In Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, the author Peter Hopkirk traces the origin of the Silk Road back to Chang Ch’ien, a young Chinese traveler who was sent by Wu-ti, the Han Emperor to make contact with the Central Asian people, the Yueh-chih. The Emperor was looking for allies in his continuing conflicts with the Hsiung-nu, the ravaging Huns of our history books.
Chang Ch’ien set out in 138 BC but was captured by the Huns and held prisoner for ten years before escaping and continuing his journey. He eventually contacted the Yueh-chih only to find that they had no interested in joining forces against the Huns. Chang Ch’ien headed for home, only to be captured once again, and eventually made it back thirteen years after he had set out. Undeterred, the Emperor sent him out on another mission westwards and (as Peter Hopkirk writes),
Not long after his return from this mission, the Great Traveler died, greatly honoured by his emperor, and still revered in China today. It was he who blazed the trail westwards towards Europe, which was ultimately to link the two superpowers of the day—Imperial China and Imperial Rome. He could fairly be described as the father of the Silk Road.
The author continues,
Although one of the oldest of the world’s great highways, The Silk Road acquired this evocative name comparatively recently…As a description, it is somewhat misleading. For not only did this great caravan route across China, Central Asia and the Middle East consist of a number of roads, but it also carried a great deal more than just silk. Advancing year by year as the Han emperors pushed China’s frontiers further westwards, it was ever at the mercy of marauding Huns, Tibetans and others. In order to maintain the free flow of goods along the newly opened highway, the Chinese were obliged to police it with garrisons and watchtowers.
One branch of the Silk Road ran west from Kashgar, starting with a long and perilous ascent of the High Pamir, the “Roof of the World”. Here it passed out of Chinese territory into Central Asia…continuing through Persia and Iraq to the Mediterranean coast. From there ships carried the merchandise to Rome and Alexandria.
As Mark Twain is reputed to have said (but apparently didn’t), “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes”.
China (hopefully) does not want to conquer new territories, but it does want, and need, to conquer new markets for its goods. To do this it is investing heavily in new transport infrastructure eastwards through Central Asia and southwards through Pakistan to the Indian Ocean. Unlike (evidently) the US President, the Chinese realize that trade creates wealth.
Rather confusingly, the initiative is known in the western world as One Belt One Road, but the Chinese prefer to call it The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or the Silk Road Economic Belt, or even The 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road. The original Silk Road was not one road, but a network of land and sea routes. The new “Silk Road” is the same, although it includes both road and train routes.
The relatively short (albeit 1,500km) section of the Silk Road that I travelled last month is called the Pamir Highway, and runs from Osh in Kyrgyzstan to Dushanbe in Tajikistan. It first heads south along the Chinese border across the Pamir Mountains, and then turns west along the Wakhan Valley. The valley separates the Pamir Mountains and the Hindu Kush. It is an isolated part of the world with an extraordinary mix of cultures: twenty-five ethnic groups and twenty-five languages.
The route follows the tumultuous and unnavigable Panje River, on one bank Tajikistan and on the other Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of land that was made part of Afghanistan in the nineteenth century to keep the Russian and British Empire apart. (For more on this fascinating period of history read Peter Hopkirk’s “The Great Game”.)
The Pamir Highway was in dire need of investment and improvement. Much of it was unpaved and single track, winding its way precariously along steep cliffs that dropped into the river below. I have no idea how the over-sized truck and trailer combinations that we saw on the road managed to make it from one end of the highway to another.
Some sections had been improved, and more works were being carried out, but the Tajik government is apparently wary of Chinese investment.
They probably shouldn’t be. Tajikistan is devoid of natural resources and is one of the poorest countries in Central Asia. Improving the transport infrastructure would not just permit Chinese goods to be imported more cheaply, it would help the country to develop as an important trading centre halfway between East and West.