chinese reluctance to let anybody really see what there is to see from the past, let alone what is going on - or not- in the present in and around the Taklamakan Desert.

The Silk Road was an overland and maritime complex of "roads," which connected China in the East; with Siberia in the North; Tibet and India in the South; and Persia, Mesopotamia, Anatolia,and the (circum) Mediterranean in the West. This complex of trade, migration, and cultural diffusion was the lifeline or circulatory system of Eurasian development for over 2,000 years. Silk was only one of the items, which travelled through this system. The name "silk road" was not coined until the 19th century.

- Today, only bits and pieces of the Silk Road are still extant and or being literally unearthed again - apparently more as a tourist attraction than as a serious archeological or historical study or anything else.


Unesco started a "Project for the Integral Study of the Silk Roads: Roads of Dialogue" some years ago to stimulate world wide interest in this heritage of wo/mankind as a symbol of universal cultural interchange. The first aim of the project is to "rediscover the lost threads of human relations" and the second one "to open once again these peaceful paths of contact between East and West... for the intensification of human understanding in all fields of life." The project includes a series of scientific, artistic and other endeavors, including an atlas and several expeditions to retrace the old overland and maritime silk road(s). The first expedition was on the "Desert Route" beginning in China. The Chinese provided high level scientific experts of their own to the expedition. The project is supposed to be accompanied by a media blitz, which pays for the whole enterprise outside the regular UNESCO budget.

- Much of the preparatory time was devoted to trying to sort out the political realities, which oblige UNESCO to cowtow to the real and imagined national interests of today's member states. Each one wants to privilege its own present day territory through which this or that part of the old silk road once ran. Since these interests conflict, the First Desert Route Expedition was also unable to cross the Chinese-Pakistan border as planned and had to be confined to Chinese territory only. Moreover, despite the delegation of scientific expedition members, the Chinese authorities regarded and converted the expedition into a sort of academic tourism, with propaganda value for them.


The expedition was in the planning stage for a couple of years. There were negotiations back and forth with the Chinese hosts, and the team was assembled and scheduled to depart in April for 50 days.

- A few days before departure, the expedition was suddenly postponed, officially "for reasons of insufficient preparation." Back and forth recriminations and denials appeared in the press. The Chinese had closed off western Xinjiang because of serious ethnic disturbances, including an untold number of deaths in March-April. Postponement was until September-October 1990 or some time in l991. Suddenly in early July, the expedition was rescheduled to begin three weeks later on July 20 and to last 34 days instead. No doubt, several people were unable to rearrange their schedules on such short notice and therefore could not participate. Personally, I had a previous engagement elsewhere for that time and therefore had to delay my departure to catch up with the expedition down the road.


The expedition members assembled in modern Xian, next to the old dynastic capital of Chang'an, which was often regarded as the eastern terminal of the old silk road. That is where the hundreds of life size statutes of soldiers and others were uncovered in 1974. Another larger find of smaller statues was made recently. From there, the 15 vehicle expedition of buses, vans, and trucks set off for Lanzhou and then through the 1,500 km Kansu (Haxi) corridor to Dunhuang on the eastern edge of the Taklamakan desert. The corridor is a narrow valley between two long mountain ranges. It was and still is the only connection of China proper with the Northwest regions of steppes, deserts and oases.

- The art historian come archeologist Christa Paula had been in the area on her own before. So I joined her at London's Heathrow airport, so that together we could fly to Bejing, from there to Lanzhou, then to catch up with the expedition in the Dunhuang oasis 2,000 km and two weeks down the road westward from Xian. Getting there on our own was quite an odyssey in itself. We only succeeded through Christa's self learned Chinese, ingenuity and perseverance. In London and Bejing we were told there is no plane from Lanzhou to Dunhuang. On arrival at Lanzhou airport, we were told there is a plane next morning, but you have to buy the tickets in town, an hour and a half away. To make a very long story short, we went and arrived after the office was closed, returned back to the airport past midnight, stayed there, and got the tickets at the airport the next morning. Along the way, we picked up a British tourist on his own. He is a London stock broker on his vacation who had the same destination, but is unable to speak Chinese. So it %can # be done on your own if you are (fool)"rhardy enough.


Westward from Dunhuang, the old Silk Road divided into two branches that went around the desert and the Tarim River basin, and one which traversed part of it for a while. The Northern route was called the route "South of the Northern Celestial Mountains," because it so paralleled the 1,000 mile long Tien Shan (Heavenly Mountain) range along the northern rim of the Taklamakan Desert.

This route also branched off through some mountain passes to the north into the steppe zone where the route "North of the Northern Celestial Mountains" traversed the nomads' grazing lands. A middle route first went straight west through part of the desert to Loulan on Lake Lop Nor and then North to Turfan and Hami. The route and Loulan on the Lake was abandoned when the Lake dried up and the surrounding desert still more. The other and the most used route was the southern one "North of the Southern Celestial Mountains." It passed through the then thriving oases near the present Roqiang, Qiemo, Nirang, Hatan/Yutian, Pishan and the old Yarkand on to Kashgar. The northern and southern routes around the elliptical desert joined up again at Kashgar. From there and from Yarkand to the southeast, the Silk Road(s) crossed the Karakorum and other high mountain passes southwestward into India, now Pakistan, and northwestward to Samarkand and Bactria in what is now the Soviet Union and Afghanistan. There they connected with the routes to and from the Mediterranean via the north of the Caspian Sea and north,south, or through the Black Sea; and south of the Caspian Sea through Persia and Mesopotamia.

- Our expedition only took one route, the northern one south of the Tien Shan mountains. The earlier more important southern routepasses through regions, which were more affected by desertification when the desert moved nearly 130 km southward. Today these southern route oases towns, their infrastructure, and their connecting roads are absolutely poorer than the northern ones and perhaps relatively poorer than they were in their heyday. Besides, many of the towns and the surrounding desert are still off limits to foreigners for these reasons and because they are near Chinese nuclear and missile installations, oil exploration and drilling, and penal colonies, which may also serve as sources of labor for these other activities. All these may be other reasons why our was not routed expedition that way.


European and Japanese archeological and museum expeditions in the early decades of this century and much Chinese work in recent years uncovered and restored many artistic and other cultural and archeological treasures of the heritage of (wo)mankind. Ruins of ancient cities, monasteries, burial sites, and various 1000 Buddha caves carved out of the cliffs can be admired along the Silk Road in Xinjiang. The paintings and stuccos in the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang are a veritable marvel to behold. Over a 1,000 year period, but especially during the Han and Tang Dynasties from about 200 AD to 800 AD, about 1,200 caves were hand hewn into the cliff. Then they were filled with paintings and statutes, including a 36 meter high Buddha. At our Dunhuang seminar, a Chinese expedition member called them "a mural of history." A French colleague explained how different religious, cultural and artistic forms and contents were "syncretically" combined over the years.

- Early expeditions dug up or out, extracted, packed up, and carted away tons of manuscripts, paintings and statutes. Then they deposited them in European and Japanese museums "for safekeeping" ( but part of the principal collection in Berlin was destroyed by bombs during World War II). Now the Chinese are understandably sensitive to foreign intrusion on what they regard as part of their cultural patrimony. Actually, of course, the art work was of mostly Indian influence and its Central Asian Indo-european and now Turkic speaking locales, have only been under Chinese control off and on (and as we will conclude, it may soon be off again). As a result of this sensitivity (and other factors to be discussed below), the authorities only open a small portion of artistic treasures to viewing. Of the 412 still extant Mogao grottoes, we saw little more than a dozen. The authorities prohibit private photographs or charge outrageous "foto fees" to safeguard their commercial monopoly on slides and photographs.

The various authorities interposed interminable obstacles to the TV crews who came to film the expedition and the artistic sites. Indeed, their TV stations paid for the whole expedition in the hope of getting a commercially profitable TV film, which UNESCO also wanted produced to popularize cultural interchange along the Silk Road. Yet the Chinese, Xinjiang, and local authorities incessantly imposed so many filming restrictions - and/or demanded astronomical extra fees for filming more than one minute at a time - to make it doubtful that the TV crews were able to assemble enough good footage to put together a film, which would justify and recoup the money they already spent on the whole expedition.

This conflict not only pitted the authorities against the TV crews and UNESCO and left the Bolivian UNESCO media director and the Chinese representative to the media locked in permanent battle. Interestingly, this conflict over the media also revealed serious lines of dissention between the national Chinese authorities from Bejing, the Uighur provincial ones from Urumqi, and the authorities in each locality. Each was also guarding its own toes from being treaded on by the others, and the interests at stake went far beyond artistic treasures or their filming by foreign and Chinese TV crews.


The expedition was composed of some 30 foreigners including the UNESCO project staff and its invited foreign "scholars" who had been recruited and signed up long before, 15 Chinese scholars designated mostly at the last minute by their institutional authorities, 20 TV crew members, drivers for the 15 vehicles, a permanent police escort, some Chinese officials and security agents, and a couple of Chinese-Uighur-English translators. About 100 people in all. The accommodations, logistics, and creature comforts organized and provided by the Chinese, provincial and local authorities were excellent. On our arrival at most oases, we were embarassingly received by marching bands and dancing girls. The foreign delegation included people from Iraq (their embassy ordered them back home early after the conflict in the Gulf broke out), Iran, Egypt, Senegal (the director of the UNESCO project), Ethiopia, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Mongolia, Korea, Australia, Mexico, USA, Canada, France, Denmark, Germany (who mostly spoke English to each other), and from three Central Asian republics in the USSR. The TV people were Japanese and Koreans, plus the Chinese TV crew. In Dunghuang and until the end we were joined by Ju Mahun, the Director of Foreign Affiars of the Cultural Bureau for the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. He is a look alike of the Russian Boris Yeltsin, which is what I called him. He was most jovial and helpful. We only shared a few words in Russian each. Chinese, Turkish, and even Arabic speaking fellow travelers had no problem with him on this score, but...

- The lingua franca was English - and Chinese among the Chinese and the Xinjiang Uighurs, but there were various obstacles to communication.

  1. It was difficult if not impossible to communicate between these two groups, and it was not much encouraged and sometimes positively discouraged by the Chinese. Through repeated efforts, I made friends with two Chinese (maverick) colleagues, the physical geographer Zhang Quisong (with whom I had interminable public and private arguments about his datings of climacitc change) and the specialist in ancient documents Lin Meicun, both of whom spoke some English.
  2. Beyond some formal interviews, there was little contact and common language between the "scholars" and the "media."
  3. Communication and conviviality among the foreigners was mostly very good, all differences of cultural and political background notwithstanding. However, there was not as much inter-disciplinary exchange as UNESCO had hoped for from its "integral study" between the archeologist and art historian majority and the historian, sociologist and assorted other minority "scholars."
  4. For many, conversation between them and the Soviet Central Asians was impossible; because the latter knew no English, Chinese or any language other than Russian and Turkic.
  5. However, Turkic was the lingua franca of and with the %people"r# in the region. The Turks had no problem, and the Turkic speaking Khazak and Uzbek expedition members from Soviet Central Asia had a field day speaking with the local people on the street, in the bazaar, in front of the mosques. Perhaps my most vivid impression from the whole trip is how warmly and enthusiastically our colleagues from across the Soviet-Chinese border were received by their co-religionary Moslem and Turkic speaking brethren in "Chinese Eastern Turkestan."
  6. The Chinese stressed several times, that no one should call this region "Eastern Turkestan," because it is really "Western China." For the rest of us, contacts with the people there - whatever its name - were (deliberately) limited to a couple of pre-arranged visits to one wedding ceremony and some local "families" homes. There, we only felt uncomfortable at being asked to visit them in their homes and bedrooms as though they were in a zoo.
  7. Our Uighur "Boris Yeltsin" was always in charge and took his job seriously, especially when it came to avoiding undesirable contact between us and the local population. In Kucha, some guards first tried to stop us from leaving the compound. Askarov the Uzbek, Stamps the American, Christa and I refused to be confined and went to the bazaar. Christa found her old friends there strangely incommunicative. A scheduled general expedition visit to the bazaar on bazaar day (the only time on the whole trip when not coincidentally our arrival coincided with the weekly bazaar day when thousands mill about) was cancelled, and only reinstated after loud complaints. Even then it was only for a half hour and under tight control at the edge of the bazaar, as I knew since I had gone on my own before. I decided to walk back and so informed the UNESCO people. My friend "Yeltsin" became furious, picked me up in his own car a mile down the road, and stopped exchanging our friendly half dozen Russian words with me for several days. The whole town had been off limits to foreigners for several months since the disturbances in March. There is reason to believe that our otherwise friendly guardian angel was concerned for our safety and general peace, lest our high visibility official delegation or some of its members like me become attractive targets for local ethnic dissidents who might want to make a big splash by taking a prominent hostage. In Kashgar, later on, our leader pointed out that there are bicycles for rent in the hotel lobby - but only for (other) tourists on their own, %not #for the likes of us in his official delegation! After 10 hours' bus ride along paved and gravel roads (including "pipi stops" every two hours, ladies to the right, gentlemen to the left of the road), plus several detours through black gravel and white sand desert, as well as over a couple of mountain passes, our first stop was Hami. It is a nice oasis town known for its crop of melons and export of melon juice. On day trips, we also toured outlying ruins and a museum. In the evening, the local authorities put a song and dance show on for us. Mrs. Tochtrhan Smyil, the Vice Commissioner of Hami, read us a poem she had composed "In Response to Respected Guests" which began "This is a joyous occasion for the Tarim, the Junggar and the Celestial Mountains. Invitations like snowflakes shower on guests from all over the world. Inspiration awaits here for its poets. Across your vast land, let your verses freely flow." She went on "Today on the Silk Road the traffic is thriving again and in the Hami Oasis waves of green are rippling....The sweetness of fruits and melons resembles the taste of our lives." And Mrs, Smyil ended, "Here all is harmonious, and the people are as our march toward a bright tomorrow [on] the Silk Road, the homeland of song and dance." No sooner said, than done, Mrs. Smyil came over, presented me with the traditional flower and thereby took me out on the floor to dance (that day I danced as often, that is twice, as in all the previous 20 years put together)!

- It is often the case that one has to find flowery language to "demonstrate" what everybody knows to be untrue. Increasing unemployment, reduced income during the past two years, the continued voluntary and not so immigration of ethnic Chinese into Turkic speaking and Moslem Uighur and other minority areas, and other socio-economic problems have increased ethnic tensions all around the Tarim Basin and, throughout the Uighur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, including Hami. Not all is sweetness and light or harmony in the homeland of song and dance after - or before - all is said and done after all.


After another 300 km ride through table top flat desert as far as you can see and then narrow gorges with spectacular scenery through a mountain pass, we arrived in Turfan. It is the nicest and largest of the oases in the north, known for its grapes, which it has exported for over 2,000 years. We had an outdoor lunch in Grape Valley. Turfan also lies in the lowest inhabited place on earth, in pat well over 100 meters below sea level in the Turfan "Depression." That is a help in managing its partly unique over two thousand year old irrigation system based on the subterranean off flow of water from the snow capped near by Tien Shan mountains. However, Turfan's place in this "depression" also contributes to greater heat. On the road, the thermometers of our Japanese colleagues had measured up to 54 degrees centigrade in the sun. But it was partly cloudy during our days in Turfan and by no means hot - at least for me who used a jacket even while others went in shirtsleeves or less. On day sidetrips from Turfan, we went to see among others the Beziklik 1000 Buddha caves. In one of them, later Buddhist arrivals covered earlier Manichean frescos with an masonry wall on which to put their own paintings. We also went to the ancient city of Gaochang (Karahoja), whose adobe ruins still dominate the square kilometer of 12 meter high and wide rammed earth walls remaining after the Mongols destroyed the about 1400 year old city around 1300. During an evening session at Tulufan (to which the Chinese have changed the ancient name of Turfan), I gave a seminar paper on how the Silk Road fits into "World System History" (to be published in "World History Journalr Vol. II, No. 1) with a critical comment by my long time friend Samir Amin and an illustration by Thomas Hollman from Germany. The director of the UNESCO project had especially invited Samir and me to "broaden" the scope of our concerns from the largely art historical focus of many of our colleagues. To open the discussion, the head of the Chinese delegation diplomatically but firmly commented that nothing is to be gained by straying so far afield and that we should better stick to talking about what we have seen on the sites we have visited in China. His deputy repeated the same thing in less diplomatic language. No other Chinese showed up. Only Professor Dani, the Pakistani leader of our expedition, supported me, as much as he still dared. (He is enormously erudite and knowledgeable in every which kind of field related to our Silk Road. Yet during our trip he spent most of his public speaking time making polite after dinner addresses to the local authorities here and there as they wined and dined us with banquets at every stop, including Hami and Turfan).

So despite the "integral study" of the silk roads, which presumably were first and foremost a transcontinental trade route, thre was never anyone to speak about trade, nor economic and political relations and military campaigns between nomad and settled peoples, nor even much about religion (despite the religious motifs of the Buddhist sculpture and paintings) or about musicology, Mrs. Smyil's land of song and dance notwithstanding. Far from our scope being too broad, as our Chinese leader claimed for more political than other reasons, the focus of our sightseeing and discussions was far too narrow.


Three more one or two night stops at oasis towns and their museums along the way, and more day trips to surrounding monuments, caves or their ruins. On the side trip to the Iron Gate Pass through the Tien Shan Mountains, unfortunately I - or rather my stomach - was too indisposed to go along (I think I fed it too many grapes in Turfan and far too much watermelon along the way). The Iron Gate was fought over for centuries, because its 14 km long Peacock River ravine offers the only throughfare between North and South Xinjiang. That would have been of historical interest to me. On the other hand at cultural sites and even ruins, expedition members who are archaeologists and art historians know what they see and what to look for and benefit therefrom. At least they learn something from what the authorities deign to show us, and they grumble about what they know they are not allowed to see. They discuss the technical and artistic ins and outs of this and that cave or ruin among each other. As an uninstructed bystander, I know nothing and learn less from these "cultural" sites. However, I try to learn something by nightly reading of books on the Silk Road and especially about its art historical excavations, which my fellow travellers have brought along and kindly loan me.

On the other hand, I benefit much more from long discussion on even longer bus rides, in hotel lobbies and rooms with some of my fellow travellers with whom I share closer or even more distant social, economic and political interests. Other than my friends Samir and Christa, these were particularly Kim Ho Dong from Korea and Isen Togan from Turkey, as well as Professor Dani, as we all called him, when he was not ceremonially or otherwise busy. I used their input for my 15 minute talk on "The Centrality of Central Asia" at our closing conference with 40 other speakers at Urumqui, and after I returned home to help me write a 65 page paper under the same title. Moreover, having now "been there" or at least along 4-5000 km of it all, I now "see" and feel totally differently about the whole area than before. Certainly, my paper could never have been written in the same way, or probably at all, without the feel that this trip gave me for Central Asia, its peoples, their history and their future.

- Korla was an anti-climax after beautiful Turfan. Of the local 1000 Buddha caves, we saw only 2. For our benefit apparently, they had only just been emptied of goats, but not yet of what they had left behind, odor and all. Sometimes inadequate local care of cultural relics or sites is in turn used by some as supposed justification for foreign or other outside interference and for the refusal by foreigners to return the treasures they took away during semi-colonial times, as the Chinese now often request. Kucha is run down and troubled as already mentioned. Aksu is as though square and rectangular new brick, mortar and concrete buildings had been put along wide avenues on a Monopoly board. In fact they were all recently put up that way, and no trace is left of what may have remained of this ancient oasis town before the Chinese arrived with their bulldozers and immigrants.


This charming old city was our final overland destination, 5000 km from Xian and 2,300 from Dunhuang, but with side trips we had travelled nearly twice that far. Kashgar lies at the western most end of the Taklamakan Desert and the Tarim Basin, farther West than Alma Ata across the mountains in the Soviet Union. The very predominantly Muslim city lies cradled below 7000+ meter high permanently snow capped peaks of the Tien Shan and the Pamir mountain ranges just before they almost meet. From there, passes lead north- and south-westward toward West and South Asia. If one travels eastward instead, the area presents the fork in the road where you have to chose between the southern and the northern route around the desert. Therefore, Kashgar has been a market center and cultural crossroads since time immemorial. In the late 19th Century, Russian and British consuls played the "Great Game" there of espionage, counter-espionage and intrigues pursuant to their empires' rival ambitions in the area. Their former consulates now are a hotel and a public building.

We went to the bazaar, but not on Sunday market day, and those who wished attended Friday prayer in the huge Mosque. The Chinese who accompanied a TV crew deliberately walked all over the Mosque with their shoes on, when everybody else of course takes them off in a Mosque. I accompanied several Muslim colleagues who participated in the service, including my friend Askarov from Soviet Samarkand, who did so more intensively than others and who was truly mobbed by local admirers just outside the Mosque after the service.

- Only after considerable resistance and with some amendments did the Chinese finally accept a scholarly seminar in Kashgar on the whys and wherefores of the arrival and acceptance in the region, many centuries past, of Islam. A very sensitive subject, apparently. Perhaps for that reason also, our expedition was conveniently lodged in a hotel as far out of town as could possibly be. Heeding the interdiction to rent a bicycle, I went on foot through the back streets and then by donkey taxi along the avenues with two Europeans I had met in the hotel lobby. One said "I-am-a,mapmaker" and the other a free-lance journalist. We went to the Oasis cafe in town, which serves pancakes and all sorts of western junk food for foreign tourists and assorted expatriate adventurers. These two had recently come across the newly re-opened Karakorum pass on the recently built Sino-Pakistani road from Kashmir. At the Oasis and elsewhere and piecing together scant information from various unreliable sources, I gathered that the March-April ethnic disturbances about the construction of a mosque around there had caused dozens of deaths. Moreover, there have been outbreaks since then. Not long ago six Chinese are rumored to have been stabbed to death in a local disco. Later the Chinese authorities sent two emissaries to negotiate, and these reportedly met an untimely death as well. The Old Silk Road is active again: still with the usual trade-cum-smuggling, now of new Soviet made clothing I saw in the bazaar, new fangled audio equipment, and traditional hashish and harder drugs from Pakistan -- and lately apparently also fire arms and some more sophisticated weapons, which the private enterprise of Afghanistani Mujahadin in Pakistan seem to be supplying across the new Karakorum Pass on the Old Silk Road to their Muslim brethren in Kashgar and points east. After shorter hops on Soviet Tupulev jets to Urumqui for our closing seminar and from there back to Bejing, I took a Chinese Boeing 747 home. There, in the in flight complementary copy of the August 20/26 issue of "Bejing Reviewr, I read to my surprise (that they published it, not that they have reason to know) that there is a real prospect of the possible separation of Xinjiang and Tibet from China.

Table of Contents
Personal and Professional
Honors and Memberships
Research Interests
Publications Summary
Recent Publications
ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age
Essays on NATO and Kosovo, 1999 On-line Essays

Andre Gunder Frank website is hosted by The Róbinson Rojas Archive