On this trip, we have done nothing but talk about the Silk Road, so it seems unwise to begin the final post of the trip by discussing how the Silk Road never really existed. But that is what I am going to do.
In fact, it would be more accurate to say that the Silk Road was invented in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Those few individuals trekking across the deserts of Central Asia centuries before never conceived of their journeys as anything unique. Most were just traders, buying for a dollar, sell for two. To them, their journeys were just an effort to eek out a living for their families. They never thought of what they did as part of some great Silk Road.
And the routes they took were not limited to just one or two Silk Roads. These traders and those who traveled alongside them, they took a collection of pathways too many to count. And most of these people only never took these paths farther than a few hundred miles past the oasis where they were born, so they were never able to see the continuity of the Silk Road. To them, these paths were simply the road to the next town, the next oasis, the next mountain pass.
It was not until 1877 that the words “Silk Road” first ever appeared. Ferdinand von Richthofen, a German geographer who traveled extensively in the region, first came up with the name and the idea that this vast expanse of desert was not a chasm dividing cultures but an ocean along which goods and ideas were shipped in between cultures. Von Richthofen saw that, these individual journeys came together to produce something bigger. He saw that it was along these routes that Buddhism, Islam and even Christianity entered China and paper and silk exited. Von Richthofen’s contribution was his recognition that these small journeys across manifold path had a greater significance, and he labeled that significance the “Silk Road.”
There are many Silk Roads, but this is the one we took. The stories and photos we have posted here, the people we met and the things we saw, these things are our Silk Road. We pitched a tent outside the Mogao Caves, where Buddhism first passed into China. We were detained by the People’s Armed Police. We climbed a Holy Tibetan Mountain and hitchhiked with less-than-holy Tibetan cops. We witnessed the aftermath of an assassination. We played volleyball with Kyrgyz herders on the edge of Afghanistan. We cringed at our neighbor’s screams and wondered if we could do anything to stop her husband from beating her. We camped at the end of the Great Wall. And maybe, we added our name to that long list of traders, missionaries, diplomats and explorers whose individual journeys had so little significance, but whose collective journey changed the world.