Retracing Journey To The West
Monkey King Protects Tripitaka (Xuanzang)
Journey To The West is one of the four most famous novels in China. It is generally attributed to Wu Cheng'en although some academics have other theories.
The story is based on the actual travels of a Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, who set off from the then capital Chang'an (near present day Xi'an) for India in order to discover the real meaning of some Buddhist sutras that he believed to have been corrupted during translation. Some points about that journey are made below.
The novel gives Xuanzang a critical role in the plot but the main character is the Monkey King, also known as Sun Wukong (and a whole host of meaningful and meaningless titles). [Note: The abridged version of the story by Arthur Waley is simply known as Monkey.] This colourful character has special abilities that first lead him into trouble with the authorities in heaven and then into the role of protecting Xuanzang from demons and other evil-doers on his journey to enlightenment.
This pair are joined by three other travellers: a pig, a cannibal and a dragon (who becomes Xuanzang's horse) - all incarnations with a troubled past.
Anyway, enough of the story ... this hub is not intended as a substitute for reading ... nor is it any kind of critical review.
The Outward Journey, To The West (initially at least)
Now a ruins near Turfan (aka Turpan)
Now Kuqa (aka Kuche)
Xuanzang, the traveller
The Original Journey
Xuanzang, who earned the title Tripitaka (meaning three baskets , a reference to the important scriptures that he collected), was a real historical figure. He left an account of his amazing journey - Records of the Western Regions (now sometimes referred to as the Great Tang Records of the Western Regions).
Xuanzang was about 16 and a young Buddhist monk in Luoyang at the time that the Sui Dynasty collapsed. Since his monastery was one supported by the previous administration he fled, along with many others, to the new capital at Chang'an (near the present day city of Xi'an - which is now more famous for the Qin Dynasty Emperor's Tomb and underground army guarding it, the Terracotta Warriors.
At the age of 20 Xuanzang was fully ordained as a monk. He had studied Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) Buddhism as well as Sanskrit and perhaps Tocharian, a language of the Silk Road. During this period he is said to have noted many discrepancies and contradictions in the current translations used in teaching.
Some 7 years later Xuanzang is said to have had a dream convincing him to go to India to resolve the doctrinal issues once and for all. This was not a good time for travel as there was war with one of the Turkic tribes on the western borders. The Emperor had forbidden travel and no exception would be made for a mere monk.
Xuanzang left anyway and, undeterred, managed not only to exit Tang China but to reach India as intended via many important Buddhist states in Central Asia. He visited Lumbini, the birthplace of the historical Buddha before settling into the important monastery at Nalanda for 2 or more years.
Heading back home, with a great number of sutras, Xuanzang made a circuit of India before returning by a shorter route over the Hindu Kush. He arrived back in Chang'an after 16 years with a hero's welcome. He then spent the rest of his life translating as much of his collection as possible, as well as documenting his journey.
The Journey Back
Journey To The West
My Own Travels
I have been lucky enough with my main line of business to have travelled many sections of Xuanzang's route, though not until recently in a way that was organised specifically as any kind of 'retracing'. When that opportunity came along it was research into a combination of both the actual and fictional journeys, and very enjoyable.
One Day's Walk
To get a feel for what it must have been like to walk along the ancient Silk Road I have walked a section of the route near Jiayuguan twice. This section follows the course of the Taolai River as a canyon forms and ends dramatically with a view of the end of the Great Wall of China. The hike requires some form of private drop off and pick-up and about 3 hours, with plenty of water and sun protection.
There is now a film set opposite the end of the Great Wall which is worth a short visit.
Many of the city states that Xuanzang visited during his travels have been superseded by more modern towns. However, many ruins still exist as the desert conditions have been kind to their mud-brick walls.
I enjoyed visits to Gaochang and Jiaohe, which are both within easy reach of Turfan (also known as Turpan) which is itself not far from the provincial capital Urumqi (Wulumuqi).
From Kuche (Kuqa), one interesting excursion took us to Subashi, a city that once straddled both sides of a large river. One of the watchtowers nearby is remarkably well preserved and gives some indication of the difficulty a traveller like Xuanzang would have had in avoiding official notice.
There are many Buddhist Grottoes along the Silk Road. The best is generally regarded as the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang though I have yet to actually visit these. I do recommend from experience Yulin, Kumtura and Kizil. I also consider Zhangye a very under-rated town; it's Dafo Temple is very interesting and the Mati Si complex up in the hills are well worth the effort.
Planning Your Own Trip
Few travellers have the time, energy and finances to retrace the whole of Xuanzang's journey. However, those who have found this hub interesting may well find satisfaction in retracing some section significant from their own readings or wider interests.
Much of the action takes place within the borders of modern day China (the People's Republic of China, to be more precise). Xi'an sees many foreign visitors but not many of these continue westwards into Gansu Province and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
It is not possible to retrace Xuanzang's exact footsteps out of China though there are several routes open to modern visitors wanting to continue on to Kyrgyzstan and beyond. The route back from Pakistan is open and probably very similar to the one taken by Xuanzang, though much more convenient. Anyone interested in such options may also be interested in my hub: Alternate Routes Into China.
There is, of course, also the option of a flight - something Sun Wukong could manage on his pet cloud, but not Tripitaka or the original Xuanzang.
Visas are required for most nationalities visiting this region and so any multiple country trip can prove to be somewhat challenging.
It is wise to read your own governments travel advice before visiting any of these countries to see if there are any areas that should be avoided (such things change frequently) and to obtain reliable and comprehensive travel insurance. The area is not noted for any particular health issues but it would be wise to check with a medical practice - again because things can and do change suddenly.
Many resources are available to help fully independent and semi-independent travellers decide on a suitable route and activities along the way, including guidebooks and online forums. Standard package tours also offer some guide as to what is possible/popular.
- Land Of The Setting Sun: A journey to the far West of China
Trains, buses and the occasional plane take us on a journey that would have taken the merchants of old many months. The idea is to pass through the same lands, not to suffer the same hardships.
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