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What is the Silk Road?

Dear All,

We are soon to embark on a fantastic journey in a remote region, uncovering ancient traditions, learning about diverse cultural and religious practices, and reveling in the unique and ever changing beauty of desert landscapes, sacred mountains, and ancient towns. We are so excited! As we head out to training in the Sierras, it is important that you all take the time to introduce yourselves! We are itching to know more about you. While you mull over what photo to post and how you’d like to introduce yourself to the group (it’s time!!), take some time to read over this post in its entirety.

What is the Silk Road?

Our journey is seemingly mapped for us by something that is commonly referred to as the Silk Road(丝绸之路). But both the idea of a “road” and the name, “Silk Road,” can be quite misleading. To say the least, there is no yellow brick road marking the path to Emerald City. Not only are there no bricks on the road (or even a road!), but sometimes the markers are too discreet to be recognized by the untrained eye.

There are multiple reasons why the Silk Road is not (always) a road. To mention just a couple of them: both urbanization and development have drastically transformed the ancient landscape. The paths along which traders would travel with their caravans or the inns where they would rest, have now given way to highways, city thoroughfares, or multi-story buildings. Another reason is that the Silk Road was not just one, but multiple roads, or a network of intersecting routes, stretching over land and sea, linking Asia, Africa, and Europe.

The name could be equally misleading:  although silk was a very important commodity traded along the routes, it was not the only, or even the main reason why the routes were so important. Before the name “Silk Road” was coined in the nineteenth century by a German geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen, portions of the network were better known as the Hexi Corridor (河西走廊) and the Tea Horse Road (茶马道). The Hexi Corridor stretches along Gansu province and comprises parts of what is today known as the Northern Silk Road. The Tea Horse Road links Yunnan and Chengdu (via Tibet) to Nepal, Burma, and Bengal and is part of the Southern Silk Road. As the name suggests, amongst the most prized commodities traded on the Tea Horse Road were indeed tea and horses; and the Hexi Corridor was important not only as a trade artery, but also in terms of its geopolitical and strategic location, allowing for close interactions between the Chinese dynasties, the nomadic tribes of the North, and the Central Asian kingdoms and empires to the West. In addition to providing an incredible infrastructure for trading commodities, facilitating communications over vast stretches of territory, and protecting strategic interests, the network of routes that are today known as the Silk Road presented important means for the spread and exchange of religionartmusic, and ideas.

But is this all in the past? Does the Silk Road still provide for vibrant exchanges in the present? Over the course of six weeks, we will have many opportunities to explore exactly that: Where were the roads that comprised this vast network now known as the Silk Road? What types of people traversed the routes, what types of goods and ideas were circulated? How did they sculpt and transform the surrounding landscape? What we will also try to do is to understand the significance of the Silk Road today – not simply as a relic of the past, but as a phenomenon that still inspires and shapes our perceptions.

T- 14 days!!