Traversing the Silk Road Journey through the Lens of Michael Yamashita

With a few precious hours available this morning, I took to the streets of Beijing and walked over to the Reignwood Centre, a respected art museum and gallery about 10 minutes from my hotel, to explore the opening exhibit of photographer Michael Yamashita's Silk Road Journey. I happened to learn about the exhibit the night before and decided it was too close to miss, and given that Beijing was the first stop on its world tour, I felt increasingly fortunate to be one of the first few Westerners to experience the show.

Michael Yamashita has been taking photographs for National Geographic for the better part of 30 years, and his work has a special affinity for me as a fellow world traveler. This particular exhibition of work traces the steps of two legendary travelers, Marco Polo and Zheng He. Mr. Yamashita’s focus for this collection of photographs was, as he puts it, “a celebration of the spirit of exploration and cooperation that exemplifies both these men and is still alive today.” The exhibition booklet indicates that the project was partially inspired by the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-century Maritime Silk Road, a strategy and framework proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 and designed to create “a positive energy for global growth.” The photographs by Mr. Yamashita retrace the footsteps of the many ancestors who traveled along the ancient Silk Road. It includes vast and gorgeous landscapes, stunning vistas, and intimate portraits.

One needs only a few minutes to begin feeling an incredible sense of inspiration. Mr. Yamashita's work is extraordinary. He is able to take you from point to point along the Silk Road with intense and vibrant images that defy the senses. Starting in Venice, where Marco Polo was born, one begins to see the complex tapestry that connected trade between East and West up until the 17th century. As the photos take you through remote areas of Iran, you experience images that capture moments as they may have looked to Polo as he explored the routes leading in and out of that corner of the globe. The collection includes photos of remote places in China such as the “oasis cities” of Kashgar and Hotan, locations believed to be where Silk Road traders stopped and acquired fabric and textile goods. Having studied the Silk Road as a history student, I was mesmerized and enchanted by the stories of traders and explorers making their journey from east to west and back again. As a modern-day traveler and explorer, I am humbled by the sheer magnitude of these photographs. They are dense, vivid, and simply gorgeous. For those of us who aspire to capture moments and places we encounter during our travels, Mr. Yamashita is a master whose eye can provide insight and tutelage for any photographer at any level.

I am uncertain as to the world tour of this exhibition but felt deeply fortunate to happen to be at the right place at the right time during my short stay in Beijing this year. I am grateful to the Reignwood Group for sponsoring the exhibit and making it open to the public. The collaboration between Mr. Yamashita and Reignwood is a wonderful opportunity to explore the history of the Silk Road journey. Anyone who gets an opportunity to see it, should. It enables you to follow the path of travelers and explorers who journeyed across this awe-inspiring landscape, taking in local cultures and customs and expanding their own understanding of the world by experiencing traditions, sights, sounds, and smells that inhabited one of the most famous routes in history.

I am very lucky I get to travel as much as I do. Some would lament the challenge of living and working out of a suitcase, being far from home and dealing with jet lag. Yet exploring our world and all its vast and infinite potential, encountering people from different corners of the planet, gives me an opportunity few have to fully live as a global citizen. Whenever you find yourself in a new city, it doesn’t take much to research the artistic opportunities that the city has to offer you. You would be surprised to see that these experiences can even be found within walking distance of your hotel. I happened to learn of the Silk Road Journey exhibition on television in my hotel room in Beijing. With some minimal research, I was dumbfounded to discover that the location was just minutes from where I was staying. In a sprawling city like Beijing, to be this close to some incredible art is a gift. For anyone who loves travel, I suggest that you push yourself outside your comfort zone and take in the art and culture of the place and people that make that location uniquely home. Sometimes, you might even get lucky enough to experience the Silk Road by walking around the corner.


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