There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Sunday, 20 July 2008

The Silk Road in China : Introduction

Two thousand years ago a trade route was established been China and Rome, the greatest empires of the east and of the west. This route came to be known as The Silk Road, although Chinese silk may have found its way to Egypt a thousand years earlier.

In 221 BC Qin Shi Huang, he of the Terracotta Warriors, united the core of what is now China, built huge chunks of the ‘Great Wall’ and settled his capital at Chang’an, the modern Xi’an. His dynasty was, however, short lived and in 206 BC the rebel warlord Liu Bang founded the Han dynasty.
 
 

The guard at the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang
(Either these are 21st century re-enactors or I have a time machine. Guess which)

The Han ruled a united China for over four hundred years and defined the national identity to such an extent that China’s main ethnic group still describe themselves as ‘Han Chinese’.

The Wall had been built as a defence against harassment from the Huns, a Turkic people who would later turn their attention to ravaging Europe. Hun prisoners told The Han Emperor Wu of their battles against the Yuezhi, a people dwelling in the far west beyond the Taklamakan desert. In 138 BC, wishing to make common cause against the Huns, Emperor Wu sent a young man called Zhang Qian as his ambassador to the Yuezhi.


Qin Shi Huang's Terracotta Army
Xi'an
Thirteen years later, when all assumed he was dead, Zhang Qian returned. He had failed in his objective, but instead brought back strange tales of far-flung lands. He had visited the kingdoms of Ferghana, Samarkand and Bukkhara, in what is now Uzbekistan, and he told stories of the even more distant and fabulous realm of Persia, and beyond that, unimaginably far away, the land of Li-jien – almost certainly Rome.

So the Chinese discovered the existence of Rome, now all that was needed for the Silk Road to come into existence was for the Romans to discover China.

Exactly how this came about is unclear, but the battle of Carrhae in Eastern Turkey is reputed to have played an important part in the story. In 53 BC Marcus Licinius Crassus, whose only previous command had been against Spartacus twenty years earlier, was leading an expedition against the Parthians. Feeling his inferiority to the other members of Rome’s ruling triumvirate, Julius Caesar and Pompey, he was out to prove his military virility. Through inexperience, he allowed himself to be lured onto unsuitable terrain by a much smaller Parthian force and then, when attacked, ordered his troops into inappropriate formations. Already tired and suffering from sunstroke, they found themselves pinned down, often quite literally, by the Parthian’s mounted archers. Whether the Romans finally turned and fled because of the silk banners waved by the charging Parthian cataphracts is a moot point. I am inclined to believe the Parthian victory was the result of superior tactics rather than superior textiles, but legend would have us believe that this was the Romans first encounter with silk. Legionaries captured at Carrhae were subsequently pressed into guarding the Parthians’ eastern borders where they bought silk from Chinese traders following in the wake of Zhang Qian.

However it happened, there is no doubt that when silk ‘as light as a cloud’ and ‘as translucent as ice’ reached Rome it caused considerable excitement. Via the Parthians, and a host of other intermediaries, trade was established with the land of ‘Seres’ where, as Pliny wrote, the inhabitants ‘are famous for the wool of their forests; removing the down from the leaves with water’.

Despite, or perhaps because of, their ignorance of how it was made, the Romans developed an inexhaustible appetite for silk. In AD14, the Emperor Tiberius banned it as an instrument of decadence, but he could not hold back the tide. In 380 the historian Marcellus Ammianus noted that ‘the passion for silk, once confined to the nobility, has spread to all classes’ and was contributing to a balance of payments problem.



Spinning silk
Hotan
If silk had been the only commodity traded then the Silk Road would not have survived the fall of Rome. The traffic, however, was far more diverse and far from one way. Westward came furs, ceramics, iron, lacquer, cinnamon, bronze objects and, believe it or not, rhubarb. Eastwards went gold, woollen and linen textiles, ivory, coral, amber, asbestos and also glass. The Chinese may have had paper and gun powder before Europe had even dreamed of these things, but the Romans were way ahead in glass making, a technology which did not reach China until the fifth century. And it was not just goods that travelled, but ideas too. Buddhism swept into China in the seventh century along the Silk Road, followed three centuries later by Islam.

It was the goods rather than the traders that did the bulk of the moving. A merchant bought supplies, transported them a couple of hundred kilometres and sold them on. No Romans manned stalls in the markets of Xi’an, no Chinese traders were seen in the forum, although the historian Florus reports that Chinese ambassadors were received in Rome as early as the reign of Augustus (27 BC to 14 AD).

There were cities, particularly around the oases of the Taklamakan desert, that owed not just their prosperity but their entire existence to the trade passing through them. Those who controlled the routes controlled the taxes and this motivated the Chinese to push west across the Gobi and around the Taklamakan to incorporate what is now the Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region into their empire. Chinese control here has often been tenuous and frequently been disputed, indeed it still is.


The remains of the silk road city of Jaiohe
Turpan Oasis
By 1278 Kublai Khan controlled an empire that stretched way beyond China’s borders. The country was open to travellers, traders and missionaries. Arabs and Venetians could be found in Chinese ports and Marco Polo described the lifestyle and treasures of the imperial court.

But the secret of sericulture had already been smuggled west, and this climate of openness encouraged the development of new sea routes for other goods. It was the beginning of the end for the Silk Road. In 1368 the Kublai Khan’s Yuan dynasty, gave way to the Ming dynasty and China entered a period of isolation that was to last over six hundred years. Overland trade ground to a halt. Whole cities around the Taklamakan were evacuated and the desert slowly re-assimilated their mud bricks. Great centres of art and civilization disappeared and were forgotten until European explorers arrived at the end of the nineteenth century.

Surprisingly, the name 'Silk Road' - more precisely Der Seidenstrasse – was only coined in 1877 by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, uncle of the Red Baron. The title, though both handy and romantic, is doubly misleading; silk was not the only commodity traded, and it was also not one road, but a series of routes across the Asian landmass.
 
Our self-imposed task in July/August 2008 was to travel the Chinese section of the Silk Road. We started from Xi’an and passed through the Hexi corridor to Dunhuang in the Gobi desert, where there was a major bifurcation. The Gobi is benign, as deserts go; water is easy to find and the climate is merely extreme. Beyond that are the arid wastes of the Taklamakan, where there is no water and the summer heat and winter cold make ‘extreme’ seem temperate. The northern road round the Taklamakan was easier, though more troubled by bandits, as it hopped from oasis to oasis along the northern edge of the desert below the Tian Shan Mountains. The southern Silk Road was more rugged but safer, plotting a course between the desert and the Kunlun Shan, the northern rim of the Tibetan plateau.

The Dunhuang Oasis
In an age without bandits, although the authorities live in constant fear of terrorists, we travelled the northern route to Kashgar, where the two roads rejoin at the western tip of China. We then returned some five hundred kilometres along the southern route to Hotan before flying north across the desert to the regional capital at Urumqi and thence home. We wanted to see what has become of the glories of the Silk Road, and learn something about the lives of the people who live there now.

The final sentence of Peter Hopkirk’s otherwise excellent Foreign Devils on the Silk Road reads ‘In 1979… when the first party of British tourists stepped down from their coach at the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas …. the last shred of mystery and romance had finally gone from the Silk Road.



The Cave of a Thousand Buddhas
Mogao, Dunhuang
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Any person who walks among the ruins of Melikawat or Gaochang and does not feel their feet rummaging among the bones of long dead civilizations has little brains and no imagination. Any European who can stand in Kashgar’s Id Kah Square and not feel the thrill of being somewhere totally foreign and utterly remote should probably have stayed at home. Yes, we travelled in air-conditioned cars and by railway trains not camel trains; maybe we did not go without water or food when we became lost in the desert, but we did visit places that see few other foreigners, and we did eat and travel with the descendants of those who made The Silk Road the greatest trade route on earth. True, no physical privations were involved, but no mystery? no romance? Pull the other one, Peter.

The Chinese Silk Road
 
Prelude: Shanghai
1 Xi'an
2 Jiayuguan: A Total Eclipse and the Last Fortress under Heaven
3 Dunhuang: Dunes in the Gobi
4 Turpan: Ruined Cities of the Silk Road
5 Kashgar (1):  The Sunday Market and the Former British Consulate
6 Kashgar (2): Upal, Abakh Hoja and the Old Town
7 Hotan (or Khotan or Hetian): City in the Desert
8 Urumqi: A By-word for Remoteness
Postscript
 
 

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