The passes of Khunjerab and Torugut, linking China with western Asia – and, ultimately, with the whole of the Western world – have only in recent years reopened to a gradually increasing flow of cross-border traffic, mostly small-time traders. Yet a thousand years ago these were on crucial, well-trodden and incredibly long trade routes between eastern China and the Mediterranean. Starting from Chang’an (Xi’an), the Silk Road curved northwest through Gansu to the Yumen Pass, where it split. Leaving the protection of the Great Wall, travellers could follow one of two routes across the deserts of Lop Nor and Taklamakan, braving attacks from marauding bandits, to Kashgar. The southern route ran through Dunhuang, Lop Nor, Miran, Niya, Khotan and Yarkand; the northern route through Hami, Turpan, Kuqa and Aqsu. High in the Pamirs beyond Kashgar, the merchants traded their goods with the middlemen who carried them past the frontiers of China, either south to Kashmir, Bactria, Afghanistan and India, or north to Ferghana, Tashkent and Samarkand. Then, laden with Western goods, the Chinese merchants would turn back down the mountains for the 3000km journey home. Oases along the route inevitably prospered as staging posts and watering holes, becoming important and wealthy cities in their own right, with their own garrisons to protect the caravans. When Chinese domination periodically declined, many of these cities turned into self-sufficient city-states, or khanates. Today, many of these once powerful cities lie buried in the sands.

The foundations for this famous road to the West, which was to become one of the most important arteries of trade and culture in world history, were laid over two millennia ago. In the second century BC, nothing was known in China of the existence of people and lands beyond its borders, except by rumour. In 139 BC, the imperial court at Chang’an decided to despatch an emissary, a man called Zhang Qiang, to investigate the world to the west and to seek possible allies in the constant struggle against nomadic marauders from the north. Zhang set out with a party of a hundred men; thirteen years later he returned, with only two other members of his original expedition – and no alliances. But the news he brought nevertheless set Emperor Wu Di and his court aflame, including tales of Central Asia, Persia and even the Mediterranean world. Further expeditions were soon despatched, initially to purchase horses for military purposes, and from these beginnings trade soon developed.

By 100 BC a dozen immense caravans a year were heading into the desert. From the West came cucumbers, figs, chives, sesame, walnuts, grapes (and wine-making), wool, linen and ivory; from China, jade, porcelain, oranges, peaches, roses, chrysanthemums, cast iron, gunpowder, the crossbow, paper and printing, and silk. The silkworm had already been domesticated in China for hundreds of years, but in the West the means by which silk was manufactured remained a total mystery – people believed it was combed from the leaves of trees. The Chinese took great pains to protect their monopoly, punishing any attempt to export silkworms with death. It was only many centuries later that sericulture finally began to spread west, when silkworm larvae were smuggled out of China in hollow walking sticks by Nestorian monks. The first time the Romans saw silk, snaking in the wind as the banners of their Parthian enemies, it filled them with terror and resulted in a humiliating rout. They determined to acquire it for themselves, and soon Roman society became obsessed with the fabric – by the first century AD it was coming west in such large quantities that the corresponding outflow of gold had begun to threaten the stability of the Roman economy.

As well as goods, the Silk Road carried new ideas in art and religion. Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism trickled east across the mountains, but by far the most influential force was Buddhism. The first Buddhist missionaries appeared during the first century AD, crossing the High Pamirs from India, and their creed gained rapid acceptance among the nomads and oasis dwellers of what is now western China. By the fourth century, Buddhism had become the official religion of much of northern China, and by the eighth it was accepted throughout the empire. All along the road, monasteries, chapels, stupas and grottoes proliferated, often sponsored by wealthy traders. The remains of this early flowering of Buddhist art along the road are among the great attractions of the Northwest for modern-day travellers. Naturally, history has taken its toll – zealous Muslims, Western archeologists, Red Guards and the forces of nature have all played a destructive part – but some sites have survived intact, above all the cave art at Mogao outside Dunhuang.

The Silk Road continued to flourish for centuries, reaching its zenith under the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD) and bringing immense wealth to the Chinese nobility and merchants. But it remained a slow, dangerous and expensive route. Predatory tribes to the north and south harried the caravans despite garrisons and military escorts. Occasionally entire regions broke free of Chinese control, requiring years to be “re-pacified”. The route was physically arduous, too, taking at least five months from Chang’an to Kashgar, and whole caravans could be lost in the deserts or in the high mountain passes.

There was a brief final flowering of trade in the thirteenth century, to which Marco Polo famously bore witness, when the whole Silk Road came temporarily under Mongol rule. But with the arrival of sericulture in Europe and the opening of sea routes between China and the West, the Silk Road had had its day. The road and its cities were slowly abandoned to the wind and the blowing sands.

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