The Silk Road: now and then

The Silk Road: now and then


 “The Silk Road” is a term that conjures up fairytale-like images of long camel caravans travelling through bare deserts, of brave adventurers and merchants bargaining in exotic oriental markets. This network of routes, which stretched about 11 000 km (7 000 miles) and connected the East and the West, is a milestone in the development of the modern world and the connections between those regions and has a long history from a phenomenon with a great economic and cultural impact that it was back in the day to one of the most sought-after travel experiences that it is today.

 The history of the Silk Road

It is important to note that the term is actually used to name a network of different routes that the traders used which connected the East and the West. The term was first used by German geographer and scientist Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1887 and got its name from the Chinese silk which was one of the main goods exchanged along the road since it was highly valued material worn by the Romans as a sign of authority and nobility.
The history of the road dates back to 100 BC, when the Han Dynasty ruled China. There is a famous story about one of the officers from emperor Wudi’s palace guard, named Zhang Qian , who was on a mission to the lands of the Yuezhi tribe, west of the empire, when he noticed the special breed of horses in Fergana Valley (nowadays in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) which were much larger and stronger than the Chinese ones and could be of great help in the empire’s wars and figured that they could be bought in exchange for silk. This is how he made the first steps in the Chinese trade with the West and in what would later become the famous Silk Road.

The routes and the caravanserais

Xi’an in Central China was an ancient trade centre and a starting point of the Silk Road, which would then go westward and divide into four routes (Northern, Southern, Southwestern and Maritime) passing through India, Asia Minor, The Horn of Africa and Egypt, before reaching the Mediterranean and Europe. The road was long and tiring and crossed some regions with pretty harsh conditions like the Pamir Mountains and the Gobi Desert. This is why over time, many roadside inns, called caravanserais appeared along the way and became not only a place for the merchants to overnight and have a rest, but also became trading and culture exchange points themselves. Some of those ancient caravanserais are still preserved so people nowadays can still visit and stay in them.  

Other goods and ideas exchanged on the road

Although silk was one of most valued commodities exported from the East, it was definitely not the only one. Others include precious stones, spices, tea, paper, gunpowder, porcelain, ivory and many more. The other way round, the West was bringing to the East gold, silver, wool, cotton, grapevine and exotic fruits. Except from goods, the Silk Road had a huge role in spreading ideas, philosophies and religions, like Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Islam. Artistic influences like the Hellenistic, the Chinese and Iranian also blended, which is well illustrated by the Greco-Buddhist art. The Silk Road also contributed to spreading some diseases, like the infamous plague that spread through Europe in the 14th century and killed almost half of its population, thus gaining the name Black Death.

Travelling the Silk Road today

The legendary allure of the Silk Road still attracts adventurous travellers today and is one of the most sought-after travel experiences for many. Amazing historical cities, buzzling markets and magnificent nature sights reveal themselves as the famous route makes its way through the vast deserts, rolling steppe and the majestic mountains of Central Asia. Some of the highlights include the colourful cities of Tehran, Isfahan and Tabriz in Iran, the mountain scenery and yurt camps in Kyrgyzstan, the Pamir Highway – one of the most scenic mountain roads in the world, the Islamic architecture of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the Tien Shan Mountain, the Gobi, Karakum and Kyzylkum Deserts and the unique Darvaza gas crater. A 5 000 km – long stretch of the route - the Routes Network of Chang'an-Tianshan Corridor, has even been designated a heritage site by UNESCO in 2014. It includes more than 30 sites along the way and is an important step in remembering and preserving the road which changed the world of travel.  

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