The Khunjerab and Torugart passes that link China with Central Asia were, a thousand years ago, on well-trodden 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. Travellers could follow one of two routes across the deserts to Kashgar: the southern route ran through Dunhuang, Miran, Niya, Khotan and Yarkand; the northern route through Hami, Turpan, Kuqa and Aksu. Beyond Kashgar, merchants traded their goods with middlemen who carried them south to Kashmir and Bactria, or north to Ferghana and Samarkand. Then, laden with Western goods, the Chinese merchants would turn around for the 3000km journey home. Oases along the route prospered as caravanserai, becoming wealthy in their own right. When Chinese domination periodically declined, many of these cities turned into self-sufficient statelets, or khanates.
The foundations of this 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 139 BC, the imperial court at Chang’an dispatched a man called Zhang Qian to investigate the world to the west and to seek possible allies in the struggle against nomadic marauders from the north. Zhang set out with a party of a hundred men; thirteen years later he returned, with only one member of his original expedition – and no alliances. Nevertheless, the news he brought of the lands to the west set Emperor Wu Di and his court aflame. Further expeditions purchased horses for military purposes, and from these beginnings trade developed.
By 100 BC a dozen immense caravans were heading into the desert each year. From China emerged silk – of course – along with jade, porcelain, peaches, roses, cast iron, gunpowder and paper; the West sent back cucumbers, figs, sesame, walnuts, grapes (and wine-making), wool, ivory and religion – including Nestorian Christianity and Buddhism. The first Buddhist missionaries appeared in China in the first century AD, and by the fourth century Buddhism had become the official religion of much of northern China. Along the Silk Road, monasteries, stupas and grottoes proliferated, often sponsored by wealthy traders. The remains of this early flowering of Buddhist art are among the great attractions of the Northwest for modern-day travellers. 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 flourished 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 dangerous, expensive and slow route, taking at least five months from Chang’an to Kashgar, whole caravans occasionally disappearing into the deserts or in the high mountain passes.
There was a final flowering of trade in the thirteenth century, 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.