The Silk Road began during the Han Dynasty in ancient China. It was not actually a road. It was not paved. It was not even a single route. The Silk Road was a nickname given to any route that led across China to Rome. It was a 4000-mile trip. At one end was China. At the other end was Rome. Each had something the other wanted. Rome had gold and silver and precious gems. China had silk, tea, and spices. The Silk Road was important because not only goods were traded, ideas and culture were carried by the traders.
The Romans were not surprised to find another civilization hidden over the mountains. They had been looking for “the Silk People” for a long time. They discovered pieces of silk from the people they conquered. Silk quickly became popular in Rome. But the Romans did not know who was making this wonderful material. The people they conquered did not know who was making silk either. They simply traded for it. The Romans sent out people to find the makers. Most never returned. When the Eagle (sign of Rome) finally met the Dragon (sign of China), you can imagine how excited they were.
The rewards were great, but the dangers were many. It was incredibly dangerous to travel along the Silk Road. You faced desolate white-hot sand dunes in the desert, forbidding mountains, brutal winds, and poisonous snakes. There was one nice section, called the Gansu Corridor, a relatively fertile strip that ran along the base of one of the mountains. But, to reach this strip, you had to cross the desert or the mountains. And of course there were always bandits and pirates. Very few traders made the whole trip. They worked in relays. Each trader would go a certain distance, exchange their goods for other goods, and hopefully return. The next would move along the road, trade, and hopefully return.
Over time, trading posts were established along the routes to make trading a little easier. Over the centuries, cities replaced some of the trading posts. But it was always dangerous to travel the Silk Road. The geography was daunting, and bandits were plentiful.
There were three main routes:
Northern Route – Westward to Black Sea
Central Route – Westward to Persia, Mediterranean Sea, Rome
Southern Route – Westward to Iran, India