Region of Renown
Chinese Turkestan – a long-time inspiration for die-hard travelers that brings to mind towering dunes, exotic bazaars and camel caravans laden with silk and spice. As my train crawled away from the drab confines of Beijing West station, headed for the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, it wasnt easy to get excited by such romantic imagery. Nonetheless, compared with humdrum urban life in the Chinese capital, I knew that the next two weeks on Chinas wild western frontier were going to be a fascinating blend of the strange and scenic.
I first read about Xinjiang and Central Asia (formerly Turkestan) in Sir Aurel Stein's enthralling book On Ancient Central-Asian Tracks. Stein, a Hungarian archaeologist-cum-explorer in the service of the British at the turn of the twentieth century, was the Indiana Jones of his day. Performing amazing feats of endurance and surviving the subterfuge of the "Great Game", he discovered lost cities and hidden treasure across the region (most of which ended up, to the later chagrin of the Chinese, in London 's BritishMuseum). His three Xinjiang expeditions of 1900, 1906 and 1913, in which he and his party covered forty thousand kilometers on foot or pony-back, were instrumental in the re-discovery of the Silk Route.
Back in the relative luxury of my soft sleeper compartment, entertained by DVDs, MP3s and a couple of hefty tomes, I couldn 't help being a little blasé about Stein 's various hardships (a couple of fingers and toes lost to frostbite, for example). I was envious of his opportunity to travel in such an unsullied environment, ripe for adventure and the perfect backdrop for demonstrations of that stiff-upper-lip attitude that so characterized British imperialism at the time. As the trolley carrying warm beer and pig 's trotters passed my door for the fourth time, I resolved myself to the fact that the next 50-odd hours on board would give me plenty of time to display a stiff upper lip if I so chose.
After several years hacking his way through London's PR and advertising jungle, and another couple of years in recuperative sabbatical in France and Korea, Daniel Allen's quest for a more Bohemian-styled life of art and journalism led him to the Chinese capital, Beijing.
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