The History of the Ancient Silk Road and Its Travelers

The Silk Road is a special term which describes the trade route between the Central Asia and China. Beginning in about 100 BC, a network of overland trade routes developed to carry goods between Asia and Europe. The earliest, most direct and most heavily used route came to be known as the Silk Road, for the precious 21st Century Maritime Silk Road cloth was traded abundantly on it. Throughout the Middle Ages, extending over 4,000 miles, the Road served as the primary conduit for contact between East and West. After the discovery of a sea route from Europe to Asia in the late 15th century, the land routes were gradually abandoned in favor of ocean-borne trade.

The Silk Road extended through northwestern China and it was all deserts so people used camels to carry their goods. Today, the Ancient Silk Road left not only mysteries and memories but also so many things to see, feel and touch, such as the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, the wild desert Taklamakan, and ancient cities as Turpan, Kashgar and Khotan with a rich taste of cultural treasures of the Silk Road.

Fa-hsien

Fa-hsien was the first Chinese Buddhist pilgrim-traveller who traveled abroad to Nepal, India, and Sri Lanka to collect Buddhist scriptures between 399 and 412; he was also a greatest traveler and translator of the fifth century. At the age of sixty-five (AD 399), Fa-hsien practically walked from central China’s Chang’an (today’s Xian), across the Taklamakan desert (Xinjiang), over the Pamir Plateau, and through India down to the mouth of the Hoodly, in the county of Tamluk, India. He visited as many of the Buddhist sacred shrines as he could. From Tamluk he took a ship and returned by sea to China, sailing via Ceylon (Srilanka) and Sumatra, across the Indian Ocean and the China Sea, and finally reaching Shandong, China, in AD 412.

Fa-hsien traveled through 29 countries in the fourteen-year journey. He was bringing with him what he went for – books of the Buddhist scriptures and images of Buddhist deities. Then he devoted the rest of his life to translating and editing the scriptures he had collected. His journey is described in his work “Record of Buddhist Countries”, known as the “Travels of Fa-Hsien” today. It is an excellent geographic account of his journey along the Silk Roads, and a comprehensive report of the history and customs of Central Asia and India at the turn of the 5th century CE.

Marco Polo

Marco Polo, a Venetian trader and explorer who gained fame for his worldwide travels, was one of the first Westerners to travel the Silk Road to China, probably the most famous Westerner traveled on the Silk Road.

Polo, at the age of 17, together with his father Niccolò and his uncle Maffeo who traded with the East, set out from Venice on their journey to the east. They passed through Armenia, Persia, and Afghanistan, over the Pamirs, and all along the Silk Road to China. The Polos spent the next 17 years in China and traveled the whole of China. Marco became a confidant of Kublai Khan, the founder of the Yuan Dynasty. He told Kublai Khan about the interesting stories and observations about the lands he traveled. Kublai Khan appreciated Marco so much that he sent Marco on many diplomatic missions throughout his empire.

In 1291 Kublai Khan reluctantly entrusted Marco with his last duty to a Mongol princess Kokachin to marry to a Persian prince, Arghun. The party traveled by sea. This dreadful sea voyage started from the southern port city of Quanzhou, passed through the South China Sea to Sumatra and then to Persia, via Sri Lanka and India, and finally docked at Hormuz. In 1293 the Polos reached the Ilkhanate, then moved to Trebizond on the Black Sea coast, by way of Constantinople, and sailed back to Venice in 1295. Then they settled in Venice where they became a sensation and attracted crowds of listeners who had difficulties believing their reports of distant China.

Marco Polo’s book, Il Milione, was a detailed account of his travels in the then-unknown parts of China. His account of the wealth of Cathay (China), the might of the Mongol empire, and the exotic customs of India and Africa made his book the bestseller soon after and translated into many European languages and is known in English as The Travels of Marco Polo.

The trip also showed Europeans the value of the Silk Road in negotiating this travel; however, the use of the Silk Road actually declined markedly within about 150 years after Marco Polo’s expedition, due to the opening of sea routes from Europe to Asia in the late 15th century.

Xuanzang

Xuanzang was a famous Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, traveler, and translator who brought up the interaction between China and India in the early Tang period.

He traveled across the Tarim basin via the northern route, Turfan, Kucha, Tashkent, Samarkand, Bactria, then over the Hindu Kush to India. He departed the Tang capital Chang’an (Today’s Xian) in 627 and returned via the southern route in 643.

Xuanzang became famous for his seventeen year overland trip to India and back, which is recorded in detail in his autobiography and a biography, and provided the inspiration for Journey to the West, an epic novel well-known throughout China. He also contributed a precise and colorful account of the many countries along the Silk Road.

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