From the hunt for horses, 2000 years ago, to the hunt for treasures, a 100 years ago.
The Great Wall was built in 221 BC, to keep the barbarians out, every Chinese history book will tell you so. The Hsiung-nu – people who also gained eternal fame in Europe as the Huns, indeed symbol of destruction and barbarism -, had been attacking the Chinese for hundreds of years already. In order to find allies for his battle with the Huns, the Emperor at the time sent an envoy west, the first time somebody was to explore beyond the wall. The envoy, Chang, did not find suitable allies, but he did come back, 13 years later, with spectacular stories about distant lands never before heard of in China, like Persia, Balkh (in Afghanistan), Bukhara and Samarkand, and especially Fergana. The attraction of Fergana were its horses, superb breeds of heavenly stock, or so the myth goes – which encouraged the Emperor to multiply his efforts to obtain some, send good old Chang, now with the title of The Great Traveler bestowed on him, back, and so establish travel to the west.
Soon, the Journey to the West, as the Chinese call the Silk Road, became a major trading route, and horses were replaced by gold and other valuables being imported, and furs, ceramics and Chinese lacquer going the other way. And silk, of course, so coveted by the Romans. Nobody traveled the entire Silk Road, goods were traded on the way, and middle men made buckets selling on commodities for fat profits, at the same time protecting their trade by ensuring nobody slipped through. Difficult, in any case, given the forbidding nature of the mountain passes across the Karakorum, the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs and other Himalayan obstacles. And thus have Europeans, starting with the Romans, thought for years that silk grew on trees.
Not only trade was interchanged, also religion, mostly from west to east. Buddhism entered China, and with it manuscripts and art forms. Monasteries were established along the Silk Road, with rich libraries full of scrolls and texts in many different languages. The monasteries were decorated with elaborate frescoes and sculptures, many influenced by Indian schools, as well as Greek art forms introduced 100’s of years earlier by Alexander the Great. One of the first travelers to vividly describe the Silk Road was Fa-Xien in 399 AD, reporting on a flourishing set of oasis towns in the Taklamakan desert, all hugely benefiting from the trade. Even more famous is the account of Xuan Zhang, a Buddhist monk who survived a trip across the desert and across the Pamir passes to bring back an enormous treasure of Buddhist manuscripts from India in the 7th century, at the height of China’s Golden Age, the Tang dynasty. All this exploration easily preceded any European exploration by a 1000 years, or so.
It was not to last. The glaciers surrounding the desert, and providing the oases with their water, had been in retreat for years already, continuously reducing the water supply. Under a strong and highly civilised regime technology and investments may have slowed this process down, but with the collapse of the Tang dynasty in the 10th century the opposite was achieved. At the same time Islam made its way eastwards, ending all figurative art expression along the Silk Road, and worse, damaging many of the human portrayals. Perhaps it was a blessing that the desert took over, and buried so many of the towns under the sand.
Finally, under the Ming dynasty in the 14th to 16th century China turned its back on the world, isolating itself and withering away any remaining trade along the Silk Road – which in any case was increasingly challenged by newly discovered sea routes circumventing the Muslim Arab Middle East. Western China became less and less important, less and less attractive, until, finally, in the 19th and 20th century, interest was rekindled again, first by the European geographers-archaeologist-treasure hunters, and then, most recently, by Chinese oil and gas explorers.
Continue: Travel to Dunhuang