The Silk Road resonates with the enigmatic echoes of the ancient world, evoking a time of camel trains travelling the vast desert distances from as far afield as Japan all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, and named after the exotic highly prized Chinese silk upon which much of the trade was based.

Chinese silk dating back to the eleventh century BC has been found as far away as ancient Egypt, travelling on tentative ancient routes out of which the Silk Road would later emerge.

The formation of the established route owes its origins in part to the eastbound forays of Alexander the Great and his Greek entourage who penetrated deep into central Asia and established a Hellenistic settlement at Fergana, also known as Dayuan, in modern day Kyrgyzstan, and established the first historically verifiable contacts between China and the west.

From the Chinese side, the fledgling Silk Road begins in the second century BC, following the Han Dynasty’s succession of a unified China first forged by the first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, and it was from his former seat of power in Xi'an that the silk routes began to formally coalesce. It was also during this time that the Han Great Wall was extended along its route.

Maritime routes were also established, plying between Nanjing and Fuzhou and linked with Hanoi in Vietnam, at that time under Chinese control, Ayutthaya, close to Bangkok in present day Thailand, Java, Sumatra, Chittagong, in modern day Bangladesh, Cochin in India, Ormuz in the Persian Gulf, Mecca and beyond to Roman controlled Egypt and thence into the very heart of Rome itself.   

It was the land routes, however, and particularly the northernmost route that became the iconic trading highway between east and west and gave rise to the complexity of cultural exchanges that would foster the spread of ideas along its length, most notably the passage of both Buddhism and later Islam into eastern Asia.  

The principal historic sites of the route stretch from Xi'an, famous as the site of the Terracotta Warriors, through the provinces of Shaanxi, Gansu and Xinxiang, and are now UNESCO World Heritage sites.

In Shaanxi Province, the sparse remains of Weiyang Palace attest to what was once the largest ever palace on earth, almost seven times as large as the Forbidden City, built during the Han Dynasty at the time of the development of the Silk Road.

In Gansu Province, The Maijishan Grottoes, Magao Caves, Yulin Grottoes and Bingling Temple, all feature early Buddhist sculpture from the early formation of the trade route. Also in Gansu, the Yumen Pass is the site of the Jade Gates, named after the jade caravans that passed through on the way to Dunhuang.


Dunhuang, one of the major cities of the great road, and the point at which the caravans would set out or arrive from the wild Taklamakan Desert, was guarded by the extended Han great wall, whose crumbling watchtowers still remain. Dunhuang is also famous for the Singing Sand Mountain, named after the eerie audible effect of the wind over the dunes.

It was close to here, at Anxi, that the southern and northern routes of the Silk Road diverged on their route to Kashgar, the northern route, via Turpan and Urumqi.

Crossing into Xinxiang Province, the ruins of Gaochang, Jiaohe, Beshbalik City, Subashi Temple Ruins and the Kizil Caves are significant features of the ancient trading road. Among the natural features, Heaven Lake provides a stunning sight in the great wilderness.

The Chinese were the first to master the cultivation of Silkworms, but by the sixth century AD, the Byzantine Empire had stolen silkworm eggs, acquired the knowledge of cultivation, and set up their own European silk production at Thrace in Greece. To compound the downturn, after four centuries of trading, part of the road was also taken over by the Tibetan empire and closed until its recapture by the Tang Dynasty in the eighth century AD, who began to revive the trade route, cultivating strong commercial links with Persia.  

The trade routes persisted up until the end of the Mongol era when their empire's collapse and the rise of the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople in 1453 AD finally finished trade along the Silk Road.

In the western colonial era, new trading routes were established, mostly by sea, and with the discovery of America, an entirely new approach was opened up from the westward Pacific Ocean side of China.