When I was growing up, the atlas showed a large expanse of land called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Abbreviated to USSR) - it existed from 1922 to 1991. A Communist regime that actually comprised 15 provinces, which all then broke away to each become independent states - now we have:
- Russia (still the largest country in the world and 3/4rds the size of what was the USSR),
- The Baltics - Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia;
- Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova;
- The Caucasus - Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan and
- Central Asia known as the 5 Stan’s - Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
The Great Silk Road crossed the Stan’s and the Caucasus, stretching from the Caspian Sea in the west to Mongolia in the east, a vast area of desert, steppes and mountain ranges forming a bridge between Europe and Asia. German geographer and traveller Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the term Silk Road in 1877 to describe the well-travelled pathway of goods between Europe and East Asia.1
It’s not one road or a single route, but a network of routes used by traders for more than 1,500 years, the Han dynasty of China opened trade in 130BCE until 1453CE when the Ottoman Empire closed off trade with the West.1
The Silk Road extended approximately 6,437 kilometres across some of the world’s most formidable landscapes, including the Gobi Desert and the Pamir Mountains. With no single government to provide upkeep, the roads were in poor condition and robbers common. Few people travelled the entire route, resulting in middlemen and trading posts popping up along the way. Traders in caravans with camels or other pack animals joined together and stayed at caravanserais.
Merchants carried silk from China to Europe, jade, precious stones, porcelain, tea, and spices from Asia. In exchange, horses, glassware, textiles, and manufactured goods travelled eastward.
One famous traveller of the Silk Road was Marco Polo (1254-1324). From a family of wealthy merchants in Venice, Marco, at age 17, travelled with his father for 3 years to arrive at Kublai Khan’s palace - Xanadu, China - in 1275. Marco was well liked by Kublai and sent him on missions to parts of Asia never before visited by Europeans. Marco Polo continues to capture our imagination today, reading his book of adventures and the routes he travelled.1
Religion and ideas spread along the Silk Road and towns grew into multicultural cities. Horses introduced to China contributed to the might of the Mongol Empire, while gunpowder from China changed the very nature of war in Europe and beyond. Diseases also travelled along the Silk Road. It’s said the Black Death, which devastated Europe in the late 1340s, most likely spread from Asia along the Silk Road.
The Silk Road has fascinated many people including me. I joined a 4 week tour to explore just a small part of this world in August/September 2023 hoping to learn more of its history and how these countries are making their mark on the world stage.
These days treasure isn't just travelling back and forth on land - it’s in the ground - a wealth of black gold, gas and incredible quantities of a wide range of minerals. Once again, the West and the East are vying for a piece of the action!
Over the coming weeks I will share some of the highlights of this remarkable journey.