Yet to follow the Silk Road is to follow a ghost. It flows through the heart of Asia, but it has officially vanished, leaving behind it the pattern of its restlessness: counterfeit borders, unmapped peoples. The road forks and wanders wherever you are. It is not a single way, but many: a web of choices. Mine stretches more than seven thousand miles, and is occasionally dangerous.
But in the temple of the Yellow Emperor, the woman's gaze has drifted north. 'He was buried up there on the mountain,' she says. 'It's written that people tugged at the emperor's clothes as he flew to heaven, trying to pull him back. Some say that only his clothes are buried there. But I don't think this is true.' She speaks softly, with a tinge of unexplained sadness. 'The grave is quite small, not like those of later emperors. I think life was simpler in those days.'
We walk for a minute longer under the eaves of the temple. Then, suddenly, the quiet is shattered by the stutter of power-drills and the groan of dump-trucks.
'They're building the new temple,' she says. 'For celebrations and conferences. This one's too small. The new one will hold five thousand people.'
Later I peer down from the hillside on the building site where it will be. I imagine the stressless, unchanging temple-pavilions of China rising from their wan granite. This place, Huangling, is only a hundred miles north of modern Xian, but is lost deep in another time of erosion and poverty. Who will come?
But the whole site is resurrecting as a national shrine, and already the older temple is filled with the memorial stelae of China's statesmen offering homage to 'the father of the nation'. Here is the stone calligraphy of Sun Yatsen from 1912, and of Chiang Kai-shek, predictably coarse; of Mao Zedong, who was later to condemn the Yellow Emperor as feudal; of Deng Xiaoping and the hated Li Peng.
The foregoing is excerpted from Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
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