History & Future of Xi’an Silk Road 

The Silk Road Trade Route was initiated about 2,100 years ago for Trade & Travel from China’s Han Empire to Central Asia & Europe, and it revolutionised the world until it declined about the year 1368.

The Chinese Government is staking China’s future on an ambitious trillion dollar plan for infrastructure development for a New Silk Road, called Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) or One Belt One Road (OBOR) through which trade on this route is booming once again.

Ancient Silk Road

The Silk Road was the world’s most significant trade route that connected East and West for two thousand years. 

It started in the Yellow River Basin where China’s first civilisations developed. From ancient Chinese capitals, Xi’an and Luoyang, it passed through the arid Gansu Corridor and remote west of China, and beyond to Central Asia and Europe.

Significance of The Silk Road

Trade and travel between east and west caused revolutionary changes in everything from culture, religion, and technology to the emergence of huge empires and the disappearance of many small tribes, kingdoms and empires.

The inventions of paper & gunpowder in China were so powerful that when the technology reached Europe, it enabled the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and the scientific and industrial revolutions that transformed the world. Paper enabled rapid publication, and gunpowder weapons changed warfare and enabled the destruction of older empires and the emergence of new nations.

Plagues spread and destroyed half the population in large regions of Eurasia and new crops and technologies allowed the population in Eurasia to grow rapidly.

The Mongol invasions on the Silk Road Routes imprinted Mongol ethnicity and language from Xinjiang to Eastern Europe. Two of China’s major Religions, Buddhism and Islam, were introduced mainly via the Silk Road.

Rise & Demise of The Silk Trade

The Silk Road is the world’s longest and most historically important overland trade route. Trade began thousands of years ago because the tradesmen found that ferrying products was profitable, and silk was one of the main trade items.

The Silk Road Trade continued over a 1,500 year period. It began during the Han Empire (206 BC–220 AD) period. In 139 BC, Emperor Wudi (156–87 BC) sent out Zhang Qian (200–114 BC) to lead an embassy into Central Asia. He established diplomatic relations, and the Han sent the first trade caravans through Xinjiang.

Trade grew and declined, and it reached a height when the Mongols had control of Eurasia from the Yuan Empire (1279–1368) to Eastern Europe. The fall of the Yuan Empire and the growth of maritime trade ended Silk Road trading. 

Through trade and travel along the road, the cultures throughout Eurasia developed economically, technologically and culturally, and religions and ideas spread east and west. The Han, Tang, and Yuan Empires especially prospered due to the trade, but during other eras, trade stopped for various reasons.

Silk Road Routes

There were actually 5 “Silk Roads” from China to Europe. The main route went from Xi’an/Luoyang, the capital of the Han Empire, through the Gansu Corridor to Dunhuang and Kashgar, across Central Asia to Europe.

Four other routes: The northern spur route went from the Gansu Corridor across Russia to northern Europe. A Southern spur route went from Xinjiang through the Karakoram mountains to India/Pakistan. The Tea Horse Road went from Yunnan and Sichuan through Tibet to India, and the “Maritime Silk Road” went via seas to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

Why Silk Road Trade Began

The region of China was isolated from the civilisations of the West by the world’s highest mountains, some of the largest and most severe deserts, and long distances. In between, nomadic people raided travellers and traders.

However, the people of the Shang (1600–1046 BC), Zhou, and Han dynasties mastered producing several kinds of products that were important and unique such as silk, porcelain, and paper, and these were greatly prized in the West.

The Han Empire initially wanted big central Asian horses for their cavalry. Initially, they mainly traded silk, but later, paper and porcelain were also exported in exchange for precious metal, glassware, woollen articles, and other products from all the way from Europe and Egypt. 

But to reach the West, there were only two overland routes. Sea travel was as yet too primitive. One land route passed through the Gansu Corridor, extended westwards to Xinjiang, and then split into several routes. This is called the Silk Road. The other, called the Tea Horse Road, starts from Yunnan and Sichuan and crosses Tibet.

The products such as silk were very valuable to those in Central Asia and as far away as Europe. They paid with precious metals, animal skins, and some of their own manufactured products such as woollen goods, carpets, and glass products that were prized in the East.

The New Silk Road 

Modern technology allows the economical construction of Rail & Road links across Eurasia. 

The Chinese Government believes they can greatly spur China’s growth and become a superpower by constructing land and sea transportation facilities to make trade and travel more economical and quicker.

They have announced a trillion dollar plan that they call Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) that would impact 4.4 billion people. Within a decade, it generated trade worth more than 2.5 trillion dollars successfully. China Plans to spend 5.6 trillion dollars on the Initiative by 2030.

New Trans-Asia Transportation Infrastructure: Substantial progress has already been made. The first freight trains from Europe to China began running in 2011 and have cut transit time from Germany to China from 50 days by sea to 18 days.

In 2018, a major 5,400 kilometre highway to St. Petersburg from the Yellow Sea was opened in 2018 that allows vehicles to travel the distance in 10 days. This is a new travel option for economical tourists and sightseeing along Silk Road Places.

Silk Road Tourism is Becoming More Popular

In Xinjiang and along the entire Silk Road from Xi’an to Kashgar and Altai Prefecture to Greece and Albania, Silk Road Tourism is booming. Multi-Country trips tracing the Silk Road Route are becoming popular among both Chinese and Westerners.

All along the Eurasian Silk Road Route, travel and touring has become popular. In 2018, there were 38 percent more tourists in Altai in Northwestern Xinjiang and 24 percent more in Uzbekistan than last year. Chinese Tourists arriving in Albania have doubled over the previous year.

Author: Wei Yuan, East Asia Correspondent for Belt & Road News.
Editor’s Note: The article reflects the author’s opinion only, and not necessarily the views of the editorial opinion of Belt & Road News.