In the second half of II Century B.C. the caravan route uniting Europe and Asia was named as the Great Silk Road. At that time, the Chinese diplomat and scout, Zhang Qian, discovered the Western regions – countries of Middle Asia, and thus joined two independently existing paths. Zhang Qian started one from the East, from the Han Empire and served as a way to Central Asia through Davan (Fergana), Sogd and Bactria. The other route from the Mediterranean countries to Central Asia was laid by the Greeks during the campaigns of Alexander the Great. The 1990s marked the beginning of the global international project on the revival of the Great Silk Road. Why do we need this ancient land road today, when the East and West are tightly connected with sea lanes? This article is aimed at answering that question.
The idea of the road revival
When looking at the map of the Asian continent hardly anyone has any idea of land roads’ construction – wherever you look you see mountain ranges, arid deserts, elevation differences. However, the historical facts are there for all to see – for thousands of years within those dangerous and often lifeless places, in spite of the heat and cold, caravans traversed this route, carrying silk, spices, gold and precious stones. And if camels, donkeys, and foot travelers succeed to travel that route, will modern technologies manage to successfully overcome the adversity of the Great Silk Road?
Many different opinions and project ideas have been put forward at conferences dedicated to the revival of the ancient caravan routes between Europe and Asia vary greatly. The discussion contents of the ideas of the high speed roads, railways of the new generation, reconstruction and modernization of the current infrastructure or development of the brand new routes appearing on the map in the old forgotten places. For the transport corridor to work it has a need to provide it with modern logistic centers. Almost everyone discussing the revival of the Great Silk Road agrees that the expensive and risky project will change the world logistics directly and will allow for the beginning of a brand new phase in international cooperation.
The famous American philosopher, political scientist and public figure, Lyndon LaRouche (he accurately predicted two world economic crises) and his followers considered the Silk Road as a breakthrough route of the development of human civilization, and almost the last chance for our separated world. He called the Silk Road “a connecting program, moral replacement of war as a mainspring of industrial and agricultural development of the world”.
One of the most interested actors in the East-West transport corridor development is China, but for a long time this country could not find sufficient resources to launch this global project. In 1939-1940, a road around the northern part of the Silk Road was built with Soviet Union participation. The first Trans-China highway was launched in 2004. Most of that highway lies along the highway built by Soviet specialists.
During the construction of the Trans-China highway, an issue of the Silk Road revival reached an international level. The trade turnover between Europe and Asia is growing massively. If the turnover between China and Russia was US$59.3 billion in 2010, it is expected to increase to US$100 billion by 2015, and to US$200 billion by 2020.
But let's move away from the financial and economic forecasts and look at the past – in fact, the tracks leading to the idea of this revival come from there.
The name “Silk Road” is not ancient – it appeared post factum as a common name in historical literature. The German scientist Ferdinand Freyherr von Richthofen introduced it in 1877 in his classic paper “China”. In ancient times, it was the road network (the network of routes) from Xian to Dunhuang, then through Turfan, the Pamirs to Fergana and the Kazakh steppe, along the Lop Nor lake on the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert through Yarkand to Bactria, and then to Parthia, India and the Middle East up to the Mediterranean Sea. The route was mainly used for silk transportation, the unique fabric – light, compact, as if it was specially designed for distance transportation, and most importantly – it was resistant to parasitic attack which was a common problem for many crops. Not to mention the fact that in Europe silk was considered a luxury good due to the beautiful and refined colors and patterns, and therefore – expensive and profitable.
Not only silk was transported from Asia to Europe – caravans were full of furs, ceramics and iron glaze, cinnamon and ginger, bronze weapons and mirrors moving from East to West. Returning, caravans transported goods from Central Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean: camel pile carpets, glass, blankets and rugs, Arabian horses.
The Silk Road also was a road of ethnic migration – from the 1st century BC countless nomadic tribes migrated from the East to the West: Scythians, Sarmatians, Huns, Avars, Bulgars, Magyars, Pechenegs. The same road was used for the spread of technology, in particular, methods of making silk, colored glass, paper, gunpowder and cannon. Various plants and animals also spread through the Silk Road – China obtained lucerne, grapes, beans, onions, cucumbers, carrots. The role of the caravan paths was not limited only to trade – this was also a path of exchange for spiritual values, religious ideas, cultural elements between the different worlds of the Eurasian continent.
War and re-allotments
The roads did not remain follow the one route as with other ones appeared due to the difficulties on some parts of the original road. So, as a result of the Iran-Byzantine wars in VI-VII centuries, another track off the Great Silk Road which ran through the North Caucasus was created. It was created as a result of Persian’s attempts to block Byzantium trade by imposing high duties for Greek merchants. So the caravans from China and Central Asia selected a different way to avoid Sassanid’s territory. They bent around the Caspian Sea from the North, instead of moving from the South – through the North Caspian Sea to the North Caucasus.
As time passed, tracks changed the countries they went through, as did the owners of that crucial infrastructure. All western tracks of the Great Silk Road came under the Arab Caliphate control in the first half of the VIII century. China failed to keep control over Central Asia: the Arabs defeated the Chinese army in the Battle of Talas in 751. From that time until the end of the Silk Road development, caravan trade was almost completely monopolized by the Muslim and Jewish merchants. The wars for the control over the trade tracks weakened trade relations.
Over that severe period of the VIII-X centuries the East European Plain waterways were used instead of the Silk Road, operated by Khazars and Scandinavian Varangians, forming the Volga trade track. The last rise of the Great Silk Road occurred in the XIII-XIV centuries. Having conquered countries from China to Russia and Iran in the 1210-1250, the Mongols became capable of ensuring total control of the Eurasian trade tracks for half of the century. Although the empire of Genghis Khan’s collapsed quickly after his death, Chingisid’s states formed the “quartet of empires”. The Silk Road became controlled by four states – Empire Yuan in China, the Central Asian Empire, the Iranian Hulagid Empire and the Golden Horde from the Caspian and Black Sea region. These states contended for some areas of the trade roads: for example, the Caucasus became an arena of constant fighting of the Golden Horde khans and Iranian khans.
The trade along the Silk Road increased dramatically after the temporary closing of the sea route from the Persian Gulf to China in the XII century and the flow of goods from the West to China was arranged through Khorezm. For about fifty years Khorezm became an important intermediary in the Chinese trade relations with a whole world. Merchants from the Volga region, India, Iran arrived here, caravans moved from here to the Middle East, Eastern Turkestan and China. From Urgench – the capital of Khorezm – tracks led to Mongolia, through the Polovtsian steppe – to Saxin (a port city at the mouth of the Volga), to the Russian principalities and to Europe.
In the XIV-XV centuries maritime trade became more attractive than the dangerous overland caravan routes. The sea route from the Persian Gulf to China took about 150 days, while the caravan route from Tana (Azov) to Khanbalik (Beijing) took about 300. One ship carried as many goods as a very large caravan of one thousand pack animals. During the epoch of the great geographical discoveries in the late XV-XVI centuries, the intercontinental overland trade routes eventually fell into decay. And for the next five hundred years practically all trade and social relations between Asia and Europe and the rest of the world were carried out via the sea.
The current situation
In summary, during the past five centuries nothing has changed significantly – maritime transportation is the biggest part of the logistical connection between East and West. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) states that less than 1% of trade between Europe and Asia is fulfilled through the countries of Central Asia – a region once located in the center of trade routes. Thus, a land route between Asia and Europe is almost never used for transportation of goods in containers within international trade and does not occupy any significant share of the commercial market of container shipping, even being one of the oldest tracks in the world.
However, in the past two decades, there appeared some tendencies that cause us to think seriously about alternatives to the seaways. First of all, it is affected by the fast growth of production and trade transportation in East and South Asia. One of the paradoxes of the beginning of the twenty first century was the economic boost demonstrated in two of the most populated countries – China and India. As for the GDP per capita, both China and India are still very far from the leading countries; however both countries have showed great potential to achieve their maximum level in the foreseeable future.
Transnational companies investing in China due to the low-cost of Chinese labor and other production factors have mainly specialized in labor-intensive manufacturing and export of products and selling in the traditional markets. As a result, a mechanism of so-called “triangular trade” was formed. Mainland China buys a large amount of materials and parts from the Republic of Korea, Japan and Taiwan, further recycles them, exports to the United States, Europe and other developed countries. It leads to constant huge loads using all kinds of the transport infrastructure.
In spite of the fact that marine shipping of goods from China to Europe and the United States is relatively inexpensive due to high capacity of ocean container vessels, a number of problems significantly hinder the trade. First of all, this is a problem of overloaded ports, adjacent roads and railways, as well as container terminal capacity. The most serious problem is observed in China – insufficient capacity of sea ports increases the total time of container delivery from China to Europe and the United States.
The second problem is the Suez Canal throughput capacity, the area of permanent political risks. The tension escalation in the Middle East and, in particular, the US-Iran or Iran-Israeli confrontation clearly seems to cause interruption of the Suez Canal function, so it is considered as a high risk for trade between China and the European Union.
Another reason from history and the current state turned out against shipping by sea. Using a marine corridor through the Suez Canal, cargo gets to its destination in 45 days, by the Trans-Siberian Railway, for example, it takes only 12-14 days. As a result, interest in alternative transport possibilities between Asia and Europe have increased over recent years, including the project of the Silk Road restoration.
What about Russia?
In 1993 it was decided to found TRACECA. (TRACECA is an abbreviation of “Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia”). Initially there were 8 member states including: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Ukraine, Moldova and Mongolia joined the group by the end of the1990’s. This project is currently serving as the base for the Silk Road infrastructure growing.
Russia didn’t take part in the TRACECA development, but later showed interest in it with the European Union, the United States, Japan and China: countries initiated projects or interacted with the organization. Probably, the tendencies to international integration, widespread mitigation of trade barriers and the cooperation ideology played its role.
First Russia was not involved in the project of the Great Silk Road restoration. Moreover, the Great Silk Road was considered as an anti-Russian project in the media of some countries, mainly the former Soviet Republics. Indeed, the development of land infrastructure in Asia is serious competition to the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Northern Sea Route. Comparing the Trans-Siberian Railway in Russia and the New Silk Road in China, a huge difference in the approaches is evident. China relies on industrial and economic development, while Russia relies almost only on the transit potential and mining.
But times are changing, and now Russia's participation in development of transport corridors between the East and the West has significantly increased. A few years ago, continental countries, including China, were proposed to creating a unified land transportation corridor “Europe – Asia”. The final idea is known as “Europe – Western China” corridor. According to officials, the road of 8,400 km road will connect St.Petersburg, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Orenburg, Aktobe, Kyzylorda, Almaty, Horgos, Urumqi, Lanzhou, Zhengzhou and Lianyungang. About 2,200 km of road will pass through Russian territory, Kazakhstan – 2800 km, China – 3400 km.
Today, the project of “Europe – Western China” transportation corridor is called the “construction project of the century”. The new track is known to be being built according to the highest standards: it will be illuminated, equipped with fences and a 6-meter dividing line, and additional security means. Access to all communication means, including the Internet, weather monitoring and video surveillance is expected to be everywhere.
Tatarstan will also be included – the Shaly-Sorochiy Mountains road, the first section of Shaly-Bavly highway, is commissioned to connect federal highways M-7 Volga and M-5 Ural to be part of the transportation corridor. In addition, the “Sviyazhsky International Multimodal Logistics Center” is to be built. It will be located on the Volga River banks near the large railway station: thus, Sviyazhsky multimodal terminal will become the transport and logistics system core of one of the Silk Road routes.
There is an ancient curse in China: “May you live in an era of changes!” But let’s hope that changes caused by the Great Silk Road restoration will benefit all participating countries and be good for the development of our planet as a whole.
Illustration: wikimedia.org, from the Marco Polo"s book Il Milione (The Million), Antonio Abrignani / Shutterstock.com.