The Silk Road – The
World’s Greatest Trade Route
Road is a network of ancient trade routes connecting the East and the West
spanning across China,
Central Asia, Middle East, India and Europe
through mountains, valleys, steppes, grasslands and vast deserts.
being over 3,000 years old, the Silk Road remains one of the most romantic,
mystical and fascinating destinations on the planet. It offers unique
opportunities for sightseeing, cultural immersion, gastronomy and even
photography with its rich offering of stunning landscapes, old world charm and
colorful locales. For those who can take the rugged travel, it is the perfect
antidote for the usual holiday of shopping and chilling out.
A Brief History
Road was coined by German explorer Ferdinand von Richtofen, who made
seven expeditions to China
from 1868 to 1872. It was so
named because it was the route that facilitated one of the most lucrative of trades,
the Chinese silk, which began during the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 CE) in China.
In 138 BC,
Emperor Wu Di assigned General Zhang Qian to forge military alliances with
kingdoms west of China’s
northwestern archenemy the Huns, a nomadic tribe who attacked China
persistently. General Zhang was captured by the Huns, and remained their
hostage for ten years before he returned to the imperial court. Upon his return
to China, he told the
emperor about the 36 commercially vibrant kingdoms west of China’s
frontier. The emperor was also enthralled information about the magnificent
horses found in the Ferghana Valley (modern day Kyrgyzstan,
Uzbekistan and Tajikistan). China
subsequently invaded the Ferghana
Valley and acquired the
horses as well as secured foreign markets in which to trade.
later, in 53 BCE, the Roman legions of Marcus Licinius Crassus, on their campaign in Parthia,
reported seeing bright banners made from silk. The Roman royalty became
fascinated with this new textile, which only the Chinese produced at that time.
Thus began the trade of silk from China
Road’s history is, of course, not just between China
and the Roman Empire. The many routes in the
network have their own stories to tell, and there are too many to cover here.
Some of the other prominent figures in its history included Marco Polo and
Alexander the Great.
however, not the only item traded on this 7,000 km network. Goods such as
spices, jade and gunpowder were also traded. The increased interaction also
brought about the spread of many ideas, art, beliefs, technology and knowledge,
from silk and paper production techniques and printing to the spread of religion;
most of these migrated to the West from the East. The Silk
Road had thus been a vital hub for the development of
civilizations over the centuries.
The Silk Road in Asia
is not possible to cover all the destinations along this massive trade network
in this article, here are highlights along the Asian section running from India to China.
India has been mainly credited for
bringing Buddhism to China
via the Silk Road, but it also served as a middleman for the silk trade between
China and Rome. As such, there is no single point of
entry to the Silk Road in India,
but the northwestern part along the Himalayas
is where you can find historical evidences of its role in the trade route.
One of the
more scenic countries along the Indian route is Kashmir.
In ancient times, Kashmir was an important
center of Buddhism and Hinduism, and had passed through Muslim and Sikh rules.
Today, Kashmir is divided among India,
Pakistan and China
in a territorial dispute, with each country administering certain regions.
get past the politics, Kashmir offers great
outdoor beauty with its mountainous terrains as well as natural and historical
landmarks. The Indian-administered Kashmir has
three main regions with unique characteristics:
the winter state where people transit to Kashmir
via bus or train, is famous for its temples;
The Kashmir Valley, dubbed “Heaven on Earth”, is
famous for it stunning natural landscapes and friendly people;
known for its amazing landscapes in the Himalayas.
not to be missed here include: Gulmarg, a highland golf course; the Raghunath Temple,
a splendid temple dedicated to the Hindu Lord Shri Rama; and the Mubarak Mandi Palace.
in Jammu and Kashmir belonged to three main
religions, with Kashmir being mainly Muslim, Jammu mainly Hindu, and the Ladakhis being
Buddhists and Muslims. The official language is Urdu, but English is widely
spoken among the educated class as well as those in the tourism industry.
feature in Kashmiri cuisine is rice and mutton, and lot of spices. Its
signature dishes include rogan josh, an
aromatic lamb dish, and tzaman, a
solid cottage cheese. Alcohol is prohibited, but tea is popular instead.
if you can’t forget shopping, Kashmir is also
famous for its silk, rugs and woolen shawls.
Nepal is another favored destination
along the Himalayan section of the Silk Road.
Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal,
is now a popular travel hub with its own international airport. It offers great
trekking opportunities through its beautiful mountain routes.
One of Kathmandu’s signatures is the Dubar Square, a popular UNESCO World
Heritage Site build in 1,000 A.D. filled with temples and palaces. Some of the
more prominent ones include the Taleju
Temple and the Kumari Palace.
Outside of the Square, there are monuments like the Swayambhu and Boudha Stupas,
as well as the Narayanhiti
Chowk and Freak Street
have many hotels, restaurants and shops to offer a break from sightseeing. Popular
shopping items include silver, carpets and rugs, gemstones, and cultural
religion in Nepal
is Hinduism, though Buddhism is dominant in the northern areas. Nepali is
mainly spoken here, along with English and various indigenous languages.
Nepalese meal includes the dal, a
lentil soup, served over bhat (boiled
rice) with tarkari (curried
vegetables), achar and chutni.
dance is an integral part of the Nepalese society, and folklore is told through
these media. Expect also to find colorful religious festivals and equally
colorful costumes during holidays in various parts of the year.
At the 7th
century, the Tibetan army moved into Central Asia and went into direct conflict
in a war that lasted two centuries. The Tibetans conquered the people of Tangut,
a state known to the Chinese as Xi Xia, and converted them to Buddhism. After
the fall of the dynasty of the Tibetan kings, the Tibetans disappeared from Central Asia. Tibetan religious teachers, however,
continued to instruct powerful rulers in Central Asia.
In 1247, the Tibetan lama Sakya Pandita ruled Tibet as part of the Mongols, who
established the Yuan dynasty. With the fall of the Yuan dynasty, however, the
Mongols lost their power over Central Asia, China
and Tibet, but the influence
of Tibetan Buddhism remained in Mongolia
to this day.
Buddhist manuscripts have been found near the Tarim
Basin and the western part of the Taklamakan Desert. The greatest number of
manuscripts, however, was found in Dunhuang (see section on China). The
Tibetan section of the Silk Road is therefore significant for preserving the
history of its religious influence in Central Asia.
Tibet’s capital Lhasa,
the “rooftop of the world”, is one of the highest cities in the world, and home
to culturally significant Tibetan Buddhism sites such as the Potala Palace,
the Jokhang and Norbulingka palaces.
Tibet is an immensely scenic place with
mystical qualities and rustic charm. You can witness colorful and elaborate
Buddhist festivals, Tibetan music, which is chants in Tibetan or Sanskrit, and
dances during rituals and ceremonies.
Tsampa, dough made from barley flour, is the staple
food in Tibet,
with meat dishes being mainly yak, goat or mutton. The yak butter tea is also a
The Siberian Route is
also known as the Tea Road
as great quantities of tea was transported from China
to Europe through Siberia. Today, the
Trans-Siberian Railway, the longest railway in the world, has a branch line
that runs to China via the Silk Road.
Siberia is vast, and not all of it is covered in ice. Its climate varies
depending on regions. Siberia offers
magnificent sights of mountain ranges, lakes and rivers, as well as grasslands.
The natural landscape is the perhaps most significant attraction in Siberia.
Siberia is sparsely populated, with about four persons per square kilometer,
majority of who live in cities. This means you can enjoy traveling in less
crowded places, leaving more room for you to enjoy the surroundings. Majority
of the Siberian population are Russians, and though there are many faiths such
as Islam, Orthodox Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism in this land, the
predominant group is the Russian Orthodox Church.
Russian diets include breads and meat stews (think beef stroganoff), and vodka
is a popular drink here.
Khan’s Mongolian empire was a powerful force that expanded throughout Asia in the 13th and 14th century.
The Mongols ended the Islamic Caliphate’s monopoly over world trade at that
time and revived the Silk Road as well as
reviving trade with the West. The role of the Silk Road
as a trade route for silk, however, ended with the fall of this empire.
Mongolia is a vast arid land locked between China and Russia,
with the famous Gobi
Desert to its south. It
is sparsely populated, which leaves you a lot of room to explore the outback.
There is not much architecture in Mongolia except for the
Amarbaysgalant monastery, in the middle of nowhere.
festivals, held during Mongolia’s
National Holidays in July, is when you can witness traditional wrestling,
horse-racing and archery events passed down from Genghis Khan’s time.
diet here is mutton and sometimes Yak, mostly barbecued. The boodog, or marmot barbecue, is also
worth experiencing. The national drink is airag,
fermented mare’s milk.
Mongolians claim to be Buddhists, but there are other faiths present in this
country, such as Christianity and Islam. Mongolians speak Mongolian and
Chinese, but there is much enthusiasm in learning English.
China is where most Silk
Road tour operators start their trips. The trade route ends at the
Hexi Corridor in the Gansu
Corridor is a long and narrow passage about 1,000 kilometers long leading to
the ancient Chinese capitals of Chang’an and Luoyang. It is surrounded by inhospitable
lands such as the Gobi Desert and the Qilian Mountains.
several cities along the Hexi Corridor, of which the one with the most
significant relevance to the Silk Road is Dunhuang in northwest Gansu. Early Buddhist
monks arrived at Dunhuang via the Northern Silk Road,
and deposited manuscripts collected from the West here. Pilgrims who passed by
Dunhuang also painted murals in the Mogao Grottoes, and some Christian
artifacts were even found here. Today, Dunhuang is a major tourist attraction.
dialects are spoken in various regions, Han Chinese is the main language in modern
one of the most populous countries in the world. Most Chinese are atheists,
though all forms of religion can be found in this country.
splendid and multi-faceted Chinese cuisine is renowned all over the world, and it
needs no further introductions.
Traveling on the Silk Road
on the Silk Road is best done with experienced
and qualified tour operators specializing in different parts of the route. A
quick search on Google would bring up the websites of many such operators,
though many of them focus on China.
The Silk Road is not one of the easiest routes on which to
travel. It covers a wide expanse across a variety of terrains, and a lot of
time would be spent on the road. With the many magnificent landscapes, colorful
historical landmarks and diverse cultures abound, however, you can be sure that
it would be one of the most fantastic and unforgettable adventures of a