Once a great symbol of progress, the Silk Road is still leading us towards tomorrow

Once a great symbol of progress, the Silk Road is still leading us towards tomorrow

By KAMAL SHAH | | 2 July, 2016
Venue for the Silk Road International Tour Operators Conference in Lanzhou.
Not many people in India would be familiar with the city of Lanzhou in China, but this was once the geographical nerve centre of the Silk Route trade. Kamal Shah discovers the historical charms of Lanzhou, while attending the Silk Road International Tourism Festival held here in June.

The beautiful Yellow River is not far from the Crown Plaza Hotel in the city of Lanzhou, which lies in China’s Gansu province, and where some 1000-odd delegates from all over the world were recently treated to an awesome display of China’s cultural, economic and artistic strength during the Silk Road International Tourism Festival, organised by the China National Tourism Administration (CNTA).

This is where nostalgia takes over. The sixth Dunhuang Tour: Silk Route International Tourism Festival transports us back in time to the days of the Han Dynasty, when trade was conducted in this region through the Silk Route. This was the era when the Silk Route proved to be a game changer for China as it connected the country with both the Eastern and Western worlds.

The legacy of the Silk Route was recreated and revived during a five-day extravaganza conducted in Lanzhou by the CNTA. I can tell you that I was mesmerised and deeply impressed by what I saw during my sojourn in this idyllic city.

The route was named after silk, since it was silk that proved to be the main export of China to the world. And it’s no exaggeration today to say that the Silk Route was responsible for the development and growth of the Chinese civilization. Li Qianguo,  Director, China National Tourist Office (CNTO) in New Delhi — which organised the tour for the Indian delegation — was at pains to explain to me the importance of the Silk Route.

“You see the Silk Route played a great role in China’s development. It acted as a sort of window to the outside world. Well I can say that apart from the West, this route helped foster trade relations between China and India. Through this route the Chinese traders not only exported silk but also disseminated their ideas, mindset and culture to the entire world. I think the Silk Route was one of the best things to happen to China,” Qianguo told me.

It is worth mentioning here that during the Silk Route era, Indian traders also had a susbstantial role to play. It was during this period that  a large number of Indian traders had emerged, around the time of the Mauryan dynasty. Chandragupta Maurya, and the great Indian emperor Ashoka had established trade links along the Silk Route with China. The Indian traders had thriving businesses, which also happens to be the central theme in some of the paintings and sculptures done in the Mauryan age.

I must make special mention of the grand opening ceremony, which was held on 20 June. There were nearly 1,000 participants. Some of the prominent names  included CNTA Vice Chairman Du Jiang; China Tourism Association President Duan Qiang; Gansu Provincial Political Consultative Conference Chairman Feng Jianshen; Deputy Party Secretary of Gansu Ouyang Jian; Pacific Asia Travel Association President Andrew Jones; German Travel Association Managing Director Dirk Ingel; as well as provincial- and municipal-level senior officials. Besides, there were tourism heads from the 31 provinces, regions and municipalities, Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, nearly 400 domestic travel agencies and over 300 overseas travel agencies from 28 countries and regions inluding the United States, Germany and Belarus, as well as journalists and local government officials in Gansu.

There was a visual treat for the delegates when the classical dance drama Dunhuang, My Dreamland was performed. This show captured the vibrant cultural tapestry of China and had the huge audiences standing up and applauding once the dance drama was over.  

Among the prominent members who attended this show was CNTA Chairman Li Jinzao; Deputy Party Secretary and Governor of Gansu Lin Duo; Deputy Minister of Sports and Tourism of Belarus Portnoy Mikhail; and Executive Director of World Travel and Tourism Council Nigel David, who addressed the launch ceremony.

Tourism has been beneficial to the Chinese economy, and authorities here believe that this industry can be further tapped  in order to get the most out of it. “The tourism industry is an open, penetrating and blending business, can boost economic development, increase investment and consumption, facilitate poverty reduction, and enhance friendship between countries and regions, thus an advantageous industry and a pioneer industry in the Silk Road international cooperation,” Qianguo  said. The province of Gansu itself  is a key tourism hub in the region, with the Silk Route, Yellow River and the Great Wall, all within easy reach. Two World Heritage Sites, three national parks, eight Tourism Cities, as well as 72 major historical and cultural sites are all to be found within the parameters of this province in Northwest China.

The sixth Dunhuang Tour: Silk Route International Tourism Festival transports us back in time to the days of the Han Dynasty, when trade was conducted in this region through the Silk Route.

Let me make an observation here. I feel that China has made tremendous progress developing Tier-II and Tier-III cities. This was quite evident from the breathtaking ride I had in the bullet train from Lanzhou to Jiayuguan. The train left dot on time and when we arrived in Jiayuguan, I was quite surprised to see how developed and neat Lanzhou  and Jiayuguan looked. Most of us Indians have not heard of these cities, but I can assure you that even these smaller cities can rival most top cities of our country in terms of infrastructure.

Also, I feel that one of the key areas of China’s development has been to concentrate on developing Tier-II and Tier-III cities. There are at least half-a-dozen lesser known cities in the mainland that the authorities earmark and set up for development. The construction, planning and execution process work in perfect harmony with each other and  the net result of this co-ordination is there for all to see.

Coming back to the Silk Route International Festival, I was really impressed by the speech delivered by Li Jinxao, the Chairman of CNTA. In  a visionary adress, Jinxao declared that the CNTA had declared the years 2015 and 2016 as The Year of the Silk Road Tourism. “We have formulated the Silk Road tourism cooperation and development plan and have also planned about 200 tourism cooperation acitivities,” he outlined.  

Jinxao also dwelt upon the contribution of global and regional tourism towards the Silk Route Tourism. “The continuous growth of global and regional tourism will create opportunities for tourism development in countries along the Silk Road. We would like to join other countries along the Silk Road, follow the principle of ‘consultation, joint construction and sharing’, coordinate the demands of different countries, jointly build up the brand of Silk Road, share growth opportunities and promote common tourism development,” Jinxao said.

He further stated that the province of Gansu (where Lanzhou, the capital, is located) has been promoting tourism. “Gansu has highly valued the development of the tourism industry in recent years and has been fostering the tourism industry as a leading industry in the modern service sector and a strategic pillar industry in national economy to enhance its overall competitiveness. To develop the tourism industry, Gansu has improved the policy environment, developed core products, strengthened interconnectivity and greatly promoted the integrated development of the cultural and tourism industry,” he said.

The big role which tourism has played in Gansu’s development was also brought to light.

It is worth mentioning here that during the 12th Five-Year Plan period, Gansu quadrupled the number of tourists and the comprehensive income from tourism. In 2015, it recorded the comprehensive income from tourism of RMB 97.5 billion, up by 25% from the previous year. The tourism industry has grown into an important growth pole for Gansu’s economic development.

Further, as an important gateway for opening up westward and a strategic base for subregional cooperation, Gansu will centre on the vision and actions of the Belt and Road Initiative, spread Chinese culture and enhance friendship with other parts along the Silk Road by developing Silk Road tourism, in order to promote win-win industrial cooperation and economic and trade contacts among countries and regions along the Silk Road.

For the final leg of ourjourney, we are taken to the fascinating Buddhist caves in Dunhuang. This is where you find some fabulous examples of Buddhist art and grottoes spanning a period of 1,000 years.

At the end of the five-day extravaganza, I am struck by the vast strides made by China towards development. As our conitigent moves away from our hotel, the Yellow River recedes and  I feel that this was an epochal event which I had the pleasure of attending.  

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