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  » Silk Road

Silk Road

The Silk Road

Map of the Silk Road across Central Asia

Welcome to a journey. A journey along one of the most famous, difficult and memorable roads the world has ever seen. Are you ready? This is a journey that will take you over soaring mountain passes and the harshest deserts. The Silk Road is not a journey for the faint hearted. Many noble men have died along its length and many a good friend never lived to see another sunrise.

The story of the Silk Road began 2000 years ago in China during the reign of the Han Emperor Wudi. At the time, there were many trade routes around the world. Some transported goods by sea, others by land. Yet few were as long or as important as the Silk Road was across the emptiness of Asia.

It all began with horses
Silk road

Emperor Wu di had a problem. It was the year 140 BC. Rampaging nomads called the Xiongnu (Huns) were attacking China’s northern borders with increasing ferocity. He’d spent much of China’s money building the Great wall to hold his enemies back, yet the one thing he needed was horses on which to fight back.

At the time China was much smaller than it is today with few grasslands and very few horses. For a long time she had faced attack from the nomadic tribes of Mongolia and the grasslands to the North (see map). Horses gave her enemies great powers over huge areas of land because of their ability to attack quickly and shoot with tremendous accuracy using their cross bows.

In 138 BC, Emperor Wu Di sent his General, Zhang Qian on a mission to persuade the Yuezhi tribe to join forces with his armies to attack the Xiongnu. The Yuezhi had been recently conquered by the Xiongnu and had moved their tribe thousands of miles to the West to live in a quieter place.

Zhang Qian traveled for ten years to reach the Yuezhi. Along the way he was captured by the Xiongnu and held prisoner for most of that time. He even took a Xiongnu wife. When he eventually escaped, he found that the Yuezhi were unwilling to fight. However he spent a year recording their lives and the information he brought back was to change the face of the world forever.

When Zhang Qian returned to Emperor Wu Di, 13 years had passed. He’d travelled in many lands beyond the Chinese Empire and brought many stories to tell the Emperor’s court including the news of the legendary heavenly horses of Fergana thousands of miles to China’s west.

The population is agricultural and resident. They grow rice and wheat, make wine from grapes and have many good horses. The horses sweat blood and originate from the heavenly horses.
Zhang Chien to Emperor Wu Di in 126 B.C.

The ‘heavenly horses’ of Fergana were taller, stronger and quicker than the smaller steeds of China and it was no surprise that the Emperor desired them. Expeditions were quickly dispatched to buy these gifts from heaven and the Xiongnu were defeated.

With the defeat of the Xiongnu a new era of trade and prosperity began in China. Over the next 25 years Emperor Wu Di expanded his empire to include much of the land that lay between his capital in Chang’an and Fergana (in today’s Central Asia). Troops were stationed, new towns built and ‘safe’ routes for trade were established through a combination of direct governance and diplomacy with nearby states. (see map).

Silk Road Route
Silkroad to Mediterranean map

Emperor Wudi had finally brought peace and control to much of the region and trade rapidly increased. A new trade route was formally established from Chang’an in China’s South all the way to Rome in the Mediterranean thousands of miles away. Yet whilst a route had been fixed it was by no means safe and traders faced many obstacles.

From the ancient Chinese capital of Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) goods typically travelled north through Lanzhou and up into the Gansu corridor, a natural bottleneck between the Tibetan plateau and Mongolian plateau that no traveller could avoid. To the South lay the icy wilderness of Tibet and to the North only the rolling dunes of the Gobi. For the Chinese it was a dream come true and they quickly built a fort across the pass to tax traders passing through it.

Beyond the Gansu corridor, lay the dreaded Taklamakan desert, the second biggest dune desert in the world, whose name means, "those who go in, don’t go out." Here the Silk Road split into three parts at Dunhuang; one heading north, another south and yet another through the middle! Oasis towns along the edges of the desert such as Cherchen, Hotan and Yarkand prospered from the trade and offered a welcome rest to weary travellers.

All three ‘Silk routes’ later joined up in Kashgar, which became a new crossroads on the Silk road and a final resting point before continuing east over the Pamir mountains to Europe, south to India or onwards to the ancient civilizations in Afghanistan, Balkh and Central Asia. There was never just one Silk road, it all depended on where you were going.

Silk Glorious Silk
Chinese Women collecting silk cocoons spun by  Silk worms

The Chinese have been producing Silk for over five thousand years and its production was one of the most jealously guarded secrets in the world. Today it is still extremely popular and extremely expensive but during the time of the Silk Road very few people knew about it.

Silk is produced from a special kind of moth and Chinese moths have always been known to produce the best Silk. Legend has it that one day 5000 years ago, whilst the wife of the mythical Yellow Emperor was drinking tea, a silkworm cocoon fell into her tea and began to unravel. From then on the marvelous material was always produced by women and the punishment for revealing the secrets of its production was certain death.

Initially, the fabric was only reserved for the emperor but slowly it moved into general use and was used for everything from fishing lines to making rag paper. Eventually the Silk was even used as a currency in China. People were paid wages in lengths of Silk and in bad times 40 bolts of silk would fetch one good horse.

A Silk Worm

Over time the popularity of the fabric spread from the Middle East to Rome. Romans referred to china as Seres (the land of Silk) and they initially believed it was harvested as wool from Mulberry trees. It is said at the battle of Carrhae in 58 BC, that Roman soldiers were so startled by the silken banners of their enemies that they fled in terror. Yet, within decades silk became so popular in Rome that its high price began to hurt the Roman economy and both women and men were banned from wearing it for a time.

Ultimately, the secrets of Silk Production escaped the confines of China - but only after 4000 or so years! A Chinese princess in the 4th Century AD smuggled Silkworm eggs out of China in her headdress and by the sixth century AD the Persians had mastered the art and added their own distinctive style. And yet, demand continued to increase for high quality Chinese silk. It was a threat from elsewhere that would eventually finish the Silk Road.

Trade along the Silk Road

Over the next thousand years Silk Road trade continued to increase and peaked during China’s Tang dynasty in the 6th and 7th Centuries AD. This was an unrivalled period of prosperity for China where cultures flourished, of equality between women and men and regional stability.

Silk was only a small proportion of the goods traded and equally important were tea, spices and animals. The Chinese often demanded gold, gems, textiles and ivory and people to the west often required spices, furs, pottery and bronze weapons. Two humped camels called Bactrian camels were preferred over the one humped dromedary kind because they could travel faster and maintain a good pace.

Nor did many traders travel along the entire length of the road from China. Local traders in China often only travelled as far as Dunhuang or Loulan where goods were sold to other traders from further west and every time goods were sold and bought the cost at the end increased a little more.

Religion on the Silk Road
Hsuan Tsang

Just as goods and people passed from town to town, country to country, so did ideas and technologies. Religion in particular spread rapidly along the Silk Road and perhaps the most famous was the expansion of Bhuddism from India to China. During the heyday of the Silkroad it was common to see Pilgrims on the trail including two of the of the most famous Silk Road travellers of all; Hsuan Tsang and Fa'xian who travelled from China seeking understanding and clarity from the source of Bhuddism in India and whose diary records today act as a vital understanding of the time.

Bhuddism became particularly widespread and devotees carved a number of grottos (caves) along the Silk Road, funded by travellers who wished to give thanks for a safe journey or to ask protection for a desert crossing to come. Some of the most famous grottos are the Mogao caves at Dunhuang at the eastern junction of the North and South Silk roads.

The Fall of the Silk Road.

All good things must finally come to a close and by the time the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan had swept the world in the 13th Century the Silk Road was already breathing its last breath. With the improvement of maritime technology, ships had rapidly improved and it was now much more profitable to trade by ship than through the uncertain politics of Central Asia.

Of course it was during this final gasp that Western Europe finally took note of China as this was the time of Marco Polo’s epic journey. Over the following centuries, trade routes still prospered across Asia. Tea was transported along the famous tea routes from China to Tibet and spices and Silk were still sold within short distances.

As late as the 1950’s, camel caravans were being used in China to transport cotton from Russia across China but these were gradually replaced by railways and trains. Today, tourism is reviving what is left of the Silk Road; abandoned cities, Bhuddist caves, camel rides and the smile of the people whose forefathers once helped to change the world.

Further Reading:
  1. The Silk Road - Judy Bonavia
  2. The Silk Road - a Journey from the High Pamirs and in though Xinjiang and Kansu - Jan Myrdal and Gun Kessle

Other Silk Road Maps below:

Chinese Silk Road Emperor Wu di's Silk Road across China