In the 2nd century B.C, when Zhangqian and HU FU were sent for the the first time to the western regions as diplomatic envoys, they saw in the Daxia Kingdom(today's northern Afghanistan) Chinese silk from Sichuan and Chinese bamboo (the latter for making monks' walking sticks) brought there by Indian merchants. A large number of items made of Hotan jade were discovered in the Yin ruins in inland China. These indicate that trade along the Silk Road has a history of more than 3000 years.
The distance from China's Chang'an (present-day) Xi'an in Shananxxi province) to Rome was enormously long in ancient times. To travel this route, one had to cross vast deserts, climb numerous mountains, and cross the sea. Some of the mountain passageways, due to their high altitude, caused serious altitude sickness and were thus known to the trading caravans as "big headache" and "small headache" areas. Some cliff paths were so steep that men and draft animals were able to negotiate then only with the help of ropes. To cross the desert was even more difficult. Trevller had to bring everything ---food water and fodder---with them, and sometimes had to remember piles of human and animal bones as road markers. People who now travel by plane, train or car in these areas can never imagine what kind of hardships our ancestors had overcome when they traversed the Silk Road.
Today it takes two hours to fly from Xi'an to Urumqi. But in the Tang dynasty, the monk Xuan Zang spent more than a year on foot from Chang'an to Gaochang in the present Turpan Basin on his pilgrimage to India in search of Buddhist Scriptures. Once he was nearly killed by garrison soilders when he tried to steal their water. And another time, before he reached Dayiwu(present day Hami), he almost died of thirst in the desert.
Among those who opened up the Silk Road and helped it flourish in ancient times were government officials and envoys, merchants and monks, Buddhists, Manicheaists, Muslims, and Zoroastrians of the countries along its path, as well as immigrants to the area and Chinese garrison troops. The merchants came from Rome,India,Persia, and Central Asia. Many were of Han or other nationalities from China's northwestern regions. The Traders on the road operated in relays, each doing business in only one section, with the goods passed on to the next set of traders. The Han, Central Asian and Persian merchants were the most active.
In China's Yuan Dynasty(1271_1368), the Silk Road gradually gave way to the rapidly developing sea trade. But the many historical sites and relics left along the route prove how it had prospered rin earlier time. In China's Xinjiang and the area west of the Huang he River in Gansu province, many sites of Han and Tang dynadty cities have been discovered. The murals and painted sculptures found in the Mogao grottoes in Dunhuang, the Yulin grottoes in Kuqa and Kizil in Baicheng are all treasures of art. The finding of the tens of thousands of manuscripts from many centuries at Dunhuang has inspired a whole new field of scholarly research. In addition, the discovery of foreign documents and documents in ancient languages of China's minority nationalities, as well as ancient Chinese and foreign coins, has provided reliable sources for study of history and cultural exchange along the road.
Today, China's policy of invigorating the domestic economy and opening to the outside world has imbued the Silk Road with new vitality. Every year it draws tens of thousands of foreign tourists. Overseas Chinese and compatriots from Hongkong and Macao also frequently visit this landmark of the Chinese Nation. The number of tourist has benn steadily increasing; never before has the old route see so many visitors. Modern transport, especially air communication, have greatly shortened the distances between countries and areas. The hardships endured by travelers on the Silk Road in ancient time no longer exist. But this path of ancient east-west economic and cultural exchange will continue to shine as a bridge linking together peoples of different parts of world.
China is one of the countries where sericulture started early. In the years between 138 B.C. and 119 B.C., Zhang Qian, an outstanding diplomat, opened the way to the Western Region, the way connecting the East and West of the world. He and the mission headed by him took gold and silk cloth with them and visited Loulan (now Qarkilik and its neighborhood), Loopnurm Qiuci(now Kuqar), Shule (now Kashger), Yutian (now Hotan), Wusun( now the Ili River Valley), Dawan, Kangju, Dayuezhi and other places of Xinjiang and Central Asia..His deputies even visited Anxi (now Iran) and countries he visited, in return, also sent their envoys to pay visits to the Central plains of China.. Besides, there was an endless stream of merchants and businessmen on the road. What flowed into the Western Region, India and Europe from China included silk, ironware, yellow and white metals, brass mirrors, lacquered bamboo ware, medicine and techniques of farming and metallurgy. And in return, things like clover, grapes, flax, pomegranates, walnuts, cucumbers, carrots, saffron, etc, and animals like lions, peacocks, elephants, camels, "sweat and blood" horses, etc. Were brought in large quantities to the Central Plains of China from the Western Region and foreign countries.
In the year 73, China sent another delegation of 36 with Ban chao as the head on a mission to the Western Region. Gan Ying, Ban' s deputy, was dispatched to the Roman Empire and the Persian Gulf(Arabian Gulf). The mission guaranteed the prosperity of the Silk Road and made some extensions of the Road. In the year 67, Jiayemoteng and Zhufalan, both Indian Buddhist monks of great repute, accompanied by envoys of the Eastern Han Dynasty, arrived in Luoyang, in Henan Province now, by way of Pakistan and Afghanistan. An Shiguo, prince of Anxi, where Buddhism was most prosperous, and Jiumoluoshi, a Buddhist monk of great repute of Qiuci, came to the midland of China via the same road, respectively in the years 147 and 401, for the translation of Buddhist Scriptures and for preaching of Buddhism of thousands of disciples so that their names were known to the entire world as well as to China. Fa Xian of the Jin Dynasty and Xuan Zang of the Tang Dynasty, both prestigious Buddhist monks, started their visiting and preaching the Silk Road, over more than 30 countries and areas including Kashmir, Pakistan, India and Sri lanka. The Notes of the Western Region of the Tang Dynasty by X uan Zang are both important works for the study and research of the Western Region, the history of India and the Silk Road.
In 1222 and 1223, Yeluchucai, a great poet of the Yuan Dynasty, and Qiu Chuji, the leader of all Taoists of the country at that time, on their tours over the Western Region along the Silk Road, gave their vivid descriptions of what they saw of the northern territory of China and Central Asia in the verses and essays they wrote as they were traveling here. Marco Polo, an Italian tourist, who traveled to the capital of the Yuan Dynasty(now Beijing) via the Silk Road in 1275, records truly what he saw of the Pamirs, Kashgar, Yarkan, Hotan and their vivinities and what they produced.
The long sections of the Silk Road running across Xinjiang make up a treasure house of relics known to the whole world with their frontier passes, ancient cities and castles, strongholds and fortifications, Buddhist caves and temples, courier stations, ancient tombs, war-signaling stations, etc. Like strings of pearls that sparkle brilliantly and colorfully along the ancient Road.
Xinjiang boasts 14 Buddhist cave temples and over 990 caves. The major ones are the Kizil,Kumtura, Kizilgaha, Senmusaimu and Bizaklik grottoes, five in all. There are 239 biggest numbered caves and 46 smallest ones. The sculptures and murals in the caves, welding Chinese culture with those from India and Persia, gave birth to a unique style of art of their own. In addition to the Buddhist pictures, there are ones which depict the productive activities and everyday lives, in great vividness, of the local residents of various nationalities.
The most fascinating of all the historic sites on the Silk Road is the ancient city of Loulan. Located in the northwest part of what is now known as Lop Nur, it used to be a key hub of traffic of the Silk Road,with a past of commercial prosperity. Now, however, there are only the ruins of the city buried in the desert. Mummies of men and women have been unearthed from the ancient tombs here. Countless cultural relics have been discovered about the ancient cities and castles. The best preserved historic sites are the ancient cities of Gaochang and Jiaohe, situated in the Turpan Basin. In the ruins of the two ancient cities, the tourists can still see distinctly the keeps of the once significant royal palaces and Buddhist temples. Over a hundred dried-up bodies of men and women have been excavated out of the ancient tombs in Astana near the city ruiins. The funerary objects unearthed from the tombs here include, all from the Sui and Tang Dynasties and the Dynasties previous to them, large quantities of documentary papers, silk, cotton and hemp fabrics of excellent workmanship, ancient money of all sort and descriptions, colorful pottery human figures of all characters in various poses, and many varieties of food that have survived the wear and tear of nature. The mummy of an officer of high rank from the Tang Dynasty still keeps the man's tall and big stature, dignified appearance, and all the air expected of an ancient warrior. The dried corpse of a young girl, with her well-proportioned figure and dark hair, still suggests, more or less,the youth and beauty of her lifetime. The colorful pottery figurines and statuettes of great versatility in type and posture include stalwart warriors, shapely maids of honor, pestling or grinding women, and so on and so forth, all represented with verisimilitude and liveliness. How many footprints have been left behind for our tracing of the ancient ages!
Caravan bells have reverberated for two thousand years of human history on the different sections of the Tianshan mountains.
Now, however, parallel to the ancient silk Road is a three-dimensional network of communication composed of highways, railways, and air routes. Highways wind up the Pamirs,"the roof of the world," and the sky-scraping Kunlun Mountains, and run across the Tarim and Junggar Basins. The Dushanzi-Kuqar Highway starts from Dushanzi in the north and ends in Kuqar, the ancient state of Qiuci, in the south. Flying over the Tianshan Mountains like a rainbow, it connects Northern Xinjiang and Southern Xinjiang closely. The opening of the Lanzhou-Xinjiang Railway in 1963 changed the railwayless history of Xinjiang.
The connection of a second Eurasian bridge by the completion and opening of the western section of the Lanzhou-Xinjiang Railway(the section between Urumqi and Alashankou Pass) on September 1, 1990, was followed on the twelfth day of the same month by the joining of its tracks with those of a railway of Kazakhstan, thus opening the railway for the China-Kazakhstan passenger trains and extending the terminus of the "Silkroad" to Europe and even to places beyond it.
The Silk Road is becoming, with every passing day, a passageway of the Chinese people in their economic and cultural interchange and friendly contact with all the peoples of the world. The ancient Silk Road is rejuvenated.