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Silk Road - Trade Routes

Silk Road History

Caravans and Trade Routes

Silk actually composed a relatively small portion of the trade along the Silk Road: eastbound caravans brought gold, precious metals and stones, textiles, ivory and coral, while westbound caravans transported furs, ceramics, cinnamon bark and rhubarb as well as bronze weapons.

Very few caravans, including the people, animals and goods they transported, would complete the entire route that connected the capitals of these two great empires. The oasis towns that made the overland journey possible became important trading posts, commercial centers where caravans would take on fresh merchants, animals and goods. The oasis towns prospered considerably, benefitting from the goods they bought and sold.

During the Han Dynasty, the Chinese referred to the Taklamakan Desert as Liu Sha, or "moving sands", since the dunes are constantly moving, blown about by fierce winds. Geographers call it the Tarim Basin, after the glacier-fed Tarim River that flows east across the Taklamakan Desert to the Lop Nor Lake. The Taklamakan is bordered on three sides by some of the highest mountain ranges in the world: to the north by the Heavenly Mountains (Tianshan); to the west by the Pamirs (Roof of the World); and to the south by the Karakoram and Kunlun Mountains. To the east lie the Lop Nor and Gobi Deserts. The infamous Taklamakan - which in Turkish means "go in and you will not come out" - has been feared and cursed by travellers for more than 2,000 years. Sir Clarmont Skrine, British consul-general at Kashgar in the 1920s, described it in his book Chinese Central Asia:

To the north in the clear dawn the view is inexpressively awe-inspiring and sinister. The yellow dunes of the Taklamakan, like the giant waves of a petrified ocean, extend in countless myriads to a far horizon with, here and there, an extra large sand-hill, a king dune as it were, towering above his fellows. They seem to clamour silently, those dunes, for travellers to engulf, for whole caravans to swallow up as they have swallowed up so many in the past.

Revised June 23, 2011