Dunhuang is an ancient oasis city in the west of China. Its boundaries are marked by colossal mountain chains to the north and the south, and by the Gobi Desert to the east and west. And in this bottleneck, travellers and merchants from all parts of the world rubbed shoulders. Dunhuang, and particularly the village of Mogao that lies on its outskirts, are famous for their thousand-year-old caves, which Buddhist monks excavated from the sandstone between the 4th and 12th centuries, decorating them with wall paintings and sculptures of Buddha. Not until the 20th century were thousands of documents found that monks had buried within the walls in 1036 to protect them from the Mongols. Roughly half of the Mogao grottoes have survived, and today they are a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The nearly 1,000-year history of the Byzantine Empire tells of purple and gold, of power struggles and bloody religious wars. The Christian empire evolved from the eastern part of the former Roman Empire, and stretched at its heyday from Italy through the Balkans and the Arabian peninsula to North Africa. Its flourishing capital was Byzantium, which was later renamed Constantinople. Thanks to the strategic position on the Bosporus, shipping lanes and trade routes between the Orient and the Occident crossed here. Merchants, scholars, artists and crooks alike from East and West crowded the city's marketplaces and churches, powerful families vied for influence, and the splendid wealth of art and culture shed its light on all of Europe.
The Uigur Autonomous Region Xinjiang in western Chinas is almost four times the size of Germany. Oasis city Turfan lies at its centre, in a valley between desert and mountains that is said to be the lowest point in all of China. To this day it is home to many treasures, to thousand-year-old ruins and tombs. A paradise for archeologists, who made a very special discovery here in 2016: a burial object consisting entirely of cannabis: this is one of the earliest pieces of evidence for the use of the plant in cult rituals – it is some 2,500 years old.
Kirgistan, the mountainous territory in western China, really lies in the middle of Asia: it is farther away from an ocean than any country in the world. And Kirgistan possesses a spectacular topography as well, with more than 90% of its surface area lying at an altitude of over 1,500 metres. The national flag shows a big yellow sun that at the same time represents the roof of a yurt, the traditional tent used by nomads. The music of Kirgistan consists of ancient epic songs, shaman chants, wedding hymns and pastoral melodies.
Only three million people inhabit an area five times the size of Germany: Mongolia has the lowest population density of any country in the world. Another peculiarity is that this huge land only has two neighbours, although it is not located on the sea: it is completely enclosed by China and Russia. The Mongolian steppes are among the most unspoilt regions on the planet. For hundreds of years, the local people have crossed the steppes mainly on horseback, and the horse enjoys such high status in Mongolia that it adorns one of the country's most important musical instruments as a woodcut: the Mongolian horse-head violin.
In the first century B.C., the Roman Empire experienced a real fashion scandal. The poet Seneca railed against an exotic new fabric whose thin surface revealed a little more of the lady's body beneath it than was decent. The target of his criticism was silk. Well-off Roman ladies couldn't have cared less: they loved their silk, and even the Emperor Caligula is said to have been fond of wearing the material that weighed no more than a cloud. As the gateway to the East at the northern tip of the Adriatic, lagoon city Venice was the destination for countless consignments of silk from the Orient, and an absolute melting pot for a wide variety of cultures.
What we understand by the name Iran today has always been one of the most interesting regions in the world from a geographic point of view, and was the centre of the old Silk Road. The early Persian kingdom, which stretched in part from what is today Greece as far as north-west India, was already referred to as Iran by local people. Many of the most important trading posts of the early Silk Road lie in this area – Qumis, Damghan and Iran's ancient capital Rei. Thanks to its unique location at an intersection of several Silk Road routes, Rei used to be one of the economic and cultural centres of the Middle East. So it comes as no surprise that the modern capital of Teheran was built upon the remains of its ancient predecessor.
As one of the central lands along the Silk Road, Afghanistan combines many different influences: the world of Persian music left its mark in the country's turbulent history, as did the colours of northern India and the musical styles of the Arabs and the Mongols. Afghanistan is a mountainous country roughly the size of Germany and Poland combined. It has countless mineral resources, but is one of the poorest nations in the world.
Uzbekistan, the »heart of Central Asia«, has 33 million inhabitatants, making it the region's most populous state. Since a change of government in 2016, the long-isolated and landlocked country has been undergoing transformation, and attracting increasing numbers of tourists. This is hardly surprising: with its mosaics, richly decorated domes and minarets, the Uzbek cities still radiate the magic of the historic Silk Road, on which they used to be important intermediate stops.