Travellers along the Silk Road

Taking a ride with the Kirghiz nomads near lake Issyk Kul- my journey along the Silk Road, in 1996


Two nights ago, I woke from a dream in which yaks, laden with rolled up hand-woven rugs, were toiling their way up a mountain pass. They were travelling from west to east, traversing the mountainous area of Central Asia where today’s maps show the meeting points of Kirghistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China. I was watching this scene, but inside it too. It was dark and cold, but from this snapshot of dream life, I can still in my imagination smell the animals, hear their heavy breath, touch the rougher backing of the carpets. Was this a flashback to the days of the Silk Road? Carpets from the Middle East were certainly traded eastwards, and I know that the yaks are the beasts for the job in the high mountainous regions of Central Asia. I have travelled in the area in modern times, and seen them there.

The black dots are indeed yaks, seen foraging for food in the high mountain passes of Western China on my Silk Road journey in 1996

I had already written the draft of this post, and perhaps something was stirring in my consciousness in preparation for finding the images to accompany it, and polishing and revising as best I can. Nevertheless, the resonance of the image and the strong sensory awareness is unusual for me, in the dream state. But, as a wise friend once told me, sometimes it’s best not to analyse a dream too closely. Leave it open to interpretation, and the life of it continues; pin it down too closely, and it becomes two-dimensional. So I’ll leave it like this, as an opening into the lost world of the Silk Road.

Khiva – a former restored Silk Road city, in present day Uzbekistan

The Trade Routes

For nearly two thousand years, merchants travelled along the Silk Road routes which ran from China in the East to destinations such as Constantinople and Venice in the West. In my previous Silk Road post I wrote about the bazaars which sprang up around these trade routes; today’s post is about the actual journeying.

The Silk Road was a cultural melting pot. From the early centuries AD up to the 15th century, when better trade routes by sea were established, the Silk Road was the main communications and trade link between East and West. The influence of these traders was therefore enormous, since they carried not only goods with them, but also their stories and culture, which they passed on to those they met on the way. Even forms of art and religion – Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and certain forms of Christianity – flowed in their tracks, spreading from one country to the next.

‘Apsaras’ – winged deities, often angelic musicians, and more or less unique to a Silk Road version of Buddhism (from the Mogao caves)

The merchants’ best-known cargo was of course silk, but many other goods were traded between East and West, including wool, carpets and amber from the West, and mirrors, gunpowder, porcelain, rhubarb (yes!) and paper from the East. Merchants travelled in various groups and guises. Some trudged along as humble foot pedlars, whereas at the other extreme, huge caravan trains of camels, up to one thousand in number, and stretched for miles across the horizon. The camel was well equipped of course for desert terrain, but for cold mountain passes and high terrain, other beasts of burden were better, and these included donkeys, horses and yaks.

‘The Ship of the Desert’ – the camel was ideal for long, hot journeys on desert terrain. Below are camels (Bactrian two-humped variety) of yesteryear and today.

However, the idea that these intrepid merchants took the whole trip from China to Constantinople is something of a myth. During most periods, it was rare for one trader or traveller to travel the whole of the Silk Road. Bandits, border skirmishes and rapacious customs officers made it difficult to keep going all the way, so merchandise was often transferred from one group of traders to another en route. It has been said that only under the reign of Genghis Khan in the early 13th century over the Mongol Empire, the largest empire in history, was it possible to do so. The irony was that only a tyrant could ensure that no one dared step out of line! At other times, though, locals could succeed in journeying where foreigners couldn’t. Goods would be switched from one carrier to another, and were often traded through different hands too, before they reached their destination. Many middlemen make for steep prices, so this is one reason why the final selling price of the goods at their destination was often hugely above their original cost.

Early Chinese figures of pedlars travelling on foot along the Silk Road (British Museum)

The journeys were long and arduous. The terrain was difficult, often treacherous, involving high mountain passes, deserts, and severe climates. It was a miracle, really, that a porcelain dish from China could end up in Italy or France. Trading itself was a kind of art form, with the need for go-betweens, specialist trasnporters, and accountability to the initial seller and ultimate buyer. Certain groups of people were known for their skills, and excelled as Silk Road traders, in particular the long-vanished Sogdians of Sogdiana in Central Asia. And they were keen to pass it down the family; their boys were often sent out on the Silk Road from the age of five, and grew into lads who were trading on their own account by the age of twelve.

This caravanserai, known as Akseray and on the road between Aksaray and Konya in Turkey, is the largest in the country. Built in 1229, it is more like a mosque or temple than a lodging.

Along the way, merchants stayed in lodgings known as caravanserais. These traditionally consisted of a central courtyard, with water for the animals, and store rooms around the sides on the ground floor. Lodging rooms were on the upper floor. The sturdy entrance doors were firmly locked at night so that the merchants, their goods and beasts, could rest safely. Some of these old caravanserais can still be found in Central Asian countries such as Turkey and Syria. They range from smaller, humbler versions to ones which are the size of cathedrals and almost as grand! At the very best caravanserais, there were proper beds, hot and cold water, and even their own shops and banking facilities. Merchants preferred their caravanserais to be outside the city walls, so that they could arrive and leave easily – the authorities preferred them in the town centre for the opposite reason, so that they could collect taxes due from the caravans before they had a chance to leave early next morning!

Further exotic goods could have been picked up en route, and perhaps traded within the caravanserais themselves, such as this rich gold embroidery, a speciality in what is now Uzbekistan

Many stories must have been swapped in the caravanserais, and both folk tales and religious ideas are known to have been ‘traded’ along the Silk Road. As I mentioned in the previous post, if two merchants came from opposite ends of the Silk Road, they could get by in conversation as long as they could each speak a Turkic language. These Turkic languages, spoken over a range of countries, are just about similar enough for people to understand each other.

Other facilities along the way included ‘service stations’ where locals made a living from catering to travellers’ needs. Merchants carrying costly porcelain knew that they could get any breakages mended in Tashkent, the specialist centre for china repairs, and thus arrive with their goods at least seemingly intact. The trade routes themselves stretched from Xian in eastern China to Byzantium (Constantinople), branching off into practically every country in the Middle East. There were also Silk Road routes into India and Russia: some archaeologists even suggest that Britain was the furthest terminus in the West, as Chinese silk has been found in the grave of an Iron Age king.

Ceramics in Tashkent Museum, of the kind which would have been traded and mended in the city en route
A Chinese pilgrim, travelling to India for further enlightenment

Reasons for travel were not always related to trade. There were many pilgrims and missionaries on these routes, especially between Buddhist countries, and in particular between India and China. Chinese Buddhist monks were anxious to re-connect with the source of their religion, which was in India where the Buddha had lived. They hoped too that they might discover ancient manuscripts which would expand their knowledge. Buddhism itself crept westwards along the Silk Road too, while Christianity crept eastwards, and sometimes the two overlapped. The Chinese Goddess Kuan Yin, (see my earlier post), is sometimes found in a form resembling a Christian Madonna and child. And the Gandharan Art form (3rd-5th century AD) is a fusion of Buddhist and Greek styles, specialising in exquisite heads with elaborate hair styles.

A Ghandaran head, in a fusion of Greek and oriental styles (British Museum)

Navigating safely through mountainous terrain and deserts was the job of the caravan masters. In centuries past, they sometimes trained at maritime navigation schools in India, which helped them to find their way by the stars. For that reason, caravans often travelled at night , especially in the desert Another trick they employed in the near-featureless desert, perhaps where the leader was not so expert, was to push a stick into the ground indicating their direction of travel, before they all settled down to sleep. That way, there was no confusion about the way they should go, the following day!

The deity of the Pole Star, a guide for travellers

Transport could be by camels, yaks, horses or donkeys, depending on the terrain. Camels were especially good in the desert, where they could travel 30 – 40 miles a day, and their inner eyelids protected them against sand storms. They would, however, need to drink every 25 miles or so, and sometimes special camel watering holes were created.

The image below shows a construction known as a ‘rabat’ where the dome keeps the water below cool; the camels walk down a sloping path to reach it.

In the deserts, it was essential for the travellers to know where water could be found to slake their own thirst. Mirages of water, described as ‘glitter sand’ or ‘dry water’ could deceive the inexperienced. And not all water was drinkable. Travelling in a caravan across the Gobi Desert in the early 20th century, a Christian missionary wrote, ‘The sparkle of the limpid spring is irresistible but when I ran towards it…[the caravan leader] cautioned me: “Drink as little of that water as you can.”…I cared for none of his warnings…I would enjoy it to the full. I soon learnt that…the more I took of this water, the more parched I became. It was brackish…leaving thirst for ever unquenched.’  For this reason, the lore of the desert gave springs descriptive names so that their usefulness or otherwise would be recognised: One Cup Spring, Bitter Well Halt, and Mud Pit Hollow for instance. Sucking a pebble was a desperate remedy for the thirsty traveller! But, if you were lucky, you could arrive at Inexhaustible Spring Halt: ‘When the wayfarer tastes this sweet draught he will drink until all the pain of his parched throat and cracked lips is softened and fades away.’ (all quotes from (The Gobi Desert – Cable, Mildred & French, Francesca, 1942)

A more fearsome deity – the Sand God who could blow up a sandstorm instantly (Illustration by Nilesh Mistry for Stories from the Silk Road, Cherry Gilchrist)

Another hazard was the risk of encountering the demons of the desert. Wandering lights, disembodied voices, howls of demons…Traveller Marco Polo wrote about these in the 13th century, warning that those who stray from the caravan will hear their names called and be led off track, or perhaps hear armies or caravans marching close by: ‘Marvellous indeed and almost passing belief are the stories related of these spirits of the desert, which are said at times to fill the air with the sounds of all kinds of musical instruments, and also of drums and the clash of arms.’

This image from Mogao shows a lady traveller under the protection of the Bhodisattva (a ‘Buddha-to-be’) as she sets out on her perilous journey across the Gobi desert. She probably commissioned this painting to be made as an offering to the deities

Sound can certainly play strange tricks in the desert, and was terrifying, even fatal, to get lost in it. At the Buddhist cave temples of Dunhuang (now in Western China) on the edge of the Gobi Desert, it was commonplace for travellers to make offerings before they set off . To try and ensure their safety, those of wealthy means might also donate money for more religious paintings and statues to be created in this extraordinary series of caves, also known as the Mogao Caves. I have to add that though that when I was in Dunhuang, where my travel group stayed for three days, we weren’t able to enter the caves at all because it was raining…in August…in the desert… Today these caves are a museum under Unesco protection, so naturally their preservation comes first. And humidity was an issue for the art work, so we had to amuse ourselves at the site’s museum, with camel-riding on the dunes, and on Day Three (in desperation!) visiting a Japanese film set of a village created in Genghis Khan style. We never did see the Mogao Caves, but let’s just say that I learnt something about the noble path of detachment in Buddhism, rising above disappointment when one’s desires are not satisfied.

A protective emblem, found in a nomad’s yurt; this triangular form relates to the ancient Mother Goddess and is widely found in different variations across Central Asia and into the Far East

Not all hardships faced by travellers were related to the desert. The high mountains en route, such as the Pamirs or Tien Shan (‘Heavenly Mountains’) could bring on altitude sickness, and there could also be snow and frozen passes to negotiate. So every area needed guides with local expertise, and it’s not surprising that very few people travelled from end to end of the Silk Route, even when political conditions didn’t impede them along the way. The Chinese were actually fearful of leaving China, which they regarded as the entirety of the civilised world, and believed everything beyond its boundaries to be a barbarian wilderness. Those exiting China through the Great Gate of Jiaguan, known as the Gate of Sighs, would toss a handful of pebbles at the fortress wall to know their fortune. ‘If the stone rebounds he will come back safe and sound, but if not…’ said a local, leaving ‘the doom unuttered’. (Cable & French)

The romance of the Silk Road still grips us even today, and perhaps we long for those days of epic journeys, when unknown marvels might appear before our eyes. The boundary between myth and reality was thin; the Chinese longed, for instance, for the wondrous horses they’d seen in Central Asia, a far cry from the stubby little ponies they themselves had at the time. They endowed these horses in their imagination with magical qualities, believing that they sweated blood, were born out of the water, and that some had wings and could fly like dragons. Emperor Wu c 101BC even wrote a hymn to them:
The Heavenly Horses are coming
They issued from the waters of a pool…
They can transform themselves like spirits…
Jupiter is their Dragon.
Should they choose to soar aloft,
Who could keep pace with them…
They will draw me up and carry me…
I shall reach the Gates of Heaven
I shall see the Palace of God.

The magical ‘heavenly horse’, as dreamed of by the Chinese

I was lucky to make my two longer trips along the Silk Road when it was still possible, in the 1990s. It would not be possible to make them today, as a foreign traveller. And I am glad that I saw Damascus, a queenly city of the Silk Road, before it was blighted by war. But the Silk Road has evern been in a state of change and unpredictability, and perhaps this enhances its magic. My journeys in Silk Road countries, and along some of its ancient roads are among the most vivid travel experiences I’ve ever had.

A note on the photographs: all contemporary images were taken on my Silk Road travels and are copyright Cherry Gilchrist. Images from the British Museum were supplied under licence.

See also:

Suzani from the Silk Road
The Bazaars of the Silk Road

2 thoughts on “Travellers along the Silk Road

    1. cherrygilchrist

      Thank you, John. Yes I feel great nostalgia for my Silk Road trips, perhaps especially to Syria before the civil war, as well as Kashgar before the oppression of the Uighur population.


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