Silk Road, China

Dates: September 24–October 9, 2023

Begins: Xi'an, China
(airport: XIY)

Ends: Kashgar (Kashi), China
(airport: KHG)

Leaders: Jeffrey Chapman & Winslow Lockhart

Maximum Participants: 8

Tuition: $7,900

Accommodation: Included
(optional single supplement: $800)

Meals: Included

Payment Policy: 3 Installments
     • $500 deposit to confirm participation
     • 50% due by December 1, 2022
     • Balance due by April 1, 2023

This photographic adventure begins in Xi'an, China and ends in Kashgar, China. Tuition includes hotel (based on double occupancy; single occupancy is available with payment of a single-occupancy supplement) and breakfasts for the duration of the adventure. It does not include souvenirs, laundry, hotel resort/destination fees, insurance (travel, medical, cancellation), nor any personal expenses.

This adventure is suitable for all levels of photographic experience. Participants must be in good health and able to spend each day walking and carrying their own equipment.

Reserve your spot below.

Silk Road China Within The Frame Photographic Adventure

Silk Road: China Within The Frame

The Silk Road conjures images of camel caravans travelling under starry skies, the mingling of exotically dressed merchants from distant cultures, desert oases, vibrantly pigmented spices, and gem-toned silks. While our itinerary during this adventure includes the notable spots, the truth is that as photographers we crave the unscripted moments such as seeing a child walking down a rural street while kicking a colorful ball back and forth with a pal as a young pet monkey clings to his shoulder. We happily welcome happenstance and serendipity to cross our path as we progress along the Silk Road. This network of trade routes reaching from Xi’an in central China to Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul, and onward to Venice allowed for the streamlining of the conveyance of trade goods, scientific innovations, medicines, and luxury items across grassy steppes, snow-capped mountains, harsh deserts, and lush oases. This path westward, with forks along the way diverging north and south, beginning around 130 BCE and continuing into the 18th century, has come to be known as the Silk Road. Silk, being valuable, lightweight, and exotic became an ideal item for merchants to carry westward. Many cities that sprang up along this route became enormously prosperous, and merchants travelling the Silk Road began to settle at their favored waypoints, creating among the first culturally mixed cities, evidence of which we can still find today in the many richly diverse urban centers that thrive along the route.

Silk Road: China Within The Frame is the first of a four-part series of adventures travelling and photographing along the entirety of the Silk Road, starting in central China and ending in Europe. The second part of this series, the “Stans,” is scheduled for 2021, and those completing one part of this series are always offered the first opportunity to sign up for the next. The focus of this first adventure in the Silk Road series is China. We travel from the route’s eastern terminus in central China to the westernmost section of the route within China’s borders. Most if not all tour companies organizing groups to travel along this section of the Silk Road include in-country domestic flights to bypass what can be expanses of wilderness and sparsely populated terrain between notable spots. Hopping from tourist spot to tourist spot, and missing all the life in between, is exactly how to deprive oneself from experiencing the vitality and truth of any place. Within The Frame has a different take and at the risk of being accused of being a fussy purist insists that the entire adventure take place on the ground, along the actual Silk Road. Wilderness is not to be feared. The most enjoyable portions of Within The Frame adventures often occur when travelling way beyond tried and expected boundaries. The most alluring photographic opportunities tend to occur when one is far off the beaten path, miles away from hackneyed instagrammable hotspots. Clinging to the expected can be an anathema to the very concept of adventure, and we hope you share this notion and are eager to join us on one or all legs of this Silk Road series, starting with Silk Road: China Within The Frame.

This photographic adventure is about the passionate discovery and photography of people, place, and culture, with emphasis given to going deep not wide, and pursuing that most elusive of photographic necessities — our vision. It is appropriate for photographers of all levels.

Xi’an (Days One – Two)

We begin at the eastern terminus of the Silk Road in Xi’an, one of China’s ancient imperial capitals and the current capital of Shaanxi Province. This city dates back to the 11th century BCE and marks the location of one of the world’s earliest civilizations. The region has been a thriving crossroads for people from China, Central Asia, and the Middle East for more than a thousand years with an ethnic and religious diversity that lingers to this day.

There are many ongoing archaeological projects throughout the region. Perhaps, most noteworthy is the burial site of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, found by farmers digging a water well in 1974. The Terracotta Army discovered at the site, dating from 210 BCE, has become one of the most spectacular archeological finds in history. More than 8,000 life-sized statues of infantrymen, archers, cavalry riders, chariots, and horses meant to protect the emperor in the afterlife have been excavated at the site. The project is ongoing, and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A small sampling of the statues are included in a travelling exhibit that is touring museums around the world, but seeing the statues en masse at the actual site is staggering. The scope of it defies belief. The mausoleum complex was started when the emperor was only 13 years old. Historical and literary accounts inform us that the project was worked on for decades by hundreds of thousands of artists and tradesmen, all in preparation for the emperor’s eventual death.

While in Xi’an we also visit the Great Mosque, the largest mosque in China, first built in 742. Many Muslim merchants traveling on the Silk Road from Central Asia settled here, and this first mosque in the region is unique in that it incorporates a Chinese architectural style, but unlike traditional Chinese construction which aligns along a north-south axis keeping with feng shui design principles, the mosque faces westward toward Mecca. Currently, about 50,000 Muslims live in the Xi’an region, and there is a thriving Muslim quarter, which we explore and photograph.

Lanzhou (Day Three)

Buddhism spread into China from India along the Silk Road as early as the first century CE, and along with it came the Buddhist inclination to create temples by carving into cliffs, most often at sites with an extraordinary scenic beauty. Thousands of years later, we must agree, as the locations of these temples are among the most beautiful landscapes we encounter throughout our time travelling along the Silk Road. We visit Maijishan Grottos where we enjoy celebrated Buddhist rock carvings. The site includes hundreds of caves carved into the face of cliffs accessed by a series of vertigo-inducing walkways snaking up the cliff face. The climbing effort is rewarded with fascinating artwork and stunning vistas overlooking the surrounding mountainous landscape. Those who created this site were not only artists of the highest caliber but also daredevils.

Our day continues with a visit to Bingling Temple, a remote series of grottos along the Yellow River filled with fine examples of Buddhist art. The remote location of this site has mostly protected it from looting and general human interference, making it one of the more intact Buddhist grotto sites found along the route.

Linxia & Xiahe (Day Four)

Linxia, with its more than 80 mosques, is a center of Chinese Islam. Muslims traveling along Silk Road settled here, and their descendants enjoy a thriving Muslim community today. This junction where the Silk Road met other trade routes heading north and south became a commercial hub and cultural crossroads lasting throughout centuries. Hamlets on the outskirts of Linxia are home to many minority communities, including Hui, Dongxiang, and Bao’an.

In Xiahe, where we spend this night, is Labrang Monastery located on the Daxia River. Many Tibetans walk the pilgrim path here with its thousands of prayer wheels, the longest continuous stretch of prayer wheels in the world. Xiahe is among the most sacred locations in Tibetan Buddhism, and here live the greatest concentration of monks outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The exotic sights and sounds evoke a deep spirituality. Monks numbering over 1,000 can be found outside the monastery each morning engaged in their morning prayers, and the monastery hillside practically vibrates with the deep resonating sounds of Tibetan longhorns and the chanting of the monks at dusk. The location is mountainous, remote, and beautiful. It is a fully Tibetan experience without stepping foot in Tibet.

Zhangye (Day Five)

The Mati Temple complex built into the side of cliffs are places of worship for a Tibetan Buddhist minority group in the region. There is debate over the age of this site as there is no official record, but it is generally agreed that the earliest temple likely dates to the Jin Dynasty more than 1600 years ago as the site is mentioned in poetry from this time. We find a network of temples and grottos with statuary and frescos dating from various dynasties throughout China’s history.

We also visit and photograph Zhangye Danxia National Geological Park where we find a surprising landscape in the foothills of the Qilian Mountains. The Chinese proudly count this park as one of the most beautiful in all of China. The curious and colorful land formations were shaped by shifting tectonic plates many millions of years ago and the erosion brought on by wind and rain have formed peaks and ravines that when combined with the uniquely colorful rock pigmentation create a candy-striped landscape that can awe and delight. We time our visit in the later half of the day with the hope of catching a colorful sunset to photograph over the rainbow-like landscape.

Jiayuguan (Day Six)

The Jiayuguan Pass at the west end of the Great Wall is where we find a frontier fortress built during the Ming dynasty in 1372. It is the most intact and preserved pass built along the Great Wall and served as a key Silk Road stopping point. A short distance from the pass is the Overhanging Great Wall, a steep section of the Wall built to strengthen the defensive capability of the area. Not being able to see over the mountain, invaders would think that once they maneuvered around the pass and with great difficulty travelled over the mountain that they could enter China. No such luck. Once over the crest of the mountain, the astonishing engineering project that is the Great Wall steeply extends down the far side of the mountain and kept invaders out of China and protected merchants travelling along the Silk Road.

Later in the day we explore the Weijin tomb complex with its more than 1,400 tombs constructed during the Wei and Jin dynasties, dating from the 3rd century and the 5th century. This site is celebrated in China as the largest underground art gallery in the world with its colorful murals mostly depicting scenes of the daily lives of the people buried here as well as images showcasing important developments and scientific discoveries dating from this time. The paintings found here have offered historically valuable insight into the Wei and Jin periods. A fine example is a painting providing evidence of China’s early development of a postal delivery system. A painting of a postal carrier riding on horseback to deliver letters is found here, an image that predates the famed Pony Express in the United States by more than 1,400 years.

Dunhuang (Days Seven – Eight )

As a crucial hub of commerce along the ancient Silk Road, Dunhuang became a major point of communication between China and the rest of the world. Dunhuang translates as “Blazing Beacon,” and as a frontier garrison outpost, beacons would be lit to alert of marauding nomadic tribes on the attack. Evidence of people living here goes back as far as 2,000 BCE. It’s a strategic location at an important crossroads linking the Silk Road to the main travel route connecting India to Mongolia and onward to Siberia.

Dunhuang is located at the Crescent Lake oasis with its accompanying Mingsha Shan, “Singing-Sand Mountain.” Crescent Lake is renown for its natural beauty and offers a welcome respite from the often harsh surrounding desert landscape. The singing dunes bordering the lake in the Kumtag Desert can create a sonic phenomenon when the surface of the dunes are disturbed by wind or footsteps. It’s a deep humming or some say chanting sound that can be mesmerizing.

The Shazhou Market continues the tradition of bustling commerce here in Dunhuang where many of China’s ethnic minorities engage in business, selling everything from jade items, jewelry, Buddha statues, and local food treats. It’s a good spot for people watching and photographing while mingling among both locals and visitors.

Mogao Caves is a treasure trove of Buddhist paintings, sculptures, and artifacts spanning more than a 1,000 years of Buddhist history. Included are many of the finest examples of historically significant Buddhist art known to exist. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The location is a network of close to 500 temples and grottos made by cutting into the rock landscape. The evolution of Buddhist art from the 4th to the 14th century is documented here throughout the cave sanctuaries, including scenes depicting trade along the Silk Road. We are offered a glimpse into the lives of people living in the region and passing through over centuries with vivid examples of the politics, ethnic relations, economics, daily dress, and general culture of the time.

In 1990 a discovery was made, a cave that had been walled off centuries earlier was found and reopened to reveal what has become known as the Library Cave. Tens of thousands of manuscripts and relics were found in this newly discovered cave. It has come to be recognized as the most important collection of ancient Oriental culture ever to be found, providing fresh insight into the complicated history of ancient China and Central Asia.

Kumul (Day Nine)

Being one of the largest agricultural centers in the region and known for its sweet hamigua melons and sunny weather, Kumul became a much anticipated oasis stop along the Silk Road. Located along the border with Mongolia, the population of Kumul Prefecture is a bit over half Han Chinese and a mix of ethnic minorities, including Kazaks, Hui, and Uyghurs. Historical sites are peppered around Kumul. Scenic Barkol Lake, an alpine lake reflecting the surrounding snow-capped Tian Shan Mountains, a day trip north of Kumul draws nature lovers to the area.

Turpan (Days Ten – Eleven)

Turpan is 154m (505 feet) below sea level, making it the third lowest depression in the world, only being beat by Lake Assal in Djibouti and the Dead Sea. It is the hottest location in China but is saved by the abundant ground water and fertile soil which mark this spot as an oasis town in the Taklamakan desert. Turpan has a unique irrigation system that allowed it to be a thriving waypoint along the Silk Road. Merchant traders traversing the route would welcome oasis towns to rest and engage in trade. The water needs of the travellers with their caravans, often including herds of animals, could be met thanks to this water source. The system exploits glacial runoff through a gravity fed network of underground tunnels supplying a year-round supply of water for more than 1,000 years. The predominant crop here is grapes.

The Bezeklik Caves are a complex of grottos carved into a mountainside housing Buddhist murals. The site dates from the 6th to the 14th century and is located in the Mutou Valley positioned under the Flamming Mountains, red sandstone geological formations with erosion-created gullies and trenches that look to be ablaze when the position of the sun cooperates at midday. The mingling of cultures with their often differing religious views didn’t always lead to understanding and tolerance along the Silk Road. Many of the murals here were vandalized or destroyed by adherents to a religious sect that prohibits figurative representation of sentient beings. Also, sadly, explorers from distant lands in the more recent past, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, removed murals from this site and transported them in all directions across the globe, most notably were many masterpieces taken from this site and moved to Germany where they were consequently destroyed in the bombing of Berlin.

In the Yarnez Valley outside of Turpan are the Jiaohe Ruins, a dramatic former fortress built atop a cliff. Curiously, this ancient city lacked any walls. Instead, the site made use of the natural environment to provide protection. It was built on a plateau in the middle of a river with cliffs on all sides. The city was abandoned in the 13th century during a Mongol invasion.

Kuqa (Days Twelve – Thirteen)

A picturesque spot at the southern periphery of the Tian Shan Mountains is where we find Kuqa, an ancient Buddhist Kingdom now populated by mainly Uyghurs. We explore and photograph the well-preserved old town and market. The larger cities along the Silk Road can have bazaars that have morphed into tourist traps with many vendors selling goods freshly produced from Chinese factories, oftentimes with intact shinkwrap. There is no parking lot for tour buses on market days in Kuqa. It is a local affair where residents of Kuqa and the surrounding region engage in commerce. Cars are not permitted in the old town, so transport is on foot, bicycle, or donkey-drawn carts, which often do double duty as taxis with people hopping on and off randomly for a small fee.

Kashgar (Days Fourteen – Fifteen)

For more than two millennia Kashgar has been a locus of trade and a cultural crossroads. This far western nook of China is near the border with both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Kashgar is undergoing rapid modernization with only a small area of the old town still surviving, and its days are likely numbered as nearly everything old is being bulldozed to make room for the new. We, of course, explore and photograph throughout the remaining old town as we may never get the opportunity to see it again. The spirit of Kashgar still thrives in the city’s many teeming bazaars, including the colorful and lively Sunday market and the animal market.

Idgar Mosque, one of the largest mosques in China, first built in 1442 is the heart of the city. Thousands of people worship here each day, and religious festivals attract tens of thousands of worshipers praying in the courtyards, gardens, and extending into the streets. Perhaps the best example of Islamic architecture in the region is another local site, the Hoja Mausoleum, built by the Khoja family among whom include rulers in this region of China during the 17th and 18th centuries. The mausoleum complex was constructed over three centuries, and it has become a pilgrimage destination.

Kashgar (Day Sixteen)

After enjoying breakfast this last morning in China, we continue on to the airport among friends, old and new, to catch out departure flights and begin planning for our next adventures.

Although this represents the photographic workshop’s planned itinerary, it is subject to change at the discretion of the workshop leaders.

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A $500 deposit is required to confirm your participation. Click on the Pay Deposit button to reserve your spot. You will be able to pay the deposit via PayPal or credit card. To pay by other methods (or if you encounter difficulties), please fill out the Registration Form and request an invoice in the comments. Please read the Cancellation Policy and the Release of Liability.

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