Silk Road - Ancient China Trade Route

It was two thousand years ago that the first trades set off on the 9000 mile journey between the great empires of the age, China and Rome, Persia and India. What we now call the Silk Road was soon to become the richest, longest, most international trade route of the ancient world and its name continues to conjure up dramatic images of endless camel caravans, making their slow, stately progress across featureless deserts and over freezing mountain passes, to carry silk and other Chinese luxuries to the imperial courts of Rome, Arabia and India.

The history of the Silk road is as dramatic as any legend. It began in 138 BC, when the Han Emperor Wuti sent Zhang Qian on a secret mission to the west, to secure allies against the hordes that threatened to invade from the north.

Instead, the envoy became the first recorded Chinese to visit the kingdoms of Central Asia and learn about the great empires of Persia, India and Rome. Back in the capital Chang’an (present day Xian), his news inspired the Emperor to establish trade with those distant lands.

The name Silk Road, which was coined by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in the 1870’s, is evocative but misleading. For one thing, there were many trade routes that started from Chang’an. There was a southwestern route through Yunnan and later another that transported the cargoes by ship from the port of Quanzhou. However, the major intineraries passed through what is now Gansu Province to Xinjiang, where the caravans had to make their hazardous way north or south around the Taklamakan, a desert that has claimed countless travelers over the centuries.

More Than Silk Was Traded Along This Route

Although silk was the most valued of the cargoes, there was trade in many other treasures. Gold, linen, ivory, coral, precious stones and glass were brought into China: while furs, ceramics, lacquer, bronze ware and rhubarb were exported from China along with the silk. Just as important were the ideas carried along the road, most significantly the beliefs and arts of Buddhism, brought from India in the first century AD.

The trade flourished for a millennium, then went into a sharp decline. One reason was Europe’s discovery of silkworms, smuggled from China for use in domestic production. Most damaging however was the tribal warfare that made the western regions too perilous for travelers. It was modern Westerners who re-opened the road, when they came looking for antiquities.

Along with the military spies and adventurers, European scholars explored the great heartland of Eurasia, from Afghanistan to Xinjiang and Gansu, and uncovered many of the lost cities of the Silk Road – and took vast amounts of art treasures to the museums of Europe.

Nevertheless equally vast amounts remain, to provide some of the unforgettable attractions of modern tour intineraries that follow the ancient trade route.

Where the Silk Road Begins

Many begin very logically in Xian, proceeding via Lanzhou and the Jiayuguan Pass to the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang, Urumqi, Turpan and Kashi (better known as Kashgar). Other intineraries begin with flights from Beijing, Guangzhou or Shanghai to Urumqi for sidetrips to Kashgar and Turpan before traveling to Dunhuang. In addition there are tours that cross the border into Pakistan or Russia.

For transport there is plenty of choice, ranging from modern jets, trains and air conditioned coaches to camels, horses and bicycles. There are also trekking tours.

Dunhuang and Jiayuguan
Fort at the end of the Great Wall

In ancient times Chinese traders took their produce as far as the desert oasis of Dunhuang where it was handed over to Central Asian caravan masters. Today the town is a starting point for two outstanding attractions. One is Jiayuguan, the ancient outpost that marks the end of the Great Wall, with a 14th century fort enclosed by gate towers and walls 32 feet high.

Mogao Caves - 1000 Buddhas

The other is the world-famous Mogao Caves. It is said that in the fourth century a Buddhist monk had a vision of 1000 Buddhas, and began to carve grottoes in the sandstone cliff and fill them with Buddhist images. The caves were abandoned and forgotten until archeologists arrived to carry away huge quantities of manuscripts, embroideries and art objects. However Mogao remains a brillant trove of statues and frescos from the fouth to the 10th centuries.

Xinjiang and the Turpan Depression

Continuing into Xinjiang all tours visit the Turpan Depression , which is 504 feet below sea level. It is famous for irrigated orchards producing China’s best grapes and melons; for the sand dunes that blaze like Flaming Mountains; and the ruins of Gaochang and Jiaohe.

In contrast the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi is a bustling 20th-centruy outpost with all the facilities of a modern city, including an airport where travelers can take off for Kashgar, a town that recalls Samarkand and The Tales of the Arabian Nights.

Kashgar Sunday Market and Abakh Hoja Tomb

Kashgar welcomes visitors to its traditional Sunday market, the Id Kah mosque, complete with dome and flanking minarets; the Abakh Hoja Tomb, and the city bazaar, but you better get there soon, as the Chinese government is planning to demolish most of the historic "old city" and relocate the inhabitants into modern apartments.

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