Arguably the most significant trade route of ancient Chinese civilisation, the Silk Road, or Silk Route as it is sometimes known, was named in the mid-19th century by German scholar, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen. However, the route itself was in use since around the 2nd Century BC. Its original purpose had been political rather than economic and a court official from the Han Empire was sent westwards on a diplomatic mission, becoming the first traveller along what would become the most important east-west link ever. It was to be decades before his return, and when he did, the goods and information he’d gathered on his journey would spark the desire for trade.
Corridor of cultural exchange
Over time, the route became a conduit for the exchange of information and goods – it was to people of the time as the Internet is to us today; a means of linkage between diverse and geographically isolated civilisations.
What’s in a name anyway?
“The Silk Road [http://www.oasisoverland.co.uk/truck_expeditions/middle_east/china_exploratory/index.html]” is a bit of a misnomer. Firstly, it was not really a single road. Rather, it was a wandering network of trails linking the Far East to Europe, Persia and Northern Africa. Secondly, silk was but one of a considerable number of valuable commodities traded along the route.
Exchanging ideas and ideologies
Scientific and technological innovations, such as gunpowder, ceramics, the magnetic compass, the printing press and mathematics, transferred along the Silk Road to the West. The religion of Buddhism reached China from India, and was later to play an important role in the evolution of Chinese culture. Of course, Buddhism was not to be the only religion to travel this road. The cultural effects of the rise of Islam can still be seen in many of the areas along the route. Art and language too came to be exchanged.
Silk by Sea
In the late 15th century, the discovery of a sea route from Europe to Asia made the Silk Road less popular as a trade route. Sea travel presented a new opportunity to trade at lower cost, with fewer dangers. These sea routes are sometimes considered as part of the greater “Silk Route”.
The Silk Route Today
After what could perhaps be called an extended hibernation period, the Silk Route is once again growing in importance. The construction of modern roads and railways, the discovery of oil reserves and the industrialisation of surrounding areas has led to the reopening of parts of this route to some extent.
The historical significance of the route is well-appreciated by modern-day travellers. To walk in the footsteps of the likes of Marco Polo, to see first-hand the landscapes traversed by explorers centuries ago; it is surely a fantastic experience of cultural enrichment.
The potential that this area holds as a tourist destination is not lost on the authorities. Neither is its archaeological relevance.
Preserving the Past
Chinese authorities are doing their best to protect and restore many of the most important archaeological sites. The Dunhuang Research Institute has been examining and restoring the Mogao grottos and an extensive preservation project is currently underway. Excavations are undertaken all over, with significant finds relatively frequent.
One such find has been produced at the Astana tombs site, where the dead from the city of Gaochang were buried. The murals, clothing and other artefacts discovered, have provided significant insight into life along the old Silk Road.
There is much to see and learn from around the Taklimakan Desert; damaged grottos and ruined cities rich in their histories.
Archaeology is not the only draw card though. Many visitors are attracted by the minority peoples – there are about thirteen different groupings in the region; the Han Chinese, the Tibetans and Mongolians in the east, and the Tajik, Kazakhs and Uzbeks in the west.
Then there’s the lure of cities such as Kashgar, where the Sunday market maintains much of the old Silk Road spirit. People various nationalities selling everything from spice and ornaments to camels and carpets.
It is the kind of place that adventure travellers dream about. Rich in history and cultural legacy, surrounded by imposing geography, peopled by diverse minorities and relatively untouched by mainstream tourist machinations.
The Silk Route Legacy Lives On
From its founding during the early days of the Han Dynasty, the Silk Road has had an important role in international trade and politics, extending over three continents and leaving its mark on civilisations around the globe. It has had periods of boom and decline and it has been always come back to boom again. I would venture to suggest that the story of the Silk Road is far from over…