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READ: Lost on the Silk Road

Hazards and Hospitality on an Ancient Trade Route

The Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau© AStock/CORBIS
By Peter Stark
The second day into the mountains of the Tibetan Plateau, everything went wrong.  Our canteens ran dry.  We struggled up a mountain pass behind the caravan of yaks that carried our luggage.  It was so steep and high, it felt like we were panting our way up a 15,000-foot-tall black sand dune.
Descending the far side, the yaks escaped from the Tibetan herdsman who guided them. Then, trying to round up the yaks, we got separated from each other. I grew dizzy from running in the thin air. Eventually Amy and I found a little trail that led into a deep stream canyon. Then we lost the trail in the canyon’s brushy bottom.
That’s when the thunderstorm struck. It was late afternoon. Amy and I were alone in the brushy bottom of the canyon on the left bank of the stream. We didn’t know what had happened to the yak caravan, nor the Tibetan herdsman running alongside them in his long black robe, nor the Tibetan guide on horseback who carried the rifle, nor the Chinese interpreter. We thought they were somewhere ahead of us in the canyon, and maybe on the opposite bank of the stream, but we weren’t sure.
Peter Stark traveling through Tibet in a Yak caravan,© Amy Ragsdale

The Sky Turned Suddenly Black

Lightning rocketed among the mountaintops. Thunder crashed through the canyon, echoing and reverberating, and shaking the ground beneath our hiking boots. White curtains of cold, driving rain swept through the airy space between the canyon walls, obscuring the far side. The stream began to rise — fast — smashing against its banks, churning with whitewater. We followed it downstream, trying to get out of the canyon. Soon we ran into a cliff that rose straight out of the charging water. The only ways past it were to climb high over the cliff or to inch our way across it on narrow ledges.
Amy and I started to claw our way up the side of the cliff, grabbing at roots of bushes and moss to hold on. This was what our honeymoon had become. Somewhere up ahead, this canyon was supposed to lead to the headwaters of the Yangtze River — our destination. Soon I was edging out on a slippery, wet ledge, clinging to the side of the cliff, 30 feet above the raging stream. The ledge narrowed. Then it ended in a big nose of rock. I didn’t know where next to place either hands or feet. I was stuck high above the charging stream, growing dizzy looking down between my boots at the spinning rapids below.
We were traveling by yak caravan because I wanted to write about the Yangtze River and this was the only way to reach its headwaters in these rugged, mountainous regions of the Tibetan Plateau. Yak caravans like ours, for many centuries, had crossed these high mountains. They traveled on one branch of the ancient trade route known as the Silk Road. The branch across the Tibetan Plateau linked two civilizations, China’s and India’s. Other branches linked Chinese traders with the civilizations of the Mediterranean and Europe, many thousands of miles away. Some writers describe the Silk Road as an ancient highway connecting distant ends of continents. I like to think of it as the Earth’s original Internet.
The Himalayan Mountains© Brian A. Vikander/CORBIS
When we think of a major highway, we usually imagine someone traveling a long distance by car or bus or truck. But unlike a modern highway, very few people traversed the Silk Road from one end to the other, from China to the Mediterranean, or vice versa. (Marco Polo was one of the famous travelers who did.) The Silk Road really served, like the Internet does, as a linked network of communication “nodes.” In the way “packets” of information are passed along the Internet from computer node to computer node all over the globe, so were actual packets of goods passed from one trader’s caravan to another, and from one caravan post to another on the Silk Road. After months, or even years, these packets had traveled hundreds or thousands of miles along the Silk Road from, say, China to France, a distance of over 5,000 miles as the crow flies, and closer to 10,000 miles by winding roads and paths.
The most famous of these packets of goods traveling along the Silk Road contained, as you might guess, silk. The Chinese had invented this luxurious fabric around 2700 BCE (or earlier) and managed to keep the manufacturing process secret for millennia, closely guarding the silkworm that spins a cocoon of the finest filament — the silk thread. Unraveled from the cocoon, and woven together, the silk threads formed a fabric so soft, so sheer, so refined, that kings and queens, dukes and duchesses, wealthy people of the ancient world, were willing to pay extraordinary prices to possess this luxury good that traveled from hand to hand, caravan to caravan, all the way from China to Europe.
Detail from a 12th-century painting attributed to Chinese Emperor Hui Tsung© Burstein Collection/CORBIS

Thus Was Born the Silk Road

No official “date” marks the opening of the Silk Road, but about 2,000 years ago, during ancient China’s Han dynasty, a government ambassador, Zhang Qian (c. 200–114 BCE), was sent west by the emperor to secure a trade route for silk caravans. Zhang and his officers made peace with some of the nomadic tribes of Central Asia that had previously attacked travelers. After Zhang’s intervention, it became safer for the caravans carrying silk to travel further west, and eventually their trade goods made it all the way to cities on or near the Mediterranean, such as Aleppo, in today’s Syria. They then traveled on sailing ships the rest of the way to the ports of western Europe. Here the fabric was tailored into the gowns and luxury goods of royalty, aristocrats, and wealthy merchants.
The new fabric was so thin and sheer and revealing that some Roman authorities considered it scandalous and tried to ban it:
“I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one’s decency, can be called clothes,” wrote the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger. “Wretched flocks of maids labor so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress....”
Silk merchants at the bazaar in Cairo, Egypt© Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS
Trade traveled both ways on the Silk Road. China desired certain goods, too. From the nomadic tribes of Central Asia, Chinese merchants bargained for horses and cattle, leather and furs, ivory and jade. Silk Road caravans employed pack animals such as camels (able to travel in desert regions), yaks (sure-footed and strong-winded for high mountains), and horses. Each animal carried a load of about 300 pounds (136 kilograms). Trading towns or posts lay at regular distances along the Silk Road, as well as travelers’ inns known as caravansaries, where the caravans could rest the night, resupply with food, or trade their goods. The journey from one end of the Silk Road to the other could take a year.
Its many branches ran south to India, to Persia (now Iran), and to Bactria (what is now Afghanistan). Major stops along the ancient Silk Road, such as Baghdad, Damascus, and Kashgar, today remain important trading towns and desert oases.
Almost more important than the goods that traveled along the Silk Road were the ideas and inventions that it carried from East to West and vice versa. It is believed that the Chinese were first introduced to grapes and wine, products of the Middle East, via the Silk Road. Music, songs, and stories traveled along the Silk Road, and were shared around the campfires where the camel caravans stopped. So did broad ideas that changed the course of human history. Buddhism first developed in India in the sixth century BCE, and the Silk Road helped carry the faith’s teachings to China and elsewhere, until eventually it became the dominant religion of much of Asia.
An Ouigur spice merchant in Kashgar, China, 1994© Reza/Webistan/CORBIS
Those many centuries ago, before instant communications, before electronic files and even the printed book, it was difficult to transmit knowledge accurately over great distances. In order to learn, it was best to travel to the very source of the knowledge rather than wait for it to come. Chinese monks traveled along branches of the Silk Road to India so they could read the original manuscripts of the Buddha’s teachings, which were safely kept at monasteries there. One of the most famous Chinese novels, Journey to the West, follows the adventures of a character, Monkey, who a thousand years ago makes this same pilgrimage to read the Buddhist manuscripts. Monkey has to cross a land of deep canyons and towering mountains very much like the Tibetan Plateau, where demons lie in wait for him.
Knowledge actually traveled down a road — or even a mountain path.
Amy and I, like Monkey, were also tackling a land of deep canyons and towering mountains. As I clung to the point of rock over the raging stream, she called out from behind me. “Do you want me to try?”
Amy slithered past me on the wet, slippery rock ledge. (Trained as a modern dancer, she has a precise sense of balance and movement.) She then reached around the nose of rock, groped for a handhold, found one, and, hanging over the rapids, swung herself around the point of rock to the far side. She called back to me, telling me where to put my hand, and I followed.
An hour later, we stumbled out of the stream canyon into a much larger canyon. Through it ran a much larger river. This, I gathered, was the headwaters of the Yangtze that we sought. The rain had subsided and misty clouds clung to the gorge’s cliff tops. We balanced across a log footbridge over the churning stream. The footbridge led us to a tiny hamlet of mud-and-stone houses with Tibetan prayer flags draped from house to house, like giant cobwebs.
Waiting for us was Lo Da Ji, the Tibetan herdsman who drove our yak caravan; all the yaks; and the Tibetan guide, Ang Ya. We would spend the night in a mud-walled corral surrounded by stables — like an old caravansary on the Silk Road. Our host had constructed the mud corral and houses with his own hands. He was a short but powerfully built Tibetan yak herder with gentle brown eyes. I couldn’t pronounce his long Tibetan name, so I thought of him as “Arnold” because his muscles reminded me of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I’d never been to a spot so remote and so beautiful. Rock ledges towered hundreds of feet over our head, blanketed with grasses and wildflowers like hanging gardens. The big river swirled past the tiny hamlet strung with its graceful web of prayer flags.
“What is the name of this place,” I asked, “and how did you come here?”
A nomad tending sheep and yaks, Tibet © Craig Lovell/CORBIS
Arnold then told us a story. Ang Ya had to interpret it from Tibetan into Chinese for our Chinese interpreter, Little Cheng, and Little Cheng translated it to English for Amy and me. This is how knowledge passed from mouth to mouth, culture to culture. “The name of this place is Ren Zong Da or ‘The Foot of the Valley of the Many Goats.’ Many wild goats used to live on these cliffs. My father lived here, and my grandfather, and before that I don’t know. Many years ago, my mother and her father made a pilgrimage from Tibet to India to visit the birthplace of Buddha.
Her father became ill and died in India. To find her way home again, she had to travel alone through the mountains. Bandits stole her horses and her food. She came to this place and a man gave her food and a warm place to sleep. She stayed and married him. That man who helped her was my father.”
I was touched by his father’s act of generosity. Arnold now passed on that same generosity to us, giving us a place to sleep in his stables, some warm milky tea, and the makings for a Tibetan yak-meat and yak-milk stew.
As we rested and ate at Many Goats, I realized that Arnold’s mother had followed one branch of the Silk Road to India, as Monkey had. Our caravan, wandering through these canyons and mountains, had stumbled across her path.
Like all branches of the Silk Road, this one offered adventure and challenge, and had witnessed acts of incredible greed and of incredible kindness. It spanned thousands of miles, thousands of years, and vastly divergent cultures. This ancient route that wound across Asia, I realized, served as a major thread that wove together the peoples of the Earth.

For Further Discussion

What types of goods were often traded along the Silk Road routes and why? Share your answers in the Questions Area below.

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user alton west
    There were many types of goods that were traded on the silk rods. The most well known good would be silk made in china by silk worms and woven into garments silk was a luxurious fabric desired by many prominent and wealthy leaders and rulers across afro-eurasia. Other things that were traded were food, technologies, furs, and fabrics. All things that were not available in a certain region but desired by the people of said region. Things that were not tangible were also traded like stories, songs, traditions, and religion.
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user gabriella lopez
    art, spices, silk, and knowledge because these were things people needed for everyday life like cooking, clothing, & health.
    (2 votes)
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  • leafers tree style avatar for user DarkFire101
    Spices, fabric and food.
    Spices were in high demand and were quite expensive in some places because the food they had was not very flavorful.
    Fabric and food are everyday needs.
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user leonard.tj15
    information, songs from different cultures, food, and clothing are some of the many examples of goods traded among this silk road.
    (1 vote)
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  • spunky sam green style avatar for user Sabrina Groom
    They Traded goods on the Silk Road routes because different places have different goods and by taking these routes they could trade the goods that they needed.
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Matthew Crowell
    Silk, because wealthy people would pay alot for it. Food, because everyone needs to eat. Goods, because people like nice things.
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Monique Dean
    This is intriguing to learn to me. Some of the things that traveled the silk roads were obviously silk, but also grapes, wine, spices, religion, and many products of the middle east.. they shares stories along the way of their journey as well. its interesting to find out how material things started being made into things we still use to this very day.
    (0 votes)
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