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China's Silk Road - Simplified Chinese: pinyin: si chou zhi lu

The Silk Road, began by the Han Dynasty, stretches from China across India, Arabia and even Rome.

Silk Road, which was a great transcontinental route linked the Roman Empire in the West with the imperial court of China in the East, remains its charm to people. The ancient route started at Luoyang and Chang'an (the ancient name of Xian), the capitals of Tang Dynasty, reached the Yellow River at Lanzhou, then skirted westward along deserts and mountains before dividing into three routes at the oasis of Dunhuang. Walking through Xinjiang, brave ancient merchants and traveler went eastward continuously until they arrive at Rome.

map from the Silk Road Foundation. Clicking on it will open the map up in a new page.

The Silk Road is a collection of routes that stretched over 8,000 km from Xi'an (Chang'an) to the mediterranean Sea. Originally composed of several caravan routes, this was the road used to import Chinese goods, such as jade and silk into the Middle East, and eventually extending all the way to Rome. Beginning at around 300 BCE, importing and exporting centralized around the city of Hotan. Around 200 BCE, these routes were enlarged to include the Middle East. And by 100 BCE, the Silk Road became the central trading avenue between the Orient and the Mediterranean.

The name "Silk Road" was coined by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in the 1870's. During that time, several ancient cities were being rediscovered along the route. By the end of the century, European explorers reopened the Silk Road in order to hasten their search of ancient cities. However, this was also the result of England's and Russia's eagerness for Central Asian Domination. Called the "Great Game", both powers sought control of the Silk Road and wanted to use it as a means of control of the western part of China. Since then, many European nations have taken vast amounts of artifacts back to their respective museums overseas.

Today, vast amounts of treasures still exist along the Silk Road. Tours of this area usually begin in the city of Chang'an, today called Xi'an, passing through Lanzhou in Gansu Province and the Jiayuguan Pass to the Mogao Caves around Dunhuang and on to turpan, Urumqi and Kashgar (Kashi in the ancient times.)

Jiayuguan Pass marks the end of the Great Wall. The old Fort there is dubbed "Most impregnable Pass Under Heaven." The walls run 10 meters high, not including the gate towers.

The Mogao Caves are a highlight of Northwest China. Back in the 4th century CE, a Buddhist monk had visions of 1000 Buddhas and began to care grottoes ito the sandstone cliff and fill them with Buddha statues and wall paintings, most of which are still intact today.

Past Dunhuang and into Xinjiang, the Turpan Depression, more than 154 meters (504 feet) below sports some of the most famous sand-scapes of the desert. Hardly a drop of rain falls on the Turpan Depression. The Flaming mountains are aptly named, due to their look of being on fire during the mid-day sun. The Ruins of Jiaohe is what's left of a garrison from the Han Dynasty that was destroyed by Genghis Khan. Also, before hitting Kashgar, you'll pass the ancient capital of Gaochang and the Astana graves.


Lying 1300 meters above sea-level, Kashgar is located in western Xinjiang near to India, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. With the many influences around it, ethnically, culturally and linguistically, Kashgar maintains an air of mystique about it. The famous bazaar sells all sorts of traditional and modern clothes, hats and ornamental and ceremonial weaponry. Sunday, the market opens up on the eastern part of the city and within its confines lies a good amount of animals from goats to horses and camels; a good reminder of the long history of the Silk Road.


In Chinese, the Silk Road was called "Tianshan Nan Lu" or "the road south of the celestial mountains." In Xi'an, it was called the "Imperial Highway." Halfway between the east and west lies the town of Os. Traders frequently met there and bought, sold or traded cargoes and headed back to where they came from. Most traders never traversed the entire Silk Road, only remaining in the areas near their respective cities, and meeting trading partners "half way."

Around 635 CE, the first Western traveler to pass beyond Kashgar, southeast of Os, was a Nestorian Christian priest from Syria called Olopun. In the early thirteenth century, Genghis Khan used the Silk Road to conquer Central Asia and parts of China. After the conquest, Khan made some changes to the operation of the Silk Road, setting up stations and couriers along the route, thereby improving transportation and communications along the route. With greater security and communications along the Silk Road during the Mongol reign, long-distance travel became all the more practical. Marco Polo journeyed from Venice all the way to Beijing between 1271 and 1275.

For over 2,000 years, the Silk Road brought not only merchants, but cultures together. Trade flourished through the route, peeking around the 14th century. However, the route would soon lose its influence, partially due to the fall of the Mongols, the rise of Turkish Islam and the drying up of oases and lakes along the route. Vasco da Gama further helped the decline of the Silk Road by opening up the "Spice Route", an alternate sea route between the East and West.

The Silk Road hosted a great number of contacts between cultures and nations in the past, bringing goods, technologies and ideas to the ends of both Asia and Europe. From the Silk Road, Buddhism spread into China from India. Islam credits its spread along this road as well. Mathematics, astronomy, and medicine traveled east and west, along with different forms of music, dance, painting, and other art forms. Traded goods included silk, jade, spices, ginger, tea, peach and pear trees, porcelain, papermaking, printing, and gunpowder. From Europe and the Mediterranean came glass, grapes, cotton, wool, gems, ivory, and larger breeds of horses. Most traded goods were small and of high value, due to the length of the journey these items had to make.

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The Silk Road History
The Silk Road has more than 2,000 years of history. It began in Chang'an (present Xi'an, Shaanxi Province) in the east and stretched to Rome, Italy in the west. The route crosses Shaanxi, Gansu, Qinghai provinces, Ningxia Hui and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions and then passes over the Pamirs, to extend to Central and West Asia and finally reaches the east bank of the Mediterranean Sea and Eastern Europe. The total length of the Silk Road is more than 2,485 miles, over half of the width of China.

The Silk Road was the main artery for business and trade between China and the West. It has played an important role in the exchanges of cultural and trade-goods. As many people already know, China's four major contributions to civilization are papermaking, printing, compass and gunpowder. They were introduced to Western countries via the Silk Road. In return, many aspects of Western civilization that influenced Chinese society made their way back along this road. The Silk Road has been an indispensable instrument in the opening up and developing of cross-cultural friendship. Although modern society is no longer dependent upon this ancient and time consuming method of interaction, the history and spirit of the Silk Road are still a dream sought by tourists either from the East or the West.

Along the Chinese section of the Silk Road, there are numerous famous historic and cultural sites. The best known is in Xi'an, where the life-sized Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses were excavated from sites near the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, known as the eighth wonder of the world. Of the countless other attractions, there are also Dunhuang's Mogao Grottoes, sometimes called an "Oriental Art Treasure".

Loulan was an ancient state in the desert and houses the Ruins of the Ancient City of Gaochang. The road also goes through unique and magnificent natural surroundings, such as Flaming Mountains and Grape Valley in Turpan City, Yadan Landform in Lop Nor, Birds Island in Qinghai Lake and Tianchi Lake on Tianshan Mountain. These places are very attractive to visitors.

In some areas along the Silk Road, there are many ethnic minorities, including Uygur, Hazak and Tajik people. They have great hospitality and unique traditional cultures, life styles, religious beliefs, songs and dances. They add another dimension to the charm of the Silk Road.

Scenery along the route is picturesque and magnificent-the Bird Island of Qinghai Lake, Swan Nature Reserve in the Bayanbulak Grassland, Heavenly Lake in the Tianshan Mountains, Salt Lake of Qinghai, wind corroded terrain of Lopnur, Turpan’s Flaming Mountain, the Ghost City of Karamay and many others that you care to name.

Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai and Xinjiang along the route of the Silk Road are inhabited by many Chinese ethnic groups. They differ in historic background, cultural tradition, religion and way of life, But they are all known for their hospitality and gift for singing and dancing. Tourists can experience folk customs, , enjoy singing and dancing, attend festive seddings and holiday celebrations, and shop for local arts and crafts in different ethnic communities.

The Silk Road tours have been developed for over a decade as a main tourist product in northwestern China. Meanwhile, infrastructure has improved along the way. Today the road has become one of the most attractive tourist products in China. This brochure highlights both traditional sightseeing products and newly developed special interest products, such as desert adventrue, scientific survey, and ecological and sports tours, to meet the needs of tourists of different interest

When the central government began developing West China, they realized the tourist resources in these regions were endless. The various tourist facilities in the locality are improving day by day, and there have been significant advances in communications. As a result, the Silk Road has become one of the most attractive theme routes for tourists.

 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.

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).

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