China: The Silk Road
with Carnegie Museum of Natural History
By R. J. Gangewere
September, 16 Pittsburghers took the journey of a lifetime. The trip was
designed by three scientists from Carnegie Museum of Natural History: Dr.
Sandra Olsen, associate curator of Anthropology, Dr. Chris Beard, curator
of Vertebrate Paleontology, and Dr. Zhe-Xi Luo, associate curator of
Vertebrate Paleontology. They called
it China--The Silk Road. For two
weeks, the scientists' familiarity with sites they had worked helped map
the route for members, donors, and trustees from Carnegie Museum of Natural
History, as they explored scientific sites along The Silk Road, that
ancient and tortuous web of caravan routes that once linked China and the
first called the "Silk Road" because the ancient Romans valued
the silk from the East, but it was actually a route for many commodities--bronze,
ivory, textiles, agricultural plants, and the spread of the Bhudhist and
other religions into new countries. Two main routes, the northern and
southern, define the roadways that skirt the vast Taklemakan Desert in
Central Asia in the passage from East to West. The Silk Road reached its apex of fame in
medieval Europe with the publication of the Travels of Marco Polo.
Olsen and Beard had to forgo the trip at the last minute. Then by good fortune President Ellsworth
Brown found through the University of Pittsburgh a Ph.D. candidate in Art
History, and a native of China, Yu Jiang, who was then in Shanghai working
on a dissertation on Ancient Bronze sculpture. He flew to Beijing to meet the group at
the airport, and assist with the program.
A recipient of a distinguished fellowship from the National Gallery,
he had with him all the materials from lectures he had recently given on
the Silk Road.
group's adventure began with a visit to the birthplace of Chinese aracheology
and anthropolgy--where the first fossil remains of "Peking Man"
were discovered in the 1920s. Then
they flew west to Xian, the ancient capital of the Silk Road, where they
saw the excavations of the Han Emperor Jingdi (165-141 BC) with its
treasure of artifacts, and viewed what is called the greatest
archaeological discovery of the last century--the Terra Cotta Warriors and
also flew to Lanzhou, gateway capital of Gansu province and the western
region of the Gobi Desert. There
they visited the Gansu Provincial Museum, noted for its Silk Road
artifacts, and the associates of Dr. Zhe-Xi Luo took them behind the scenes
to see unexhibited bronze art of the Han Dynasty.
travelers Zhe-Xi Luo, Janie Thompson, and Ellsworth Brown, the beautifully
cast flying bronze horse at the Gansu Provincial Museum was a high
point. Not exhibited to the public,
this extraordinary artifact was brought in its locked box from a secure
room in storage, and presented by the museum director on the table before
the group. The horse balances
delicately on one foot. It is
world-famous and seeing it became an emotional moment. "We knew we
were privileged to see it," says Thompson, adding, "They realized
we would respect the horse." Brown recalls that it was "an
especially touching experience, both for the rare and generous experience
seldom accorded visitors, and for the profound level of technology
(metallurgy, art) and the degree of preservation represented in an
extraordinarily rare and famous piece."
next stop, at Jiuquan, a far-flung desert outpost, Dr. Luo spoke about the
history of the last century's dinosaur expeditions to western China and the
latest discoveries of the Early Cretaceous Age made by scientists at
Carnegie Museum of Natural History and their collaborators in Gansu
Province. In the sands of the desert,
the travelers picked up fossil fragments from the Age of the
Dinosaurs. Brown noted his
impressions: "The dinosaur site in the Gobi is a forsaken land that is
dead empty but for wandering camels and some road workers (it wasn’t a
highway!) . . . stretching forever."
He noted, "The grit and determination of the scientists . . .
and the realization that here is a place on earth that yields the bones of
the past, to be picked up casually for as long as one wants to walk."
it went for two weeks, across the mountains and deserts that still bear the
traces of ancient civilizations that flourished along the Silk Road. Brown
recorded: "It was a long, hard trip, with frequent moves, and long and
brutal four-wheel-drive rides (to the dinosaur site, for example). There
was a bus ride on a road so bad that at one time we were literally lifted
out of our seats (I thought the bus was broken for a minute). There was an unforgettable overnight
train ride through the Gobi, and a modern airport three months old that
contrasted with the dirt road leading from it…. "
spontaneous stop in a small, remote village let a handful of the travelers
go inside a local house. Thompson recalls that inside the house, one of
many common-walled structures with an open work area, they met a husband,
wife, and two sons. The wife,
suddenly distracted from feeding goats in the back area, drew upon her
innate dignity to offer refreshments to the sudden visitors. Outside, villagers crowded about the bus.
today is full of stark contrasts between the contemporary urban environment
and primitive conditions. Brown
thinks some change might be driven by preparation for the Olympics in 2008: "A billboard in Beijing, on a new
traffic circle, carried the translation of its message--'New City Changes
Old City. The Future is More Better.'
It wasn’t the translation that was memorable, it was the
intent. At the other end of the
country, in Kashgar nearly in sight of the Himalayas, the impression of a
pre-modern time was overwhelming.
The live animal market, the Sunday bazaar, the rural lanes of mud
brick walls, houses, and wood-fired ovens represented the other China, more
interesting and more challenging than the modern."
Thompson came home, she took care to view again the film The Last Emperor, to
see once more the Imperial City and other sites she had experienced. She reflects that when she studied
history in school, "China was always 'the Sleeping Giant.' But, now in the 21st century the Giant is
China trip was part of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh Travel Program.