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In the years before sailing ships connected China with Europe, perhaps as early as the third century B.C., the main trade routes were overland.

Caravans of thousands of camels loaded with gold, silk and spices traveled at great risk across Snowcapped mountains and vast deserts.

Many routes that led from east to west are all coupled today under the rubric "Silk Road." Along with commerce, the Silk Road also led to cultural exchanges and the spread first of Buddhism, then Islam.

Today, traveling in great comfort by plane or overland by train on the northern branch of the Silk Road from Xian to the green oasis cities of Urumqi and Kashgar, visitors can see the legacy of the pilgrims monks and merchants who traveled here: intensely artistic shrines to Buddhism and a contemporary, vibrant and flourishing Islamic culture.

The journey is full of delights the stark beauty of the desert on a moonlit camel ride or the wildly colorful Kashgar Sunday bazaar, said to be the best in Asia.

Equally fscinating are the Thousand Buddha Caves, about 15 miles southeast of Dunhuang.

Almost 500 of the original 1,000 caves survive, some at least 1,600 years old. those that remain are covered with treasures: murals, wall sculptures and exquisite statues of the Buddha carved in the sides of the cliffs.

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