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Highway adventure

Our intrepid reporter takes a drive through history on the legendary Silk Road

Published on November 21, 2007

Highway adventure

Silk Road

The sun burns hot through both the windshield and my sunglasses. It's as if this is a piece of history that can only be learned the hard way.

The steady drone of the Toyota Vigo's 2.5-litre diesel engine is comforting, and I smile at the recollection that the sound of the diesel turns a lot of people off. Instead, it is the sound of salvation. The road ahead stretches for miles to a featureless horizon, like a movie scene, but the Vigo is no white convertible with red leather. Behind, it stretches to the oblivion from which I've come.

At last, I have found the real "middle of nowhere", and I think about how my mother lit a candle and said a prayer before I left for this trip.

The wind whistles in where the window is cranked down to avoid mist formation on the windshield, and despite the sun the temperature in the Vigo is chilling. I begin to understand the saying: "Cold down to your bones".

The air smells strange, and it nags at me until the walkie-talkie bursts into life and the lead car tells me it's the dead smell of the desert. The vast, forlorn landscape envelops my tiny vehicle, and an occasional gust of wind sweeps across the road. This is an alien land.

I imagine figures in the distance, growing with proximity to become a caravan of camels, plodding across the endless landscape at a measured, predictable pace, laden with goods for far-flung trade. Perhaps the vision comes from the postcard I sent home a few days earlier; images of life as it must have been more than 2,000 years ago, when people believed the earth was flat.

Maybe my mind is playing tricks. I have travelled 600 kilometres in two days, with only five hours' sleep. Once again, the Vigo's commonrail diesel engine assures me it will perform as long it has food in its belly. The fuel gauge shows a half-empty tank - or is it half-full? I guess it depends on your circumstances.

I imagine the days of 221 BC, when the road was controlled by the armies of Emperor Qin, the ruler who first united China. Each one of his male subjects between 17 and 60 had to serve in his army for one year, leaving a harsh military legacy to live on forever in the terracotta warriors of Xi'an.

It was at Xi'an that Toyota began the 5,000km drive down the Silk Road.

The Silk Road

The route that is these days referred to as the Silk Road is a network of interconnected trade routes through different regions of Asia, most of them connecting Xi'an city, in China's Shaanxi province, with regions in Asia Minor and the Mediterranean, extending more than 8,000km over land and sea. Trade along the Silk Road flourished as civilisations developed in China, India, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia and Rome.

As it extends westwards from the commercial centres of northern China, the continental Silk Road divides into northern and southern routes, in order to avoid the Tibetan Plateau. The northern route passes through the Bulgar-Kypchak region. It travels northwest through the Chinese province of Gansu and splits into three further routes, two of them passing north and south of the Taklamakan Desert through modern-day Xinjiang and Kyrgyzstan to rejoin at Kashgar. The other goes north of the Tian Shan Mountains through Turfan and Almaty in what is now southeastern Kazakhstan.

The latter route, with slight diversions, is the one we travelled. Our journey, organised by Toyota, began in Xi'an and took us through Lanzhou, Zhangye, Dunhuang, Hami, Turpan, Urumqi, Yining, Almaty, Shymkent and Tashkent.

The drive

Those who have read my previous stories on driving across borders will be familiar with the magic I feel when travelling on wheels - feeling the changing weather and being among the different cultures.

When it comes to human geography, I must admit to more than my share of ignorance. For instance, I thought China was entirely populated by Han Chinese. I'm now delighted to say that, on that point, I have been enlightened. Xinjiang, an autonomous region of the People's Republic of China through which we travelled, has more than 56 ethnic minorities. It borders the Tibet Autonomous Region, Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. That helps to explain its many cultures.

We spent nine days - most of the trip - crossing Xinjiang, after which our convoy moved into Kazakhstan, finally ending up in Uzbekistan.

The predominant landscape on the Silk Road in China is vast and semi-barren. Because it was October, the weather was none too gentle on Thai-Indian skin, with temperatures as low as minus-1 degree Celsius. Most of us were told to expect warmer temperatures, so being underdressed did not help.

However, driving through the Tian Shan Mountains is an experienced etched upon my soul. After the featureless expanses of Xinjiang, the Tian Shan range was a blissful visual feast, leaving me with a longing to return, someday, to this part of the Silk Road.

Border crossings, bribes and Uzbekistan

If there is one part of this journey where uncertainty still exists, it's at border crossings. What can be a one-hour process can turn into a two-day stay-over at the border, especially if you are crossing with cars.

Now, I'm a strong believer in love being the language of the world. But it was at a few of the border crossings on the Silk Road that another age-old language made itself useful. I refer to the gentle whisper of US-dollar bills. We were, after all, travelling a route where a pocketful of gentle persuasion once meant the difference between life or death.

Our crossing into Kazakhstan from China took more than five tiresome hours. But the Uzbeks did better than that: the rather unpleasant people held us up for almost seven hours. A handful of greenbacks eventually did the trick.

In fact, in Uzbekistan we encountered people who wanted a bribe for nearly everything they were expected to do as a matter of duty.

We were even held up at the airport check-in by people wanting to upgrade our seats to first class with a payment of US$100 (Bt3,400) each. It became so common that I was overjoyed to learn on once occasion that I did not have to bribe a shopkeeper to sell me something.

The Vigo

My experience behind the wheel of a Toyota Vigo now adds up to more than 11,000km, including trips from Thailand to Lijiang, in China, Lijiang to Lhasa, in Tibet, and Thailand to Vietnam and back. Add to these the Silk Road.

The Silk Road trip would have been possible in many other vehicles, but as the kilometres grow, a kind of affinity develops between driver and vehicle, even if you're supposed to retain a journalist's lack of bias.

The Vigo operated without a stutter, even at temperatures way below those it was designed for in Thailand.

Each morning, the engine fired up with a single turn of the key. On the Ecorun, the Vigo managed to cover more than 1,500km on a single tank of fuel. And in low-oxygen areas in the high-altitude zones of Tibet, it performed without a hiccup.

All of this adds up to the Vigo being a great vehicle. Out there "in the middle of nowhere", faith and confidence in your machine means an awful lot.

The Vigo, for me, has it all.

Vijo Varghese

 The Nation

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