The Silk Route 2004

The Captains Choice Tour

by Harry & Iris Matthews

Picture titles

Click on the number to the left of a title to view the image at the current resolution. The numbers refer to the full set of 144 images.


Sydney Harbour Bridge, Australia, in autumn. We joined the tour group at Sydney airport and flew to Beijing via Singapore.


Pagoda at the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China.


Roof details at the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China. Shows statuettes along the ridge lines, decorated roof tiles, and painted eaves.


Guardian lion at the Temple of Heaven, Beijing. This example is interesting for the quality of the finish, and its natural lighting, and the background of trees rather than distracting architecture.


The Gobi desert comes to Beijing. This willow tree at the Summer Palace near Beijing is being blown by a sandstorm that originated in the Gobi desert. The sand accounts for the brown sky.


And then there was light. At the up-market Beijing Hotel – and other hotels we stayed at in China – the room key turned on the lights. It took a while, in the dark, to figure this out the first time.


Jade carving, Beijing, China. Jade was everywhere along the Chinese section of the Silk Route.


View of a fortress on the Great Wall north of Beijing. Relatively accessible – see all the people – this section of the Great Wall was nevertheless very emotionally moving as we climbed it, mingling with Chinese tourists, and thought of the enormous construction costs in lives and  manual labour.


The Great Wall continues. As we climbed higher, the crowds thinned. The Wall itself continued for thousands of kilometers to where we re-joined it many days later in Jiayuguan. Although the Wall itself is not large enough to be seen from space, its shadow at dawn or dusk is large enough and some astronauts claim to have seen it.


The Great Wall climbs out of the valley fortress, north of Beijing. Flags mark the point where the Great Wall leaves the valley and heads west ….


Detail of tiled roof at the Forbidden City, Beijing, China. Charming little statuettes decorate the ridge line.


A lion cub under its mother’s paw. This guardian lioness in the Forbidden City, Beijing, China, has an unusually well-detailed, and well-lit, cub under her paw.


Sculpture in the Forbidden City, Beijing, China. Is this a dragon or a sea monster? It is carved in stone that slopes up alongside steps leading to an upper level at the Forbidden City.


Closing time at The Forbidden City, Beijing, China. Tourists with long shadows heading across the courtyard with a pagoda behind. Notice the huge area of brick paving.


All aboard for points west. Harry in our Chinese Oriental Express train compartment at a Beijing station. The train seen through the window looked very similar to ours, from the outside. Notice the electrical power outlet at the far left powering the laptop computer. Compartment power was a great luxury that we sorely missed on “The Rus” train later.


Another guardian lion. Although not as detailed or well-finished as the previous lions, its stance and expression are exceptionally powerful. Paradoxically, it guards the Peony Plaza Hotel in Luoyang, China, where Westerners would expect a welcoming aspect.


Lanterns and high rise construction in Luoyang, China. Infrastructure development was rampant throughout the Chinese section of the Silk Route, from impressive cell ‘phone coverage to tree planting alongside the railway. Is there an analogy with the Americans pushing west a couple of centuries ago?


A beautiful street display of Chinese lanterns in Luoyang, China.


Is this an Internet café? High technology lurks in a traditional shop front in Luoyang, China. Along the Silk Route, we saw new ideas leaping over twentieth century technologies. Internet café’s were more common than telephone boxes. In Bukhara, we – and the hotel management – failed to make a telephone connection to England although the email worked without a hitch.


Peony flower, Luoyang, China. Luoyang is known to the Chinese as the peony capital of the world. I can believe it although I wonder if “the world” in this context means China rather in the way that “the world” may mean the USA to Americans, as in” The World Series” for example. China has been “in denial” for centuries about the importance of the rest of the world but is now coming out of that. Let’s hope the next stage is not anger.


Tourists in the botanical gardens, Luoyang, China. Chinese tourists love to photograph themselves by monuments and other sights. Here, Iris and I were honored to have our photograph taken in this traditional format. I just wish we knew what the writing means.


Portrait of a leader. The tour group doctor and tour escort, Mark Shaw, in conversation with two of our group (Howard and Chigusa Welsh) at the Longmen caves, near Luoyang, China.


Longmen Caves, near Luoyang, China. These extensive Buddhist caves with their carvings and paintings foreshadowed the even greater sights at the Mogau Caves near Dunhuang but did not adequately prepare us for that extraordinary site. However, we could photograph the Longmen Caves so here they are.


Buddha in a cave. One of the Longmen Caves near Luoyang, China. The paintings are better preserved than most of those we saw at the Longmen caves but there are better Buddha carvings.


Carvings in the largest of the Longmen Caves. The tourists in the foreground indicate just how large these carvings are.


Downtrodden person. A detail from the previous picture. Ever felt like this?


Buddha carved from rock. Longmen Caves, Luoyang, China.


The face of enlightenment. A carving of a Buddha at the Longmen Caves, Luoyang, China.


Landscaping the Longmen Caves. Development of facilities at tourist sites was proceeding apace throughout the Chinese section of the Silk Route, although it dissipated somewhat as we went west, especially in Urumqi. Here the irrigation canal on the bottom left provides for an attractive green setting for the Longmen Caves. Can you read the Buddhist influence on the sign? If not, check the next picture.


"Little grass has life, please watch your step". Chinese for "“Keep off the grass"”. What a lot we have to learn in the West.


Reconstructed city walls, Luoyang, China. Luoyang was the capital of China for a while, sometimes called the eastern capital while Xian was the western capital.


The kneeling archer. A terracotta warrior from a Tang Dynasty burial chamber. The colours are much better preserved than in the terracotta warriors that can be seen in their original location, nearby, partly at least due to loss of colour after excavation in the latter. The Chinese are refusing to open a number of known burial chambers in the Xian region until technology has advanced to allow them to be opened without inadvertently damaging the contents. This historical perspective, in which a couple of hundred years delay in opening the tombs doesn’t appear excessive, was difficult for many of our Australian friends to grasp. Not surprising, I suppose, when two centuries is comparable to your country’s entire political life-time.


Street scene in Xian, China. Is the man pulling handcart laughing at us? This picture was taken out of the window of our tourist bus. We did get out on the streets on our own at other times, though.


Entrance to the Forest of Steles museum, Xian, China. The museum contains a remarkable collection of writings carved on large stone tablets making the library reputedly the heaviest in the world. As I sit at my word processor generating HTML for the Web as I write, I’ve stopped complaining about having to type my Ph.D. thesis using carbon paper. Imagine chipping it out character by character in stone! I’d probably think harder about what I was writing.


California redbud shrub in Xian, China. I wonder where it first grew. Although we left Sydney in autumn, we are now transported in time to spring in China.


On top of the city wall, Xian, China. Lanterns and flags replace the guns and of yesteryear and tourists replace the soldiers. Long may it last.


Prayer candles at the Wild Goose pagoda, Xian, China. Like many Japanese, the Buddhist/Taoist Chinese that we met and could talk to often solemnly observed many religious rituals. However, we didn’t see evidence of the obsessive evangelical zeal that makes some forms of other religions so dangerous. Political fervour may be another matter both in China and Central Asia, although we didn’t see obvious security, except in Tashkent, and, of course, border crossings took time.


Street cleaning. Others on our tour group who had visited China years before were very struck by the cleanliness of the areas we went to. Lots of people smoked but they no longer spat on the ground and there was little litter. We did see untidiness from the train – a typical hazard of train travel wherever I’ve been – but being a tourist was otherwise quite sanitary if you avoided most public toilets.


Selling musical wind instruments at the site of the Banpo pre-historic village near Xian, China. The vendor could play the instruments -- Chinese Xun -- and we enjoyed listening to her. Jumping several millennia in time, she also sold CD recordings of music played on these ancient instruments; one CD had modern “pop” music transcribed for the pipes; another had traditional music. We bought the traditional music one, wondering if there was anything on it. It was fine when we played it on our laptop that evening.


Entrance to the terracotta warriors’ site near Xian, China. This site was well prepared for many tourists, although further development of the extensive grounds was proceeding at a rapid pace. Unfortunately, a prolonged power cut prevented us getting our reserved lunch there. We raided the gift shop for ice creams.


Terracotta infantry. Restored infantrymen replaced in their original site. The weapons and chariots were looted during the rebellion that followed the emperor’s death, so everyone is clasping thin air. It’s ironic that the weapons that were supposed to protect the buried emperor were promptly used against his descendants.


Terracotta infantry as they were excavated. They will be painstakingly restored over the next 30 years.


One of the three terracotta warrior chambers that has been opened so far. Note the tourists along the sides, indicating the scale.


Terracotta infantry with horses. Chariots were looted, like the weapons, hence the space behind the horses.


Terracotta infantry close-up showing their individual faces and dress.


Terracotta infantry in armour with traces of the original paint.


Chariot window. These lively window decorations compensate for the looted chariots.


A terracotta horse in need of restoration.


A smoggy morning at Xian railway station. The smog in China was serious, even as far west as Jiayuguan. We did have a reasonably clear day in Beijing following the sandstorm but otherwise visibility was very poor.


Our compartment on the China Orient Express with our attendant at the ready. In China, railway construction was continuing and trains were quite frequent. Our private train had some difficulty fitting in, resulting in changed timetables and unpredictable arrival times. The Rus train in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States – a group of post-USSR countries) and Russia was much more predictable, possibly because of less traffic, or maybe higher priority.


Iris chose the top bunk on the China Orient Express.


Rural China between Xian and Jiayuguan. The main crops here were rape seed for canola oil and winter wheat. This photograph was taken from the moving train.


Rural China between Xian and Jiayuguan. In the high resolution version, you can probably make out a truck on the road at the bottom as well as another part of the railway track. This was also taken from the moving China Orient Express. Notice the slight mistiness in the distance due to smog even this far out of town.


Entrance to the Great Wall Hotel, Jiayuguan, China.


The Jiayuguan fort at the western end of the Great Wall, China.


Joss sticks burning inside the Jiayuguan fort.


Through an archway into the inner part of the Jiayuguan fort. Spring was later here so the trees are just beginning to show green.


A fierce ridge-tile dragon. Notice the individual carvings on the ends of the main roof tiles and the dark red painted wooden beam holding them up.


The Great wall disappearing into the smog on its way to Beijing from Jiayuguan. Taken from the fort.


A Great Wall warrior. Part of a statue in the Great Wall museum, Jiayuguan, China.


Sheep following tracks through the desert. Although it is not obvious from this photograph, the shepherd only had the use of one leg. Notice the typical mixture of sheep and goats in the flock.


The western end of the Great Wall, near Jiayuguan, China. Similar overall design to the eastern part of the Great Wall but with different building materials and on a smaller scale.


The western end of the Great Wall, near Jiayuguan, China. The Chinese have been populating western China with Han Chinese by moving them west from eastern China – several of our local tour guides in China’s west had arrived that way, or their parents had. However, it is still pretty deserted out here.


Crossing the Gobi desert. The white stuff is snow – a rare event in this dry area west of Jiayuguan, China.


The market in the Dunhuang oasis on the edge of the Taklamakan desert, China. We got here by a 2-hour bus ride through the desert from the nearest railway station. Unlike the stony gravel of the Gobi, the Taklamakan is a true sand desert. Its water comes from the mountains to the east leading to varied local produce as seen here. It’s spring-time so most of the produce is dried; the apricots are particularly well known.


Biscuits for sale in the Dunhuang market, China. No chance of them going soggy in this dry desert climate.


Shoe-cleaning services are alive and well on the street in Dunhuang. The chairs are currently occupied by members of our tour group but there are so few tourists here that the cleaners must serve local travellers as well. It wasn’t so smoggy here; the apparent mistiness in the distance is more because the picture was taken against the light.


Dried noodles in the market, Dunhuang, China.


Fresh fish for sale in the market, Dunhuang, China. Iris caught the movement of the fish and the expression on the vendor’s face beautifully.


Tea and other dried goods, Dunhuang market, China.


The sand dunes in the Taklamakan desert. This is a few miles outside Dunhuang. The dunes rise up to 5000 feet from their base. At high resolution, you can just make out some tiny climbers on top of the dune on the left.


Singing sands. Visitors climb the steps and then toboggan down. You can see steps on both the right and the left of the photograph and toboggan tracks in the middle. According to the guidebook, the sands appear to sing as one descends. Notice the yurt (large round tent) at the bottom – we’ll see more yurts later, in the Uzbeck Autonomous region of China.


Many tourists took short camel rides from the base of the dunes up to Crescent Lake. It was bitterly cold when we arrived and Iris and I opted for the tram ride. Many of our tour group took the camels and survived, although one was almost tipped off by her recalcitrant mount.


Camels in conversation. Waiting to take visitors back down.


Pagoda at Crescent Lake, near Dunhuang, China. The trees are just beginning to think about coming into leaf.


A decorative steel panel in the fence around Crescent Lake near Dunhuang, China. The yellow colour appeared to be lichen.


Crescent lake, near Dunhuang, China. We trudged across the sand from the dropping off point for the tram and camels to find this incongruous lake in the middle of the sand dunes. Apparently, the continuous shifting of the sands avoids this small lake which has been here for hundreds of years, at least


Shifting sands; shifting fortunes. This tree in the sand dunes of the Taklamakan desert was not spared by the shifting sands, unlike the Crescent Lake, not far away.


The dunes from the road as we walked back to the busses. As we often found throughout China, the tourist parking area was 10 to 15 minutes walk from the entrance to the attraction itself. Taklamakan desert near Dunhuang, China.


Mogau caves. This unlikely cliff face in the Taklamakan desert near Dunhuang houses one of the main highlights of the Silk Route. Nearly 500 caves have been carved by Buddhist monks into the cliff face over the millennium from 400 to 1400 and although they have suffered from sandstorms, they appear to have been little touched by the military and political upheavals of the last 600 years. They were looted, however, by European archaeologists at the beginning of the twentieth century. The small museum on the site is devoted to pictures from Western European museums of richly decorated manuscripts and carvings torn from the caves. We were privileged to see inside ten of the caves where we marveled at the scale, detail, and sheer beauty of these monuments to Buddhism almost literally buried in the Taklamakan desert. What an example of the human spirit rising above its surroundings!


Dawn over the Tien Shan Mountains. The Tien Shan Mountains rise to 25,000 feet above sea level, nearly as high as the Himalayas to the south. The Tien Shan Mountains form the northern edge of the Taklamakan desert in China and plunge westwards through Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan dominating the life of the region.


Grape vines in Turpan, China. Turpan lies in the lowest waterless depression in the world. It is an oasis in the northern part of the Taklamakan desert. It has been irrigated for centuries by a system, called karez, of underground canals that feed water from the Tien Shan Mountains in the north. It is most famous for its grapes, seen here growing in their irrigation ditches.


Detail of the grapes with their spring leaves in Turpan, China.


The ventilated buildings used to dry the grapes to make raisins in Turpan, China.


Raisins for sale. The customers in the picture are from our tour group.


A very young saleswoman. Turpan, China.


Posing for her photograph. We asked our guide about the meaning of the “V” sign but didn’t really get an answer.


Daughter of one of the vendors in the market.


Ruins of the ancient city of Jiaohe, near Turpan, China. This abandoned prehistoric city is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site but we were able to explore it freely. It’s huge and we got away from the tour group and experienced the history of these complex and evocative ruins.


Example of mud and brick construction at the pre-historic ruins at Jiaohe, near Turpan, China.


Light and dark on the old mud bricks at Jiaohe, near Turpan, China.


Emin minaret, Turpan, China.


Spring flowers in the gardens of the Emin minaret, Turpan, China.


Decorative brickwork on the side of the Emin minaret, seen through a window in the attached mosque.


Ancient wooden door in the mosque at the Emin minaret, Turpan, China.


Yurts in the Tien Shan Mountains near Urumqi.


Inside a yurt. As you can see from my clothes, it was cold outside. However, it was warm in the yurt due to a heater inside the doorway and the felt insulation on walls and ceiling.


Brightly decorated interior of a yurt. The interior makes a sharp contrast to the utilitarian exterior.


Changing trains at the border, Alashankou, China. We moved across the platform from the China Orient Express, shown, to “The Rus” on the other side of the platform. Notice the luggage handcart. It took all day to negotiate these 5 metres because of the border formalities.


A Moslem cemetery in the Kazakhstan steppes. Taken from the train between Alashankou, China and Almaty, Kazakhstan.


Zenkhov Cathedral, Almaty, Kazakhstan. Built of wood about a hundred years ago it is said to be the largest of its kind.


A memorial to those who died in the second world war, Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The dappled effect is due to reflection s from a pool out of sight below. The inscription is in English on the hidden side, across from the Russian version. It says: “May the memory of those who have fallen for freedom of their country live for ever!” Actually, they generally fell defending Russia, as part of the USSR.


Steam locomotive in the train museum, Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Our train, “The Rus” was pulled by a much more prosaic diesel-electric engine.


Registan Square, Samarqand, Uzbekistan. Ulug Beg’s medresseh showing the façade from the side at evening. A medresseh seems to be part monastery, part University, and a central part of Molsem practice.


Dome of Ulug Beg’s medresseh in Registan Square, Samarqand, Uzbekistan.


Minaret and dome of Ulug Beg’s medresseh at evening, Samarqand, Uzbekistan.


Interior of mosque dome, Registan Square, Samarqand, Uzbekistan.


Courtyard of a medresseh in Registan Square, Samarqand, Uzbekistan. The original monks’ rooms are now being used by local artisans who create their products and sell them. The picture shows carpets and paintings as examples.


Beautiful tiled dome of Gur Emir Mausoleum, Samarqand, Uzbekistan.


Dramatic tile patterns, Gur Emir Mausoleum, Samarqand, Uzbekistan.


Uzbek girl who sold us some postcards. She put on the sunglasses especially for the photograph. Samarqand, Uzbekistan.


Unrestored dome in the Shakh-i-Zindah necropolis, Samarqand, Uzbekistan. Shows grass growing on the dome and areas where the tiles have fallen off. Still has a presence, though.


Gypsy Girl near the Saminid Mausoleum in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.


Saminid Mausoleum in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.


Ornate brickwork at the Saminid Mausoleum in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.


Interior of the dome of the Saminid Mausoleum in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.


The "loaded" sheep. He has everything, horns, fat tail, and normal tail. Photographed in a park in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.


Gate and walls of the “Ark” fortress of Bukhara, Uzbekistan.


Colourful women’s dress in Uzbekistan. Photographed in Bukhara.


Massive forts along the wall of the Ark in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.


Colourful hats for sale inside the Ark, Bukhara, Uzbekistan.


Tea cosies for sale with thoughtful vendor. In the Ark, Bukhara, Uzbekistan


Khauz Mosque entrance with ornate tiling. Bukhara, Uzbekistan.


Tiled lettering in the Khauz Mosque, Bukhara, Uzbekistan.


Khauz Mosque and courtyard through an archway, Bukhara, Uzbekistan.


Brick ceilinged archways like a cloister, Khauz Mosque, Bukhara, Uzbekistan.


Dome through an archway, Khauz Mosque, Bukhara, Uzbekistan.


Khauz Mosque, Bukhara, Uzbekistan.


Tile detail from the Khauz Mosque, Bukhara, Uzbekistan. The animal and bird forms and the human face on the sun are unusual on Muslim architecture which is normally limited to abstract patterns.


Cheerful face on a statue in a park in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.


Detail from the interior walls of the Khan’s Summer Palace, Bukhara, Uzbekistan.


Pottery, hats, and fabrics for sale in the grounds of the Khan’s Summer Palace, Bukhara, Uzbekistan. The beautiful pottery lying on the ground surprised us. Some of it is on carpet but not all.


Local arts and crafts for sale in the grounds of the Khan’s Summer Palace, Bukhara, Uzbekistan. The vendor’s dress is striking, although not as colourful as most.


Exquisitely carved wooden door and brass ring at the Khan’s Summer Palace, Bukhara, Uzbekistan.


The atrium in the huge Friday Mosque, Bukhara, Uzbekistan.


A wet morning in Khiva, Uzbekistan.


Ruins of a flour mill left as a symbol of the siege of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in the Second World War. A modern monument can be seen in the background – a tall white tower with a man cleaning it at the very top.


Huge “Mother Russia" statue, Volgograd, Russia.


Decorated golden domes in the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia.


Part of the Kremlin and its walls, Moscow, Russia.


Interior of the G.U.M. department store, Red Square, Moscow, Russia


Perspective. Interior of the G.U.M. department store, Red Square, Moscow, Russia.


Domes of St. Basil’s cathedral, Red Square, Moscow, Russia.


Back of St. Basil’s cathedral, Red Square, Moscow, Russia.

Link to (home page)

© Copyright 2003-15 Harry Matthews.