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May 6 -24, 2006

“Don’t believe what they say.  Go see for yourself.”  old Chinese saying

The “Silk Road” is not one road but many trade routes traversing the vast desert and mountain regions between Xian and the Mediterranean. Silk was the commodity most desired by westerners and was itself a form of currency used by Chinese emperors to acquire jade, lapis lazuli, delicately colored glass, and gold. Knowledge, religion and philosophy were traded as well.  The Mongols united most of Asia allowing Marco Polo with his father and uncle, merchants from Venice, to travel in relative safety to China in late medieval times.

This tour takes travelers along two major routes north and south of the forbidding Taklamakan Desert.   We follow the Karakorum highway to see the sweep of the high Pamirs and return before the last long stretch to Pakistan.  After two weeks in the far northwest of China, we shift gears and experience classical China and modern advances in the Shanghai region along the East China Sea.  Mary Fletcher led one of the first tourist groups allowed into China’s Silk Road when China’s northwest region opened in 1984.  While her focus is on textiles and cultural arts, her geologist husband, Dwight Deal, brings the added dimension of natural history.  Spouses or friends of the textile enthusiast may choose to join Dwight at times for different explorations. 

Flight: Cathay Pacific departs LAX in the late evening of May 6, flying into May 7th.  We cross the International Dateline to arrive in Hong Kong early on the morning of May 8.  A connecting flight takes us on to Xian.  

Xian: Once China's capital, Xian is the starting or ending point for caravans that braved the perils of the Silk Road.  Tour highlights include the well preserved Xian City Wall constructed in 1370s, the tomb of Qin Shihuang with its extensive army of terra cotta warriors and horses, the provincial museum that records the incomparable Tang Dynasty along with art and artifacts that trace the long history of this central region.  Two treats include a feast of dumplings and a show that presents the costumes of the Tang Dynasty.   3 nights

Urumqi: The capital of China's most western province is the most inland city in the world.     Huge mosques are still in use.  The extraordinary “Mummies of Urumqi” are housed in the region’s museum. The dry desert has preserved their bodies, and even more remarkably, their clothing, for 2000 to 4000 years.  The museum offers an excellent introduction to the Silk Road, and Dwight will provide a background on the natural history of the region.  1night

Khotan: A one-hour flight offers a panorama of the formidable Taklamakan Desert (less daunting from the sky than from atop a camel in a windstorm). It was said of travelers that “He who enters will not return."  On the Southern Silk Route is a series of oasis towns, and we land at Khotan, once a major Buddhist kingdom.  Khotan was the first place outside China to learn the art of silk-making, the seeds of mulberry trees and the silkworms themselves being concealed in the head-dress of a Chinese princess who came to marry a Khotani king. Visit the Silk and Mulberry Research Center and a family compound that carries out every step of silk making and weaving of ikat.  Khotan is also famous for its jade.  Also see sites of ancient ruins.   3 nights

Yarkand: Our chartered bus takes us west along the Southern Silk Route.  The road is a ribbon through the desert with the oasis town of Yarkand en route.  It has lost its glory but is still well known in the region.  We stop to see the tomb of a Yarkand king and enjoy the town shops, then continue to our destination further west.   En route

Kashgar: Kashgar has long thrived as the junction of routes north and south around the Taklamakan from Tibet, India, Afghanistan and Russia.   Its Bazaar lives up to its fame, and the fifteen century Id Kah Mosque is the largest in China, able to serve 21,000 worshippers on festival days.  The essence of an old worldly Asia is felt as one walks along the streets and into markets, though life is now more modern than primitive.  The surrounding country rises to the high Pamirs as we travel one day along the Karakorum Highway that leads to Pakistan.  We stop at 12,000 ft to enjoy Lake Karakuli and the snow-crested mountains, ride camels if desired, and after lunch return to Kashgar with a better idea of how caravans might have made their way to the next land beyond.  If one prefers to stay in Kashgar, other activities can be arranged.    3 nights

Urumqi: A travel day and relaxing stroll through People’s Park, a good way to learn about the culture and clothing unique to the local minority groups.  This is a Turkic city, home of the Uighur people and 12 other ethnic minorities.  Also visit a carpet factory.   1 night

Dunhuang: At the juncture of the northern and southern trade routes, we jump at the chance for a sunset ride on a camel to Mingsha Dune or to the nearby tea house at Crescent Moon Lake.  Alternative transportation is available to accommodate anyone who wants the view but not the camel.  On the cultural side, we enter the famous grottoes, tagged an Art Gallery in the Desert, to see well preserved Buddhist cave art.  An inspired monk dug the first cave in AD 366 and others followed for 11 centuries, creating one thousand caves of which 492 remain.  Most of the art was commissioned by wealthy local leaders or by members of caravans to paint elaborate scenes on the dry clay walls.   1 night

Suzhou: We shift east to a “heavenly” place, known for the beauty of its women and the quality of its silk.  In less than an hour’s train ride from Shanghai we experience Suzhou.  Master gardens (a replica of the Humble Administrator’s Garden is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York), philosophers, and the cultural arts flourish in this “Venice of the East”.  Silk is what drew traders along the Grand Canal in the 12th century to pluck China’s best exports.  We delve into this history at the interactive Silk Museum, examine the modern silk process at the Silk Factory, and are in awe of the master talent at the Embroidery Institute famous for its double-sided embroidery.  An evening of cultural performances throughout the Garden of the Master of Nets is rich with the beauty of the Orient.   3 nights

Shanghai: Majestic and gleaming with its architectural transformation that occurred in the 1990s, Shanghai is again the Pearl of the Orient.  It was the favorite of many foreign settlers from countries that set up “concessions” following the Opium War of 1840, and it gained its notorious reputation in the 1920s when triads and pimps held sway.  In earlier centuries, merchants plied their trade from this port on the East China Sea, and today financiers are instrumental in propelling this city to the top of the economic zones.  The Shanghai Museum structure reflects modern advancements while exhibits inside highlight 4000 years of achievement.   Old Town keeps its charm and true historic sights while integrating reproductions to expand the area for more guests. A Farewell Dinner and acrobatic show ends our journey to China’s Silk Road & Silk Production.   1 night

Travelers fly home or chose to extend their trip to other areas of China and the Orient.

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