Travel along the Silk Road

Futurist

Ad Honoris
May 2014
19,928
SoCal
#1
What was travel along the Silk Road like back in the days of the Middle Ages and beforehand? For instance, where exactly was one to acquire food from during one's journey? Also, where exactly was one supposed to stay during the night during one's journey? Were there inns along the way where one could stay--and if so, what did they look like? If not, where exactly was one supposed to sleep during the night? In one's wagon/caravan?

Also, just how difficult was mountain travel on the Silk Road back in the days of Middle Ages and beforehand? After all, I know that one had to pass through some extremely high mountains whenever one went from Xinjiang to Central Asia--or from Central Asia to Xinjiang:



Anyway, any thoughts on all of this?
 

Ichon

Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
3,614
#2
Very few people travelled the full length of the silk road- we only know of 4 that went most of the way.

Depending on where on the route a person was the accommodations varied. The land routes were quite well travelled by many types of people not only merchants near densely populated areas and there were pilgrimage waystops that most religious institutions provided, local merchants would host other merchants- really for how valuable the trade could be a relatively small group of people dealt in the goods that went the whole length of the route. Mostly silk, jade, medicines, porcelain, and a few mechanical items left China while the gold, silver, skins, amber, honey, slaves, and wool that left Europe was usually converted into other items in Persia/Central Asia that went east.

Most of the Muslim world was connected by smaller routes with basically campsites/caravanserai a days journey apart and when there wasn't a war on travel was fairly safe because rulers not only got a cut of the goods but their reputation was on the line. The most dangerous places were the demarkation borders where the Christian sphere and Muslim sphere intersected and then where Muslim urban world interceded into central Asian tribal domains, and finally the last stage of the journey into China once Mongol rule was weakened- the state could not always provide security for caravans but at the same time did not tolerate local warlords that were present in many other places in the world that would protect merchants for a share of the goods.

The trade cities of central Asia made shifting alliances with local tribes for protection along portions of the route so most goods were transferred to a resident merchant with the right connections or a substantial payment was necessary because someone trying to carry the goods themselves is stealing the cut of the middlemen.

Due to shifting tribal politics and alliances the routes after Persia on the way to Samarkand and on to Tashkent could shift but after Tashkent aside from a couple brief interludes the route by necessity due to the Tien-Shan and Pamir mountains followed usually the same path the Middle Road though the Ili river was sometimes followed in the north and a southern route thru the Taklamakan desert was also used the routes converted at Dunhuang before being dispersed deeper into China.

This map is ok- it mainly misses there was a northern route out of India up to Kashgar and the sea routes often stopped on Indonesian islands and Philipines as well. Also it seems ships going to the Horn of Africa was fairly common not everything was transhipped to Aden for the India Ocean trade.

https://www.travelchinaguide.com/images/map/silkroad/scenery.gif

The middle route was the most dependable in some ways and also actually cheaper in that it connected China directly to central Asia where horses, camels, rugs, weapons, oils, glass, and some other precious items originated rather than sending those south for a very long ship journey. The long lines from Aden to Malacca to Goungchou was hardly ever done by a single ship but usually in 3-4 stages with the price increasing each time so for some bulk goods it was the only way but for already high market valuable items the Middle route actually tended to have less middlemen and while bandits were actually much rarer than storms.
 
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stevev

Ad Honorem
Apr 2017
3,321
Las Vegas, NV USA
#3
I think Inchon covered it pretty well. The name "Silk Road" is a relatively recent name for a system of changing routes and conditions. Caravanserais provided food and shelter along some routes. As Inchon said few people traveled all its length say from Antioch to China. In later times accommodations were fairly good at major transfer points. I believe the routes avoided the highest elevations and steepest grades. Virtually all goods were carried in stages by pack animals or possibly slaves between transfer points.

Caravanserais: cross-roads of commerce and culture along the Silk Roads | SILK ROADS
 
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sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
4,710
Sydney
#4
the road was mostly a one way trade
start at Xian , then to Lanzhou at the start of the Ganzu valley , to Dunhuang
squirting the Gobi either north or south to Kashghar
then Samarkand and Mehrv , Tehran , Babylon , Damascus
it wasn't one road , there were plenty of alternative depending on conditions
one was to follows the Amur daria around the North of the Caspian sea , linking to Tanais on the Black sea north coast

the usual was to join a large caravan with it's own caravan master
the important issues were
- the good will of the locals , they would not looks kindly on rich strangers eating their grazing and befouling their water , some amount of goodwill had to be purchased with gifts
- availability of grazing and water for the pack animals ( several thousands with the armed escort )
- easiest or shortest practicable way
- available market emporiums on the way and market to purchase supplies and new animals to replace lost or broken down ones

the rest stops were usually camping out at watering points but there were chains of caravanserails at regular intervals

From what I gather , the goods and pack animals were sold locally and the merchants returned light
 
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specul8

Ad Honorem
Oct 2016
3,289
Australia
#5
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sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
4,710
Sydney
#8
probably, but there WAS a silk road ,
my guess is that spices and silk were the only commodities worth transporting over such large , costly distances
land transport is ruinous , slow and risky
I find it significant that it decreased once the Mongol " law and order " disappeared and the Arab sea route to India got going in earnest
as a further nail in this coffin the Arabs had a brisk trade exporting horses to India
trade is way more profitable once a two ways exchange is set up
 
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Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
4,581
Australia
#9
probably, but there WAS a silk road ,
my guess is that spices and silk were the only commodities worth transporting over such large , costly distances
land transport is ruinous , slow and risky
They were transported by sea as well. Look at the above map. The only part of the silk road that routinely involved land travel is that little red line in Egypt. Most of the land routes were just junctions between the supplier and the nearest port.
 
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sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
4,710
Sydney
#10
that's what I mean by saying that the end of the " Mongol peace " made the land route too costly and risky
the sea routes were cheaper and faster , they also allowed to avoid plenty of grasping intermediaries and their taxes
the silk road suffered also from the development of the silk industry in Italy
why import from far away if one can import from closer up
China had very little to do with the spice trade
that was a Southern Asia product and had to be transported by sea anyway
so it became obvious it was more rational and profitable to go West toward the customers
the map is a bit misleading the spice ships went all the way to the gulf of Suez within an easy ride to Cairo which became the major emporium for the spices
 
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