A flying visit to Lanzhou

At 6am we were woken by the conductor and forty minutes later we arrived in Lanzhou. It was still dark outside, though the station was already bustling with early morning traffic. We stored our bags and caught a bus into town to find the Gansu museum. Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu, a long and thin province which curves in a north-westerly direction towards the Gobi desert. The museum wasn’t due to open for another hour, but we found an interesting looking building whose doors were open and cautiously crept inside. Inside, amidst the Christmas decorations (long past the 6th January), there was a large architectural model for a new shopping precinct, complete with shoppers and greenery. It looked like it was going to be amazing – soaring glass towers, pleasing curves and grassy areas and trees dotted around the balconies. When we crossed over the road outside, we could see the building work in progress behind. We had breakfast in a noodle bar. Lanzhou is famed for its fiery hot beef noodles, so we braced ourselves for an assault on our taste buds. However, it was not as bad as we had anticipated!

We arrived at Gansu Provincial Museum as the doors opened at 9am and spent the whole day there, leaving as it closed at 4.30pm. Needless to say, there were some excellent exhibits. Gansu lies along the Silk Road, a hugely important trade route that linked east with west, and one section was devoted to Silk Road artefacts.

Zhang Qian is a very important figure in the history of the Silk Road. In 139BC, the nomadic Huns from the steppes of north central Asia (Mongolia) were causing havoc in the Han empire (present day China) and Zhang Qian and 100 men were sent on a mission from Gansu westwards to try and make allegiances with other regions troubled by the Huns. On the way they were captured by the Huns and imprisoned for ten years. However, Zhang Qian was undeterred, and eventually managed to escape and continue his journey across the Gobi desert and into the western regions. There, he found that his diplomatic mission was futile, as the people were quite happy with the state of affairs at the time and did not want to unite in war against the Huns. He returned to Changan (now Xi’an), once again escaping from a brief period of capture by the Huns, but repeated the journey some years later. At this time he had several more envoys, who were sent to the western regions and reported back to the emperor with details of the geography, people and their customs. In this way relationships were built up with around 36 states, and the exchange of culture and trade was accelerated.

The main commodity transported from China was, of course, silk, which was highly prized and easy to pack and carry. Jade, porcelain, bronze and lacquer ware also travelled from east to west. In the other direction came precious metals, glass, carpets and livestock (expensive horses and camels). Food items such as rice and tea from China and spices, onions, carrots and grape seeds from westerly regions were also exchanged. Travelling the Silk Road would have been an arduous journey to undertake, as tradesmen had to traverse difficult roads in harsh climates. Thriving towns grew up around the route where weary merchants could refresh themselves and conduct trade. Eventually, the ‘Silk Road’ routes had created links between the Mediterranean, Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, India and China. Arabs travelling along the routes into northern China brought with them their Muslim beliefs and a large number settled here, marrying local women. Buddhism was introduced from India and many temples were built along the routes for rest and prayer.

That morning, we had seen a large statue of a galloping horse near to the station. We learnt that it was the mascot of Gansu province, and in the museum we saw the original, much smaller model – a beautifully greened bronze, running full pelt and tossing its head. It had been unearthed near Wuwei in Gansu in 1969 by people under instruction to dig air raid shelters in case of a war with Russia and is thought to date from the 2nd century AD. I felt a bit like I was meeting a celebrity! Luke and I both stood and drew it, but neither of us was observant enough to notice what I have just discovered. The only foot in contact with the floor is in fact treading on a flying bird. The statue is known as the Gansu Flying Horse for this reason.

Whilst still in England, we had been to a talk on Chinese artefacts at the British Museum, and I did my best to remember what we had learnt. The main thing I could recall was that metal boxes, cooking vessels and containers often had faces on them, which were supposed to help ward off evil spirits. There was a whole room full of such items and I amused myself by spotting faces, which were sometimes highly simplified and difficult to recognise, but if you peered closely enough, you could make them out.

There was a large section devoted to fossils and dinosaur skeletons (very exciting!), where a British Walking with Dinosaurs-like series was playing on loop, an exhibition of Buddhist art, a section about the communist movement in Gansu and a huge room devoted to the evolution of pottery design in the region, with some pots dating from 7000 BC!

Our heads buzzing with information, we returned to the train station to catch our night train to Dunhuang, in the northwestern tip of Gansu. Weimin, our Chinese artist friend, had told us that every Chinese artist should go to Dunhuang to see the painted grottoes at Mogao. We hadn’t thought we would be able to fit it into our schedule at first, but after consulting maps and train timetables we had decided to head to the Gobi once more.

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