The Tale of Three Silk Traders and an Onyx Egg

So here’s the slightly embarrassing thing about our recent jaunt across the Silk Road from Turkey to China: We made for terrible traders.

Following the ancient trade route from the west to the Far East, we felt obliged to get involved with a little trading of our own.

So when we were in Turkey, the first post of the Silk Road on the west, we thought long and hard about what we could trade for some silk in the Far East.

What had traders never before carried across 7,000 miles of treacherous desert, remote mountain ranges and right across the Caspian Sea? What would be gazed at in awe as soon as we reached China and have our fellow merchants fawning over us to give their finest silk in exchange?

And then suddenly we saw it. The shiny, almost marble like onyx egg.

We were in Cappadocia at the time, admiring fairy chimneys and what-not, when we spied a man spinning onyx stone into egg shapes.

Yes, we thought, that will secure our fortune and reputation as great traders. So we purchased one at the bargain price of £5.

We lovingly wrapped it in the plastic bag that it came in and tucked it safely away in a corner of Matty’s day bag. The egg would make us rich, we vowed.

We carried it through Turkey and pulled funny faces with it.

In Georgia we took it all the way to the Gergeti Glacier.


In Amenia we showed it a large lake by a beautiful church.

In Azerbaijan Matty got a bit inappropriate with it.


In Turkmenistan we took it to the ancient ruins of Merv.


In Uzbekistan the egg saw the beautiful blue tiled mosques of Samarkand.


In Tajikistan the egg got all giddy at high altitude.


In Krygyzstan the egg got all arty among the rolling hills.


And then it got all the way to China… and enjoyed posing by the Bell Tower in Xi’an, our final stop on the Silk Road.


And it had its last moments with the Face of Ignorance…


And then finally the big day arrived. Four and a half months after making that fateful purchase Cappadocia, it was time to trade the egg at the far eastern post of the Silk Road; Xi’an, China.

Our first mistake was that we had grown unnaturally attached to the egg. It sort of felt like the fourth member of the clan, so to speak. It had seen everything we had… If eggs could talk. I fear this may have affected our professionalism.

Our second mistake was the egg was no longer in top notch condition. Truth be told the plastic bag didn’t quite provide the protection we had initially hoped for and as Matty threw his bag down after a few local special brews, we would hear it smash against the hard floor and cringe, hoping for the best.

Our third mistake, and I think this was where we really went wrong, was that someone had already taken onyx eggs to China. To our dismay we found rows and rows of egg shaped onyx creations, even onyx egg holders and other strange, elaborate statues that we fear somewhat undermined the status of our own little onyx treasure.

And finally, we couldn’t find the silk market in Xi’an so we headed to the Muslim quarter and hoped for the best.

After spending a couple of hours being distracted by the great street food and souvenirs that line the lantern adorned lanes of the Muslim Quarter we remembered our mission and hunted for a silk trader.

Eventually, by a stroke of luck as we made our way to the train station almost completely defeated, we chanced upon a lady selling silk scarves.

We played by all the old ancient trading rules – causally running the scarves trough our fingers, pretending we were only half interested. Well, until I cried: “This one, this one,” pointing enthusiastically at a piece of white silk with Chinese writing on it. That might have been another mistake.

So, the haggling started. She started the bidding at 100 Yuan (about £10), to which I came back with an offer we thought she couldn’t turn down: The Egg.

“This egg has travelled 7,000 miles from Turkey – it’s original onyx from Cappadocia,” I explained.

“We saw it being made by hand,” added the Mongoose.

We all looked towards her expectantly. And then something happened that I never, ever foresaw.

She laughed. She looked at our little old egg and broke into a great, mighty cackle.

“Ok, 10 Yuan and the egg,” I offered quietly.

More laughter. The bidding continued but she seemed to be more preoccupied with the money than the egg. It was not going to plan.

After a little while she softened and took the egg into her hand. She smiled.

“50 Yuan and the egg,” she offered.

Ok we agreed. We had a train to catch after all.


We took the silk scarf into our hands, which we plan to cut into three pieces because what better souvenir could three traders ‘cut from the same cloth’ possibly hope for?

As the exchange was made we watched in surprise as she placed the egg into her handbag instead of on the market stall.

“I think it will bring me luck,” she said smiling, still giggling a bit.

And we nodded in agreement. Financially it may not have been our best move – travelling the egg across the Silk Road cost us about £5,000 each, plus the £10 spent on the two transactions. We were left somewhat in negative equity.

But luck? Yes, the egg had definitely brought us lots of that.

Xi’an, China: The end of the Silk Road

It all started on the stairs. The stairs of the great Constantinople walls in Istanbul.

These were not any ordinary stairs – these stairs were ridiculously steep and unfathomably narrow. There was room for your toes on each step but even the ball of your foot was left dangling off.

“It’s easy,” the Mongoose tried to assure me. “Just pretend its a ladder, climb it like you’d climb a ladder,” he said. But it wasn’t a ladder, it was a hard, brick staircase that screamed death.

“No,” I said. “There is no way I’m climbing those stairs. Not under any circumstances.”

Two minutes later my shoes were off and I was putting my right toes on the first ‘rung’ of the stairs. Matty was in front of me. The Mongoose was behind me. And slowly we made our ascent.

Before I knew it my knocking knees and I were standing on the top of the old Constantinople walls.


We turned and faced east – the road to China – the road I would spend the next four and a half months travelling.


We put our arms around each other. We took pictures of our feet. Our six feet that would travel more than 5,000 miles together. And we couldn’t imagine what the road ahead would have in store.


It was the beginning of the Great Adventures of the Three Must-Have-A-Beers. A throw away comment made by my dad as he bid his farewells to us in London, which quickly became our label – our motto – the sentence that made me do the things I was scared of.

“Come on Delia, we’re the Three-Must-Have-A-Beers, we have to do this together,” The Mongoose would say when I threatened to wait at the bottom of perilous mountains or treacherous staircases with the bags.

And that is exactly what got me up those stairs that day. Yes, I thought, I trust these loons, we’re in it together.


But that was some 7,000 miles ago now. Technically 5,676 as the crow flies but we certainly did not travel like crows – we zig zagged our way across the Silk Road like a trio of drunk moles lost in a forest. Up, down, across and up and down again we went in Kyrgyzstan. From Georgia to Armenia and back to Georgia again before Azerbaijan. No we did not travel like crows.

Although it often felt like we were flying. Or standing on the top of the world at least.

I had to remind myself I was not on Mars when driving across the desolate, high altitude Pamir Highway of Tajikistan, known as the “rooftop of the world”, I had to assure myself I would get back to Earth eventually when stuck at the top of a mountain in a flimsy tent during a 12-hour thunder and hail storm, and I had to pinch myself when staring into the burning fire crater of the Turkmenistan desert.

And after catching what must have been weeks of sleeper trains, days of buses and hours of taxis, we reached our final destination: Xi’an.
But our journey wasn’t complete the moment when our tired feets touched Xi’an soil after a long sleepless train from the west. No, our final destination was the Bell Tower in Xi’an.

And so we began the final walk of the Silk Road. We paced down a colourful Xi’an street before coming to a sudden stop at the end. For we knew that as soon as we turned our heads to the left we would see the end of our road, and we weren’t quite ready for that.

So instead we huddled together, put our arms around each others shoulders and shared a few words. The hugs got tighter, kisses were planted firmly on cheeks and then, with our arms still locked together, we turned the corner and saw it illuminated against the dark blue sky at the end of the road. The Bell Tower.



And it was more beautiful than I could have imagined. We slowly strode towards it, clutching our bottle of ‘Champagne’, and did not stop until our palms were touching the cool brick of the tower. We had made it.

We had completed the Silk Road. We had laughed, we had cried (well actually just me when I found out my friend’s baby had been born), we had travelled miles and miles together, without catching a single plane.

And it was with all this emotion that three of us placed our hands on the huge piece of wood swinging besides the large, ancient bell at the top of the tower, ready to create an almighty noise. But security stepped in and we were abruptly shooed away before some giant fluffy character took it in his hands while rolling cameras filmed him posing with it. Of course.


So instead we took pictures of our feet. And stared west – the road to Turkey – the road we had spent the last four and a half months travelling.



And after we climbed down the stairs of the bell tower, a far cry from those of the Constantinople Walls, we popped the Champagne and lit a cigar.

“To the adventures of the Three Must-Have-A-Beers,” we toasted.
“And to all that we’ve seen….
“And to all that we’ve overcome…
“And to each other…”

I love these loons.

Wandering Monks of Labrang Monastery, Xiahe, China

A group of kids are running and skidding down an alley way, kicking a football high into the air. The ball flies over the wall and they briefly shout in protest before one of them runs round to try and find it.

An ordinary situation – I could be anywhere in the world, I think. But these aren’t ordinary teenage kids. Instead of sporting the latest Nikes and skinny jeans, these boys are wearing red wine coloured robes and their hair has been shaved. They are monks in training, or monklets as I like to call them.


Welcome to Xiahe, a Tibetan town in China, that doesn’t really feel like China at all.

It was a tricky journey here, I won’t lie. A sleeper train from Dunhuang and two buses later we arrived, bleary eyed, hungry and a little confused. A monk passed me on his mobile phone, another was clutching his shopping while laughing with his friend and a third just silently chanting to himself as he walked through the busy high street of Xiahe (pronounced sheeya-huh in case you were curious).


Why aren’t they living in caves or fasting in the monastery, I can’t help but wonder, as I wander the streets. Clearly I am out of date with monks. The irony that I share their name is not lost on me. But if anywhere is going to bring you up to speed with the life of the Tibetan monk it’s Xiahe, which has been completely built around the Labrang Monastery.

Sitting proudly at the end of the town’s busy, colourful, horn-honking high street, you will find everything from woollen shawls and prayer beads to cans of Coca Cola as you make your way to the monks’ extensive complex. Oh and the town has a resident goat.


But once you enter the narrow streets and winding paths that snake around the monastery’s buildings, a new sense of quiet emerges and you find yourself almost tip-toeing past the muttering monks.


A 3km horse-shoe shaped path takes you around the key buildings. Lined almost entirely with brightly painted prayer barrels, it has become a significant pilgrimage path, as monks, nuns and locals walk the circuit, spinning the barrels as they pass, chanting, praying and genuinely lost in thought.



“Oops, sorry,” I bumble apologetically as I accidentally elbow a praying monk who is mid-barrel spinning. But the monk barely notices, he is about six barrels down by the time I finish my sentence.

Labrang Monastery is a hypnotic place. The devotion of those around you is infectious and it isn’t long before I am completely under the spell. The temples are decked out in a dizzy array of colours – what look like multi-coloured silk ties (the garish kind your teachers might have sported on non-uniform days) hang from the pillars while huge, gleaming gold Buddha statues drape sheets of golden yellow silk down to smaller gold Buddhas at either side. Brightly coloured Buddhist tales are depicted on the temple walls and white space is scarce.

Sadly no pictures are allowed inside but here’s a taste of the colourful exterior…





The incense fills your nostrils, as does – more bizarrely – the huge candles that appear to be made out of yaks butter that nevertheless, give the temples a wonderful flickering, soft light.

And then there are the monks. Often found sitting against a wall in the temples, chanting, singing and praying or banging huge drums and golden cymbals, they are, without a doubt, the star attraction of the monastery.


Their chanting turns into laughter as I walk past them and I self-consciously glance round to a line of big, grinning faces. I grin back. I don’t understand them but I instantly warm to them.

And so as when the monklets’ football rolls towards Matty’s feet it feels like the most natural thing in the world for him to kick it back their way. They grin and shout their thanks before carrying on their game. It could be anywhere in the world I think, but I’ve never been anywhere quite like it.

Singing Sand Dunes, Dunhuang, China

The great desert sand storm. Even the hardiest Silk Road travellers feared it, the camels could tell it was coming, and many never survived it.

As if there weren’t enough perils on the road already; vagabonds and thiefs, tireless Turkmen tribes that guarded the sandy desert plains like ocean pirates, suspicious kings and emperors who could throw you into a pit of snakes as soon as you enter their city walls (true story), and then there was Mother Nature herself.

If you survived all of the above, and you didn’t die of dehydration, then the winds could get you yet.

Men who travelled the Silk Road hundreds of years ago gave horrendous accounts of sandstorms. Tales described how the wind would suddenly accelerate and change course, throwing huge fistfuls of sand at the exposed traveller, who was forced to hide under a heavy blanket and sit it out. Some would come round to find themselves half buried in the desert, for others it became their grave.

And ever since I gave the nod to travelling the Silk Road, I couldn’t help but fear the worst. The Mongoose kindly bought me some Silk Road non-fiction books for my birthday last year. There was a terrible scene with the wind, sand and a traveller in the Taklamakan Desert in China that made me put the book down in terror and pick up a map in fear. My worst conditions were confirmed; we would be crossing the Taklamakan Desert in China (aka desert of death), and it was HUGE.

“It’s different these days,” Matty tried to assure me.
“They have air conditioned buses and trains going across the desert, it will be no different to travelling any other terrain.”

But I was unconvinced. Something inside me just knew we would get to the train station to be told: “I’m sorry sir, we have no trains today, just camels. Have you a thick blanket to hide under?” (In Chinese, of course, which we would spend the next hour trying to understand before realising the horror of the situation.)

But it turns out Matty was right, kind of. We were thrown onto an old, hot, hectic, cramped train where we were to sit for 26 hours, watching the desert out of the window. Occasionally the carriage would fill up with dust and sand and everyone would rush to pull the windows down.


The conditions were deeply unpleasant but not as bad as riding a camel I reminded myself.

So, by the time we reached the Singing Sand Dunes in Dunhuang I forgotten all about my fear of being buried in sand. I was going to see some singing sand dunes, it would be nothing short of magical I thought, while also wondering what they would sing.

Only 3.5km from the centre of Dunhuang in western China, we decided to cycle to the sand dunes on some vintage bikes that we hired for 50p an hour. Doesn’t the Mongoose look impressed?


And then, suddenly, at the end of the long straight road we could see huge, towering mountains of sand. It looked both magical and unreal, as if I had accidentally walked into a Disney set.

This feeling was somewhat compounded by the ridiculous commercialisation of the dunes, which cost an almighty £12 to ‘get into’ and have a huge ticket office and landscaped car park that puts Euro Disney to shame.

But even that couldn’t detract from the marvellous scene before us, and I had to pinch myself to remind myself it was all real.


With tickets in hand, we made our way to the base of the dunes that just rise out of the ground suddenly, as if just dropped there by mistake. We kicked off our shoes and felt the familiar, comforting sensation of warm sand under our bare toes as we began our ascent.

It reminded me of those frustrating times in life… Two steps forward, one step back as my feet fell ankle-deep into the thick sand. I watched kids huffing and puffing before just giving up and rolling down the side.

What fun! The five year old inside me wanted to get involved while the 20-something exterior (yes I can still say this for three more weeks) shuddered at the thought of getting that much sand in my hair.

So we kept climbing, and sinking. And climbing, and sinking.




And then we found ourselves at the top of this giant sand dune just as the sun was making its goodbyes for the day. We found a quiet spot and bid our farewells to the wonderful burning ball of fire (I could have been a pagan sun worshipper easily, I think.)





And just as as we held our arms out to the sinking sun as it disappeared behind another dune in front of us, it happened. The wind said hello.

Without even so much of a warning, it just pelted sand at us. The tiny, innocuous grains almost felt like back of someone’s hand, stinging as it hit our backs.

“We have to get down,” cried Matty as he slid down one side of the dune for shelter. But the wind found us there too, throwing sand in our eyes, our noses and our mouths.

“The camera,” I cried, looking down at our SLR that was now covered in sand before shoving it in my bag quickly, trying not to think about it.

The Mongoose cleverly pulled up his Afghan scarf over his mouth and nose, while I messily spread my hands over my face as we raced back down the sand dune. The wind didn’t give up and the sand just felt stronger and harder with every gust.

But soon we we back on hard ground with shoes on our feet once more, talking about what dishes to order at our new favourite Szechuan restaurant in town. And as we clinked our ice cold beer bottles half an hour later, it felt only right that the Three-Must-Have-A-Beers got a taste of the almighty desert and its powerful wind.

Now we really are Silk Road travellers.

PS Our “Silk Road” journey is soon coming to an end, in just a few days time we shall find ourselves in Xi’an – the final, ancient port of trading in the east. But fret not, this blog will continue to tell our tales as we journey down south and begin a new chapter of our lives in Vietnam next month… I promise to keep you posted 🙂

PPS The sand dunes didn’t sing for me but apparently they are called so because as sand grains shuffle down the slops they produce a deep, groaning hum that can be heard for miles. Clever, huh?!

Travel Tips

Visiting the Singing Sand Dunes in Dunhuang is an absolute must if you find yourself in this corner of the world.

I recommend you do it either first thing in the morning or later in the day to avoid the burning sun that would make climbing the sand dunes bare foot all a little too painful! We were told that the hottest time of the day at the Singing Sand Dunes is in fact at about 4 – 5pm, not mid-day as you might expect.

We set off from town at about 6pm, which was perfect for watching the sunset.

We hired our bikes in Dunhuang from Mr John’s Information Cafe, and they cost 5Yuan an hour.