Threading the Silk Road

This item appears on page 20 of the July 2020 issue.

We thank Debbie Wenck of Carlsbad, California, for contributing the essay topic “Threading the Silk Road,” which inspired numerous entries to our recent writing contest among subscribers. ITN staff judged the submissions, and the winning work was that of MARIA DRUMM, who will receive a $45 gift certificate for CircaTerra Travel Outfitters (3317A State St., Santa Barbara, CA 93105; 805/568-5402, Coming in at a close second was the essay by DAVID J. PATTEN, who will receive a $25 gift certificate.

We are currently accepting essays on the topic “I See Iceland.” If you are an ITN subscriber and have been to Iceland, get creative! Express the mood of the place, what it felt like to be there, or get across what the local people are like, or describe a meaningful encounter you had, or share any insights you gained into the culture. Paint verbal pictures of things you saw. 

Keep your essay to no more than 300 words. Email it to or send it to Essay Contest, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818. Include your mailing or billing address. The deadline is August 31, 2020. A prize will be given for the winning essay, which will appear in ITN.

Now here are the latest winning essays.

It was my first trip to China, and I was in Xi’an. I stood in awe of the gigantic, ancient city gate before me. Most of all, I was awestruck knowing that I stood at the eastern terminus of thousands of miles of the ancient Silk Road.

It was my first trip to Venice, in the 1980s. I had just arrived, but I still found my way to the Piazza San Marco. Heavy fog had drifted over the scene from the Adriatic. It was like a fairy tale come true as I viewed the opulence of the facade of the cathedral and the campanile, its top shrouded in moonlit clouds. It was only then that I remembered that I was at one of the western ends of the ancient trade routes.

It was only while on later trips across Central Asia that I fully realized that the many ancient trade routes spanned Earth’s greatest land mass, the Eurasian continent. It not only brought the luxurious, coveted silks from China to Europe but carried gold, silver and wool back east. The ancient roads also brought a cross-fertilization of various cultures, technologies and religions.

While on trips to China’s westernmost province, Xinjiang, to the “five ‘Stans,” to the Caucasus, to Anatolia and to Istanbul, it was often difficult to trace the remains of what was once one of the primary unifying elements of Earth’s vast continent. But what persisted in reminding me of the existence of the ancient roads were the many caravanserais, the ancient way stations, especially those seen in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey.

My various trips along the ancient Silk Roads have led to my greater understanding that much in history has transcended national borders, and that has united us all together as citizens of Planet Earth.

David J. Patten
Saint Petersburg, FL


It is a whiteout. With the blinding hail and sleet, there is nothing to mark the sharp edge of this narrow path they call a road. We have crossed the world’s highest motorable pass but can see nothing. Fear has paralyzed us and disappointment followed. Will we ever get a second chance at Khardung La? Will the wind ever stop?

As were the ancient traders who searched for a respite after crossing the Ladakh Range of the Himalayas on their way from Leh to Spiti, we too are overjoyed to find the lush and fertile Nubra Valley. The clouds lift, and the Hundur Monastery appears like an apparition painted on the mountainside. Cold and wet after the climb, we are offered no warmth by the crumbling brick building hacked into the side of a mountain. 

There is always an old man who wants to show you a locked room, and sometimes there are locals who come to spin the prayer wheels. 

You must see this place. The ancient art is still vibrant in the chapel, and the lamps fueled with rancid butter remind you of another world. The spirits that decorate the rooftop haunt the nights, and the wind never stops.

The ancient Silk Road through the Himalayas is full of wonders — sand dunes at 15,000 feet, Bactrian camels, remnants of the caravans, layers of stone made to look like ribbon by the pressure of the Earth’s plates, and shrines like Lamayuru, which even in its disintegration is elegant.

Cross the bridge at Jispa. The prayer flags are captured by the wind, and you cannot hear the tapping hooves of the yak that follows behind you. Put your hands to your ears because the wind never stops!

Maria Drumm
Baltimore, MD