Sunday, August 2, 2015

Travel through Philately - The Silk Road 丝绸之路 (China National Philatelic Corporation)

Continuing my stretch of First Day Covers of China themed philately, I uncovered another of my collection - The Silk Road, coinciding with my recent fascination with the trade route made famous by the journals of Marco Polo. This is a 2012 issued cover, and unlike the previous sharing of the Grand Canal cover, I managed to collect the full set this time.

The 4 stamps depict different topics, namely "Millenia-Old Capital" 千年帝国 (description of Xi'an), "Magnificent Pass in the Desert" 大漠雄关 (describing the relentless desert scenery), "Mysterious Kingdom" 神秘故国 (describing lost kingdoms of the Silk Road), and "Extraordinary Scenery of the Western Regions" 西域胜景 (describing the wild beauty of Central Asia).

The miniature sheet, titled "Exchange" 交流, shows the epic Kumtag Desert of Dunhuang 敦煌 with the entrance to Mogao Caves (莫高窟) and an inset stamp of preserved Buddhist artwork.

Marco Polo's travel during the Yuan Dynasty in 12th century may have gave the route its fame, but the route had existed since the Han Dynasty in approximately 200 BC. Extending about 6,437 km from east to west, it connected cities and nations, spreading culture, trade and religion along its length. Although the name suggested a single road, it comprises of multiple branches and travelers chose their route depending on their destination and risks.

Cave #285 of Mogao Caves (莫高窟) in Dunhuang (敦煌) showing art and culture during the height of the Silk Road, well preserved by the dryness of the desert (image taken from
Wild Goose Pagoda of Xi'an, built to hold Buddhist sutras and figurines brought back by Xuanzang, featured on one of the stamps (image taken from Wikipedia).

It is generally accepted that the Silk Road starts from the east in Xi'an (西安), the ancient capital of most of China's dynasties and the oldest of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, being known as Chang'an (长安) then. Traversing the route will bring traders from Shaanxi (山西) province through the current province of Gansu (甘肃), and three possible choices will be made available - two of them curving past to the north and south of the harsh Taklamakan Desert, while the other cuts north of the majestic Tian Shan, going through Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

All of the routes converge on Kashgar, where further options are made available to the traveler. The branches now enter Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, travelling past Aral Sea and Caspian Sea, and onwards to the Black Sea through Asia Minor. Part of the southern route would bring the route through Pakistan through the Karakoram Mountains, where modern day Karakoram Highway lies.

Whichever route was chosen by the ancient trader would be fraught with difficult terrains and dangers of bandits and predators, so cities, towns and caravanserais situated on oases became a welcoming sight for travellers. Goods would exchange hand in such marketplaces as merchants generally did not traverse the whole length of the Silk Road.

An ancient map of the Silk Road (image taken from The Silk Road Project).

Travelling in great numbers were a necessity for safety reasons, so it was common that monks hitched together with caravans, spreading the faith to the towns along the Silk Road especially in the case of Buddhism. The most famous example of this transmission of religion was the tale of Xuanzang collecting Buddhist scriptures from the west by traveling through the Silk Road, immortalized in Journey to the West.

As people of different cultures met together for trade in marketplaces, they learned from each other the advantages of the other culture, sometimes bringing with them new skills and techniques, and even adopting some of the other culture's habits.

Magao Caves (image taken from Wikia).

Famous as it was, the Silk Road saw its decline and demise after the fall of the Mongolian dynasty for two major reasons. First was the isolationist stance adopted by the Ming Dynasty, and the second was the cut off of European overland trade by the Islamic Ottoman Empire, which pushed the Europeans to establish sea routes. The overland trade route, which once established a cultural link between east and west became a forgotten memory, most of the cities crumbled in the face of natural onslaught.

The rediscovery of the Silk Road happened at the turn of the 20th century, where rumors of buried ruins and archaeological treasures fueled excavations and explorations. The "Silk Road" is a fairly recent name, coined by German traveller Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877. As the route is not a single highway but rather a collection of branches cutting through Western China, Central Asia and Asia Minor, UNESCO suggested that the Silk Road be inscribed as several sections instead of the full extend of it as one. In 2014, the Chang'an-Tianshan corridor of Silk Road as a UNESCO World Heritage, with the rest of the route submitted gradually in the future.

Date of Issue:         1 August 2012
Denominations:      RMB1.20 (stamps); RMB6.00 (miniature sheet)
Designer:                Chen JingYi (陈景异)

  1. UNESCO World Heritage List
  2. Wikipedia - Silk Road
  3. Ancient History Encyclopedia - Silk Road

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