The story of one of the world's oldest and most historically important trade routes and its influences on the culture of China, Central Asia and the West.

by Oliver Wild

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The Early History of the Region
  3. The Nature of the Route
  4. The Development of the Route
  5. The Greatest Years
  6. The Mongols
  7. The Decline of the Route
  8. Foreign Influence
  9. The Present Day
  10. Restoration and Tourism
  11. Conclusions


The region separating China from Europe and Western Asia is not the most hospitable in the world. Much of it is taken up by the Taklimakan desert, one of the most hostile environments on our planet. There is very little vegetation, and almost no rainfall; sandstorms are very common, and have claimed the lives of countless people. The locals have a very great respect for this 'Land of Death'; few travellers in the past have had anything good to say about it. It covers a vast area, through which few roads pass; caravans throughout history have skirted its edges, from one isolated oasis to the next. The climate is harsh; in the summer the daytime temperatures are in the 40's, with temperatures greater than 50 degrees Celsius measured not infrequently in the sub-sealevel basin of Turfan. In winter the temperatures dip below minus 20 degrees. Temperatures soar in the sun, but drop very rapidly at dusk. Sand storms here are very common, and particularly dangerous due to the strength of the winds and the nature of the surface. Unlike the Gobi desert, where there there are a relatively large number of oases, and water can be found not too far below the surface, the Taklimakan has much sparser resources.

The land surrounding the Taklimakan is equally hostile. To the northeast lies the Gobi desert, almost as harsh in climate as the Taklimakan itself; on the remaining three sides lie some of the highest mountains in the world. To the South are the Himalaya, Karakorum and Kunlun ranges, which provide an effective barrier separating Central Asia from the Indian sub-continent. Only a few icey passes cross these ranges, and they are some of the most difficult in the world; they are mostly over 5000 metres in altitude, and are dangerously narrow, with precipitous drops into deep ravines. To the north and west lie the Tianshan and Pamir ranges; though greener and less high, the passes crossing these have still provided more than enough problems for the travellers of the past. Approaching the area from the east, the least difficult entry is along the 'Gansu Corridor', a relatively fertile strip running along the base of the Qilian mountains, separating the great Mongolian plateau and the Gobi from the Tibetan High Plateau. Coming from the west or south, the only way in is over the passes.


On the eastern and western sides of the continent, the civilisations of China and the West developed. The western end of the trade route appears to have developed earlier than the eastern end, principally because of the development of the the empires in the west, and the easier terrain of Persia and Syria. The Iranian empire of Persia was in control of a large area of the Middle East, extending as far as the Indian Kingdoms to the east. Trade between these two neighbours was already starting to influence the cultures of these regions.

This region was taken over by Alexander the Great of Macedon, who finally conquered the Iranian empire, and colonised the area in about 330 B.C., superimposing the culture of the Greeks. Although he only ruled the area until 325 B.C., the effect of the Greek invasion was quite considerable. The Greek language was brought to the area, and Greek mythology was introduced. The aesthetics of Greek sculpture were merged with the ideas developed from the Indian kingdoms, and a separate local school of art emerged. By the third century B.C., the area had already become a crossroads of Asia, where Persian, Indian and Greek ideas met. It is believed that the residents of the Hunza valley in the Karakorum are the direct descendents of the army of Alexander; this valley is now followed by the Karakorum Highway, on its way from Pakistan over to Kashgar, and indicates how close to the Taklimakan Alexander may have got.

This 'crossroads' region, covering the area to the south of the Hindu Kush and Karakorum ranges, now Pakistan and Afghanistan, was overrun by a number of different peoples. After the Greeks, the tribes from Palmyra, in Syria, and then Parthia, to the east of the Mediterranean, took over the region. These peoples were less sophisticated than the Greeks, and adopted the Greek language and coin system in this region, introducing their own influences in the fields of sculpture and art.

Close on the heels of the Parthians came the Yuezhi people from the Northern borders of the Taklimakan. They had been driven from their traditional homeland by the Xiongnu tribe (who later became the Huns and transfered their attentions towards Europe), and settled in Northern India. Their descendents became the Kushan people, and in the first century A.D. they moved into this crossroads area, bringing their adopted Buddhist religion with them. Like the other tribes before them, they adopted much of the Greek system that existed in the region. The product of this marriage of cultures was the Gandhara culture, based in what is now the Peshawar region of northwest Pakistan. This fused Greek and Buddhist art into a unique form, many of the sculptures of Buddhist deities bearing strong resemblences to the Greek mythological figure Heracles. The Kushan people were the first to show Buddha in human form, as before this time artists had preferred symbols such as the footprint, stupa or tree of enlightenment, either out of a sense of sacrilege or simply to avoid persecution.

The eastern end of the route developed rather more slowly. In China, the Warring States period was brought to an end by the Qin state, which unified China to form the Qin Dynasty, under Qin Shi Huangdi. The harsh reforms introduced to bring the individual states together seem brutal now, but the unification of the language, and standardisation of the system, had long lasting effects. The capital was set up in Changan, which rapidly developed into a large city, now Xian.

The Xiongnu tribe had been periodically invading the northern borders during the Warring States period with increasing frequency. The northern-most states had been trying to counteract this by building defensive walls to hinder the invaders, and warn of their approach. Under the Qin Dynasty, in an attempt to subdue the Xiongnu, a campaign to join these sections of wall was initiated, and the 'Great Wall' was born. When the Qin collapsed in 206 B.C., after only 15 years, the unity of China was preserved by the Western Han Dynasty, which continued to construct the Wall.

During one of their campaigns against the Xiongnu, in the reign of Emperor Wudi, the Han learnt from some of their prisoners that the Yuezhi had been driven further to the west. It was decided to try to link up with these peoples in order to form an alliance against the Xiongnu. The first intelligence operation in this direction was in 138 B.C. under the leadership of Zhang Qian, brought back much of interest to the court, with information about hitherto unknow states to the west, and about a new, larger breed of horse that could be used to equip the Han cavalry. The trip was certainly eventful, as the Xiongnu captured them, and kept them hostage for ten years; after escaping and continuing the journey, Zhang Qian eventually found the Yuezhi in Northern India. Unfortunately for the Han, they had lost any interest in forming an alliance against the Xiongnu. On the return journey, Zhang Qian and his delegation were again captured, and it was not until 125 B.C. that they arrived back in Changan. The emperor was much interested by what they found, however, and more expeditions were sent out towards the West over the following years. After a few failures, a large expedition managed to obtain some of the so-called 'heavenly horses', which helped transform the Han cavalry. These horses have been immortalised in the art of the period, one of the best examples being the small bronze 'flying horse' found at Wuwei in the Gansu Corridor, now used as the emblem of the China International Travel Service. Spurred on by their discoveries, the Han missions pushed further westwards, and may have got as far as Persia. They brought back many objects from these regions, in particular some of the religious artwork from the Gandharan culture, and other objects of beauty for the emperor. By this process, the route to the west was opened up. Zhang Qian is still seen by many to be the father of the Silk Road.

In the west, the Greek empire was taken over by the Roman empire. Even at this stage, before the time of Zhang Qian, small quantities of Chinese goods, including silk, were reaching the west. This is likely to have arrived with individual traders, who may have started to make the journey in search of new markets despite the danger or the political situation of the time.


The description of this route to the west as the 'Silk Road' is somewhat misleading. Firstly, no single route was taken; crossing Central Asia several different branches developed, passing through different oasis settlements. The routes all started from the capital in Changan, headed up the Gansu corridor, and reached Dunhuang on the edge of the Taklimakan. The northern route then passed through Yumen Guan (Jade Gate Pass) and crossed the neck of the Gobi desert to Hami (Kumul), before following the Tianshan mountains round the northern fringes of the Taklimakan. It passed through the major oases of Turfan and Kuqa before arriving at Kashgar, at the foot of the Pamirs. The southern route branched off at Dunhuang, passing through the Yang Guan and skirting the southern edges of the desert, via Miran, Hetian (Khotan) and Shache (Yarkand), finally turning north again to meet the other route at Kashgar. Numerous other routes were also used to a lesser extent; one branched off from the southern route and headed through the Eastern end of the Taklimakan to the city of Loulan, before joining the Northern route at Korla. Kashgar became the new crossroads of Asia; from here the routes again divided, heading across the Pamirs to Samarkand and to the south of the Caspian Sea, or to the South, over the Karakorum into India; a further route split from the northern route after Kuqa and headed across the Tianshan range to eventually reach the shores of the Caspian Sea, via Tashkent.

Secondly, the Silk Road was not a trade route that existed solely for the purpose of trading in silk; many other commodities were also traded, from gold and ivory to exotic animals and plants. Of all the precious goods crossing this area, silk was perhaps the most remarkable for the people of the West. It is often thought that the Romans had first encountered silk in one of their campaigns against the Parthians in 53 B.C, and realised that it could not have been produced by this relatively unsophisticated people. They reputedly learnt from Parthian prisoners that it came from a mysterious tribe in the east, who they came to refer to as the silk people, 'Seres'. In practise, it is likely that silk and other goods were beginning to filter into Europe before this time, though only in very small quantities. The Romans obtained samples of this new material, and it quickly became very popular in Rome, for its soft texture and attractiveness. The Parthians quickly realised that there was money to be made from trading the material, and sent trade missions towards the east. The Romans also sent their own agents out to explore the route, and to try to obtain silk at a lower price than that set by the Parthians. For this reason, the trade route to the East was seen by the Romans as a route for silk rather than the other goods that were traded. The name 'Silk Road' itself does not originate from the Romans, however, but is a nineteenth century term, coined by the German scholar, von Richthofen.

In addition to silk, the route carried many other precious commodities. Caravans heading towards China carried gold and other precious metals, ivory, precious stones, and glass, which was not manufactured in China until the fifth century. In the opposite direction furs, ceramics, jade, bronze objects, lacquer and iron were carried. Many of these goods were bartered for others along the way, and objects often changed hands several times. There are no records of Roman traders being seen in Changan, nor Chinese merchants in Rome, though their goods were appreciated in both places. This would obviously have been in the interests of the Parthians and other middlemen, who took as large a profit from the change of hands as they could.


The development of these Central Asian trade routes caused some problems for the Han rulers in China. Bandits soon learnt of the precious goods travelling up the Gansu Corridor and skirting the Taklimakan, and took advantage of the terrain to plunder these caravans. Caravans of goods needed their own defence forces, and this was an added cost for the merchants making the trip. The route took the caravans to the farthest extent of the Han Empire, and policing this route became a big problem. This was partially overcome by building forts and defensive walls along part of the route. Sections of 'Great Wall' were built along the northern side of the Gansu Corridor, to try to prevent the Xiongnu from harming the trade; Tibetan bandits from the Qilian mountains to the south were also a problem. Sections of Han dynasty wall can still be seen as far as Yumen Guan, well beyond the recognised beginning of the Great Wall at Jiayuguan. However, these fortifications were not all as effective as intended, as the Chinese lost control of sections of the route at regular intervals.

The Han dynasty set up the local government at Wulei, not far from Kuqa on the northern border of the Taklimakan, in order to 'protect' the states in this area, which numbered about 50 at the time. At about the same period the city of Gaochang was constructed in the Turfan basin. This developed into the centre of the Huihe kingdom; these peoples later became the Uygur minority who now make up a large proportion of the local population. Many settlements were set up along the way, mostly in the oasis areas, and profited from the passing trade. They also absorbed a lot of the local culture, and the cultures that passed them by along the route. Very few merchants traversed the full length of the road; most simply covered part of the journey, selling their wares a little further from home, and then returning with the proceeds. Goods therefore tended to moved slowly across Asia, changing hands many times. Local people no doubt acted as guides for the caravans over the most dangerous sections of the journey.

After the Western Han dynasty, successive dynasties brought more states under Chinese control. Settlements came and went, as they changed hands or lost importance due to a change in the routes. The Chinese garrison town of Loulan, for example, on the edge of the Lop Nor lake, was important in the third century A.D., but was abandoned when the Chinese lost control of the route for a period. Many settlements were buried during times of abandonment by the sands of the Taklimakan, and could not be repopulated.

The settlements reflected the nature of the trade passing through the region. Silk, on its way to the west, often got no further than this region of Central Asia. The Astana tombs, where the nobles of Gaochang were buried, have turned up examples of silk cloth from China, as well as objects from as far afield as Persia and India. Much can be learned about the customs of the time from the objects found in these graves, and from the art work of the time, which has been excellently preserved on the tomb walls, due to the extremely dry conditions. The bodies themselves have also been well preserved, and may allow scientific studies to ascertain their origins.

The most significant commodity carried along this route was not silk, but religion. Buddhism came to China from India this way, along the northern branch of the route. The first influences came as the passes over the Karakorum were first explored. The Eastern Han emperor Mingdi is thought to have sent a representative to India to discover more about this strange faith, and further missions returned bearing scriptures, and bringing with them Indian priests. With this came influences from the Indian sub-continent, including Buddhist art work, examples of which have been found in several early second century tombs in present-day Sichuan province. This was considerably influenced by the Himalayan Massif, an effective barrier between China and India, and hence the Buddhism in China is effectively derived from the Gandhara culture by the bend in the Indus river, rather than directly from India. Buddhism reached the pastures of Tibet at a rather later period, not developing fully until the seventh century. Along the way it developed under many different influences, before reaching central China. This is displayed very cleared in the artwork, where many of the cave paintings show people with clearly different ethnic backgrounds, rather than the expected Central and East Asian peoples.

The greatest flux of Buddhism into China occurred during the Northern Wei dynasty, in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. This was at a time when China was divided into several different kingdoms, and the Northern Wei dynasty had its capital in Datong in present day Shanxi province. The rulers encouraged the development of Buddhism, and more missions were sent towards India. The new religion spread slowly eastwards, through the oases surrounding the Taklimakan, encouraged by an increasing number of merchants, missionaries and pilgrims. Many of the local peoples, the Huihe included, adopted Buddhism as their own religion. Faxian, a pilgrim from China, records the religious life in the Kingdoms of Khotan and Kashgar in 399 A.D. in great detail. He describes the large number of monasteries that had been built, and a large Buddhist festival that was held while he was there.

Some devotees were sufficiently inspired by the new ideas that they headed off in search of the source, towards Gandhara and India; others started to build monasteries, grottos and stupas. The development of the grotto is particularly interesting; the edges of the Taklimakan hide some of the best examples in the world. The hills surrounding the desert are mostly of sandstone, with any streams or rivers carving cliffs that can be relatively easily dug into; there was also no shortage of funds for the work, particularly from wealthy merchants, anxious to invoke protection or give thanks for a safe desert crossing. Gifts and donations of this kind were seen as an act of merit, which might enable the donor to escape rebirth into this world. In many of the murals, the donors themselves are depicted, often in pious attitude. This explains why the Mogao grottos contain some of the best examples of Buddhist artwork; Dunhuang is the starting point for the most difficult section of the Taklimakan crossing.

The grottos were mostly started at about the same period, and coincided with the beginning of the Northern Wei Dynasty. There are a large cluster in the Kuqa region, the best examples being the Kyzil grottos; similarly there are clusters close to Gaochang, the largest being the Bezeklik grottos. Probably the best known ones are the Mogao grottos at Dunhuang, at the eastern end of the Taklimakan. It is here that the greatest number, and some of the best examples, are to be found. More is known about the origins of these, too, as large quantities of ancient documents have been found. These are on a wide range of subjects, and include a large number of Buddhist scriptures in Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Uygur and other languages, some still unknown. There are documents from the other faiths that developed in the area, and also some official documents and letters that reveal a lot about the system of government at the time.

The grotto building was not confined to the Taklimakan; there is a large cluster at Bamiyan in the Hindu Kush, in present-day Afghanistan. It is here that the second largest sculpture of Buddha in the world can be found, at 55 metres high.

For the archaeologist these grottos are particularly valuable sources of information about the Silk Road. Along with the images of Buddhas and Boddhisatvas, there are scenes of the everyday life of the people at the time. Scenes of celebration and dancing give an insight into local customs and costume. The influences of the Silk Road traffic are therefore quite clear in the mix of cultures that appears on these murals at different dates. In particular, the development of Buddhism from the Indian/Gandharan style to a more individual faith is evident on studying the murals from different eras in any of the grotto clusters. Those from the Gandharan school have more classical features, with wavey hair and a sharper brow; they tend to be dressed in toga-like robes rather than a loin cloth. Those of the Northern Wei have a more Indian appearance, with narrower faces, stretched ear-lobes, and a more serene aura. By the Tang dynasty, when Buddhism was well developed in China, many of the statues and murals show much plumper, more rounded and amiable looking figures. By the Tang dynasty, the Apsara (flying deity, similar to an angel in Christianity) was a popular subject for the artists.

It is also interesting to trace the changes in styles along the length of the route, from Kuqa in the west, via the Turfan area and Dunhuang, to the Maijishan grottos about 350 kilometres from Xian, and then as far into China as Datong. The Northern Wei dynasty, that is perhaps the most responsible for the spread of Buddhism in China, started the construction of the Yungang grottos in northern Shanxi province. When the capital of the Northern Wei was transfered to Luoyang, the artists and masons started again from scratch, building the Longmen grottos. These two more 'Chinese' grottos emphasised carving and statuary rather than the delicate murals of the Taklimakan regions, and the figures are quite impressive in their size; the largest figure at Yungang measures more than 17 metres in height, second only in China to the great Leshan Buddha in Sichuan, which was constructed in the early 8th Century. The figures are mostly depicted in the 'reassurance' pose, with right hand raised, as an apology to the adherents of the Buddhist faith for the period of persecution that had occurred during the early Northern Wei Dynasty before construction was started.

The Buddhist faith gave birth to a number of different sects in Central Asia. Of these, the 'Pure Land' and 'Chan' (Zen) sects were particularly strong, and were even taken beyond China; they are both still flourishing in Japan.

Christianity also made an early appearance on the scene. The Nestorian sect was outlawed in Europe by the Roman church in 432 A.D., and its followers were driven eastwards. From their foothold in Northern Iran, merchants brought the faith along the Silk Road, and the first Nestorian church was consecrated at Changan in 638 A.D. This sect took root on the Silk Road, and survived many later attempts to wipe them out, lasting into the fourteenth century. Many Nestorian writings have been found with other documents at Dunhuang and Turfan. Manichaeism, a third century Persian religion, also influenced the area, and had become quite well developed by the beginning of the Tang Dynasty.


The height of the importance of the Silk Road was during the Tang dynasty, with relative internal stability in China after the divisions of the earlier dynasties since the Han. The individual states had mostly been assimilated, and the threats from marauding peoples was rather less.

During this period, in the seventh century, the Chinese traveller Xuan Zang crossed the region on his way to obtain Buddhist scriptures from India. He followed the northern branch round the Taklimakan on his outward journey, and the southern route on his return; he carefully recorded the cultures and styles of Buddhism along the way. On his return to the Tang capital at Changan, he was permitted to build the 'Great Goose Pagoda' in the southern half of the city, to house the more than 600 scriptures that he had brought back from India. He is still seen by the Chinese as an important influence in the development of Buddhism in China, and his travels were dramatised by in the popular classic 'Tales of a Journey to the West'.

The art and civilisation of the Silk Road achieved its highest point in the Tang Dynasty. Changan, as the starting point of the route, as well as the capital of the dynasty, developed into one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities of the time. By 742 A.D., the population had reached almost two million, and the city itself covered almost the same area as present-day Xian, considerably more than within the present walls of the city. The 754 A.D. census showed that five thousand foreigners lived in the city; Turks, Iranians, Indians and others from along the Road, as well as Japanese, Koreans and Malays from the east. Many were missionaries, merchants or pilgrims, but every other occupation was also represented. Rare plants, medicines, spices and other goods from the west were to be found in the bazaars of the city. It is quite clear, however, despite the exotic imports, that the Chinese regarded all foreigners as barbarians; the gifts provided for the Emperors by foreign rulers were simply considered as tribute from vassal states.

After the Tang, however, the traffic along the road subsided, along with the grotto building and art of the period. The Five Dynasties period did not maintain the internal stability of the Tang dynasty, and again neighbouring states started to plunder the caravans. China was partially unified again in the Song dynasty, but the Silk Road was not as important as it had been in the Tang.

From the point of view of those in the far west, China was still an unknown territory, and silk production was not understood. Since the days of Alexander the Great, there had been some knowledge of India, but there was no real knowledge of, or contact with, the 'Seres' until about the 7th century, when information started to filter along the Road. It was at this time that the rise of Islam started to affect Asia, and a curtain came down between the east and west. Trade relations soon resumed, however, with the Moslems playing the part of middlemen. The sea route to China was explored at this time, and the 'Sea Silk Route' was opened, eventually holding a more important place than the land route itself, as the land route became less profitable.

But the final shake-up that occurred was to come from a different direction; the hoards from the grasslands of Mongolia.


Trade along the route was adversely affected by the strife which built up between the Christian and Moslem worlds. The Crusades brought the Christian world a little nearer to Central Asia, but the unified Moslem armies under Saladin drove them back again. In the Fourth Crusade, the forces of Latin Christianity scored a triumph over their Greek rivals, with the capture of Constantinople (Istanbul). However, it was not the Christians who finally split the Moslem world, but the Mongols from the east. Whilst Europe and Western Asia were torn by religious differences, the Mongols had only the vaguest of religious beliefs. Several of the tribes of Turkestan which had launched offensives westwards towards Persia and Arabia came to adopt Islam, and Islam had spread far across Central Asia, but had not reached as far as the tribes which wandered the vast grasslands of Mongolia. These nomadic peoples had perfected the arts of archery and horsemanship. With an eye to expanding their sphere of influence, they met in 1206 and elected a leader for their unified forces; he took the title Great Khan. Under the leadership of Genghis Khan, they rapidly proceeded to conquer a huge region of Asia. The former Han city of Jiaohe, to the west of Turfan, was decimated by the Mongols as they passed through on their way westwards. The Empire they carved out enveloped the whole of Central Asia from China to Persia, and stretched as far west as the Mediterranean. This Mongol empire was maintained after Genghis' death, with the western section of the empire divided into three main lordships, falling to various of his descendents as lesser Khans, and with the eastern part remaining under the rule of the Great Khan, a title which was inherited from by Kubilai Khan. Kubilai completed the conquest of China, subduing the Song in the South of the country, and established the Yuan dynasty.

The partial unification of so many states under the Mongol Empire allowed a significant interaction between cultures of different regions. The route of the Silk Road became important as a path for communication between different parts of the Empire, and trading was continued. Although less 'civilised' than people in the west, the Mongols were more open to ideas. Kubilai Khan, in particular, is reported to have been quite sympathetic to most religions, and a large number of people of different nationalities and creeds took part in the trade across Asia, and settled in China. The most popular religion in China at the time was Daoism, which at first the Mongols favoured. However, from the middle of the thirteenth century onwards, Buddhist influence increased, and the early lamaist Buddhism from Tibet was particularly favoured. The two religions existed side by side for a long period during the Yuan dynasty. This religious liberalism was extended to all; Christianity first made headway in China in this period, with the first Roman Catholic archbishopric set up in Beijing in 1307. The Nestorian church was quite widespread in China; Jews and Moslems also populated several of the major cities, though they do not seem to have made many converts.

It was at this time that Europeans first ventured towards the lands of the 'Seres'. The earliest were probably Fransiscan friars who are reported to have visited the Mongolian city of Karakorum. The first Europeans to arrive at Kubilai's court were Northern European traders, who arrived in 1261. However, the most well known and best documented visitor was the Italian Marco Polo. As a member of a merchant family from Venice, he was a good businessman and a keen observer. Starting in 1271, at the age of only seventeen, his travels with his father and uncle took him across Persia, and then along the southern branch of the Silk Road, via Khotan, finally ending at the court of Kubilai Khan at Khanbalik, the site of present-day Beijing, and the summer palace, better known as Xanadu. He travelled quite extensively in China, before returning to Italy by ship, via Sumatra and India to Hormuz and Constantinople.

He describes the way of life in the cities and small kingdoms through which his party passed, with particular interest on the trade and marriage customs. His classification of other races centre mainly on their religion, and he looks at things with the eyes of one brought up under the auspices of the Catholic Church; it is therefore not surprising that he has a great mistrust of the Moslems, but he seems to have viewed the 'Idolaters' (Buddhists and Hindus) with more tolerance. He judges towns and countryside in terms of productivity; he appears to be have been quick to observe available sources of food and water along the way, and to size up the products and manufacture techniques of the places they passed through. His description of exotic plants and beasts are sufficiently accurate to be quite easily recognizable, and better than most of the textbooks of the period. He seems to have shown little interest in the history of the regions he was passing through, however, and his reports of military campaigns are full of inaccuracies, though this might be due to other additions or misinformation.

The 'Travels' were not actually written by Marco Polo himself. After his return to the West in 1295, he was captured as a prisoner of war in Genoa, when serving in the Venetian forces. Whilst detained in prison for a year, he met Rustichello of Pisa, a relatively well-known romance writer and a fellow prisoner of war. Rustichello was obviously attracted to the possibilities of writing a romantic tale of adventure about Polo's travels; it should be remembered that the book was written for entertainment rather than as a historic document. However, the collaboration between them, assuming that the story has not been embroidered excessively by Rustichello, gives an interesting picture of life along the Silk Road in the time of the Khans. Some of the tales are no doubt due to the romance-writing instincts of Rustichello, and some of those due to Polo are at best third-hand reports from people he met; however, much of the material can be verified against Chinese and Persian records. As a whole, the book captured public notice at the time, and added much to what was known of Asian geography, customs and natural history.


However, the Mongolian Empire was to be fairly short-lived. Splits between the different khans had erupted as early as 1262. Although the East was considerably more stable, especially under the rule of Kubilai, it also succumbed to a resurgence of Chinese nationalism, and after several minor local rebellions in the first few decades of the fourteenth century, principally in the south of China, the Yuan dynasty was finally replaced by the Ming dynasty in 1368. With the disintegration of the Mongol empire, the revival of Islam and the isolationist policies of the Ming dynasty, the barriers rose again on the land route between East and West.

Despite the presence of the Mongols, trade along the Silk Road never reached the heights that it did in the Tang dynasty. The steady advance of Islam, temporarily halted by the Mongols, continued until it formed a major force across Central Asia, surrounding the Taklimakan like Buddhism had almost a millennium earlier. The artwork of the region suffered under the encroach of Islam. Whereas the Buddhist artists had concentrated on figures in painting and sculpture, the human form was scorned in Islamic artwork; this difference led to the destruction of much of the original artwork. Many of the grottos have been defaced in this way, particularly at the more accessible sites such as Bezeklik, near Turfan, where most of the human faces in the remaining frescoes have been scratched out.

The demise of the Silk Road also owes much to the development of the silk route by sea. It was becoming rather easier and safer to transport goods by water rather than overland. Ships had become stronger and more reliable, and the route passed promising new markets in Southern Asia. The overland problems of 'tribal politics' between the different peoples along the route, and the presence of middlemen, all taking their cut on the goods, prompted this move. The sea route, however, suffered from the additional problems of bad weather and pirates. In the early fifteenth century, the Chinese seafarer Zheng He commanded seven major maritime expeditions to Southeast Asia and India, and as far as Arabia and the east coast of Africa. Diplomatic relations were built up with several countries along the route, and this increase the volume of trade Chinese merchants brought to the area. In the end, the choice of route depended very much upon the political climate of the time.

The encroach of the deserts into the inhabited land made life on the edges of the Taklimakan and Gobi Deserts particularly difficult. Any settlement abandoned for a while was swallowed by the desert, and so resettlement became increasingly difficult. These conditions were only suitable in times of peace, when effort could be spent countering this advance, and maintaining water sources.

The attitude of the later Chinese dynasties was the final blow to the trade route. The isolationist policies of the Ming dynasties did nothing to encourage trade between China and the rapidly developing West. This attitude was maintained throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties, and only started to change after the Western powers began making inroads into China in the nineteenth century. By the beginning of the 18th century, the Qing dynasty subdued the Dzungar people, however, and annexed the whole Taklimakan region, forming the basis of present-day Xinjiang province. This restored China to the state it had been in in the Han dynasty, with full control of the western regions, but also including the territories and Tibet and Mongolia.

However, as trade with the West subsided, so did the traffic along the Road, and all but the best watered oases survived. The grottos and other religious sites were long since neglected, now that the local peoples had espoused a new religion, and the old towns and sites were buried deeper beneath the sands.


Renewed interest in the Silk Road only emerged among western scholars towards the end of the nineteenth century. This emerged after various countries started to explore the region. The foreign involvement in this area was due mostly to the interest of the powers of the time in expanding their territories. The British, in particular, were interested in consolidating some of the land north of their Indian territories. The first official trip for the Survey of India was in 1863, and soon afterwards, the existence of ancient cities lost in the desert was confirmed. A trade delegation was sent to Kashgar in 1890, and the British were eventually to set up a consulate in 1908. They saw the presence of Russia as a threat to the trade developing between Kashgar and India, and the power struggle between these two empires in this region came to be referred to as the 'Great Game'. British agents (mostly Indians) crossed the Himalayas from Ladakh and India to Kashgar, travelling as merchants, and gathering what information they could, including surveying the geography of the route. At a similar time, Russians were entering from the north; most were botanists, geologists or cartographers, but they had no doubt been briefed to gather whatever intelligence they could. The Russians were the first to chance on the ruined cities at Turfan. The local treasure hunters were quick to make the best of these travellers, both in this region and near Kashgar, and noting the interest the foreigners showed towards the relics, sold them a few of the articles that they had dug out of the ruins. In this way a few ancient articles and old manuscripts started to appear in the West. When these reached the hands of Orientalists in Europe, and the manuscripts were slowly deciphered, they caused a large deal of interest, and more people were sent out to look out for them.

The study of the Road really took off after the expeditions of the Swede Sven Hedin in 1895. He was an accomplished cartographer and linguist, and became one of the most renouned explorers of the time. He crossed the Pamirs to Kashgar, and then set out to explore the more desolate parts of the region. He even succeeded in making a crossing of the centre of the Taklimakan, though he was one of only three members of the party who made it across, the rest succumbing to thirst after their water had run out. He was intrigued by local legends of demons in the Taklimakan, guarding ancient cities full of treasure, and met several natives who had chanced upon such places. In his later travels, he discover several ruined cities on the south side of the desert, and his biggest find, the city of Loulan, from which he removed a large number of ancient manuscripts.

After Hedin, the archaeological race started. Sir Aurel Stein of Britain and Albert von Le Coq of Germany were the principle players, though the Russians and French, and then the Japanese, quickly followed suit. There followed a period of frenzied digging around the edges of the Taklimakan, to discover as much as possible about the old Buddhist culture that had existed long before. The dryness of the climate, coupled with the exceedingly hot summers and cold winters, made this particularly difficult. However the enthusiasm to discover more of the treasures of the region, as well as the competition between the individuals and nations involved, drove them to continue. Although they produced reports of what they discovered, their excavation techniques were often far from scientific, and they removed whatever they could from the sites in large packing cases for transport to the museums at home. The manuscripts were probably the most highly prized of the finds; tales of local people throwing these old scrolls into rivers as rubbish tormented them. Removal of these from China probably did help preserve them. However, the frescoes from the grottos also attracted their attention, and many of the best ones were cut into sections, and carefully peeled off the wall with a layer of plaster; these were then packaged very carefully for transport. To their credit, almost all these murals survived the journey, albeit in pieces.

The crowning discovery was of a walled-up library within the Mogao grottos at Dunhuang. This contained a stack of thousands of manuscripts, Buddhist paintings and silk temple banners. The manuscripts were in Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Uighur and several other less widely known languages, and they covered a wide range of subjects; everything from sections of the Lotus Sutra to stories and ballads from the Tang dynasty and before. Among these is what is believed to be the world's oldest printed book. This hoard had been discovered by a Daoist monk at the beginning of the twentieth century, and he had appointed himself as their protector. The Chinese authorities appear to have been aware of the existence of the library, but were perhaps not fully aware of its significance, and they had decided to leave the contents where they were, under the protection of the monk. On hearing of this hoard, Stein came to see them; he gradually persuaded the monk to part with a few of the best for a small donation towards the rebuilding of the temple there. On successive visits, he removed larger quantities; the French archaeologist Pelliot also got wind of this discovery, and managed to obtain some. The frescoes at Dunhuang were also some of the best on the whole route, and many of the most beautiful ones were removed by the American professor Langdon Warner and his party.

The archaeological free-for-all came to a close after a change in the political scene. On 25th May 1925 a student demonstration in the treaty port of Shanghai was broken up by the British by opening fire on them, killing a number of the rioters. This instantly created a wave of anti-foreign hostility throughout China, and effectively brought the explorations of the western archaeologists to an end. The Chinese authorities started to take a much harsher view of the foreign intervention, and made the organisation of the trips much more difficult; they started to insist that all finds should be turned over to the relevant Chinese organs. This effectively brought an end to foreign exploration of the region.

The treasures of the ancient Silk Road are now scattered around museums in perhaps as many as a dozen countries. The biggest collections are in the British Museum and in Delhi, due to Stein, and in Berlin, due to von Le Coq. The manuscripts attracted a lot of scholarly interest, and deciphering them is still not quite complete. Most of them are now in the British Library, and available for specialist study, but not on display. A large proportion of the Berlin treasures were lost during the Second World War; twenty eight of the largest frescoes, which had been attached to the walls of the old Ethnological Museum in Berlin for the purposes of display to the public, were lost in an Allied Air Force bombing raids between 1943 and 1945. A huge quantity of material brought back to London by Stein has mostly remained where it was put; museums can never afford the space to show more than just a few of the better relics, especially not one with such a large worldwide historical coverage as the British Museum.

The Chinese have understandably taken a harsh view of the 'treasure seeking' of these early Western archaeologists. Much play is made on the removal of such a large quantity of artwork from the country when it was in no state to formally complain, and when the western regions, in particular, were under the control of a succession of warlord leaders. There is a feeling that the West was taking advantage of the relatively undeveloped China, and that many of the treasures would have been much better preserved in China itself. This is not entirely true; many of the grottos were crumbling after more than a thousand years of earthquakes, and substantial destruction was wrought by farmers improving the irrigation systems. Between the visits of Stein and Warner to Dunhuang, a group of White Russian soldiers fleeing into China had passed by, and defaced many of the best remaining frescoes to such an extent that the irate Warner decided to 'salvage' as much as he could of the rest. The Chinese authorities at the time seem to have known about the art treasures of places like Dunhuang, but don't seem to have been prepared to protect them; the serious work of protection and restoration was left until the formation of the People's Republic.

Their only consolation is that many of the scrolls which had been purchased from native treasure-hunters at the western end of the Taklimakan at the beginning of the century were later found to have been remarkably good forgeries. Many were produced by an enterprising Moslem in Khotan, who had sensed how much money would be involved in this trade. This severely embarrassed a number of Western Orientalists, but the number of people misled attests to their quality.


The Silk Road, after a long period of hibernation, has been increasing in importance again recently. The fight of man against the desert, one of the biggest problems for the early travellers, is finally gaining ground. There has been some progress in controlling the progress of the shifting sands, which had previously meant having to resite settlements. The construction of roads around the edges of the Taklimakan has eased access, and the discovery of large oil reserves under the desert has encouraged this development. The area is rapidly being industrialised, and Urumchi, the present capital of Xinjiang, has become a particularly unprepossessing Han Chinese industrial city.

The trade route itself is also being reopened. The sluggish trade between the peoples of Xinjiang and those of the Soviet Union has developed quickly; trade with the C.I.S. is picking up rapidly with a flourishing trade in consumer items as well as heavy industry. The new Central Asian republics had previously contributed much of the heavy industry of the former Soviet Union, with a reliance for consumer goods on Russia. Trade with China is therefore starting to fulfill this demand. This trading has been encouraged by the recent trend towards a 'socialist market economy' in China, and the increasing freedom of movement being allowed, particularly for the minorities such as those in Xinjiang. Many of these nationalities are now participating in cross-border trade, regularly making the journey to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

The railway connecting Lanzhou to Urumchi has been extended to the border with Kazakhstan, where on 12th September 1990 it was finally joined to the former Soviet railway system, providing an important route to the new republics and beyond. This Eurasian Continental Bridge, built to rival the Trans-Siberian Railway, has been constructed from LianYunGang city in Jiangsu province (on the East China coast) to Rotterdam; the first phase of this development has already been completed, and the official opening of the railway was held on 1st December 1992. It is already promised to be at least 20% cheaper than the route by sea, and at 11,000 kilometres is significantly shorter. From China the route passes through Kazakhstan, Russia, Byelorussia and Poland, before reaching Germany and the Netherlands. The double-tracking of the railway from Lanzhou to the border of the C.I.S. has now been put high on the Chinese development priority list.


Since the intervention of the West last century, interest has been growing in this ancient trade route. The books written by Stein, Hedin and others have brought the perceived oriental mystery of the route into western common knowledge. Instilled with such romantic ideals as following in the footsteps of Marco Polo, a rapidly increasing number of people have been interested in visiting these desolate places. Since China opened its doors to foreign tourists at the end of the 1970s, it has realised how much foreign currency can be brought to the country by tapping this tourist potential. This has encouraged the authorities to do their best to protect the remaining sites; restoration of many of the sites is presently underway. The Mogao grottos were probably the first place to attract this attention; the Dunhuang Research Institute has been studying and preserving the remains of the grottos, as well as what was left of the library. Restoration is presently underway; the outside of the grottos was faced in a special concrete to prevent further subsidence, and some of the murals are being touched up by a team of specially trained artists and craftsmen.

Archaeological excavations have been started by the Chinese where the foreigners laid off; significant finds have been produced from such sites as the Astana tombs, where the dead from the city of Gaochang were buried. Finds of murals and clothing amongst the grave goods have increased knowledge of life along the old Silk Road; the dryness of the climate has helped preserve the bodies of the dead, as well as their garments.

There is still a lot to see around the Taklimakan, mostly in the form of damaged grottos and ruined cities. Whilst some people are drawn by the archaeology, others are attracted by the minority peoples; there are thirteen different races of people in the region, apart from the Han Chinese, from the Tibetans and Mongolians in the east of the region, to the Tajik, Kazakhs and Uzbeks in the west. Others are drawn to the mysterious cities such as Kashgar, where the Sunday market maintains much of the old Silk Road spirit, with people of many different nationalities selling everything from spice and wool to livestock and silver knives. Many of the present-day travellers are Japanese, visiting the places where their Buddhist religion passed on its way to Japan.

Although XinJiang is opening up, it is still not an easy place to travel around. Apart from the harsh climate and geography, many of the places are not fully open yet, and, perhaps understandably, the authorities are not keen on allowing foreigners to wander wherever they like, as Hedin and his successors had done. The desolation of the place makes it ideal for such aspects of modern life as rocket launching and nuclear bomb testing. Nevertheless, many sites can be reached without too much trouble, and there is still much to see.


From its birth before Christ, through the heights of the Tang dynasty, until its slow demise six to seven hundred years ago, the Silk Road has had a unique role in foreign trade and political relations, stretching far beyond the bounds of Asia itself. It has left its mark on the development of civilisations on both sides of the continent. However, the route has merely fallen into disuse; its story is far from over. With the latest developments, and the changes in political and economic systems, the edges of the Taklimakan may yet see international trade once again, on a scale considerably greater than that of old, the iron horse replacing the camels and horses of the past.



China: A Guidebook to Xinjiang, Xinjiang Educational Press, Urumqi 1988.

Brian Hook (ed.), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of China, 2nd ed., Cambridge U.P., 1991

Peter Hopkirk, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, Oxford U.P., 1980.

Jin Bohong, In the Footsteps of Marco Polo, New World Press, Beijing 1989.

Marco Polo, The Travels, translated by R. Latham, Penguin, 1958.

Shaanxi Travel and Tourism Press, The 40 Scenic Spots along the Silk Road, Xian 1990?

Xinjiang Educational Press, China: A Guidebook to Xinjiang, Urumqi 1988.

Zhang Yehan (ed.), Si Lu You (Silk Road Tour), Xinjiang People's Publishing House, Urumchi, Vol.1 (1988), Vol.2 (1990).