China’s Far West

The opening up of China has revealed many wonders hidden from Western view for almost a century. I had always wanted to see them.

Some of these marvels lurk in China’s Far West, in Gansu, the thin sliver of a province set up against Mongolia. It hosts the Hexi Corridor and the Jade Gate through which the Silk Road exits the Middle Kingdom and confronts the fierce Taklamakan desert whose name means “If you go in you never get out”. The Corridor traditionally produced lavish crops of rhubarb, indigenous to the region, and one of the key goods transported along the Silk Road. It was in high demand as a laxative.

The Great Wall ends there in a magnificent flourish of Ming Dynasty masonry that also encompasses a well – preserved fort, complete with the famous false wall for luring enemy troops into a killing courtyard studded by archers on high. Visitors, myself included, are invited to stand on the walls and shoot straw-stuffed human effigies with arrows. An impressive museum crammed with local artifacts dating back thousands of years displays a vast lighted map showing the various sections of the Great Wall as they were built over the years.

shutterstock_164560724  shutterstock_351224450

I had occasion to visit Jiayuguan, a famous Silk Road town currently adorned with impressive outdoor sculptures. It’s the head office of Jisco, one of China’s largest steel companies, with whom I was conducting business. It gets its iron ore from the Qilian Mountains, which form the southern boundary of the Hexi Corridor and yield some of China’s best jade. My Chinese colleagues told me the region is very prospective for gold. They mentioned that the remoteness of the steel facility illustrates the strategic caution of the Central Government; it’s far away from from Russian and American bombers.

On one of my visits I was taken to the gantry that overlooks a gargantuan conveyor belt, over a kilometer long. It was lunchtime and the hot steel was coming out of the blast furnace in slabs and running on the belt, cooling along the way. Looking down, I saw a worker put his rice bowl on a slab, pick it up after a few meters and sit down to enjoy a fully cooked meal.

At another time, Jisco’s Chairman invited me to visit his wine cellar. Naturally I thought it would be a small, conventional one. But it was nothing of the sort. It was a massive structure of vaulted granite large enough to hold twenty thousand barrels of wine. It turned out that his company had recently developed a gigantic vineyard to create local employment. Inside, he introduced me to the maître de chai who told me the story.

shutterstock_310861286Knowing nothing about wine, Jisco sent emissaries to Bordeaux to learn about Cabernet and Merlot, to Burgundy for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, to the Rheingau for Riesling and even to Canada for its famous ice wine. They brought back not only wine makers but vine cuttings. While virtually no rain falls in the region, for it’s part of the Gobi desert, the nearby Qilian Mountains shed water into underground aquifers. To tap this resource they went to Israel for irrigation technology.

So they had the wine-making expertise, the cuttings and the irrigation know- how, everything they needed, except for one thing. There was no topsoil, only sand. So they imported enough from eastern China to cover six thousand hectares.

Now their vineyard supplies 10% of the burgeoning Chinese market, selling 90 million bottles a year of their brand, Zixuan Wine. I tasted some and it was definitely potable, faithful to its Western cepage.

While in Gansu I heard of a curious legend that animates a little village called Liqian. Through the auspices of Jisco I visited it with a history professor from Lanzou university. Its inhabitants have Caucasian features combined with Chinese. Some have blue or green eyes; others have long noses, fair hair. If that is not remarkable enough in this far away place, stranger still is the fact that they believe they are the descendants of Roman legionaries who came there along the Silk Road after a major battle in what is now Turkey, which the Romans lost.

This is reckoned so amazing that a local tourist industry has sprung up around it. Periodically, villagers dress up as Roman soldiers, complete with plumed helmet, breastplate and rectangular shield, and march through the main street up to a small Roman temple on a hill. Local artisans built it for the occasion. Tourists from miles around come to gawk at the spectacle and spend money on souvenirs.

shutterstock_164560724Substance, if not proof, lies behind this curious belief, enough to afford it the status of legend. Chinese history records the Battle of the Talas River near the Caspian Sea fought between the Han Chinese and a Hun tribe where more than a hundred soldiers were arranged in what observers called a fish – scale formation. Scholars are convinced that the description fits the Roman practice of raising their shields in an interlocking manner; the appearance is like the scales of a tortoise. The technique was uniquely Roman.

Also, mention is made of a wooden palisade, a means of defence only Romans employed. The Talas engagement took place some time after the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE when Crassus, the richest man in Rome, led forty thousand troops to defeat at the hands of the Parthians (Iranians).

As would be expected, DNA samples have been taken of the villagers. They show that nearly 60% is of Caucasian origin. That doesn’t mean they are Roman descendants but it lends support to the theory. Proof must come from cultural evidence, which at this stage is only suggestive. Archaeological excavation is needed but as yet it has not been permitted.

All in all, Gansu is a fascinating place, one where great events stirred the ancient past and the unusual still happens today. Enough material evidence remains to allow a visitor to imagine many of those events, from times when minimal contact between East and West occurred to when goods and ideas travelled freely along the Silk Road, to when the nomadic way of life clashed with the sedentary giving rise to the Great Wall, and to when marauding barbarian hordes we know as Huns and Mongols ranged West to unsettle the European world.