Travelling the Silk Road, Ancient Pathway to the Modern World

National Museum of Australia, Canberra

31 March — 29 July 2012


The Silk Road is HOT!


Well, yes, parts of the Silk Road are very hot, especially in Turfan, an important city on the Ancient Silk Road, where the temperature has reached a scorching 48°C in July, but that’s not the ‘Hot’ to which I refer. I mean, as attendances at the exhibition indicate, the Silk Road is a hot topic. And This is not just true in Canberra.; The exhibition was developed by the American Museum of Natural History, New York and other museums around the world.

In his introduction of the speakers for the ‘Conversation’, the Museum curator, Dr Michael Pickering, said that the enormous response to the exhibition was very surprising and that its success is even making him reconsider the way of presenting future exhibitions.

The exhibition itself is structured not only as a physical journey along the Silk Road, but also as a journey through time, spanning six centuries, from the 7th Century to the 13th Century CE, which includes the whole period of the Tang Dynasty, 618 to 907 CE. An important aspect of the exhibition is that the traditions and technologies of the world’s greatest trade route still influence the world today. Some examples are silk, paper making, time-keeping, navigation instruments, currency developments, died fruit and so on, but we’ll come to them on our journey.

Depending on the route taken, the Silk Road traverses a distance of around 7000 kilometres from Xi’an to Baghdad and the Mediterranean, but it was never a super highway, there were many paths and they changed constantly, depending on climate and seasons, political entities and even bandits.

When travelling from Xi’an, which was Chang’an in the days of the Ancient Silk Road, the first main division was after the Gansu Corridor—also known as the Hexi Corridor. During the winter the main path used was to the south of the Taklamakan Desert, where it was warmer and the going was easier, via Dunhuang and Khotan to Kashgar. Whereas in the summer a route to the north of the Taklamakan Desert was used which traversed the oasis cities of Turfan and Kucha in the foot hills of the Tianshan Mountains where it was cooler, and on to Kashgar. Even today there are several routes and also several modes of travel including train, truck, car or plane.

In 2009, I travelled the Silk Road by train from Kashgar to Xi’an, stopping off at Korla and venturing into the Taklamakan Desert on an August day (40oC). The Taklamakan truly is a horrible desert! I’ve carried out exploration expeditions in every desert in Australia during the summer months, and never felt so threatened as I did in the Taklamakan. So sharp were the grains of sand that when I removed my shoes and socks later, my toes were bleeding.

The total time on the train from Kashgar to Xi’an was only 54 hours compared with about four to six months to complete the journey by camel caravan. Trucks loaded with goods take between ten and fifteen days, and there are thousands of very large semi-trailer vans on the road every day. Silk, which is still a major product, is carried from Hangzhou on the east coast of China, to Pakistan and India by truck via Kashgar and the Karakorum Highway, the highest international highway in the world, through Tashkurgan, which was an important way-station on the old Silk Road and is currently the location of the customs station for trucks and people journeying from China to Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. Tashkurgan is a neat, prosperous town at an altitude of over 3000 metres and, befitting its role as a Silk Road trading-station, it has many hotels.

For a number of reasons, such as climate change, conflicts and politics, fortunes fluctuated along the Silk Road and there were times when trade faded away altogether. After one extended period of interruption, Silk Road trade again prospered during the Mongol Empire which, by the early 13th Century, extended from the China Sea to Hungary, enabling the Mongols to guard the trade routes all the way. As is well known, the Mongols were not people to mess with so the bandits stayed away from the caravans. This period became known as Pax Mongolica. Referring to the Mongol leader Chinggis Khaan (often called Genghis Khan), the historian Juviani remarked, ‘He had brought about complete peace and quiet, and security and tranquillity, and had achieved the extreme of prosperity and well-being: the roads were secure and disturbances allayed.

Our journey along the Silk Road starts in a room draped with brightly coloured silk fabrics, lanterns casting intricate light patterns on the floors, and the heady fragrances of exotic oils, which immediately plunges us into the sights, sounds and smells of the world’s oldest international highway.

First, we meet life-size, Bactrian camels fully rigged for travelling in a caravan. Of course, we could not think of starting our journey without a camel.

These beasts were known as the ‘ships of the desert’, partly because of the huge loads they could carry but also because of the graceful way they move over the great waves of the sand dunes. With their capacity to store enough water to go for up to 15 days without a drink and broad leathery foot pads to prevent them sinking deep into the sand, these camels were essential for carrying people and goods for the trade along the Silk Road. Ideally adapted to Central Asia’s harsh conditions of mountains and deserts, camels can be quite hairy in colder climates. You might find their bushy eyebrows with long fluttering eyelashes alluring, but they protect a camels’ sensitive eyes from dust and sand, which can be fearsome in the desert. Camels are notoriously cranky beasts and good drivers were essential to every caravan and, although often as cranky as the camels, they were highly paid.

With our camels loaded with silks, spices, gemstones, perfumes, medicines and any number of other goods, we are in Xi’an, once known as Chang’an the historic starting point on the Silk Road, ready to begin our journey.

Unlike most travellers on the Ancient Silk Road, who usually only went from one trading centre or oasis to another, Marco Polo being one of the exceptions, the exhibition covers the entire distance of the Silk Road from east to west—from Xi’an to Turfan, Samarkand and Baghdad, the heart of the Islamic world. Of course there were many other trading stations along the Silk Road but the ones displayed are representative of each section of the Silk Road of the period.



Famous today for its Terracotta Warriors, originally ancient Chang’an, the Tang Dynasty capital and the capital of China, Xi’an was and is now a cosmopolitan urban city. It was, the largest city in the world at the time the exhibition covers, with a population of more than one million people and another million living outside the city walls.

For many centuries, silk was China’s most highly prized product. It was used in diplomacy, as a protective garment under chainmail, as currency, to make beautiful clothes and banners, and even to make condoms. The use of silk as trade for the ‘heavenly horses’ from the Fergana Valley was vital to the flourishing of the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty.

While we are in the Xi’an section we explore the stages of silk-making from cocoon to cloth. A video reveals the once carefully guarded secrets of sericulture, raising worms in Mulberry trees to make silk from the cocoons. A Chinese princess, angry at being traded against her will as part of a political transaction to marry a rival prince, is reputed to have revealed the secret by hiding silk worm eggs in her elaborate head-dress. It has been recorded that the Romans thought silk grew on trees! A single cocoon can unwind into a silk filament about 915 metres long!

There is an impressive replica of a Tang Dynasty-era loom five metres long, on which the final step of weaving fabric from silk thread was carried out.

Silk and other goods were not the only things to travel the Silk Road, music was also very popular.

An attractive feature of the exhibition is the several interactive displays and the first one of these we come to is a display of classical Chinese instruments: the cymbals and drum, sheng, pipa and moon lute and erhu. Pressing one of the buttons on the display produces the sound of the individual instrument, but pressing two or more produces the sounds of several at once, even all of them, to play a very lively piece of traditional Chinese music. This is, an extremely gratifying experience for those of us who are not musically inclined!

Adding atmosphere to this section, nearby there is a ceramic figure of a Chinese court official clothed in a silk robe that dates from the 7th or 8th century CE, possibly there to ensure that we have paid the taxes on our goods.



Part of the reason for Turfan being so hot is that the Turfan Basin is as much as 155 metres below sea level whereas the neighbouring Tarim River and Lop Nur areas are between 600 and 900 metres above sea level, creating a basin which has an area of around 50 000 square km. This basin collects and focuses the heat in the summer, and also the cold in winter. The lowest recorded winter temperature was ?52°C) at Fuyun, not far from Turfan.

Precipitation, rain or snow, in the Turfan basin is meagre, only 16–30 mm per year—the average for Sydney is 1160 mm per year. The extreme temperatures and windblown sands are major problems for the inhabitants of the Turfan Basin. But there seems to be something of a paradox here in the Turfan section. It is situated beneath a lush grape-vine-covered arbour, and we learn that Turfan is famous for its vineyards and wine.

How could that be? All is explained by a fascinating life-size model of a karez. The people of this oasis city built the underground irrigation system, comprised of hundreds of kilometres of tunnels and numerous wells, to tap the melting snow and glaciers from the mountains to provide essential water for its people and crops. The karez system transformed Turfan from a desert into an oasis city and agricultural centre in the days of the old Silk Road and remains in use today.

Under the grape-arbour we enter a night market. Wandering through this re-creation, we are as enthralled as travellers over a thousand years ago during the city’s prime as we discover stalls with exotic goods and delicacies—sapphires, silks, brocades, jade, rubies, animal skins, peacock feathers, fruits and spices.



Samarkand was the geographical centre of the Ancient Silk Road. Located in what is now Uzbekistan, it was a major city and trading centre for the Sogdians. The Sogdians were trained almost from birth to be merchants and many were multi-lingual so they could trade with the diverse range of long-distance caravan merchants. They were indispensable to the trading of goods, and the transmission of techniques and religious beliefs. As Sogdians were trained as children to understand currency and bartering, they were also known as the ‘accountants of the Silk Road’.

Samarkand was a centre for fine papermaking and extravagant metalwork. In the Samarkand section there are displays of magnificent, historic paper-based artefacts, including an 11th–12th Century Chinese woodblock print of a Buddhist prayer and a 12th Century Koran. There are also precious metal pieces, including Persian coins imprinted with Zoroastrian symbols and an intricate 900 year old silver and copper jug from Iran.

In Samarkand we come to a fascinating computer-animated book that brings to life the stories that were passed along the Silk Road from traveller to traveller, merchant to merchant. After you had finished trading, what else was there to do but sit down and tell stories? Based on early illustrations from China, Central Asia and the Middle East, the animations tell these timeless fables: ‘The goose that laid the golden eggs’, ‘The lion and the hare’ and ‘The stonecutter who was never satisfied’. In this section there is another interactive display; an ‘Explore the Silk Road’ interactive map, ideal to encourage school-age children to discover the links between culture, technology and geography along the Silk Road.



Eventually, we reach Baghdad and it is at the height of its golden age as a hub of learning and commerce. The capital of the Islamic world and present-day Iraq, Baghdad was an intellectual centre where scholarship flourished.

It is fascinating to look at the unique round city plan of Baghdad and wonder how much of it is left after so many wars. During the period in which we are visiting Baghdad, the Abbasid caliphate, the ruling family of the time, encouraged enthusiasm for science and the craving for knowledge. A library and translation institute in Baghdad, known as the ‘House of Wisdom’, was a research centre for studies in geometry, engineering and astronomy and a famous destination for intellectuals around 800 AD.

The art of blowing glass developed in the Middle East around 100 BCE and, centuries later, reached new heights under Islam and we see some amazing Islamic glass cups as well as a decorative glass bottle and pitcher dating from 500 to 1000 CE.

Most amazing is a very important example of the mechanical sophistication of the time: a working model of a water clock, which is made out of glass to reveal its inner workings. It was designed by Islamic engineers about 800 years ago.

Another interesting feature of this section is an interactive working model of an ancient Islamic astrolabe, with which we are able to try to tell the time by marking the position of a background of ‘stars’. These instruments were vital for astronomers to predict sunrise and sunset and for navigators to find their position at sea.

Maritime trade

Moving on now towards the end of the old terrestrial Silk Road, both physically and in time, to the maritime routes, which started to be developed after the ninth century. This move resulted in many advances in technology and maritime trade eventually overshadowed the caravan trade. Sea travel was faster and merchants could move heavier and more diverse goods by boat. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing; bandits were replaced by pirates and the weather had to be mastered particularly the monsoon winds and typhoons.

Here we are able walk through a replica of a heavily laden Arab dhow that travelled between East Asia and China about 1200 years ago. It is a full-sized model of a 22-metre-long dhow that is split in half to reveal a cargo of ceramics and elaborate metalwork that were traded or purchased from workshops in China during the Tang Dynasty. We see that the goods, including the ceramics, metal and glass works, are packed in straw wrappings within large thick pottery urns. Some of the urns have been broken open to show how the goods were stored and it’s not hard to imagine them being broken open in rough, stormy seas. The model appears to be so real that my companion and I have an argument about whether it was real wood or not. It even has the cord stitching that was used to hold the vessel’s planks together because, at the time, the boat builders didn’t trust nails.


Another display in this section shows how designs found in ceramics and glassware were used by different cultures, clearly demonstrating the influence of international trade on the diffusion of culture. Intricate plates and jars are featured, including a colourful 13th-century Persian ceramic bowl depicting a hunting scene from theShahnameh, or Book of Kings.

At the end of the Silk Road


A display with a wall-size video screen links the Silk Road to today’s global economy. In the ancient world, the Silk Road was the first example of globalisation. This multifaceted network of linkages, roads and paths was the route to first contacts with other civilizations for many people, including Greeks, Indians, Persians, Arabs, Mongols and Han Chinese. Of course silk was one of the main items traded but there were other cultural and religious exchanges, including the spread of Buddhism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Christianity. A variety of musical styles and cuisines spread the length of the Silk Road. It also enabled the dissemination of philosophical and scientific knowledge, all of which helped lay the foundations for the modern world.


Although the exhibition is exceptionally well set up and presented and, as I mentioned earlier, an attractive feature of the exhibition is the several interactive displays which are generally very informative and work well. However, in common with almost every museum exhibition of general display that I have visited, lighting is sometimes a problem.

In the case of the interactive displays, although they were well set up and easy to use, I frequently found that I could not avoid standing in my own light so that I had trouble reading both the interactive panel and what was displayed. This is sometimes compounded by printing explanations being in reverse type, for example white reversed out of a red background. Even reversing white out of black reduces the readability by ninety per cent! White out of red is almost impossible to read. Many people who visit museums are older and therefore likely to be at least a bit vision impaired with the result they have to struggle to read the explanations. Aggravating this effect is the fact that displays are unavoidably at an awkward distance; too far away for reading glasses and not far enough for the long distance glasses. This means that extra effort needs to be made to ensure that the displays are as visually accessible as possible to increase the erudition and enjoyment of the patrons.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly recommend the exhibition.


Sydney Morning Herald senior arts journalist, Joyce Morgan, co-author of Journeys on the Silk Road, told the story of the Diamond Sutra, the world’s oldest printed book; and Dr Ken Parry, ancient history scholar and Silk Road expert, senior lecturer and research fellow in the Department of Ancient History, and member of the Ancient Cultures Research Centre, at Macquarie University, Sydney, discussed the religions of the Silk Road.

A recording and a transcript of their presentations and the conversation following has been kindly made available by the Australian National Museum at their audio link:

The exhibition was organised by the American Museum of Natural History, New York ( in collaboration with Azienda Speciale Palaexpo, Roma, Italy, and Codice Idee per la cultura srl, Torina, Italy; the Museum at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore; the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, Australia and Art Exhibitions Australia; and the National Museum of Natural Science, Taichung, Taiwan and United Daily News, Taipei, Taiwan.


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