The Silk Road, the network of trade routes threading east to west, is what has stitched Central Asia together for centuries. It wove together disparate khanates, isolated empires and markets hungry for goods, ideas and information, and the patchwork of peoples from China to Western Europe was shaped by its rise and fall.
Now, new silk networks are growing. If Silk Road goods were once the main reason for venturing into the hostile mountains and deserts of Eurasia, the romance of the old camel caravans and spectacular oasis cities is still compelling travelers to these old routes. The propulsive Chinese economy is making a new overland transit corridor a viable alternative to the sea routes that eclipsed the old Silk Road trade, and the energy buried beneath the continent is being drawn out and along new East-West corridors rather than spilling northward. And finally, the desire to work against separatism and extremism and to work toward balanced regional development is enhancing cultural, military and political partnerships across the Silk Road region.
Old Trade Pathways
Though there had been ancient contacts between north and south and east and west, trade along what we call the Silk Road or the Silk Route rose and fell in waves over a period of more than 2,000 years. According to The Association for Asian Studies (www.asian-studies.org), The Silk Road flourished in four general periods, from the second century B.C. to the third century A.D,, again from the seventh to ninth centuries, then in the 13th and 14th centuries and finally in the 19th century, when Central Asia came back into the limelight and Russia and Great Britain jockeyed for influence in the area.
We think of the Silk Road as primarily a trade circuit, but it actually began with a diplomatic mission. In the second century B.C., a Han Chinese emperor troubled by conflicts with nomadic peoples on his border sent an emissary west to find a friendly nation to help him control his borders. The diplomatic mission failed to create an alliance, but the emissary returned with stories about the wealth of the towns he found and of the huge, beautiful horses they had. The emperor sent more emissaries with silk and other gifts to trade for these gorgeous horses, and the pattern of East-West trade routes began to form.
Silk was the commodity most interesting to the West for a period of time—the Romans were obsessed with it—but it certainly wasn’t the only sought after Silk Road product. (The name “Silk Road” is a 19th century term coined by German geographer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen.) Over centuries, what we now call the Silk Road carried horses and other animals, metals, paper, precious stones, ivory and weapons from one oasis to another. On the northern Silk Road route, these oases spread across southern and western Kazakhstan: Almaty, Shymkent, Sairam, Taraz, Turkestan, and the long gone town of Otrar and Sauran.
Taraz, now more than 2,000 years old, played a role in bringing Chinese paper to the west when Chinese paper makers were captured in a battle between the Chinese Tang dynasty and the Arab Abbasid Caliphate.
Iron Silk Roads
Now, a Silk Road trade resurgence is afoot. Goods from China are once more the force behind the new/old routes unfurling across the Central Asian continent. Chongqing in particular, a rising industrial city with factories producing laptops, touch screens, car and motorcycle parts and all kinds of machinery, is the starting point for many products on a 10,800 kilometer, 15-day train journey west on a route that reaches all the way to Duisburg, Germany.
In 2012, Kazakhstan finished the final stretch of track connecting this route to its rail system. “It can be called a revival of the Silk Road,” Yerkin Meirbekov, deputy chairman of the transport and railways committee of Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Transport and Communications, said of the project in an interview last year. “If we consider the prospects of the development of China, there is broad, intensive development of the western part of the China, and all the products … must go somewhere.”
With air freight expensive and only able to handle small amounts and sea freight slow, Kazakhstan is looking to overland transit to be a major part of its future economy. More rail projects worth more than $1 billion are planned through 2020.
Not only rail but road networks are also being cut or upgraded along the old Silk Road through southern and western Kazakhstan. The $7 billion Western Europe-Western China highway stretches over 5,000 miles; 1,700 of them in Kazakhstan. As of the end of September 2013, 691 miles of the road in Kazakhstan had been completed. When finished, the road is expected to have a huge impact on shipping and personal travel.
A number of international organisations are funding the project. The World Bank issued Kazakhstan the largest loan it had ever paid out to a country for the project. The Asian Development Bank (ADB), the European Fund for Reconstruction and Development and the Islamic Development Bank have also supplied loans. Indeed, the majority of the ADB’s lending in Kazakhstan has been in the transport sector, supporting the country’s reinvention—or reclamation—of its role as a global transport hub. The streamlined customs processes of the Kazakhstan-Russia-Belarus Customs Union will also facilitate transport across the vast Eurasian plain that Kazakhstan dominates.
“Kazakhstan has understood the geostrategical importance of its location, and they are finally making use of it,” said Steven Hermans, 30, of Belgium, who lives in Almaty and runs the Caravanistan.com website devoted to Silk Road travel. “The Iron Silk Road is already bringing benefits. I don’t know how it will evolve, but I can only see positive things coming from there: more economic growth, greater integration of Kazakhstan into the world economy and a sense that neighboring countries need each other, which will hopefully spur more cooperation and mutual understanding.”
Another, underground Silk Road is spreading through Central Asia, creating important political and economic connections: pipelines. China’s growing regional energy network is fast eclipsing that of Russia. An oil pipeline runs through central Kazakhstan all the way to eastern China; a gas pipeline runs from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan on its way to a similar destination. China has just bought a stake in Kazakhstan’s giant Kashagan oil field, indicating that oil exports between the two nations will grow. China is even poised to begin producing crude oil in Afghanistan, the first nation to do so. (Both China and the United States have “New Silk Road” plans for stabilizing and enriching Afghanistan and themselves in the coming years.)
Not only commodities but ideas and technologies and religions traveled the Silk Road. Buddhism pushed north out of India and spread; Christianity, Islam, Sufism and other creeds or sects were carried along the route by pilgrims, missionaries and warriors. Chinese irrigation and printing technologies moved from east to west. Styles of art influenced each other over vast distances: The animal combat motifs of Scythian and other Central Asian cultures made their way to China, as did floral and scroll patterns from the Hellenic world. The first images of Buddha arose out of the Gandharan culture in modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan, which had been influenced by Greek mythical art for centuries after being conquered by Alexander the Great, and many bear a strong resemblance to the Greek god Apollo.
The Silk Road was also a vector for disease, particularly the Black Death of the 14th century, which may have killed more than half the population of Europe. That epidemic is thought to have originated in China in the late 1330s, traveled along the Silk Routes to a Mediterranean port and hitched a ride on a ship bound for Italy. The plague in Central and East Asia is less well documented than it was in Europe, but it is thought to have killed millions in China as well. It devastated Silk Road stops like Issyk Kul, Samarkand and others on its way to Persia, Turkey and eventually all of Europe.
The Backbone of Empires
The goods, skills and techniques passed along the Silk Road enabled political interactions and changes between peoples who otherwise might never have met. Eventually, the Silk Road formed a central seam of the largest land empire the world had ever seen: the Mongol Empire, which stretched from the Pacific Ocean to Eastern Europe and nearly as far as modern-day India.
Silk Road merchants provided goods the Mongols didn’t produce themselves and could also offer useful information about other cultures and regions. Mongol leaders used the Silk Road networks to carry messages and instructions from one garrison to another, as well as to transport its silks and other goods. The great Ghengis Khan was a supporter of merchants even before he became the leader of an empire.
Today there is no Mongol—or Russian—empire to unite the region, but a number of economic and political organisations are doing the job. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan was formed in 2001 and addresses regional security concerns like terrorism, extremism and separatism, which can travel even more easily than electronic goods down Silk Road networks. Other organizations like the Eurasian Economic Community and the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia have been focusing on removing barriers to trade as well as creating linked programs of development.
The tourism potential of the Silk Road today is something that is gaining the attention of governments and international organizations in the region. Some Silk Road sites have found their way onto UNESCO’s World Heritage list, but only this year did China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan nominate a transnational Silk Road corridor connecting their countries for recognition. The U.N. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) called the collaboration in the process leading up to the trans-national bid “unprecedented.” More transnational bids should be coming; 50 potential corridors have already been identified.
A Silk Roads Heritage Corridors Tourism Strategy Workshop was held in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on October 7-8, 2013 with the aim of creating a road map for developing a tourism strategy for visitor management, site presentation and promotion along the Silk Road Heritage Corridors. “Tourism to World Heritage Sites stimulates employment, promotes local activity through arts and crafts and generates revenues. However, if not planned or managed effectively, tourism can be socially, culturally and economically disruptive, harming hereby fragile environments and local communities,” organizers told EdgeKz. “A number of priorities have been identified to ensure that the tourism strategy developed for the Silk Road Heritage Corridors optimises the opportunities that tourism presents while safeguarding the outstanding heritage along the Silk Road.”
China is particularly active right now in promoting Silk Road tourism and has a number of Silk Road sites on UNESC’s World Heritage tentative list. The nation hosted the sixth UNWTO International Meeting on Silk Road Tourism on Aug. 1-3 this year, gathering experts to talk about generating sustainable Silk Road tourism and how to raise the profile of the ancient trade network. The Chinese government has been spending over $12 million per year recently to protect Silk Road heritage sites in its Xinjiang region.
A number of high-level international meetings on the topic have been held. The third UNWTO Silk Road Ministers’ meeting, held in Berlin in March, brought together ministers and vice ministers of tourism from more than 20 Silk Road countries and resulted in the development of the Silk Road Heritage Corridors tourism strategy. There have been meetings under UNWTO auspices covering Silk Road food (the Flavors of the Silk Road International Conference), issuing blogging challenges (the Silk Road Bl@gging Challenge), and promoting the Silk Road in film and on TV.
Even air travel is getting in on the game. The new “Silk Road in the Sky” link between Yinchuan, the capital of China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, home to many of China’s Hui Muslim minority, will link the region with the United Arab Emirates and connect both with other parts of China.
“To me, the Silk Road is important to tourism in the region, but mostly as a concept,” Hermans told EdgeKz, noting that little physical evidence of the old network exists. “It is something almost mythical, and that is inspiring for travel. That is where the relevance lies for the Silk Road today, and I think it cannot be underestimated. Like Paris has the Eiffel Tower and China the Great Wall, every country or region needs a symbol that gets stuck in people’s minds: the Silk Road can do the same for Central Asia.”
It’s working already, he says. Tourism is growing and while Westerners remain the most important tourist segment, there is a coming shift. “In the future, as the middle class grows and Central Asian governments open up, we will definitely see a lot more tourists from China, India and South East Asia, as well as Kazakhs who, after seeing the rest of the world, will gain an interest in discovering their home.”
Reviving Old Connections
China’s rising power and the revitalizing of East-West connections is reshaping regional power balances. In 2012, all Central Asian countries except for Uzbekistan traded more with China than with Russia. China is funding new pipelines, roads, and railways, and the term “Silk Road” is being used now by everything from growth capital funds to tourism networks, air transport routes to arts organizations.
In his speech at Nazarbayev University in Astana on Sept. 7, Chinese President Xi Jinping made much of the Silk Road, both as a historical connection between his nation and Central Asia, but also as a way to future prosperity.
“Throughout the millenia, the people of various countries along the ancient Silk Road have jointly written a chapter of friendship that has been passed on to this very day,” he said. “Over the past 20 years and more, the relations between China and Eurasian countries have developed rapidly and the ancient Silk Road has gained fresh vitality. In a new way, it is taking the mutually beneficial cooperation between China and Eurasian countries to a new height. A near neighbor is better than a distant relative.”
In his speech, Xi proposed that these near neighbors create an economic belt along the Silk Road, removing barriers to trade and travel and sharing development and other experiences. The Chinese president has spoken about this at the most recent SCO meeting of heads of state, the Euro-Asian Economic Forum, and elsewhere.
How exactly this belt will be formed, who will join it and who will dominate are questions yet to be answered. But the newest Silk Road revival is well on its way and is being strengthened by every railway link laid, every border opened, every passport stamped.