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China: The Silk Road                

Inside China with Carnegie Museum of Natural History

By R. J. Gangewere


In 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 West.



It was 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.


Curators 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.



The 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 Horses.


They 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.


For 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."

At the 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."


And so 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…. "                                                                                               


One 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.


China 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."


When 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 awakening."


The China trip was part of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh Travel Program.



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