By Ann Mah
Conde Nast Traveler
Published: October 2007
Globalization wasn’t always a dirty word: Indeed, for about 2,000 years–from the second century B.C. through the late-ninteenth century–the Silk Road, a 5,000-mile web of routes across land and sea, from Xi’an to Rome, was history’s grandest example of cross-cultural pollination. On it, West met (and learned from) East, and the other way around. China sent gunpowder to the Arab world and in turn received Islam; cotton and Buddhism traveled east from India, and paper and peonies went west from China. And until Marco Polo’s voyages, China and Rome remained largely ignorant of each other: The road was so long and so brutal that goods were handed off at various points from one trader to the next (in effect the world’s longest and most ambitious relay race).
We’ve mapped some of the Silk Road’s most important cities–and where you can still see its effects today.
1. Xi’an Known as Changan during the Silk Road’s heyday, from the second century B.C. through the mid-fifteenth century, the capital of the Han (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) and Tang (A.D. 618-907) dyansty courts was the starting point for all caravans heading west. The Shaanxi History Museum features artifacts from the Silk Road era, including a spectacular collection of Tang tricolor figurines (91 Xiaozai East Rd.; sxhm.com).
2. Luoyang (Handoff point from Central Asians to Chinese traders.) The city alternated with Changan as the Chinese capital during the first through fifth centuries. Famous, too, for its peonies, one of China’s floral exports. Luoyang holds an annual Peony Festival to celebrate its indigenous flower (in April).
3. Lanzhou This was a major trading hub for merchants from Mongolia, Sichuan and Tibet. Here, caravans from the west met the Yellow River. In the late thirteenth century, Marco Polo spent an entire year in Lanzhou, perhaps capitivated by the pulled noodles (another Chinese invention) for which the city was famous. You can taste for yourself why Marco Polo stayed when you visit the street-food market at Tianshui Lu, near He Zhong Lu (south of the Lanzhou Hotel), where stalls feature an array of noodles.
4. Linxia Once known as Little Mecca and frequented by pilgrims, Linxia played an important role in the spread of Islam from Central Asia to China. Visit one of the 20 mosques that dot the city, the most important of which is Nanguan, featuring both Chinese and Arabic architectural details (Jiefang Lu, just south of the central square).
5. Jiuquan A gateway to China for eastbound travelers, Jiuquan was the first town within the Great Wall. Foreign merchants who lived here for more than nine years were forbidden to leave China.
6. Jiayu Pass Known as the mouth of China, Jiayu Pass stood at the western end of the Great Wall. Before Dunhuang was established in the second century A.D., Jiayu’s fort–called “the strongest pass under heaven”–marked the border between the known and the unknown. According to local tradition, travelers threw a stone at the western wall, also called the Gate of Sorrows. If the stone reverberated, a safe journey was ensured; if it did not, they would die among strangers.
7. Hexi (Gansu) Corridor Bordered on all sides by inhospitable mountains and desert, the Hexi Corridor was the principle link between China and Central Asia. This fertile valley of oasis towns gave rise to bumper crops of precious rhubarb, a plant indigenous to the region; in the seventeenth century, Russia’s “Rhubharb Road” imported the medicinal plant from the Hexi Corridor to the Central Apothecary Office in St. Petersburg. So essential to the European constitution did the Chinese consider rhubarb (a natural laxative) that they threatened to cut off the supply during the mid-ninteenth-century opium wars, hoping the British would crumble under threat of constipation (alas, the hardy plant was by then already a staple of Victorian gardens).
8. Dunhuang (Handoff point from the Chinese to the Central Asians.) The Silk Road forked near here, skirting the treacherous Taklimakan Desert and forcing caravans to choose between the northern and southern routes. Fear of the perilous open desert inspired merchants and pilgrims to construct cave shrines to ensure safe passage or as thanks for a successful journey. You can still see those traders’ temples to good fortune at the Mogao Caves, a trove of brilliant Buddhist murals, manuscripts, and statuary from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries. From Dunhuang’s major street, Mingshan Lu, pick up a $4 local private mini bus for the half-hour ride to the caves (a half-day guided tour will cost about $16).
9. Turpan During the Han dynasty, Xiongnu nomads fought bitterly with the Chinese for control of the oasis town of Turpan. The Chinese eventually prevailed and learned to cultivate the region’s famous grapes.
10. Khotan (Hetian) Before the Silk Road there was the Jade Road, and for 2,000 years, Khotan supplied China with the precious stone. At Khotan’s Silk and Mulberry Research Center, you can view the entire silk-making process–from cocoon to cloth (107 Hemo Lu).
11. Kashgar (Handoff point from Central Asians to Persians and Indians.) A major crossroads–the northern and southern routes joined here; caravans departed for Central Asia, India, and Persia. Kashgar’s livestock market (known as the Ivan Bazaar) still earns its reputation as one of the largest, most crowded, and most colorful in the world. From People’s Square, in the center of town, take a 25-cent donkey ride south-east of the city.
12. Tashkurgan The name Tashkurgan, which means “stone tower,” refers to the structure thought to have marked the midway point between Europe and China. According to legend, this tower is also the site of the world’s first silk trade, bartered in dumb show between merchants from the East and the West–a theory that is highly disputed, as the region boasts numerous unmarked stone towers.
13. Balkh Settled in 2500 B.C., Balkh was a wealthy trading center, once the jewel of the Kushan kingdom–its horses, gems, and sesame seeds traveled to China, along with Buddhism.
14. Samarkand For 2,500 years the great Sogdian capital of Samarkand was the wealthiest city on the Central Asian Silk Road, ushering bales of Chinese silk through to Byzantium. In A.D. 751, an Arab victory at the battle of nearby Talas meant captured Chinese artisans were forced to divulge the secret of papermaking.
15. Bukhara The town’s saffron traveled east to China, where it was used to perfume clothes, hair, and wine.
16. Khiva In the sixth century, Khiva’s fortressed walls and Kheivak Well made it a popular Silk Road rest stop; by the seventeenth century, it had become a center of the Persian slave trade. Check out Khiva’s notorious east entrance, known as the Executioner’s Gate; the small alcoves you see were used as cells. Directly north is the caravansary, a courtyard inn where caravans once rested for the evening and which is now a covered bazaar (open daily; Sundays are best).
17. Merv (Handoff point from Kushans to Sassanids.) Now part of a larger town called Mary, Merv was a major trading spot, with routes forking to Constantinople and to the Mediterranean via Damascus.
18. Tehran (Rey) Once famous for its palaces, its lusterware, and its secrecy: In A.D. 67, Parthians resolutely misled a Chinese envoy, telling him that the journey to Roman Syria would take more than two years and that most people died of homesickness on the way. He turned back, enusring that the overland Silk Road trade remained in Persian hands. Rey was also decimated by the Mongol warriors, in 1221.
19. Sultinieh (Handoff point from Central Asians to Arabs and Europeans.) It was at Sultanieh’s apex in the thirteenth century that gunpowder started making its way down the road, moving from China–where it was invented in the ninth century–to Europe, which it reached in the 1200s. (The Islamic world learned about gunpowder, which they called “Chinese snow,” around the same time.)
20. Palmyra Silk Road traders detoured to Palmyra on their way to the Mediterranean coast in search of Phoenicia’s royal purple dye–its secret formula included dried mollusk shells. Purple silk was so expensive by the time it reached Rome that even the wealthiest could afford only a decorative colored strip on their clothes. Wander the city’s ancient ruins, which date to the first and second centuries. The amphitheater is still imposing, with its bowl of seats and looming entry gate.
21. Aleppo (Handoff point from Arabs to Romans.) Equidistant from the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, Aleppo rivals Damascus in its claim as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. After Islamic rulers conquered it, in A.D. 636, Aleppo succeeded Antioch as the most important Western destination for Silk Road caravans. The city’s souk–the Middle East’s longest–still occupies its original Silk Road site. Come lose yourself in the covered stone archways, which twist for 20 miles and are lined with vendors.
22. Antioch (Antakya) (Handoff point from Arabs to Romans.) Under the Romans, the Silk Road ended at Antioch, the final destination for caravans coming from the wast and the last stop for good traveling to Rome.
23. Anatolia Beginning in Anatolia, Alexander the Great swept across the Persian empire and beyond to conquer a territory that stretched from “Gibralter to Pujab.” Although his empire did not last beyond his death, in 323 B.C., Alexander the Great’s influence is evident in Central Asia’s Hellenistic Buddha statues. Central Anatolia still boasts one of the largest and best-preserved caravansaries along the former Silk Road. Called the Sultan Hani, the enormous courtyard building gave shelter and food to traveling merchants. To see it yourself, make the 42-mile drive west for Aksaray to Sultanhani on the Aksaray-Konya Highway (9am-6.30pm).
24. Rome Romans called China the Land of Seres, a mysterious place on the eastern edge of the world where the pale floss of silk grew on trees and colorful flowers. Costly and gossamer thin, silk was associated with hedonism–Seneca the Elder lamented the lack of modesty in silk-clad women, proclaiming them practically naked. Eventually, silk imports ruined the economy of the Roman empire, and in A.D. 14 the Senate banned men from wearing it. Rome got its first taste of silk in the first century B.C. and was immediately hooked, as proven by a second- or third-century mosaic of a scantily silk-clad girl dancing before a musician (you can see the Aventine Hill mosaic in the Vatican Museums).
MADE IN CHINA
The Romans imagined that it grew on trees, the Indians called it a “woven wind,” and the Europeans thought it was spun by fairies, but according to Chinese lore, the Goddess of Silk, Lei Zu, the wife of the mythical Yellow Emperor, discovered silk sometime between 2697 and 2597 B.C. One day, she accidentally dropped a silkworm cocoon she’d been toying with into her cup of tea. Upon rescuing it, she discovered that the case had unraveled into a single filament. Although historical record suggests that sericulture actually developed centuries earlier, in 4000 B.C., it is certain that by the second century B.C., silk-making had spread throughout southern China. For more than a thousand years, silk was so valuable that it was often used as currency. The process of making it was also a jealously guarded secret–the Chinese managed to keep it to themselves until the fifth century.