It’s hard to say where Central Asia begins and ends, but this photo from Dunhuang—a former Silk Road town in western China—captures the start of my trip as good as any.
I stopped in Dunhuang to check out the old Buddhist cave art at Mogao, but it was the massive sand dunes sloshing all over the edge of town that left me absolutely gobsmacked. They’re called the Mingsha Shan dunes and they dominate Dunhuang’s southern edge like a fine powder dropped from the sky, giving the city the nickname Shazhou, or “Town of Sand.”
I arrived dumbfounded at the foot of these enormous dunes, and they seemed to signal the road ahead. I had decided to approach Central Asia by crossing the Taklamakan Dessert (it’s the world’s largest sand desert after the Sahara), and the Mingsha Shan dunes at Dunhuang were just the start of what was to come.
Dunhuang is an appropriate start for my trip for another reason: because the history of Central Asia is inseparable from the history of the ancient Silk Road. As Beckwith points out in Empires of the Silk Road, the region’s fortunes have risen and fallen with that of the caravan trade that moved tea, spices, silk and other products across continents and fueled Eurasian commerce for so much of history. Central Asia flowered with the Silk Road and withered when it declined and was eventually replaced by European maritime trade.
Dunhuang, one among many important Silk Road cities, was arguably the first major depot west of the ancient Chinese capital of Chang’an (Xi’an). From Dunhuang, “Northern” and “Southern” routes entered what is now the Muslim-dominated Chinese province of Xinjiang, where caravans circled the Taklamakan Dessert and met again in Kashgar before pushing into Central Asia.
Dunhuang was very much a gateway city, and in many ways leaving it felt like leaving China. Never mind that I flew into Beijing a week before, raced across Inner Mongolia by train, ate noodles at Zhangye and hat drank volumes of strange teas prior to that point. It was in Dunhuang that I began to feel the gravity of Central Asia, and so that’s where my trip began.