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Wonders of the Silk Road : Adventures in the 'Far Wet of the Far East,' where the fabled route through Chinese Turkestan leads to vast ruined cities and ancient art works. : Destination: China

November 13, 1994|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Muchnic is The Times' art writer. and

WUPU, China — The music began as we stepped off our bus in the adobe village of Wupu in northwestern China. Barely perceptible at first, a seductive whine gathered force as it welled up in the throats of middle-aged men and reverberated from their long-necked stringed instruments and sheep-skin tambourines.

Next came the dancers--a troupe of little girls, 6 or 8 years old, with winsome smiles, velvety brown eyes and shiny pigtails. Dressed in a blaze of mismatched patterns, bright leggings, clunky white tennis shoes and embroidered square caps, or dopas, they repeated a mystifying litany of arm movements as they danced from the front of Wupu's City Hall down a street lined three or four deep with villagers.

The entire population of Wupu seemed to have turned out to welcome us. Maybe there wasn't much else to do on Sunday in this remote bit of Chinese Turkestan. Maybe our international group of 50 art conservators, scientists and journalists looked as exotic to the citizens of Wupu as they appeared to us. Or maybe the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), which had organized our tour last fall of ancient cultural sites along the fabled Silk Road, had pulled a few strings to provide us with a heartwarming spectacle.

All three possibilities turned out to be true, but we wasted little time speculating. Instead, we did what all red-blooded tourists would do: whipped out our cameras and began snapping pictures.

Everywhere we looked, there were friendly, open faces and photogenic costumes. Old men with goatees wore long coats, heavy leather boots and embroidered dopas ; younger men and boys had on wide-billed caps and woolen sweaters; women covered their heads with bright kerchiefs and their legs with thick brown cotton stockings, which, pulled over pantaloons, gave their legs a lumpy appearance; young girls turned up in Western-style warm-up suits in red, fuchsia and turquoise.

One by one, the dancers approached members of our party and bowed demurely, inviting us to join them. We lumbered into the center of the street, doing our best to emulate the graceful youngsters.

We had arrived in Xinjiang (shin-JAHNG), a vast area of western China that became a Chinese province in 1884 and was declared the Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region in 1955, making the area an independent state. And we had come face-to-face with the Uygurs (oo-ee-GOORS), Turkic-speaking Muslims who constitute the largest ethnic minority in a region bordered by Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Tibet.

"This is the Far West of the Far East," a friend mused, as we attempted to figure where Chinese Turkestan fit into our concept of geography.

We had signed up for a professional, six-day tour of cultural monuments along a northern segment of the Silk Road, from Dunhuang to Urumqi (oo-room-CHEE). But for the first time in a day and a half of bus travel--through some of the most Godforsaken territory I had ever seen--the journey promised rewards outside the bounds of scholarship. We would feast our curiosity on contemporary life as well as ancient wonders.

The Silk Road is the seductive modern name given to a network of trade routes which, from the 3rd Century BC to the 14th Century AD, linked Xi'an (CHEE-AHN), the historic capital of China, with the Mediterranean. Many tours of the Silk Road begin at Xi'an. Our journey started at Dunhuang, where we had attended a conference on the conservation of the Mogao Grottoes, a spectacular complex of 492 caves filled with Buddhist art.

Located on the southwestern edge of the Gobi Desert, 1,200 miles west of Beijing, Dunhuang isn't exactly a garden spot, but it seemed comparatively lush as we left it behind and forged northwest into Xinjiang. The landscape soon deteriorated into a gray crust, sliced by a recently paved, two-lane highway used almost exclusively by overloaded trucks.

Our first meal on the road--box lunches of bread, water and a few unidentifiable items--was served near a highway truck stop. Considering our options, we carried the boxes across the road, past a pig and a garbage heap to the top of a dry hillock, where we chowed down and considered the view. Staring down the bleak road and across the decidedly unpicturesque desert, we had reason to question our sanity for making the journey at all.

Not that we weren't warned. "This is not an easy trip," Sara Tucker, GCI's special projects coordinator, wrote in a memo to tour participants before departure. "We hope that short presentations by lecturers will liven up the journey on the long drives from Dunhuang to Hami and Hami to Turpan. The other difficulty is lack of facilities: There are no restrooms along the road, except behind sand dunes. Our only option is men to one side of the road, women to the other."

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