The Land Of China -- Landmarks
the Silk Road
Sino-Western cultural communication traces back as early as the ancient times. When sea transportation was still in its early stages, China's beautiful silk and other products were sent to central Asia and Europe mainly through the Hexi Corridor and several other passages in what is now Xinjiang.
The famous Han Dynasty envoy Zhang Qian took this road on his journey to the west. It is also through this road that Kumarajiva and Marco Polo arrived in China. Although silk was only one item of many others in the abundant material and cultural exchange on the route, it seemed quite something to use the gorgeous and magnificent silk to symbolize the profound friendship existing in history among the peoples of different countries; hence, people all over the world were happy to accept and call it the Silk Road when a modern German historian gave it that name in 1887.
Broad areas of the eastern section of the Silk Road have long been the home of China's Uygur, Han, Hui, Kazak, and other nationalities. Their rich culture, abundant products, and great number of historical sites add charm to this ancient passageway. Today, with modern transportation and communications, the route still plays an important role in facilitating cultural and economic exchange in China's western regions as well as between China and the central Asian countries.
The Nature of the Route
The description of this route to the west as the "Silk Road" is somewhat misleading. Firstly, no single route was taken; crossing Central Asia several different branches developed, passing through different oasis settlements. The routes all started from the ancient capital in Xi'an, headed up the Gansu corridor, and reached Dunhuang on the edge of the Taklimakan Desert.
The northern route then passed through Yumen Guan (Jade Gate Pass) and crossed the neck of the Gobi desert to Hami (Kumul), before following the Tian Shan range around the northern fringes of the Taklimakan. It passed through the major oases of Turfan and Kuqa before arriving at Kashgar, at the foot of the Pamirs.
Numerous other routes were also used to a lesser extent; one branched off from the southern route and headed through the Eastern end of the Taklimakan to the city of Loulan, before joining the Northern route at Korla. Kashgar became the new crossroads of Asia; from here the routes again divided, heading across the Pamirs to Samarkand and to the south of the Caspian Sea, or to the South, over the Karakorum into India; a further route split from the northern route after Kuqa and headed across the Tianshan range to eventually reach the shores of the Caspian Sea, via Tashkent.
Secondly, the Silk Road was not a trade route that existed solely for the purpose of trading in silk; many other commodities were also traded, from gold and ivory to exotic animals and plants. Of all the precious goods crossing this area, silk was perhaps the most remarkable for the people of the West. It is often thought that the Romans had first encountered silk in one of their campaigns against the Parthians in 53 B.C but realized that it could not have been produced by this relatively unsophisticated people. They reputedly learnt from Parthian prisoners that it came from a mysterious tribe in the east, who they came to refer to as the silk people, "Seres".
In practice, it is likely that silk and other goods were beginning to filter into Europe before this time, though only in very small quantities. The Romans obtained samples of this new material, and it quickly became very popular in Rome for its soft texture and attractiveness. The Parthians quickly realised that there was money to be made from trading the material, and sent trade missions towards the east. The Romans also sent their own agents out to explore the route, and to try to obtain silk at a lower price than that set by the Parthians.
In addition to silk, the route carried many other precious commodities. Caravans heading towards China carried gold and other precious metals, ivory, precious stones, and glass, which was not manufactured in China until the fifth century. In the opposite direction furs, ceramics, jade, bronze objects, lacquer, and iron were carried. Many of these goods were bartered for others along the way, and objects often changed hands several times. There are no records of Roman traders being seen in Xi'an, nor Chinese merchants in Rome, though their goods were appreciated in both places. This would obviously have been in the interests of the Parthians and other middlemen, who took as large a profit from the change of hands as they could.
Restoration and Tourism
Since the intervention of the West last century, interest has been growing in this ancient trade route. Books written by Stein, Hedin, and others have brought the perceived oriental mystery of the route into western common knowledge. Instilled with such romantic ideals as following in the footsteps of Marco Polo, a rapidly increasing number of people have been interested in visiting these desolate places. Since China opened its doors to foreign tourists at the end of the 1970s, it has realized how much foreign currency can be brought to the country by tapping this tourist potential.
This has encouraged the authorities to do their best to protect the remaining sites; restoration of many of the sites is presently underway. The Mogao grottoes were probably the first place to attract this attention; the Dunhuang Research Institute has been studying and preserving the remains of the grottos, as well as what was left of the library.
Archaeological excavations have been started by the Chinese where the foreigners laid off; significant finds have been produced from such sites as the Astana tombs, where the dead from the city of Gaochang were buried. Finds of murals and clothing amongst the grave goods have increased knowledge of life along the old Silk Road; the dryness of the climate has helped preserve the bodies of the dead, as well as their garments.
There is still a lot to see around the Taklimakan, mostly in the form of damaged grottos and ruined cities. While some people are drawn by the archaeology, others are attracted by the minority peoples; there are thirteen different races of people in the region, apart from the Han Chinese, from the Tibetans and Mongolians in the east of the region, to the Tajik, Kazakhs, and Uzbeks in the west. Others are drawn to the mysterious cities such as Kashgar, where the Sunday market maintains much of the old Silk Road spirit with people of many different nationalities selling everything from spice and wool to livestock and silver knives. Many of the present-day travellers are Japanese, visiting the places where their Buddhist religion passed on its way to Japan.