The Silk Road

I left Xi’an on a rainy day, following the ancient Silk Road which I will be riding, off and on, for the next few months.

The ‘Silk Road’ is actually a misnomer. There were several routes, as shown in the map below. All started in Xi’an, China.

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, and 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 became very popular in Rome for its soft texture and attractiveness. The Parthians quickly realized 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. The Silk Road had been born.

Actually, in terms of overall impact, the most significant commodity carried along this route was not silk at all, but religion. Buddhism came to China from India this way, bringing profound changes to the country. More about that later.

To protect the caravans from bandits, the Han dynasty 209 BC – 9 AD, set up garrisons along the way. Settlements sprang up around these oases to serve the travelers. Some of the most famous ones were Kashgar, Samarkand and Bukhara.

The height of the Silk Road was during the Tang dynasty, 618 AD – 907 AD  with relative internal stability in China and reduced threats from marauding peoples. The art and civilization of the Silk Road achieved its highest point during this time. Chang’an, as the starting point of the route, as well as the capital of the dynasty, developed into one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities of the time. By 742 A.D., the population had reached almost two million, and the city itself covered almost the same area as present-day Xi’an.

After that, the Silk Road slowly became less important. Instability within China, attacks from Mongols, and isolationism in China all played a part. In addition, faster, safer and cheaper sea routes had been developed, so that by the 1300s, the Silk Road and its busting markets had all but disappeared.

Enough history. In central China, here is what the silk road and its people look like now through the lens of my camera.

In one area garlic was everywhere. Hundreds of people were harvesting the fists of garlic, sorting them, cleaning them and stuffing them into sacks. Here is a typical shot of people by the side of the road with their garlic. At least they needn’t worry about vampires.

Working the fields. The farmers are the poorest of the Chinese. they are lucky to make $100/month. For that reason millions have moved to the eastern cities where they resort to begging or working in lousy factory jobs.

I stopped for a drink in a small mountain village. Within minutes I was besieged by the locals, adults and kids alike. Here is one youngster curious about my bike. A future bicycle tourist no doubt.

Some of the kids from the same village, a bit shy about having their picture taken.

I stopped in a Buddhist temple complex. They had carved statues in caves and in the side of a mountain had carved out a huge Buddha.

Some of the carvings inside the cave. This looks like me with a hangover.

Some of the carvings in the buddhist caves.

One of the temples. I think the satellite dish is a recent addition.

One of the many annoying things about the Chinese is they do not respect privacy. When I go out to a restaurant, it is not uncommon for someone to simply sit down and join me. They don’t ask permission, they just pull out a chair and sit down. This policeman is a good example. He sat down and offered me a cigarette. I said no thanks I don’t smoke. He then proceeded to light one up and puff away right in my face, staring at me. I tried to make some basic conversation, but I hate it when people invade my private space. I guess in China anything is fair game.

A view of the road, Gansu province.

Solar powered tea kettle. Who said the Chinese were not environmentally friendly?

I passed hundreds of these little refrigerated stands. They have been a life saver as I can easily get cold water or jiuce. Here I am taking a beer break.

Shoveling coal into bags. Not sure if they are retailers or it is for their own use or what. I saw a lot of this.

Playing cards. Are they retired or just unemployed?

The butcher. Just don’t get him angry. I have a feeling he could be deadly with that hatchet.

A brother and sister who posed for me. The muslim culture is much more evident here than in eastern China.

The ubiquitous fruit stands by the side of the road.

2 thoughts on “The Silk Road

  1. Capt. Don Kilpela Sr. June 16, 2008 / 4:26 pm

    Hello Kev,

    I sent you an e-mail about “Zon” the new interactive, on-line game developed by a Professor at MSU, a game to teach you Chinese! Check it out.



  2. susi q June 17, 2008 / 2:14 pm

    hi kev.
    i will check your blog out, so fascinating!!! wish i had the bucks to take a long trip. however, i would be doin it in luxury fashion!

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