China 中国

Kashgar 喀什

Few places conjure up the myths and legends of the Silk Road quite like Kashgar. Located on the western edge of Xinjiang province, it is one of the iconic towns of Silk Road lore. The town was the gateway for Chinese traders heading for the markets of Central Asia and an essential stop-over for those travelling in the opposite direction. Seen here is the Id Kah Mosque in the historic centre of Kashgar.

Kashgar, ancient Silk Road trading hub

I arrived in Kashgar after a six hour minibus ride from an even more remote town in Xinjiang called Tashkurgan; the first town one encounters after crossing the border from northern Pakistan through the Khunjerab pass – the highest paved border crossing in the world.

Few places conjure up the myths and legends of the Silk Road quite like Kashgar. Located on the western edge of Xinjiang province, it is one of the iconic towns of Silk Road lore. The town was the gateway for Chinese traders heading for the markets of Central Asia and an essential stop-over for those travelling in the opposite direction. The legacy of this mercantile exchange is a strikingly diverse population. There are over 31 nationalities residing in the Kashgar area, including Uyghur, Hui, Tajik, Khalkhas, Uzbek, Kazak, Russ, Mongol, Manchu, Han and Tatar. The majority are Muslim.

Having dreamt for years about visiting Kashgar, it was a wonderful moment to finally reach it. The three days I spend there were amongst the most enjoyable I have spent anywhere. Much of the city is very walkable and the people were extremely welcoming. I took more portraits here than anywhere else I visited on my journey across Eurasia.

Whilst much of Kashgar’s old town has sadly been destroyed in recent years to make way for a new ‘old town’, the streets are still bustle. Traders, cooks, musicians, and a variety of artisans can be found all about the centre of town and at its famous bazaar.

I wish I could have seen the old city myself. I hope in some small way these photos capture some of the spirit of that place.

Leaving Tashkurgan, the first Chinese town after crossing the border from Pakistan, on route to Kashgar.
The road from Tashkurgan to Kashgar. These mountains are part of the Pamir mountain range.
The Pamir Mountain range in western China
Pit-stop on the road to Kashgar. Most of the inhabitants of western Xinjiang province part of an Turkic minority ethnic group originating from and culturally affiliated with the general region of Central and East Asia. This lady is wearing a traditional Tajik hat.
Unusual rock formations on the road to Kashgar
Kashgar’s new ‘old town’. Much of Kashgar’s original old town has been demolished in recent years and been replaced by an ‘old style’ new old town.
Three ladies hanging out on a street corner
A man wearing a traditional hat
A young woman
Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
A man in a traditional hat
A man in a traditional hat
A shop in Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
A woman wearing a traditional Central Asian print dress
A shopkeeper
Items for sale
An antiques dealer from Pakistan (left) negotiating with a shopkeeper (right). I travelled with the antiques dealer from Sost in Pakistan. We sat together in the front seat of the mini-bus that took us from Sost in Pakistan to Tashkurgan in China. We bumped into each other by chance in Kashgar.
A man in a traditional hat
A man in a traditional hat
Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
A man making traditional Tajik bread
A man making traditional Tajik bread
Flavouring the bread with onions and various spices
Baking traditional Tajik bread
The Id Kah Mosque, the largest mosque in China. Every Friday, it houses nearly 10,000 worshippers and may accommodate up to 20,000.The mosque was built by Saqsiz Mirza in 1442 (although it incorporated older structures dating back to 996) and covers 16,800 square meters.
The Id Kah Mosque
A minaret from the Id Kah Mosque
A man playing a Dutar. The dutar is widely used at family gatherings and celebrations. ‘Dutar’ means ‘two strings’. It is a musical instrument played with the fingers.
Two young women wearing identical clothes – are they twins?
A blacksmith
Phone time
A young shopkeeper
Portrait of a young woman
A shopkeeper lady
A silhouette in Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
A silhouette in Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
A shopkeeper
Noodles for lunch
A young woman playing with a kitten
A street artist
His portrait of her
Pigeons fly circles around a minaret
An old man
Two shopkeepers in discussion
A shopkeeper
A metalsmith
A man selling wares at the bazaar
Kashgar’s Grand Bazaar
A shopkeeper at the bazaar
A man at the bazaar
Men at the bazaar
An old man in a traditional Kashgar hat at the bazaar
A cook making hand pulled noodles at the bazaar
A cook making hand pulled noodles at the bazaar
A cook serving Laghman at the bazaar. Laghman is a Central Asian dish of pulled noodles, meat and vegetables.
A cook serving Laghman at the bazaar. Laghman is a Central Asian dish of pulled noodles, meat and vegetables.
A barber at work in the bazaar
A barber at work in the bazaar
A shopkeeper at the bazaar
A shopkeeper at the bazaar
A barber giving face massage at the bazaar
A barber giving face massage at the bazaar
Preparing food at the bazaar
Preparing food at the bazaar
The Afāq Khoja Mausoleum. The mausoleum is one of the holiest Muslim sites in Kashgar.
You’re not wrong.
Architectural details from the Afāq Khoja Mausoleum.
The train from Kashgar to Urumqi; an 18 hour journey along the northern rim of the Taklamakan desert.
Looking out on the Taklamakan desert, the view for 18 hours.

Kashgar 喀什

The legacy of this mercantile exchange is a strikingly diverse population. There are over 31 nationalities residing in the Kashgar area, including Uyghur, Hui, Tajik, Khalkhas, Uzbek, Kazak, Russ, Mongol, Manchu, Han and Tatar. The majority are Muslim. Here is a selection of portraits of some of the people encountered in the city centre and at its famous bazaar.

Kashgar, ancient Silk Road trading hub

I arrived in Kashgar after a six hour minibus ride from an even more remote town in Xinjiang called Tashkurgan; the first town one encounters after crossing the border from northern Pakistan through the Khunjerab pass – the highest paved border crossing in the world.

Few places conjure up the myths and legends of the Silk Road quite like Kashgar. Located on the western edge of Xinjiang province, it is one of the iconic towns of Silk Road lore. The town was the gateway for Chinese traders heading for the markets of Central Asia and an essential stop-over for those travelling in the opposite direction. The legacy of this mercantile exchange is a strikingly diverse population. There are over 31 nationalities residing in the Kashgar area, including Uyghur, Hui, Tajik, Khalkhas, Uzbek, Kazak, Russ, Mongol, Manchu, Han and Tatar. The majority are Muslim.

Having dreamt for years about visiting Kashgar, it was a wonderful moment to finally reach it. The three days I spend there were amongst the most enjoyable I have spent anywhere. Much of the city is very walkable and the people were extremely welcoming. I took more portraits here than anywhere else I visited on my journey across Eurasia.

Whilst much of Kashgar’s old town has sadly been destroyed in recent years to make way for a new ‘old town’, the streets are still bustle. Traders, cooks, musicians, and a variety of artisans can be found all about the centre of town and at its famous bazaar.

I wish I could have seen the old city myself. I hope in some small way these photos capture some of the spirit of that place.

Leaving Tashkurgan, the first Chinese town after crossing the border from Pakistan, on route to Kashgar.
The road from Tashkurgan to Kashgar. These mountains are part of the Pamir mountain range.
The Pamir Mountain range in western China
Pit-stop on the road to Kashgar. Most of the inhabitants of western Xinjiang province part of an Turkic minority ethnic group originating from and culturally affiliated with the general region of Central and East Asia. This lady is wearing a traditional Tajik hat.
Unusual rock formations on the road to Kashgar
Kashgar’s new ‘old town’. Much of Kashgar’s original old town has been demolished in recent years and been replaced by an ‘old style’ new old town.
Three ladies hanging out on a street corner
A man wearing a traditional hat
A young woman
Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
A man in a traditional hat
A man in a traditional hat
A shop in Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
A woman wearing a traditional Central Asian print dress
A shopkeeper
Items for sale
An antiques dealer from Pakistan (left) negotiating with a shopkeeper (right). I travelled with the antiques dealer from Sost in Pakistan. We sat together in the front seat of the mini-bus that took us from Sost in Pakistan to Tashkurgan in China. We bumped into each other by chance in Kashgar.
A man in a traditional hat
A man in a traditional hat
Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
A man making traditional Tajik bread
A man making traditional Tajik bread
Flavouring the bread with onions and various spices
Baking traditional Tajik bread
The Id Kah Mosque, the largest mosque in China. Every Friday, it houses nearly 10,000 worshippers and may accommodate up to 20,000.The mosque was built by Saqsiz Mirza in 1442 (although it incorporated older structures dating back to 996) and covers 16,800 square meters.
The Id Kah Mosque
A minaret from the Id Kah Mosque
A man playing a Dutar. The dutar is widely used at family gatherings and celebrations. ‘Dutar’ means ‘two strings’. It is a musical instrument played with the fingers.
Two young women wearing identical clothes – are they twins?
A blacksmith
Phone time
A young shopkeeper
Portrait of a young woman
A shopkeeper lady
A silhouette in Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
A silhouette in Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
A shopkeeper
Noodles for lunch
A young woman playing with a kitten
A street artist
His portrait of her
Pigeons fly circles around a minaret
An old man
Two shopkeepers in discussion
A shopkeeper
A metalsmith
A man selling wares at the bazaar
Kashgar’s Grand Bazaar
A shopkeeper at the bazaar
A man at the bazaar
Men at the bazaar
An old man in a traditional Kashgar hat at the bazaar
A cook making hand pulled noodles at the bazaar
A cook making hand pulled noodles at the bazaar
A cook serving Laghman at the bazaar. Laghman is a Central Asian dish of pulled noodles, meat and vegetables.
A cook serving Laghman at the bazaar. Laghman is a Central Asian dish of pulled noodles, meat and vegetables.
A barber at work in the bazaar
A barber at work in the bazaar
A shopkeeper at the bazaar
A shopkeeper at the bazaar
A barber giving face massage at the bazaar
A barber giving face massage at the bazaar
Preparing food at the bazaar
Preparing food at the bazaar
The Afāq Khoja Mausoleum. The mausoleum is one of the holiest Muslim sites in Kashgar.
You’re not wrong.
Architectural details from the Afāq Khoja Mausoleum.
The train from Kashgar to Urumqi; an 18 hour journey along the northern rim of the Taklamakan desert.
Looking out on the Taklamakan desert, the view for 18 hours.

Kashgar 喀什

Some portraits of the people encountered around the city centre.

Kashgar, ancient Silk Road trading hub

I arrived in Kashgar after a six hour minibus ride from an even more remote town in Xinjiang called Tashkurgan; the first town one encounters after crossing the border from northern Pakistan through the Khunjerab pass – the highest paved border crossing in the world.

Few places conjure up the myths and legends of the Silk Road quite like Kashgar. Located on the western edge of Xinjiang province, it is one of the iconic towns of Silk Road lore. The town was the gateway for Chinese traders heading for the markets of Central Asia and an essential stop-over for those travelling in the opposite direction. The legacy of this mercantile exchange is a strikingly diverse population. There are over 31 nationalities residing in the Kashgar area, including Uyghur, Hui, Tajik, Khalkhas, Uzbek, Kazak, Russ, Mongol, Manchu, Han and Tatar. The majority are Muslim.

Having dreamt for years about visiting Kashgar, it was a wonderful moment to finally reach it. The three days I spend there were amongst the most enjoyable I have spent anywhere. Much of the city is very walkable and the people were extremely welcoming. I took more portraits here than anywhere else I visited on my journey across Eurasia.

Whilst much of Kashgar’s old town has sadly been destroyed in recent years to make way for a new ‘old town’, the streets are still bustle. Traders, cooks, musicians, and a variety of artisans can be found all about the centre of town and at its famous bazaar.

I wish I could have seen the old city myself. I hope in some small way these photos capture some of the spirit of that place.

Leaving Tashkurgan, the first Chinese town after crossing the border from Pakistan, on route to Kashgar.
The road from Tashkurgan to Kashgar. These mountains are part of the Pamir mountain range.
The Pamir Mountain range in western China
Pit-stop on the road to Kashgar. Most of the inhabitants of western Xinjiang province part of an Turkic minority ethnic group originating from and culturally affiliated with the general region of Central and East Asia. This lady is wearing a traditional Tajik hat.
Unusual rock formations on the road to Kashgar
Kashgar’s new ‘old town’. Much of Kashgar’s original old town has been demolished in recent years and been replaced by an ‘old style’ new old town.
Three ladies hanging out on a street corner
A man wearing a traditional hat
A young woman
Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
A man in a traditional hat
A man in a traditional hat
A shop in Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
A woman wearing a traditional Central Asian print dress
A shopkeeper
Items for sale
An antiques dealer from Pakistan (left) negotiating with a shopkeeper (right). I travelled with the antiques dealer from Sost in Pakistan. We sat together in the front seat of the mini-bus that took us from Sost in Pakistan to Tashkurgan in China. We bumped into each other by chance in Kashgar.
A man in a traditional hat
A man in a traditional hat
Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
A man making traditional Tajik bread
A man making traditional Tajik bread
Flavouring the bread with onions and various spices
Baking traditional Tajik bread
The Id Kah Mosque, the largest mosque in China. Every Friday, it houses nearly 10,000 worshippers and may accommodate up to 20,000.The mosque was built by Saqsiz Mirza in 1442 (although it incorporated older structures dating back to 996) and covers 16,800 square meters.
The Id Kah Mosque
A minaret from the Id Kah Mosque
A man playing a Dutar. The dutar is widely used at family gatherings and celebrations. ‘Dutar’ means ‘two strings’. It is a musical instrument played with the fingers.
Two young women wearing identical clothes – are they twins?
A blacksmith
Phone time
A young shopkeeper
Portrait of a young woman
A shopkeeper lady
A silhouette in Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
A silhouette in Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
A shopkeeper
Noodles for lunch
A young woman playing with a kitten
A street artist
His portrait of her
Pigeons fly circles around a minaret
An old man
Two shopkeepers in discussion
A shopkeeper
A metalsmith
A man selling wares at the bazaar
Kashgar’s Grand Bazaar
A shopkeeper at the bazaar
A man at the bazaar
Men at the bazaar
An old man in a traditional Kashgar hat at the bazaar
A cook making hand pulled noodles at the bazaar
A cook making hand pulled noodles at the bazaar
A cook serving Laghman at the bazaar. Laghman is a Central Asian dish of pulled noodles, meat and vegetables.
A cook serving Laghman at the bazaar. Laghman is a Central Asian dish of pulled noodles, meat and vegetables.
A barber at work in the bazaar
A barber at work in the bazaar
A shopkeeper at the bazaar
A shopkeeper at the bazaar
A barber giving face massage at the bazaar
A barber giving face massage at the bazaar
Preparing food at the bazaar
Preparing food at the bazaar
The Afāq Khoja Mausoleum. The mausoleum is one of the holiest Muslim sites in Kashgar.
You’re not wrong.
Architectural details from the Afāq Khoja Mausoleum.
The train from Kashgar to Urumqi; an 18 hour journey along the northern rim of the Taklamakan desert.
Looking out on the Taklamakan desert, the view for 18 hours.

Kashgar 喀什

Some portraits of the people encountered around the city centre.

Kashgar, ancient Silk Road trading hub

I arrived in Kashgar after a six hour minibus ride from an even more remote town in Xinjiang called Tashkurgan; the first town one encounters after crossing the border from northern Pakistan through the Khunjerab pass – the highest paved border crossing in the world.

Few places conjure up the myths and legends of the Silk Road quite like Kashgar. Located on the western edge of Xinjiang province, it is one of the iconic towns of Silk Road lore. The town was the gateway for Chinese traders heading for the markets of Central Asia and an essential stop-over for those travelling in the opposite direction. The legacy of this mercantile exchange is a strikingly diverse population. There are over 31 nationalities residing in the Kashgar area, including Uyghur, Hui, Tajik, Khalkhas, Uzbek, Kazak, Russ, Mongol, Manchu, Han and Tatar. The majority are Muslim.

Having dreamt for years about visiting Kashgar, it was a wonderful moment to finally reach it. The three days I spend there were amongst the most enjoyable I have spent anywhere. Much of the city is very walkable and the people were extremely welcoming. I took more portraits here than anywhere else I visited on my journey across Eurasia.

Whilst much of Kashgar’s old town has sadly been destroyed in recent years to make way for a new ‘old town’, the streets are still bustle. Traders, cooks, musicians, and a variety of artisans can be found all about the centre of town and at its famous bazaar.

I wish I could have seen the old city myself. I hope in some small way these photos capture some of the spirit of that place.

Leaving Tashkurgan, the first Chinese town after crossing the border from Pakistan, on route to Kashgar.
The road from Tashkurgan to Kashgar. These mountains are part of the Pamir mountain range.
The Pamir Mountain range in western China
Pit-stop on the road to Kashgar. Most of the inhabitants of western Xinjiang province part of an Turkic minority ethnic group originating from and culturally affiliated with the general region of Central and East Asia. This lady is wearing a traditional Tajik hat.
Unusual rock formations on the road to Kashgar
Kashgar’s new ‘old town’. Much of Kashgar’s original old town has been demolished in recent years and been replaced by an ‘old style’ new old town.
Three ladies hanging out on a street corner
A man wearing a traditional hat
A young woman
Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
A man in a traditional hat
A man in a traditional hat
A shop in Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
A woman wearing a traditional Central Asian print dress
A shopkeeper
Items for sale
An antiques dealer from Pakistan (left) negotiating with a shopkeeper (right). I travelled with the antiques dealer from Sost in Pakistan. We sat together in the front seat of the mini-bus that took us from Sost in Pakistan to Tashkurgan in China. We bumped into each other by chance in Kashgar.
A man in a traditional hat
A man in a traditional hat
Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
A man making traditional Tajik bread
A man making traditional Tajik bread
Flavouring the bread with onions and various spices
Baking traditional Tajik bread
The Id Kah Mosque, the largest mosque in China. Every Friday, it houses nearly 10,000 worshippers and may accommodate up to 20,000.The mosque was built by Saqsiz Mirza in 1442 (although it incorporated older structures dating back to 996) and covers 16,800 square meters.
The Id Kah Mosque
A minaret from the Id Kah Mosque
A man playing a Dutar. The dutar is widely used at family gatherings and celebrations. ‘Dutar’ means ‘two strings’. It is a musical instrument played with the fingers.
Two young women wearing identical clothes – are they twins?
A blacksmith
Phone time
A young shopkeeper
Portrait of a young woman
A shopkeeper lady
A silhouette in Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
A silhouette in Kashgar’s new ‘old town’
A shopkeeper
Noodles for lunch
A young woman playing with a kitten
A street artist
His portrait of her
Pigeons fly circles around a minaret
An old man
Two shopkeepers in discussion
A shopkeeper
A metalsmith
A man selling wares at the bazaar
Kashgar’s Grand Bazaar
A shopkeeper at the bazaar
A man at the bazaar
Men at the bazaar
An old man in a traditional Kashgar hat at the bazaar
A cook making hand pulled noodles at the bazaar
A cook making hand pulled noodles at the bazaar
A cook serving Laghman at the bazaar. Laghman is a Central Asian dish of pulled noodles, meat and vegetables.
A cook serving Laghman at the bazaar. Laghman is a Central Asian dish of pulled noodles, meat and vegetables.
A barber at work in the bazaar
A barber at work in the bazaar
A shopkeeper at the bazaar
A shopkeeper at the bazaar
A barber giving face massage at the bazaar
A barber giving face massage at the bazaar
Preparing food at the bazaar
Preparing food at the bazaar
The Afāq Khoja Mausoleum. The mausoleum is one of the holiest Muslim sites in Kashgar.
You’re not wrong.
Architectural details from the Afāq Khoja Mausoleum.
The train from Kashgar to Urumqi; an 18 hour journey along the northern rim of the Taklamakan desert.
Looking out on the Taklamakan desert, the view for 18 hours.

Gobi Desert 戈壁

During the days of the ancient Silk Road, caravans of Bactrian camels would have travelled through the Gobi carrying goods intended for sale in distant markets to the west. Today, they carry tourists on desert tours.

The Gobi Desert at Dunhuang

On the edge of the Gobi desert in Central China is the town of Dunhuang. The name Dunhuang means “Blazing Beacon” and refers to the beacons lit to warn of attacks by marauding nomadic tribes during ancient times.

During the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, it was the main stop of communication between China and the rest of the world and a major hub of commerce along the Silk Road.

Dunhuang is most famous for its Mogao Caves or “Caves of a Thousand Buddhas”. Buddhist monks had begun to arrive in China from the West around the first century AD and a sizeable community settled in Dunhuang. In the nearby hills, the monks carved out 735 caves originally for worship and meditation. Over time they became a pilgrimage site. Many are covered with exquisite murals and Buddhist statues. A number of Christian, Jewish, and Manichaean artifacts have also been found in the caves, testimony to the wide variety of people who made their way along the Silk Road. They are quite a sight to behold. Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to take photographs but you can see some here. (Historical information above from Wikipedia).

The Gobi desert is known for its enormous sand dunes which rise like mountains. Thousand of years ago caravans of Bactrian camel would have travelled over these carrying goods intended for sale in distant markets to the west. Those days are long gone but the camels have found new employment. Today, they carry tourists on desert tours.

Dunhuang is also home to a crescent-shaped lake oasis called Yueyaquan. In such a dry and hot place, it is easy to see why Dunhuang was for so many years an essential stop for Silk Road traders and their caravans of camel.

Gobi Desert 戈壁

Travel through the desert was made possible due to oases such as Yueyaquan, near the town of Dunhuang. Access to water contributed to Dunhuang’s strategic importance so that by the 6th century it had become a major hub of commerce along the Silk Road.

The Gobi Desert at Dunhuang

On the edge of the Gobi desert in Central China is the town of Dunhuang. The name Dunhuang means “Blazing Beacon” and refers to the beacons lit to warn of attacks by marauding nomadic tribes during ancient times.

During the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, it was the main stop of communication between China and the rest of the world and a major hub of commerce along the Silk Road.

Dunhuang is most famous for its Mogao Caves or “Caves of a Thousand Buddhas”. Buddhist monks had begun to arrive in China from the West around the first century AD and a sizeable community settled in Dunhuang. In the nearby hills, the monks carved out 735 caves originally for worship and meditation. Over time they became a pilgrimage site. Many are covered with exquisite murals and Buddhist statues. A number of Christian, Jewish, and Manichaean artifacts have also been found in the caves, testimony to the wide variety of people who made their way along the Silk Road. They are quite a sight to behold. Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to take photographs but you can see some here. (Historical information above from Wikipedia).

The Gobi desert is known for its enormous sand dunes which rise like mountains. Thousand of years ago caravans of Bactrian camel would have travelled over these carrying goods intended for sale in distant markets to the west. Those days are long gone but the camels have found new employment. Today, they carry tourists on desert tours.

Dunhuang is also home to a crescent-shaped lake oasis called Yueyaquan. In such a dry and hot place, it is easy to see why Dunhuang was for so many years an essential stop for Silk Road traders and their caravans of camel.

Jiayuguan 嘉峪关市

Not far from Dunhuang is the western-most part of the Great Wall of China built to protect China from the nomadic warriors of Central Asia.

Jiayuguan 嘉峪关市

The fortress at Jiayuguan, built in the 14th century, housed, fed, and trained the army keeping the invaders at bay and protecting Chinese trade routes

Xi’an 西安

Xi’an was one of the four great ancient capitals of China and is considered to be the starting point of the Silk Road, or the end point if you were coming from the west. In the 1st century BCE, it was called Chang’an, meaning ‘western peace’.

Xi’an 西安

During its heyday, Chang’an was one of the largest and most populous cities in the world. It attracted people from all over China and those living beyond its borders. Many Muslims travelled eastwards and ended up settling in Xi’an creating the Muslim Quarter.

Xi’an 西安

The Muslim Quarter contains numerous eateries and shops selling food and goods from across Central Asia and is visited by both locals and tourists alike.

Xi’an 西安

The Muslim Quarter is also home to the Great Mosque of Xi’an, the oldest and largest mosque in China. It dates back to 742 CE.

Beijing

A young woman wearing traditional Chinese dress performs at the Forbidden City, the exclusive enclave of China’s emperors between 1420 and 1925.

Whilst Xi’an is considered the start of the historic Silk Road, Beijing is the source of China’s new Silk Road. The Belt and Road Initiative, China’s flagship foreign policy project, aims to regenerate the old trade links that connect Asia with Europe through a projected $1.5 trillion investment and infrastructure programme involving 70 countries. If realised, this initiative would help reshape the flow of global trade as well as China’s relationship to the world. It could lift millions out of extreme poverty, but there are also significant social, environmental and economic risks to be navigated if this new Silk Road is to bring prosperity to all of the countries involved.

The Silk Road

In 138 BCE, General Zhang Qian of China’s Han Dynasty was sent on a diplomatic mission to develop economic and cultural links with the peoples of Central Asia. In so doing, he set in motion the creation of a transcontinental trade route that would shape the world as we know it today.

The Silk Road, as it would later be called, is neither an actual road nor a single route. It refers to the historic network of trade routes that stretched thousands of miles across Eurasia connecting China with Europe. Grain, livestock, leather, precious stones, porcelain, wool, gold and, of course, silk were transported along its network of trading posts and markets. As a consequence, two thousand years ago affluent Romans could garb themselves in silk clothes made in China while gold coins bearing Caesar’s image were spent in spice markets in India.

It was not only goods that travelled these routes but knowledge, religions and people too. Gunpowder, the magnetic compass, the printing press, and advanced mathematics all came to Europe from China and the Islamic world. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam each found new converts in the lands that opened up to the East and West. Along these same routes, Mongol armies swept across Eurasia — as did bubonic plague, travelling with merchants and their animals.

These exchanges had a profound impact on the empires and civilisations through which they passed, giving them political, religious and cultural shape. Many of the more networked cities developed into hubs of culture and learning and, in some, the sparks of a golden age were ignited.

By the late 16th century, the Silk Road had lost its prominence to new maritime trade routes but the legacy of interconnectivity and exchange endured. Today, it is being reimagined on an unprecedented scale. Through China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Eurasia is the focus of the largest and most expensive infrastructure project in history. If realised, a massive network of roads, railways, pipelines and ports could connect as much as 65% of the world’s population and radically alter the flow of global trade. It is already beginning to reshape Eurasia, focusing world attention once again on the exchange of goods and ideas running from East to West. While these investments will bring enormous opportunities, they come with many risks, especially for Central Asia. Regional insecurity, rising inequality, cultural dislocation, resource scarcity and climate change — all these must be mediated if the new Silk Road is to deliver prosperity to all of those who live along it.

The Aga Khan Foundation & The Silk Road

The Aga Khan Foundation and agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) have been active in countries along the Silk Road for decades. AKDN is a long-term partner in the development of Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.

Alongside its partners, AKDN has channelled significant financial and human resources into economic, social and cultural development in these regions. Promoting pluralism, self-reliance and women’s empowerment have been central to those efforts. AKDN’s initiatives are wide-ranging and include agriculture and food security, climate resilience, education, energy, enterprise development, financial services, healthcare, infrastructure, telecommunications and promoting civil society. It has also restored hundreds of historical monuments, parks and gardens and supported some of Central Asia’s greatest musicians to transmit their knowledge and perform on the world’s stage. AKDN’s overarching aim is to improve the quality of life.

This exhibition

The Silk Road: A Living History invites you to take a journey from London to Beijing, encountering some of the people, places and cultures in-between. The exhibition aims to celebrate the diversity found along this route, explore how historical customs live on today, and reveal connections between what appear at first glance to be very different cultures. Ultimately, the exhibition aims to help build bridges of interest and understanding between distant places and challenge perceptions of less well-known or understood parts of the world. The exhibition was created by Christopher Wilton-Steer, a travel photographer and Head of Communications at the Aga Khan Foundation (UK).

This exhibition is not an exhaustive photographic documentation of Eurasia’s people and cultures. It is a record of some of those Christopher encountered over the course of an overland journey from London to Beijing that he undertook in 2019 and therefore reflects only a fraction of the realities of these places. It is one of an infinite number of stories that could be told.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank first and foremost the wonderful and kind people I met on my travels and who allowed me into their lives. I am grateful to Simon Norfolk, Gary Otte, Andrew Quilty, Sebastian Schutyser and Kapila Productions for allowing me to use some of their photographs of places or events I was unable to visit on my journey. I would like to acknowledge the invaluable travel advice I received from Wild Frontiers and Eastern Turkey Tours, and the support from King’s Cross Central General Partner Ltd. who have allowed for this exhibition to take place in this public space. Lastly, I would like to thank my colleagues across the Aga Khan Development Network for their support and especially the Aga Khan Foundation who shared in the vision for this exhibition.

Christopher Wilton-Steer