D is for Dirt

China - Silk Road Map
Graphic courtesy of Patrick Gray.

This is the 4th post in my April A to Z Challenge topic on the Silk Road.

Roads all start out with dirt, and though many dispute that the Silk Road was even a road–some saying it was more of a “Silk Route” than an actual road–still, the route was across land and land means dirt. 

So what kind of land are we talking about?

There were two routes going from either direction. Although one of the main thrusts originally was to move goods from China westward, there were also goods moving across from Greece and the Levant to Arabia in the ancient Persian and Mesopotamian days. Since there were camels (letter “C”), there were several deserts and as the maps remind us, there were plenty of mountains too. 

Terrain with Stuff in the Way

There are plenty of eager mapmakers today putting their spin on the trade route, so you can find plenty of Silk Road maps. This depiction, courtesy of Patrick Gray, focuses a bit much on the east and west terminuses, but it does a nice job of retaining the important geographical features. The main purpose of a route is to find the best way to go around the barriers. We get accustomed to looking at maps with colorations and thick lines for modern highways, but terrain isn’t pre-paved and all flat. There’s stuff in the way.

Map courtesy of Delaine Reiter.

For the traders, that meant going around obstacles. The mountains included more than just Everest (“Chomolungma”) and her neighbors. The Tibetan Plateau shielding China covered 230,000 square miles in a large C-shaped bulb typically given its own extreme color on the maps. The Himalayas extended up the southern part of the curve, but the entire gray plateau was impassible peaks as far north as the Tarim Basin.

The key for travelers was to know where the passes were: the Jade pass or the Iron Gate. But, of course, passes meant a narrowing where everyone would bunch up, which meant waiting your turn, slow going, and ambushes. Traders who went around the north side then headed south for the riches of Arabia had to pass through another set of ranges that covered Iran and Afghanistan, the Zagros and the Hindu Kush.

Meanwhile, the trek north wasn’t so simply anyway. As the graphic on the top map shows, the road out of Duanhuang splits into two. That’s because of the Taklamakan Desert. You may be familiar with the Gobi, which covers most of Mongolia, but the Taklmakan was one of the most forbidding places on earth. The desert was virtually without water, which is why camels were essential and why Mongolians drank mare’s milk, butter tea, fermented mare’s milk, and in desperate times their horse’s blood.

Freezing in the winter, boiling in the summer, one of the driest places on earth. And that doesn’t even cover the zud storms that might strip your flesh from your bones. We’ll just cover that in letter “Z.”

The steppes across Asia were famous as grasslands, the places where the nomads lived in mobile camps. This is where the horses and camels came from, where the wheel was invented. Generally, the land was fairly inhospitable for farming, so there weren’t many peasants. As the horses, sheep, goats (and camels) cropped the grass, they’d move to where the next big wave of grass was growing.

Border between Siberia and Mongolia, from wikipedia.

The Road Part of Road

Whether or not the Silk Road deserves to be called an actual road, there were actual roads designed and built in ancient times. The Persian empire under Darius the Great (father of Xerxes) included the construction of a Royal Road, which stretched across big chunks of Asia Minor. Those histories, written near the Golden Age of Greece, talk about the Persian’s coming up to battle the Athenians and Spartans near Greece. But that was the northwest “tip” of the empire, which really sprawled far to the east all the way to the mountains and the lands north of India.

Royal Road of the Achaemenid Empire, per wikipedia.

The Royal Road included a hard packed gravel surface wide enough for a large cart, or two chariots if they were careful, and there were stone curbs marking sections. Tourist advertisements say that you can still some of the original wheel ruts.

When the Romans took on the same area and began building roads both to the east and the north, their engineers had a system that lasted for centuries. They would grind the earth down, cover it with gravel for drainage, wherever possible with uniform width. The closer you go to Rome, the more likely the road might even be paved.

Across China, road engineering also included paving and uniformity. Some Chinese pavings stones can also still be seen, although more near the cities than on the merchant routes.

Modern Asian Highway, from ah.com.

On the other hand, to look at today’s map of modern “Asian Highway” roads, the appearance takes on a similar view. While the map may not be overlaid with the Tarim Basin or the Tibetan plateau, the roads clearly go around in a fashion similar to the way they did a dozen centuries ago. Even the planes probably have to go around when they go over or near Chomolungma.

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