A Silk Road Story

September 24, 2007

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Apak Hoja Mausoleum I have just returned from five weeks of travel in the remote part of China known as the Silk Road. It was both exhausting and fascinating. The Silk Road is the overland route of Marco Polo - a series of oasis towns scattered along the outskirts of the vast - and frightening –Taklamakan Desert in western China. The Silk Road was a major thoroughfare for trade in ancient and medieval times. When Marco Polo traveled from Venice to the court of Kublai Kahn via the route in the 1270s, it was already 1,500 years old.

The translation for Taklamakan is "you enter and never return." With the highest shifting sands of any desert in the world, virtually no vegetation, and extreme temperatures it is a forbidding, harsh land – one of the most inhospitable places on earth. At the desert's edge, glacial melt water from the mountains feeds a string of oases where Silk Road caravans once stopped to rest and trade.

Market in Kashgar Many towns and kingdoms have tried to endure in this fierce desert and scorching heat and exceptional treasures from the lost, ruined settlements have been unearthed in this arid, forbidding desert. Excavation projects stretch into years as teams of archaeologists are able to explore the sites only one month a year – in October when the fierce windstorms ebb lowest.

Why was I here? I asked myself this often enough. A friend was going to the Silk Road on an expedition to collect primitive and antique shoes for the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. This once-in-a-lifetime trip to a distant place appealed to me and so my brother Brad and I joined our collector friend on this expedition.

Windows at the Id Kah Mosque I had never traveled to Asia and rarely to such an inhospitable environment. It often hurt to stand in the sun and feel the dust sifting into my eyes. I usually felt thirsty and anxious. I was dehydrated and slightly desperate about surviving. My awareness that life could not be naturally sustained in this place was close to the surface every moment. However, my journey to the rugged Silk Road was full of surprises.

Life at the edge of the desert and in the oasis towns is full of bustling activity – even as the encroaching wind howls and the sand blows. Existing on the fringes on this hostile place is the vibrant life of the Islamic inhabitants known as Uyghurs. Along the sides of the roads we would pass dozens of donkey carts full of melons, or goats or family members or all together. In the city markets of Kashgar, craftspeople sat at work creating copper teapots, clay vessels, iron hardware, making felt hats, building musical instruments and weaving silk. At the Nine Springs well, women collect water for their families and life looks much as it did 2000 years ago.

Ruins of Stone City How can human life survive alongside the indomitable, vast presence of the ever-shifting desert? I saw it not only surviving, but thriving, with a vibrancy that was if anything strengthened by the constant struggle. In that place I had a strong feeling of God’s presence in everything I saw; the harsh desert and people determined to make the most of their lives there. In this forbidding environment I saw people finding joy in their work, in their families and simply in being alive. In everything, everywhere resided the presence of God and a place for the spirit.

Sarah Hall is a stained glass artist who lives in Toronto, Ontario.  She is the co-author (with Bob Shantz) of Windows On Our Souls: A Spiritual Excavation(Ottawa, Ontario: Novalis, 2007) ISBN 978-2-89507-841-8.

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