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Perspective: The Silk Road

Published in Asia Times (Australia) 20th October 2006


Little is known amongst Western Australians about the Central Asian countries, countries that stretch from China in the East to the Middle East and Europe.

Nevertheless the images of the “Silk Road”, “Alexander the Great”, “Ghanghis Khan” and “Marco Polo” bring back memories.

The Central Asia was, and still is, a land-locked region, far away from any ports or oceans. The fabled “Silk Road” connected China in the East with Persia, Parthia and Arabia, through Central Asia. This was a labyrinth of camel trails across the Gobi desert, through Xinjiang (China) and the present states of Kyrgystan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Few of us in Western Australia realized that this “connectivity” existed before Christ.

As early as the 3rd century BC Alexander the Great moved along this Central Asian route, reaching India. It was recorded that Rome first made official contact, sending an “envoy” to China in 166 A.D. Trade ensued.

Following the rise of the Hàn Dynasty in China contacts between the East and West began to be made. Historically the Hàn Empire (Western Han 206 BC - 23 AD), Eastern Hàn (202 BC – 220 AD) flourished at the time of Christ. The empire was as large as the Roman Empire in both area and population.

The Emperor Hàn Wudì decided in 138 BC to forge military alliances with Kingdoms west of his North Western arch enemy, the Xiongnu (Hun) tribes. To achieve this goal he entrusted an adventurer and diplomat, Zhang Qian to liaise with desert countries to the West. Despite the fact that not one single military alliance was made, General Zhang captivated the court with information of thirty-six commercially interesting tribes. This marked the beginning of cultural and technological exchanges between China and the rest of the world.


The Silk Road was rather uneventful until the 13th Century. Genghis Khan, expelled by the Han, moved west conquering all in his path from Xinjiang (China), to Samarkand, from Bukhara, to Baghdad, and then on to the Caucasus, Western Russia and Hungary. The Mongol Empire, the largest in history, stretched from the Pacific to Europe. Kublai Khan, his grandson, inherited this western projecting, empire founded on nomadic raiding and war.


The Mongols entered China from the north in the early 13th century and expanded West under Ghenghis Khan. Kublai Khan, his grandson, founded the Yuan Dynasty. Kublai Khan, developed the empire in peace, retracting it back towards China, and building the physical and administrative infrastructure for a strong agriculture and trade based society. Kublai Khan also forayed south to Thailand and the Malay Peninsula.

Later, in the seventeenth century, Mongol nobility came to India as the Moguls. The Mogul emperor, Shah Jehan ruled the northern half of India from 1627, until his death in 1658.  Shah Jehan built the Taj Mahal, in honour of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal who died during childbirth in 1631. The Architecture of this magnificent building reflects that of Central Asia and has its origins in the round soft domed yurts, the tents of Central Asian nomads and sheepherders. It took 22 years to complete.

After 1275 A.D. the Italian adventurer Marco Polo traveled along the Silk Road to the empire of Kublai Khan. His account of the grandeur and prosperity of China fascinated the West.

The Silk Road today is better connected. A 1000 km railroad has been built from Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang (China), to Kashgar, near the western borders with Kashmir and Kyrgizstan. In June, 2006, New Delhi and Beijing opened the Nathu-la pass, a historic route which linked the two countries in history. 

In the global village environment of today, the Silk Road region, land locked and far from Australia, could be important to us. This is reflected in the “Shanghai Cooperation Organisation”, a permanent intergovernmental international organisation proclaimed in Shanghai on June 15, 2001 by six countries - People’s Republic of China, Russian Federation, Republic of Kazakhstan, Republic of Kyrgyzstan, Republic of Tajikistan and Republic of Uzbekistan. It was established on the basis of the "Shanghai Five" mechanism.

The total area occupied by the "Shanghai Coroperation Organisation" member states is about 30 million 189 thousand square kilometers, or about three fifth the territory of Eurasia, with a population of 1.455 billion people, or about a quarter of total population of the world. (The SCO website http://www.sectsco.org/html/00026.html)

As the Western Australia destiny is to a certain degree inextricably linked to Asia, it is in our interests to understand these countries, the forces at work, as well as personalities and events that would shape the region.

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