"Ancient Anxi" Tashi by mke1963
Tashi Travel Guide: 12 reviews and 17 photos
Great walls rise up out of the sand, providing some little shade from the sun. Even though it is only 8.30 in the morning, the sun is powerful and unforgiving. As are the biting flies - the chaobing - that leave their sting inside your skin. Beyond the walls yet more walls, and beyond them yet more. On the ground thick clumps of red willow bloom, adding a rather unlikely gaudy bright mauve sheen to the desert. Light rains over the last few days have washed the dust off the stubby leaves, and stamped on the dusty haze that usually blankets the drylands at the edge of the Kumtag Shamo. This morning, the sharp bare edges of hills and mountains can be seen. To the south, the great Qilianshan are petering out, and to the south-west the Altunshan are beginning to pick up.
Here is ancient Anxi, one of the great cities of the Silk Road, 40km south of the scrubby little modern town of Anxi, over an upstart line of hills in a wide flat plain. Nearby, the village of Qiaozi makes good use of the water that appears here along a long line. But the water couldn't save old Anxi, and no-one really knows why. There are lost cities in the fiery wastes of the Taklimakan, further west but there the water dried up and the sands piled over the buildings. Here, though, there was always water, some of it brought a hundred kilometres from hillside springs in underground channels like the falaj of Oman - a feat of ancient engineering still much under-appreciated.
The city didn't disappear in an instant, but gradually declined. It was founded in the first century BC, when the rather clever Emperor Wudi decided to fortify the western borders against the predations of a variety of tribes and kingdoms around what was to become Turkestan. The Great Wall was extended around 110BC to beyond Yumenguan and watchtowers provided an additional line of communications and an early warning system through to Lop Nur and even around the northern edge of the Taklimakan Desert. Anxi became a major junction as the Silk road became a regular thoroughfare. To the north, the route headed for Xingxingnia, Hami and Turfan, while another route led to Yumenguan, another key junction where the southern route (to Yarkand and the Pamirs) branched from the central route which led to Loulan and eventually Kashgar and all points west.
Today, Yumenguan is protrayed as the great junction, but really it was at Anxi which was the important decision point, and it was at Anxi that a big city grew up. It was known variously as Anxi, Guazhou and Suoyang. Now, the remains are simply called Suoyang, yet this is the least known name to foreigners, but for the Chinese it refers to a well-known story whereby the Han general Xue Rengui ordered his men to dig up and eat the local plant cynomorium ('suoyang' in Chinese) to alleviate their hunger while besieging the fortress. At the successful conclusion of the siege, the place was renamed Suoyang out of respect for the life-saving plant. The plant, which grows on the roots of the red willow and several shrubs, can still be found in the area, and it is still collected by local villagers for use as a herbal tea to reduce stomach pains.
In the Tang Dynasty, the city was renamed Guazhou and grew to an enormous size. The enclosed city is some 800,000 square metres, which is not much smaller - for example - than the old Chinese city that lay to the south of the Imperial City in Beijing. This would have made it one of the largest cities in Central Asia. But the continuing troubles with the wayward tribes in the area led, presumably, to its downfall and to the eventual relocation of Anxi to the banks of the Shulehe river in the next valley to the north, and most importantly, close to the line of the Great Wall.
It is perhaps fitting that on 1st August 2006, Anxi County is to be renamed Guazhou County. It may cause yet more confusion over the names of places in the area, but it is a tribute to those heady ancient days when this area and this city and fortress was one of the most important places in Asia. It is to be hoped that with the new railway line and the construction of the new highway to the north, that Anxi and Guazhou will once again benefit from access to world trade. The population of this area is also set to increase later in 2006 when immigrants from parts of eastern China are resttled (entirely voluntarily) in the Anxi oasis, which is rare in that it has a lot more water than it needs and a lot of spare land; furthermore, farming in this area is quite lucrative. In the meantime, ancient Anxi remains a (possibly) unique locality - an untouched Silk Road city.
Heading west for Europe on the Silk Road: next stop Dunhuang, Yangguan and Yumenguan.
Heading west towards Xi'an on the Silk Road: next stop Yumen Shi and
The cynomorium plant, that gave Suoyang its name (see separate Local Custom tip) can be bought from local villagers in... more travel advice
There are almost countless old fortresses in the area north and north-east of old Anxi, most of which have never seen a... more travel advice
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