Z is for Zhang Qian & Zheng He

They were greatest explorers of their era. One intrepid ambassador struck out west, across the Jade Gate, and stayed so long that he was imprisoned and married before coming home. The other sailed everywhere, in giant ships that dwarfed the little caravels that the Europeans had invented. He left a trail of sailing charts, reports, and temples all across the Indian Ocean.

At the end of the alphabet are two important Chinese explorers, ones who “discovered” the trading routes, over land and sea, which helped carve out where east and west might exchange their goods: the silk, the frankincense, the pepper, and the ideas.

Zheng He meeting traders from Asia to the west. From TopChinaTravel.com.

The stories of these explorers seem to be the perfect bookends to wrap up 26 A to Z posts about this amazing time and geography known as the Silk Road.

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X is for Xi’an 西安

Gate at Modern Xi’an, still bustling after 3000 years. Photo at Panoramio.com.

The end is the beginning. The beginning is at the end.

Xi’an was the terminus and the initium. Certainly, from the Chinese point of view, for those who had the silk and knew the pathways above the desert and the skyscraping Himalayas, knew them far earlier than others who struck out to find trading parners, Xi’an was the beginning of their road, the road eventually named the Silk Road.

It was the place for one of the great dynasties of the world–the Han–a glittering civilization back in the days where Greece, Persia, and India were just beginning to look around and wonder how the universe was made. It was a place where philosophies and spiritual ideals intersected. It was the place where some of the biggest and grandest human enterprises started.

It was also called Chang’an. It was known as the Western Peace.

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W is for Wine

Silk Road specialties, from Pressfood.org.

I’ve heard that you need to age wine, but isn’t 8000 years a little over the top?

They have found the oldest wine vessels in history, and they are from Georgia, near the Southern Caucasus. Were they on the Silk Road? Or did grape wine come from China? How do they know it was grape wine anyway? And what else did they drink, when they didn’t have grapes? Plus, what about the apples and melons?

Today, it’s all about Silk Road Food and Drink, especially Drink.

Vitis vinifera

As it happens, I don’t drink alcohol, but please don’t hold that against me. I can certainly discuss alcohol with the best of them, especially when it involves archaeology. I was trying to look up Silk Road wine information which, the other day, told me that many people drank non-grape wines made from honey, mare’s milk, and other fermented carbohydrates. At least that’s what I remember. But there is a Silk Road winery (or more than one) and so all I could see today were ads for that wine. Feel free to do a brisk little Google search for “Silk Road Wine” on your own.

The reason that Georgia–and that means the country over in Asia near the Silk Road not the U.S. state–the reason that Georgia was trumpeting its wines is because archeologists dug up some big ol’ wine jars. These jars, called qevri or khevri, definitely date back to the Neolithic as far as 6,000–5,800 BCE. Lead researcher Patrick McGovern and the team were careful to look at dating the pottery, dating the site, and establishing the appearance of the right combination of acids that represent fermented grapes. They also found grape pollen, starch, and skin remains that sealed the deal. Eight-thousand-year-old grapes in Georgia!

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