The Silk Road, China

Mingsha sand dunes, Half Crescent Lake, Dunhuang, China

Mingsha sand dunes and Half Crescent Lake, Dunhuang. Photo by Sigismund von Dobschutz.

What is the Silk Road?

Also known as the Silk Routes (a more precise term as there were many roads involved eventually), this was a 4, 000 miles long (6, 437 kilometres) network of trading routes instigated by the Han Dynasty around 130 BC, initially carrying silk overland to mid-east and European markets.

The route soon became popular with pilgrims, monks, warriors and other travelers as services, company and protection could be found regularly along the way.

An extension of The Great Wall of China was built to guard early stages of this increasingly important commercial highway and manned forts added, such as the one at Jiayuguan (see below).

East Silk Road Map, China, Asia

Map by Kevin Case with modern name supplements in white by bugbog.

This map of the eastern section of the Silk Road/Routes – in other words the Chinese part – focuses on the key points but is not definitive as over the 1, 500 year life of the network new trails developed from time to time while others withered and died due to politics, war or geographical difficulties.

Silk Road History

The Chinese part of the Silk Road used to run from (at times) Shanghai north west to Xi’an (the chief China Silk Road departure point), Lanzhou, Jaiyuguan, Dunhuang, Urumqi and finally Kashgar before entering foreign territory.

From about 130 BC to 1453 AD market towns sprang up all along this route – such as Samarkand and Bactria in central Asia – and flourished, as did the taxmen, charging duty on those who passed through.
China produced must-haves like silk, paper, bamboo, and gunpowder while the west sent back gold, jade and grapes, carpets, jewels, amber, metals, drugs, and glass.

The Silk Road became not only a profitable trade route but was also a major factor in cultural exchange and development of international relations, though it also created strife as warlords fought to control and tax traders passing through their areas.

The route was dangerous due to frequent attacks but in addition the environment was extremely harsh in places, varying from deserts to snowy mountains, with temperatures ranging from -20C to 50C.

Marco Polo was supposedly the first European to complete this route. Later traders learnt to protect themselves by travelling in convoys of men and beasts, generally camels or donkeys. These were know as caravans.

Jiayuguan (Gansu)

An ancient fort at Jiayuguan on the Chinese Silk Road, China

An ancient fort and customs post at Jiayuguan pass at the west end of the Great Wall of China, on the Silk Road, Gansu Province. Photo by Zhangzhugang.

Dunhuang (Gansu)

Dunhuang monastery and lake, Silk Road, Gansu, China

Dunhuang monastery and Yueyaquan (crescent moon lake) in a distant part of the Gobi Desert, Gansu Province. Photo by Sigismund von Dobschutz.

Yueyaquan is a bizarre and beautiful oasis 6 km south of Dunhuang city. Apart from taking walks around and on top of the dunes the desert is popular with tourists for camel (4 legs good) and 4×4 rides (4 wheels bad).

The Dunhuang region, a very important staging point on the Silk Road, also encompasses Mingsha Shan, the Singing-Sand Dunes, named after the sound of the wind whistling off the dunes and the outstanding Mogao Caves (below).

Dunhuang has been occupied by many tribal groups over the years, ranging from Han Chinese, thru Xiongnu nomads, Tibetans, the Tang Dynasty, the Kingdom of Golden Mountain, Uighurs and many more. Now, of course, inhabitants are partly Uighur and partly Han. Dunhuang can be reached via China National Highway 215 or Dunhuang Airport.

Not just silk

Trade on the Silk Road encouraged social and political development en route, but also the spread of religions, philosophy, technology and disease. Most merchants during the early days apart from the Chinese were Persians, Somalis, Greeks, Syrians, Romans, Armenians and Indians, but later with the rise of Islam Arab traders became prolific.

Interestingly Herodotus, a Greco-Turkish writer and the world’s first historian, wrote of the speed and efficiency of the Persian messengers: “There is nothing in the world that travels faster than these Persian couriers. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor darkness of night prevents these couriers from completing their designated stages with utmost speed”.
Recognise anything? These words later evolved into the stated principles of the United States post office.

Mogao caves (Gansu)

The entrance to Mogao caves in Dunhuang, China

The entrance to Mogao caves in Dunhuang, Gansu Province. Photo by Zhangzhugang.

The caves of Mogao are one of the highlights of the Chinese Silk Road, containing a rich collection of paintings and sculpture in an architecturally fascinating location. Fortunately it’s quite easy to reach as Dunhuang city has an airport with connections to Beijing, Xi’an and other cities as well as a fine highway.

A 10th century buddhist painting including threats from a 'Fire Lance' (flamethrower) and a grenade by demons in Dunhuang's Mogao Caves, China

A 10th century buddhist painting including threats from a fire lance (flamethrower) and a grenade by demons in Dunhuang’s Mogao Caves. At lower right the buddha is tempted by earthly pleasures. Photographer unknown.

Turpan (Xinjiang)

Qingnian Lu street cooled and sheltered by vines in Turpan (Turfan, Xinjiang Province), China

Qingnian Lu street cooled and sheltered by vines in Turpan (Turfan, Xinjiang Province), a city famed for its wine.

Grapes in the Desert

Turfan was an important stop on the Silk Road, possibly due to the fine grapes grown here even though this is the hottest, lowest and driest place in China. Their secret is a clever irrigation system in Grape Valley in the Flaming Hills 10 kilometres north of Turpan. This lush 7 km long valley surrounded by incredibly arid desert is watered by irrigation channels from the Tianshan Mountain. The valley also grows fruit such as peaches, apples and pears.

Population Matters

Turpan’s population of 200, 000 Uyghurs has been diluted with large numbers of Han Chinese over the last dozen years causing political problems and occasional outbreaks of violence as there is little love between the tribal groups that share neither religion nor history nor language. The Han tend to get the best jobs because they’re better educated in Mandarin and modern ways while the Uyghurs – who settled here in 803 by crushing the Tibetans – seethe and pray to Allah.

Turpan is about 150 kms (93 miles) from Urumqi, 2. 5 hours by car.


Turpan experiences a harsh desert climate with average high temperatures over 30C from May to September, often reaching 40C (but a dry heat of course so, IMHO, preferable to 25C with 90% humidity! ). Then in the four winter months November-February average lows often fall to -5C and to -10C on occasion. The good news is that it hardly ever rains and there’s little pollution so blue skies are commonplace, an unusual sight in urban China.

Bezeklik (Xinjiang)

Bezeklik caves between Turpan and Shanshan, Xinjiang Province, China

Bezelik caves between Turpan and Shanshan, Xinjiang Province. Photo by T. Chu.

The Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves not far from Turpan is a collection of 77 mural-decorated caves created between 5th-14thC. They are on a cliff face in the Flaming Mountains, the hottest place in China. Much of the art derives from the Uyghur Kingdom 10-13th centuries.

The massive number and expanse of these buddha-oriented murals is magnificent, though artist quality varies considerably and many were defaced in the past by local Muslims whose religion forbids painted figures.

During the late nineteen/early twentieth century, adventurers found some murals covered and preserved by sand and dispatched them to their home countries, so actually the best place to see first-class examples of this buddhist art is in museums such as the Museum für Asiatische Kunst in Berlin (Germany), Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg (Russia), Tokyo National Museum in Tokyo (Japan), the British Museum in London (England), and a scattering in USA.

Bezeklik is 45 kms (28 miles) east of Turpan.

Kashgar (Kashi, Xinjiang)

The tomb of 17thC Muslim ruler Afaq Khoja in Kashgar, Xinjiang, China

The tomb of 17thC Muslim ruler Afaq Khoja in Kashgar is one of Islam’s holiest sites in Xinjiang, China. Photographer unknown.

Kashgar is a large, predominantly Muslim Uyghur oasis city at the far west end of the Chinese part of the Silk Road near the border with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Sights are mostly mosques or Islam-related and the best time to be here is during one of the classic festivals such as Eid at the end of Ramadan when there are likely to be a lot of folk in their best ethnic dress along with feasting and dancing.
The climate is similar to Turpan, extremely hot in the summer and extremely cold in winter.

Beside Lake Karakul near Kashgar, heading out of China and into Tajikistan

Beside Lake Karakul near Kashgar, heading out of China and into Tajikistan. Photo by Blufrog.

The End of the Road

Around 500 AD the Byzantine emperor Justinian in Constantinople (now Istanbul) learned the truth of silk production, that silk was not grown on trees as the Chinese had long claimed but produced by worms. He immediately dispatched a couple of adventurers disguised as monks to China to find and steal a handful of silk worms and bring them back to Constantinople. The plan succeeded and Byzantium soon developed a silk industry.

Finally when the Byzantine Empire fell to the Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1453 AD, the widespread and immensely powerful Ottomans decided to cut the Silk Road for political and/or commercial reasons in spite of the huge and established flow of trade back and forth from Europe.