Off the Beaten Track
in Vol. 9 - September Issue - Year 2008
The Silk Road
One of the camels had developed a limp on the third day after the small party had left Kashgar. Whatever was ailing the beast, it was worsening by the hour. The three men couldn’t help but glance repeatedly at the heavy load on the animal’s back. Short of a miracle, it was becoming increasingly clear that they would soon have to transfer their provisions onto the remaining three camels and let the injured one loose to fend for itself on the edge of the desert.
The travellers had made the most out of the two weeks they had spent in the city. They had done some trading, building up a good stock of dried meat and dried fruit and they had rested as much as possible in preparation for what was to be the most difficult leg of their journey. A good part of their time had been dedicated to speaking with the locals, trying to figure out the best way to continue their journey eastwards around the outskirts of the Taklimakan Desert. Fierce arguments would develop at dusk, when it seemed that the entire male population of Kashgar would gather around the foreigners while everyone sipped the dark, pungent tea typical of that area. There were those who insisted that the northern route was definitely better because shorter, while others pointed out the advantages of the cooler air blowing down from the mountains along the longer, southern way.
All of that now seemed so long ago, as the three men peered through the slits in their turbans at the clouds of sand which the blistering hot wind whipped against their bodies.
The Silk Road was a series of trade and migration routes connecting Asia to Europe. It stretched from the capital city of the ancient Chinese and Mongolian kingdoms, known under various names such as Zhongdu, Khanbaliq and Peking, all the way to the Caspian Sea, passing through the Pamir mountain range and Samarkand. The road split into two main branches to circumvent the treacherous Taklimakan Desert, one of the most inhospitable areas in the world, and both branches joined up again at Kashgar, which became the most important crossroads in Asia. From Kashgar, another branch headed south over the Karakorum range into India. Numerous secondary branches also existed.
Notwithstanding its name, the Silk Road was used since prehistoric times to trade a wide variety of goods, from food, plants and animals, to precious items such as gold, ivory and silk. This last commodity, which came to the attention of the Romans as early as the year 53 B.C., gave the road its name. Goods changed hands several times, as merchants would travel only as far as it remained profitable for them to do so.
But the Silk Road was used not only by merchants, as the continuous flow of missionaries and pilgrims encouraged the awareness of many important religions and spread Buddhism from India to China. In fact, thanks to the enormous richness of ideas that travelled along this road, the Gandhara culture, an incredible mixture of Greek, Persian and Indian architectural and artistic elements, developed and thrived for many centuries in the Peshawar region.
The travellers marched on, tightly holding the reins of their camels as they concentrated on following the thin track in the waning sunlight. They were expecting to reach the next oasis before nightfall, but still there was no sign of the small tree grove which they had been told would appear after four days. They had left their home in a port city on the northern Adriatic Sea almost two years earlier, covering the first part of their journey by ship and then by land, when they traded their horses for camels once they had reached Samarkand. Theirs was a family of merchants, and they were determined to reach the legendary land of Cathay, where it was said that fabulous riches and precious stones were to be found.
Darkness had fallen and still there was no sign of the oasis. The young man glanced nervously at the faces of his two companions, looking for a sign of encouragement. His father was leading the group with the first camel, while his uncle gently pulled at the reins of the other dromedaries a few steps behind.
The young man was only seventeen years old. His name was Marco.
By Giovanni Gregorat
By Giovanni Gregorat,
Contributing Editor MFN
& Sales Manager, Pometon Abrasives