Retracing Journey To The West

Monkey King Protects Tripitaka (Xuanzang)

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The Novel

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)

show route and directions
A markerChang'an -
Xi'an, Shaanxi, China
[get directions]

Now Xián

B markerDunhuang -
Dunhuang, Jiuquan, Gansu, China
[get directions]

C markerGaochang -
Turpan, Xinjiang, China
[get directions]

Now a ruins near Turfan (aka Turpan)

D markerQiuzi -
Kuqa, Aksu, Xinjiang, China
[get directions]

Now Kuqa (aka Kuche)

E markerSuiye -
Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan
[get directions]

Now Tokmak

F markerTashkent -
Tashkent, Uzbekistan
[get directions]

G markerSamarkand -
Samarkand, Uzbekistan
[get directions]

H markerBamiyan -
Bamyan Province, Afghanistan
[get directions]

I markerNalanda -
Nalanda, Bihar, India
[get directions]

Xuanzang, the traveller

A bronze statue at the Journey To The West Museum near Turfan, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region
A bronze statue at the Journey To The West Museum near Turfan, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

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

show route and directions
A markerMadras -
Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
[get directions]

B markerNalanda -
Nalanda, Bihar, India
[get directions]

C markerAjanta -
Ajanta, Maharashtra, India
[get directions]

D markerPeshawar -
Peshawar, Pakistan
[get directions]

E markerKashgar -
Kashi(Kaxgar), Xinjiang, China
[get directions]

F markerKhotan -
Hetian, Xinjiang, China
[get directions]

G markerDunhuang -
Dunhuang, Jiuquan, Gansu, China
[get directions]

H markerChangán -
Xi'an, Shaanxi, China
[get directions]

Now Xián

Journey To The West

A tribute in Lanzhou
A tribute in Lanzhou

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

Hiking a section of the route near Jiayuguan, Gansu Province
Hiking a section of the route near Jiayuguan, Gansu Province

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.

Gaochang

Visiting the extensive ruins by donkey cart
Visiting the extensive ruins by donkey cart

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.

Flaming Mountains

Feel the heat and then the story of Princess Iron Fan begins to make sense
Feel the heat and then the story of Princess Iron Fan begins to make sense

A little light reading

Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud
Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud

The story of a Chinese lady driven to folllow the extraordinary journey made by the monk Xuanzang almost 1500 years ago

 
Chasing the Monk's Shadow
Chasing the Monk's Shadow

By comparison, an Indian lady's perspective of the same route

 

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.

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Comments 6 comments

Mark Anderson 5 years ago

It's a very interesting blog because I've only ever thought about Journey to the West as a novel, and very much a fictionalized story at that. Your information about an actual historical person, Xuanzang, and his travels along parts of the Silk Road, and then south to India, is new to me, and quite interesting. A 16-year trip, remembered, is not unlike the travels of the more well known Marco Polo.


fordie profile image

fordie 5 years ago from China Author

The big adventure that forms the outline of the plot, combined with subtle digs at government and religion, all contribute to the classic status of this novel. The humour seals it


Derdriu 4 years ago

Fordie, What a fascinating, mesmerizing, riveting summary of what inspires some westward walking on your part and what provoked an incredible ancient journey and back! In particular, you do a great job of spacing interesting information with your compelling "pretty pictures." My favorite photos are the Flaming Mountains and Lanzhou.

Additionally, I appreciate the locations which you mention as visit-worthy during your recent abbreviated retracing of Xuanzang's venerable footsteps. The map shows that's quite a journey -- both the round trip and the select forays -- in ancient and modern times. It's interesting to read your comment that the watchtowers made it impossible for Xuanzang to think of travelling without anyone knowing.

Finally, I appreciate how you end with the necessary "paper trail" information of necessary documents and permissions: it can take quite to bit to make one "little" foray!

Thank you for sharing, voted up + all,

Derdriu

P.S. What's the film set near the Great Wall about?


fordie profile image

fordie 4 years ago from China Author

Derdriu, thank you for reading and commenting.

I am lucky to have made several trips along this route so have been able to select just a few snaps from the many taken. It is not too difficult to get clear shots in the dry conditions but the harsh light is sometimes a challenge.

The film set - I understand was for a TV series but has been left in situ for possible future filming and as an additional attraction for tourists. It was a bit of fun - tho' I am sworn never to release the photos of my VIP guest dressed up as a Chinese general (complete with plastic halberd)


Derdriu 4 years ago

Fordie, Non-dangerous secrets are meant to be kept.

Respectfully, Derdriu


fordie profile image

fordie 4 years ago from China Author

:) Exactly

Now, did I mention ...

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