Of the 6,000 km long Silk Road, half of it is in modern day China. You had to travel on the Silk Road for half its distance before even getting out of present day China.
The Silk Road started or ended in Chang’an or modern day Xi’an. However, smaller routes went east to Louyang, Kaifeng, and Anyong- three of the other ancient Chinese capitals. Kaifeng had a Jewish synagogue until 1850; however traditionally, Jews have not been home grown in China so they must have come down the Silk Road.
Traveling west from Xian, the Gansu corridor was the only practical route to the Occident. Many dynasties (in particular the Han and Tang) extended the Great Wall to protect the Silk Road from raiders in the north. Dunhuang is close to where there is a traditional split in the Silk Road: one went north of the Taklimakan Desert and another went south. The Taklimakan Desert is in a rain shadow of the Tibetan Plateau and is the world’s second largest desert. The Silk Road is noted for its arid or desert climate. The main route converges at Kashgar, one of the great passes of the world. Here the Silk Road skirts the Karakorma Mountains and goes through the 5000m high Pamir Mountains.
After Kashgar, there is another split of the main Silk Road that converges again at Merv 1000km later. The northern route goes through Shamarkand while the southern route goes through Bactria. This was the main fighting ground for the Great Game: the fight between Russia and Great Britain for control of Central Asia in the 19th century. West of Merv, the main route then passed through or near what is now known as Tehran in Iran, Baghdad in Iraq, Damascus, Syria (the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city) to Tyre and Antioch in Lebanon and the Black Sea.
Many maps indicate several minor routes were also used, possibly when another route became too difficult to travel or goods were in demand. At various times in Chinese history, there were sea routes to China, however “the Silk Road” tends to be thought of as a land route. Marco Polo returned home from China by ship as far as modern day Iran and then went by land to the Mediterranean Sea.
2. Why did the Silk Road End Up Where it Did?
It is because there was no other practical land route to the West. The Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas blocked access to India. The southern route through modern day Yunnan to Burma and India was never popular probably because of the mountains and rivers there, there were also too many inhabitants there. The desert was seen as a better choice as not many people were there to hinder the route.
In ‘The Journey to the West’ the monk takes the Silk Road route from Xian to Kashgar, but turns left to India instead of right to the Mediterranean. Going west was the only practical route out of China as Siberia was the only option to the north.
Some sources say that the Silk Road began in 100 BC. But this was only when silk started being transported. The route had been taken thousands of years before. A reason why Eurasia became the dominant continent on earth is because it had an east-west orientation as opposed to a north-south orientation which North, South America and Africa had. Ideas, seeds, plants etc. could travel easier in Eurasia because climate zones did not have to be crossed. Another reason why Asia-Europe dominated the other continents: it had the horse. The horse is an animal that is good in the field and good in war. Chinese emperors partly explored and expanded the Silk Road due to their search to find better horses.
Interestingly Moslem culture (which dominated trade on the Silk Road in the second millennium) extended from Spain on the Atlantic Ocean to modern day Guangdong (old Canton) and to Kaifeng near or on the Pacific Ocean.
The Silk Road died out during the 1700 and 1800s when shipping to Europe became dominant. But this did not mean the camels stopped carrying goods, in some cases different routes were taken instead. From 1700 to the 1900s, there was a major tea and tobacco trade route to Russia, across Mongolia. Camel trains with up to 500 camels were led by adventurous American cowboys across the wilds of Mongolia in the 1920s. A prominent question is: why did tea not become a major export on the Silk Road? In the 1700s, tea was being taken by pack animal on land from Beijing to St. Petersburg, Russia- it was not popular on the Silk Road. The term the Silk Road was only invented in the 19th Century by a German. The Tea Routes of China are not as famous as the Silk Routes, but main trails, roads and sea routes crossed from China to Tibet, Mongolia, Russia and Great Britain carrying the highly desired beverage. The Opium War of 1842, where China had to accept its first unequal treaty and lost Hong Kong, was partly due to the fact that Britain could not pay its tea bill.
Though silk was the most famous item that traveled on the Silk Road, there were spices and other items too. Not many materials could be used to make clothing 2000 years ago: cotton, wool, leather, flax, and furs were the limit. Europe did not have anything as fine as silk. An advantage of silk is lice are unable to lay their eggs on it. Silk was a closely guarded secret and for hundreds of years the Chinese prevented the silk worm and its eggs and the mulberry plant (that the silk worm feed on) from being taken out of China. One of the main factors that fueled the Silk Road was that women wanted to wear the attractive clothes made from silk.
Camels were the most popular means of transport on the Silk Road (though horses and other animals were used as well). A great deal of the Road went through an arid climate. Camels can go for 10 days without water; they store fat in their hump so that their bodies do not keep heat in. Camels conserve water by raising their body temperature by five degrees, so that they lose less water by perspiration.
3. The Silk Road’s Effect on History
The Silk Road brought many items to Europe and profound changes. Paper, the printing press, the compass and gunpowder came down the Silk Road to Europe. As Karl Marx said, “They blew the roof off of Europe.” Paper and the printing press fueled the Protestant Reformation in Europe in the 1600s. This broke up the Catholic Church’s monopoly on science and education and fueled the age of reason and science in Europe. The compass allowed Europeans to discover the Americas and Asia by ship, and gunpowder enabled them to conquer nearly every country.
Another powerful effect of the Silk Road: it brought the Bubonic Plague/Black Death to the West. In the 1300s, the Mongol Emperor of China had an empire that extended from Korea to Hungary. His golden passport allowed many more travelers to make the journey safely to China (such as Marco Polo). But traders and armies also carried the Black Death. This was caused by bacteria in fleas that lived on rats; this was easily transmitted to humans. The disease had existed in Asia for centuries, but Europeans had no immunity to it. Thus in the 1300s, the disease killed a third of the European population. Some scholars say that this broke down feudalism in Europe. So much land was now available that serfs left their feudal lords, took their own land and became free men. Also, some believe this helped start the Renaissance or re-birth in Italy and Europe around 1450; many people felt that religion did not provide enough answers to such problems as the Black Death.
The Silk Road is the most famous and influential land route in history. Modern day Xi’an is the terminus of that great route. There is a monument in the west of Xi’an that commemorates the route that significantly affected the course of human events
Stories to follow: 1. Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: How the Europeans and others re-discovered the treasuries of the Silk Road in the 19th and 20th Century. 2. Following the Silk Road Today. The routes that are still open and practical for modern day travelers (I don’t suggest Iraq and Afghanistan).