The Silk Road is a special term which describes the trade route between the Central Asia and China. Beginning in about 100 BC, a network of overland trade routes developed to carry goods between Asia and Europe. The earliest, most direct and most heavily used route came to be known as the Silk Road, for the precious Chinese cloth was traded abundantly on it. Throughout the Middle Ages, extending over 4,000 miles, the Road served as the primary conduit for contact between East and West. After the discovery of a sea route from Europe to Asia in the late 15th century, the land routes were gradually abandoned in favor of ocean-borne trade.
The Silk Road extended through northwestern China and it was all deserts so people used camels to carry their goods. Today, the Ancient Silk Road left not only mysteries and memories but also so many things to see, feel and touch, such as the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, the wild desert Taklamakan, and ancient cities as Turpan, Kashgar and Khotan with a rich taste of cultural treasures of the Silk Road.
-- Route of the Silk Road
Photo: Sketch Map of the Old Silk Route between Europe and China
The Han-dynasty Silk Road began at the manigicent capital city of Chang'an ( today's Xi'an). The route took traders westwards into Gansu Province through Lanzhou, Tianshui, Zhangye, jiuquan along the Hexi Corridor reached Jiayuguan - the giant barrier of the Great Wall and the first key point of the route- Dunhuang. Dunhuang is in the west end of the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province. It is one of the well-known Chinese historical and cultural cities, and the bright pearl on the ancient Silk Road.
When the ancient Silk Road came out of the Hexi Corridor into Xinjiang, it broke into three main routes. The southern route ran west along the northern foot of Kunlun Mountains, via Charkhilk ( Ruoqiang), Cherchen ( Quemo), Minfeng ( Niya), and Hetian ( Hotan), then reached Kashgar - another key point on the Silk Road, afterwards went over the Pamirs, and reached India or passed through Afghanistan and Russian Central Asia to reach the coast of the Mediterranean or Arabia. The central route meandered west along the southern foot of the Tianshan Mountains dotted by Loulan, Korla, Chucha, and Aksu, then crossed the Pamirs and led to Mari in Russia. The northern route rambled along the northern foot of the Tianshan Mountains, starting at Hami wound through Turpan, Urumqi, westward reached the Ili River Valley, and led to area as near the Black Sea.
The three routes of the Silk Road ran between mountain ranges and long edges of deserts, going through oases inhabited by ancient tribes. These tribes also opened some branch roads across mountain passes to join the three routes together.
The ancient Silk Road in Xinjiang traversed desolate desert areas and wound over snow-capped peaks. It was full of difficulties and obstacles and more dangerous and fascinating than other sections of the road. It was the only way for China to get in touch with the West between the second century B.C. and the 10th century A.D. Various ancient cultures of the West and East, including some lost cultures, have left traces of themselves in Xinjiang. Although sections of the Silk Road have been buried by sand in deserts, the local dry climate has miraculously preserved sites and relics several thousand years old. Some relics are as good as they were centuries ago.
-- Silk Road in Different Dynasties
This route was opened up by Zhang Qian in the Western Han Dynasty and the routes were gradually formed throughout the Han Dynasty. This trade route spent its childhood and gradually grew up in this dynasty. With the establishment of the Tang Dynasty, which saw rapid development of economy and society, this famous trade route reached its most prosperous stage in history. During the reign of Yuan Dynasty, it experienced its last flourishing period.
Silk Road in Western Han Dynasty (206 BC–24 AD)
From 139 BC to 129 BC, Zhang Qian set out on his journey to the Western Regions twice, pioneering the world-famous route. Several successful wars against the Huns were commanded by Wei Qing and Huo Qubing (famous generals in Han Dynasty), which removed obstacles along this trade route. The Great Wall was also built in the west to protect the safety of the trade route. In 60 BC, Han Dynasty established the Protectorate of the Western Regions in Wulei (near now Luntai) to supervise this northwest area, which greatly enhanced the trade along this time-honored route.
Silk Road in Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220)
Ban Chao and Ban Yong conducted several expeditions to the Western Regions to suppress rebellions and re-established the Protectorate of the Western Regions, ensuring peace and trade along this important route.
Silk Road in Tang Dynasty (618–907)
With the establishment of the Tang Dynasty and great prosperity during this time, the road rose to its most flourishing period in history. Before the Anshi Rebellion (755–762) in the Tang Dynasty, this world-famous road experienced its "Golden Age" of development.
Silk Road in the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368)
Along with the growth of the Mongolian Empire and the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty, the route regained its vigor and became prosperous once again. It enjoyed the last glorious era during this period.
In 1271, the great Mongolian ruler Kublai Khan established a powerful Mongol Empire – Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) at Dadu (the present Beijing). The territory of the giant empire was the largest one in Chinese history, which stretched 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.
The Mongol Empire destroyed a great number of toll-gates and corruption of the Silk Road; therefore 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, and appointed some foreigners high positions, for example, Kublai Khan gave Marco Polo a hospitable welcome and appointed him a high post in his court. At that time, the Mongolian emperor issued a special VIP passport known as "Golden Tablet” which entitled holders to receive food, horses and guides throughout the Khan’s dominion. The holders were able to travel freely and carried out trade between East and the West directly in the realm of the Mongol Empire.
Although maritime transport had an influence on the route, many westerners, Chinese envoys and caravans traveled along this ancient trade route. However, the historically important route could not contend with expansion in the field of navigation which assisted its demise.
-- Spirit of the Silk Road
The ancient Silk Road was a trade route that spanned thousands of miles. More than this, it had been a platform for people-to-people and cultural exchanges, where ethnic, racial, religious and cultural convergence took place down the centuries. For millennia, interaction along this route has shaped the Silk Road spirit, which is embodied in peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit. Such an understanding also informs one of the fundamental principles for international interaction today.