Suitcase and World: Ancient Trade Routes. China Silk Road.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Ancient Trade Routes. China Silk Road.

An illustration of Marco Polo's caravan being guarded against an attack.

To say that I have a traveler's obsession with the Silk Road is an understatement.  My dream is to travel all the routes that make up this ancient artery of trade routes spanning countries from Asia to Europe passing through China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Greece, and Italy.

The name Silk Road was coined by the German geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen and refers to the fact that China was the first country in the world to breed silkworms and produce silk fabric. As silk was a major export to Europe, and it being the representative handicraft of this ancient country, the term *silk* was used to name this great route by.

According to some experts, the total length of the historically important trade route is about 10,000 kilometers (6,214 miles), of which approximately 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) of the route are inside China's territory.  Based on today's geography, the China Silk Road spans five regions in the  including Shaanxi, Gansu, Qinghai provices and the Ningxia Hui and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Regions.
The ancient overland routes started in China during the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD) with Chang'an (today's Xi'an) as the starting point.

Before Western Han Dynasty, small-scale business sprouted between central and western China, trading bronze ware, lacquer ware, and jade.

The initial trade route was formed between 138BC and 119 BC enabling silk to spread and become popular.

In 16 AD, the western regions broke the trade route in a dispute with the imperial court.

It wasn't until 73 AD when Eastern Han Dynasty came into rule that the route was restored and extended the route all the way to the Persian Gulf.

In 166AD, the Roman Empire sent an envoy to China. This resulted in the formation of trade between China and Europe, further expanding the artery of trade routes. 

Map of the Silk Road During the Han Dynasty.  (Map and text by Leo Timm.  Public Domain from the Epoch Times)

In the days of Han Dynasty, the trade route ran through Gansu Province via Tianshui, Lanzhou, Wuwei, Zhangye, Jiuquan, Jiayuguan (an important military garrison and barrier of the Great Wall) and Dunhuang along the Hexi Corridor.   We'll be visiting this section of the China Silk Road on our trip. 

Dunhuang was a key point of the route, where the Sui and Tang dynasties (581 – 907), the China Silk Road developed into three branches.

the trade road divided into three main branches: the southern, the central and the northern.

The three main routes spread all over the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

The three main routes spread all over the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The Southern Route wandered west along the northern foot of the Kunlun Mountains, passing Ruoqiang (Charkhlik), Qiemo (Cherchen), Hetian, Yecheng (Karghalik), Shache (Yarkand) and reached Kashgar (the last point of the Silk Road in China). Then this route crossed the snow-covered Pamirs, reached Pakistan and India via Kashmir; it could also reach Europe through Islamabad, Kabul, Mashhad, Baghdad and Damascus.

The Central Route ran west along the southern foot of Tianshan Mountains, passing Loulan (now Ruoqiang), Turpan , Korla, Kuche (Kuqa), Aksu and Kashgar, afterwards went over the freezing Pamirs, wound to Mashhad via the Fergana Basin, Samarkand, Bukhara and finally joined the Southern Route.

The Northern Route went west along the northern foot of Tianshan Mountains, taking merchants westwards to Hami (Kumul), Urumqi and Yining, and then reached the areas near the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.

During this time in China's history, the Silk Road reached its golden era when maritime routes were established the trade routes all the way to Japan.

Image from

In 1271, led by Kublai Khan, the Mongols finally managed to break through the Great Wall and began their invasion of China.  Kublai Khan established a powerful Mongol Empire – the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The territory of the empire was the largest one in Chinese history, stretching as far as Mongolia and Siberia in the north, South China Sea in the south, Tibet and Yunnan in the Southwest, Stanovoi Range (Outer Khingan) and Okhotsk in northeast, Xinjiang and Central Asia in the northwest. Even West Asia and Russia were under the control of this empire.  Under the Mongols, a great number of the toll gates, that existed along the Silk Road, were destroyed and corruption was no longer tolerated.  As a result, passing through the historic trade route became more convenient, easier and safer than ever before.

The Mongolian emperors welcomed the travelers of the West with open arms, most notably, the great Italian merchant traveler, Marco Polo.

Trade between east and west flourished under the Mongols.  From China, the so-called Four Great Inventions (paper making, printing, gunpowder and compass) as well as the skills of silkworm breeding and silk spinning, tea, and herbal medicines made their way to the West.  Chinese porcelains and lacquers were traded into the West as well. 

From West to East came produce and products such as grapes, clover, walnuts, carrots, peppers, beans, spinach, cucumbers, pomegranates, rare animals, medicinal materials, flavorings and jewelry.

In addition to goods and culture being exchanged between East and West along the Silk Road, religion was also introduced into China via the Silk Road - Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Islam were among the religions that made their way eastward.  When I was in Termez Uzbekistan last year, I was introduced to how Buddhism was spread from the Indian Subcontinent, up through Afghanistan and then Uzbekistan  before making its way east.  It was fascinating to learn the history and to know that the Silk Road was an integral part of the spread of many religions across a vast section of the globe.

The Grand Mosque, Xi'an, China.

By the time of the Ming and Qing dynasties, popularity of the overland routes began to decline due to the rapid development of maritime trade.

The Chinese section of the Silk Road is currently on the tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage site status.  Only time will tell if the region will be inscribed.

It's really fascinating to me how this ancient trade route made the world a smaller place and at the same time expanded people's knowledge of the world around them.   I'm very excited about visiting even just a small section of the China route, albeit a very important one!