On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Sweating it out on the old Silk Road

Described as one of the hottest place on  earth, the group of Universiti Malaya
lecturers from the Chinese Studies department 
and I had experienced for ourselves the heat  at the reddish purple range called
Flaming  Mountain.

The Chinese classic Journey To The West 
had it that the Monkey God could not fly 
past the mountain because of the heat.

Urumqi, the last leg of our 10-day journey, 
had turned out to be another hot place 
eventhough it is autumn.

We had flown to Chengdu, the capital of 
Sichuan, from Kuala Lumpur before taking a  connecting flight to Lanzhou in north-western
China, a key junction in the ancient Silk 

In an attemp to retrace the routes used by 
the traders of the past, we travelled by road  and rail past Jianyugan, Dunhuang,
Turpan,  Anxi and countless small

We drove past miles and miles of sand 
dunes, wrinkled mountains, sparse plains,  ruins, oasis and collapsing fortresses.

The Malaysians had expected Urumqi, the 
last place in China that is reachable by train,  to be a medieval town.

They were disappointed to find Urumqi a 
sprawling city with tall buildings dotted  with modern shopping complexes, restaurants,
karaoke joints and discotheques.

In fact,  Urumqi resembles a city in the  Middle East.

The city is famous for its Central Asian 
bazaars, dotted with alleys, and Arabic music that fills the air.

If in the past, goods such as spice, silk, animals and food were traded in this
ancient  cross road, the traders today
hawked leather  jackets, scarves, dried
fruits and other modern items.

Life here hints strongly of foreign influences whereby  spice is heavily used on the  lamb kebabs and flat loaves of Indian
bread,  nan, is a staple.

At the night market, similar to our pasar 
malam, a Chinese speaking Caucasian looking woman with blonde hair,
sells leather  shoes.

For the Malaysians, everything is almost 
free. A pair of leather shoes cost RM40 with  a matching long sleeved shirt, made in
faraway Shanghai, being sold at RM7.

A leather vest cost only RM15, leaving this 
writer too embarrassed to bargain with the  couple, in their 40s, peddling their

A basket of fresh grapes, plucked from 
nearby farms, can be bought for as low as  RM7.

Xinjiang shares borders with eight countries Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan,
Kirghiztan, Tadzhikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan 
and India.

The exotic bazaar  offers from dried
and  splayed desert lizards to deer
antlers for impotency to dried snow mountain lotuses to  cure rheumatoid arthritis.

“Good for you, makes you powerful,'' the 
medicine seller, said in his heavily accent  Mandarin.

The city, filled with brown-faced ethnic 
groups in skull caps, prominently uses Arabic and Chinese on road signs
and shop sign  boards.

Just a short distance away from the city, 
one gets a splendour view of the snow-caped  Tianshan mountain, a picturesque
reminder  of Germany's Black Forest.

But modern tourist amenities is sadly 
lacking in such scenic spots. Decent public  toilets is almost non-existent in these
parts  of China.

Still, whatever is lacking from the modern 
Silk Road is made up with some of the most  wonderous sights for the Malaysians.

Commercialism, rather than barter trade, 
has taken over in the new Silk Road routes.  Heavy lorries and buses, instead of
camels  and horses, travel along the

Signs of modern trade has infiltrated this 
city.   At the junction of Renmin
Road (People's Road), a large billboard is erected,  warning the city folks of the danger of
drug  abuse  a clear reminder of the effects of  modern trade in the Silk Road