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History of the Great Silk Road

Evolution of the Great Silk Road

Evolution of the Great Silk RoadThe origins of commercial ties and transport connections between Europe and Asia date back to the distant past. Marco Polo’s travels, Afanasy Nikitin’s Journey Beyond Three Seas, and the caravans of the legendary Great Silk Road were the first to expose Europeans to unique Chinese products and culture. The term “Silk Road” (Seidenstrasse) was pioneered by the German scholar Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen in his 1877 classic, China.

The Great Silk Road, which connected the East and the West for the first time in human history, became operational in the second half of the second century BC when the Chinese diplomat and traveler Zhang Qian discovered for the first time what for his compatriots became the Western Region – the nations of Central Asia. This was the meeting point of two roads that had previously existed separately from each other. One of them ran from the West, or Mediterranean countries, to Central Asia, and was laid by Hellenic troops during the campaigns of Alexander the Great and Seleucid General Demodamas; and the other went from the East, the Han Empire, to Central Asia, and was discovered by Zhang Qian who had traveled that region from North to South through Davan (Fergana), Sogd and Bactria.

In the era of the Xin and Han centralised empires, China became the world's main producer and exporter of silk. Silk was mostly consumed and appreciated by the higher estates in European countries. Silk was transported by caravans, many miles in length, that gave birth to a special infrastructure, including oases, medieval hotels (caravan serai), a system of armed security forces, and messenger services. All of that was made possible by the existence of this universal product silk. Silk is a light, compact and strong material, which makes it an ideal commodity for long-distance trade.

Silk is scarce, expensive, exceptionally beautiful and elegant, which makes the silk trade very profitable. Caravans loaded with silk cloth, yarn, furs, ceramics, ironware, enamel, cinnamon, ginger, bronze weapons and mirrors traveled from East to West. West-Tast traffic carried goods from Central Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean: camel wool carpets, glass, blankets, floor covers and luxury items. China and other regions on the Eurasian continent built a system of land trading routes which formed the Great Silk Road. Numerous oases existed along these caravan routes and cities grew and prospered along trading axes.

However, following a series of great maritime geographic discoveries in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, intercontinental land trading routes went into decline. In the 500 years which followed, all commercial and social links between Asia, on the one hand, and Europe and the rest of the world, on the other, relied on the seaways.

Great Silk Road routes

Great Silk Road routesIn ancient times, one of the more developed branches of the Great Silk Road ran through China and India to Central Asia, then to the Caspian Sea along the Uzbai river, and across the territories of contemporary Azerbaijan and Georgia towards the Black Sea region and Asia Minor which were home to a number of Greek city-states. There also existed a “Steppe Branch” of the Road running along the Volga to southern Russian steppes and further to the Crimea and Eastern Europe. Following the collapse of the ancient empires, during the Great Migration, the Steppe Branch served as an important link between West and East: Sasanid Iran, later Arab Caliphate, in its struggle and competition with Byzantium, directed the main routes of the Great Silk Road to circumvent Byzantine lands. In the same historic period, China, India and Khorezm were joined by ancient Turkic people as trading partners of Byzantium and Sasanid Iran. One of the liveliest routes in the third and fourth centuries ran West across the entire Caucasus to the lands of Eastern Europe and Byzantium.

In addition to older partners, China, India, Indochina, countries of Asia Minor, the Caucasus, the Near and Middle East, Byzantium and others, commercial activity along the Great Silk Road also involved ancient Russia as well as Central and Northern European countries.

Trade involving the Great Silk Road experienced especially intensive growth following the temporary closure in the 12th century of the maritime route connecting China to the Persian Gulf, and the entire flow of China-bound goods from the West was re-routed and ran across Khorezm. For fifty years, Khorezm became an important commercial intermediary between China and the rest of the world. Merchants from the Volga region, India and Iran would come here, and caravans bound for the Middle East, East Turkistan and China had that area as their point of departure. Ugrench, the capital of Khorezm, was the starting point on the way to Mongolia, across the steppes controlled by the Polovets, to Saksin (a port city in the Volga delta), to the Russian principalities and Europe.

Efforts to Revitalise the Great Silk Road in the 20th Century

Efforts to Revitalize the Great Silk Road in the 20th CenturyEfforts to revitalise the Great Silk Road on a new, “industrial” basis started only a little over 100 years ago. In the very beginning of the 20th century, the famous Trans-Siberian Railway was completed. It played an essential role in the colonisation of Siberia and the Far East and their industrial development in the Soviet era. It also fulfilled important mobilisation functions during the two world wars. However, in the period of political divisions and confrontation between the two systems in the 20th century, the Trans-Siberian Railway could not serve its unifying purpose on the Eurasian landmass.

It was only in the last quarter of the 20th century that the first attempts were undertaken against the backdrop of the so-called “détente” to use the Railway for international trade. In the 1970s and 80s, the main source of goods in the Asian region was Japan, so goods transited by rail to Europe were mainly of Japanese origin. The maximum transport volume, 140,000 containers TEU, was reached in 1981. TSCS [1] was owned by the USSR Ministry of Railways whose main partner was Juyra, a Japanese forwarder with an interest in developing the shortest route from Japan to Europe. Juyra’s containers were used for the first time to test the first technologies of brand route-specific trains on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

However, the early 1990s ushered in a series of events which virtually excluded TSCS from the list of routes connecting Asia and Europe.

First, the collapse of the USSR led to a serious disintegration of the national economy and to its regionalisation, which quickly weakened the trust of potential shippers for the Euro-Asian rail route. This was caused, in particular, by numerous instances of theft from containers traveling from Asia to Europe.

Secondly, there was a steep rise in the transit tariffs applicable to the Trans-Siberian Railway (although in those years the Ministry of Railways was able to regulate tariff policy independently).

Thirdly, the breakup of the TSCS was caused by the Ministry’s refusal to cooperate with Juyra, the Japanese forwarder, which had its own container fleet, and its decision to invest in the Trans-Siberian Railway in Eurasia company. Bailing out of Eurasia, the Ministry created a joint venture with SeaLand, one of the leaders in goods transport via the Suez Canal, a major competitor for the Trans-Siberian Railway. Juyra was internationally recognised as bankrupt and left the market. Japanese and international press reported in depth on this scandal.

Finally, the last step to kill (at least for a while) the idea of transit from Asia to Europe via the Trans-Siberian Railway was the transfer of the largest container terminal in the Vostochniy seaport for 50 years under the management of a joint venture created by SeaLand and Pindou, major shipping companies with a strategic stake in developing direct transport between Europe and Asia using their own container ship fleet.s

Other attempts to revitalise transit transport and economic ties between Asia and Europe were made only after the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s, i.e. less than 20 years ago.

These attempts are reflected in the TRACECA Programme (“Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia”) initiated by the European Communities, in the United Nations Development Programme for Landlocked and Transit Countries, the Joint UNECE/UNESCAP Project for Institutional Capacity-Building to Develop and Euro-Asian Land and Land-cum-Sea Transport Linkages, and declarations adopted by international conferences and fora, in particular, the four IRU Euro-Asian conferences.



[1]“Trans-Siberian Container Service” (TSCS) was designed mainly to attract transit goods of Asian origin bound for Europe for transportation along the Trans-Siberian Railway.





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