In fact, this land channel linking the west and the east had existed 3000 to 4000 years before Zhang Qian traversed it. However, the route did not become well known until it became prosperous during the Han Dynasty. This success was born after Emperor Wu sent Zhang Qian on a diplomatic mission to the ancient Western Regions, as the classics of the time record. During his mission, Zhang Qian developed several relationships among the people of Central Asia, where he visited the Fergana Valley, the Samarqand Basin and the Balkhash Lake area. The route Zhang Qian travelled eventually became the one that was officially used and, soon, merchants began to utilize it for trade. Zhang Qian himself brought articles from China, silk being the most important commodity, to the Western Regions and Central Asia. In return, he also brought back to China the products and the culture of those regions he visited, including the music of the Western Regions. The opening of this route facilitated the people of both regions in devoping a greater understanding of each other. This saw the Silk Road became prosperous and busy with activity. It became a channel that linked the western and eastern civilizations, and in order to protect it, the rulers of each dynasty of China built beacon towers and stationed troops along it.
The Silk Road was never a fixed “road”, and its routes changed with time. However, the main route remained unaltered; it began from Chang’an (the present Xi’an), crossed the Tarim Basin and the Pamirs (Congling), passed through Central Asia and Western Asia, before finally reaching the eastern bank of the Mediterranean. The total length of the route was about 7000 kilometers long.
Present day Xinjiang, which lies at the heart of Asia, was one of the regions by which the ancient Silk Road passed. There were three routes through Xinjiang that constituted part of the early Silk Road: the grassland route which passed by present day Jimsar, Yili, to reach Balkhash Lake area and further westward to the northern bank of the Black Sea; the southern route which went by Loulan and along the Kunlun Mountains to Shache (Yakend) and further across Congling, providing a path to Central Asia, Western Asia and Europe; and the northern route, which went along the Kunque River, northwest to Loulan, westward through Yingpan, Kucha and Shule, across Congling, and finally reached Europe.
Subsequently, two new routes were formed. These were the northern route, which began at Yumen Gate, went northwest, passing by present day Hami, Turpan, Jimsar, and linked the old grassland; and the middle route, which began at Turpan, went westward along the Tianshan Mountains and passed by Yanji and Kucha, linking with the old northern route. The southern route remained the same.
In the late 7th century, the role of the ancient Silk Road underwent a decrease in significance, as sea transportation became more common. However, it still remained an important channel of communication between the west and east. In the early 19th century, a Spanish journalist wrote about the trade in Samarqand, saying that “the commodities from all the directions gathered at Samarqand, and the silk from China was beautiful.” He also wrote that he had “seen a Caravan from China and it had 800 camels!”
As the silk was transported to Central Asia, Western Asia and Europe, so were the techniques of raising silkworms and weaving silk. The jade, leather and blankets of present day Xinjiang, and the ironware, pottery, lacquerware, peaches, apricots, rhubarb and cinnamon of ancient China were also introduced to the west. At the same time, glassware, special stones, economic crops, spices, medicinal herbs, as well as Nestorianism, Buddhism and Islam were introduced to China from these other regions. The economic and cultural exchanges between the west and the east enriched the material life of the people of the time. It was these exchanges that fostered learning and the evolution of new cultures.
The ancient Silk Road was not only a route for trade, but also a road of friendship. Its role in the development of the societies that benefited from it is recorded in history, and its contribution to bringing the west and east closer is acknowledged the world over.
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