Mathis, Shane

History 1800 – Global History

10 October 2016

Professor Anne Lester

 

The Taklamakan Desert and the Silk Road

 

 

The geographical and historical importance of the Taklamakan Desert is very significant number of ways. If affected the entirety of the form of travel for the Chinese and the silk road. It did this through the harsh desert climate, the inability to produce goods or permanent settlements, and the neutrality of the territory for so long. These are all due to the time period and limitations of ancient technology. This would last for a very significant time and limit the expanse of the Chinese empire and its neighbors through trade and travel. It held no true value other than for territory and the silk road at the time. Eventually religious monuments and sites would be erected adding value to the harsh sands over time.

To begin the Taklamakan desert is huge. It has an area of 337,000 km making it slightly smaller than the modern country of Germany. “It is the world’s second largest shifting sand desert with about eighty five percent made up of shifting sand dunes ranking 16th in size in a ranking of the world’s largest deserts.”[1] There are several aspects of the Taklamakan desert that still make it hazardous to cross today. During the winter, due to its location in the lower center of the Asian continent, it becomes severely cold. “Reaching lows of negative twenty degrees Celsius, this can not only cause frostbite but death after being exposed for too long.”[2] Additionally the Taklamakan desert is also very far away for any accessible water sources, especially as the traveler become closer to the center. Now these two things combined with the desert being the size of a major country in Europe is a very deadly combination for ancient travelers. It is hazardous to cross year round by foot or even by horse. Due to this it forces construction of the silk road to be based around small oasis towns that thrive closer to the edge of the desert. Not only does this increase the amount of time required to travel to the desired destination but it also increases the amount of supplies needed to make it all the way through. These oasis towns acted as checkpoints for merchants and travelers bringing them desired wealth for simple supplies such as food and water. “This allowed many of these oasis towns to thrive well enough to keep maintaining livelihood along the border of the Taklamakan desert.”[3] “It is crossed at its northern and at its southern edge by two branches of the Silk Road as travelers sought to avoid the arid wasteland.”[4] This impacts the entire silk road due to the fact that it is the shortest most possible route from China to anywhere in between, and including Constantinople. This resulted in not only merchants from china traveling to the middle east but also middle eastern, and roman merchants and travelers to cross through this harsh area. Another major issue which dissuaded travelers from simply going around was that the Taklamakan Desert “is bounded by the Kunlun Mountains to the south, the Pamir Mountains, and Tian Shan to the west and north.”[5] This is important because if travelers wanted to go around they would have to go all the way around these mountain ranges taking weeks, if not months longer in travel time. Going through the mountains was not an option to travelers often as few settlements existed in these ranges at the time running the risk of getting lost or perishing in them. A common threat when crossing mountain ranges in ancient times. This created only one option of taking the desert route through out of, or into China along the silk road to ensure adequate time, resources, and safety.

Secondly, the Taklamakan desert as the reader can now understand, was a particularly unfriendly place to life. This is important as it does not allow for major settlements or towns to be constructed in it. With the exception of oasis towns in and around the edge of the desert, it was vastly uninhabited. When travelers traveling by foot or mount do not have a place to rest and feed both themselves as well as their livestock, they often do not succeed. Therefore when you have such a large area that has little to no checkpoints it affects traveling time. Caravans and their cargo would have to plan with more provisions than an area highly inhabited as they could purchase their goods along the way. “Even with extra provisions and time planned travelers still had trouble passing through the desert for the longest time only receiving relief at thriving oasis towns.”[6] “Settlements were only planted around the desert for a reason as well, fresh water, being extremely scarce in the Taklamakan desert was only found on the edge, or outside of the desert.”[7] This meant that towns that did choose to settle in the desert had to form a border like ring around the desert in order to receive the water and supplies needed to keep their citizens alive. This is important because it forces the silk road into a similar ring around the desert. This increased the amount of time it would take to reach a destination as opposed to cutting straight through. However this was the only option that kept humans and their cargo alive when passing through it. This also highly affected the way the desert was seen on terms of territory and control.

A direct cut through the Taklamakan desert was not seen until modern times when technology allowed it to be created. Due to this people very rarely if ever traveled to the center or very deep into the desert. Therefore when it came to a means of territorial control it had a highly neutral insinuation to it. “Although thought to be mainly controlled by the Chinese and its Han dynasty of the time, no military troops or fortresses occupied it as they did in many other areas of China.”[8] This would technically leave it as unoccupied territory no presence actually existed in the majority of the desert. However, the Taklamakan was inhabited by Turkic peoples. Starting with the Han Dynasty, the Chinese periodically extended their control to the oasis cities of the Taklamakan Desert in order to control the important silk route trade across Central Asia. “Periods of Chinese rule were interspersed with rule by Turkic, Mongol and Tibetan peoples.”[9] It would stay this way as time continued but would officially become Chinese territory later in time. The major religious control of the area suggests that it was mainly Buddhist as the ruins of a Buddhist temple dating back 1,500 years ago still exists in the desert along with some ancient pyramids assumed to be of Buddhist origin as well.[10] “Due to the high influence of the Han dynasty and Chinese people of the time the oasis towns were mainly Buddhist as well until the spread of Christianity which would start to contest the major Buddhist influences in the area.”[11] However it was impacted by a number of different cultures through the Chinese, Turkic, Mongol, and Tibetan peoples in the oasis settlements.

In conclusion the Taklamakan desert had a very significant influence on the silk road and the people that traveled it. It influenced the way it was structured and the traits of travel merchants were forced to use. Through its geographical context it was placed in a very needed area in order to reach the middle east and Constantinople. This meant that the silk road had to find a way to traverse the arid desert. It prevented settlement with its terrible conditions and inaccessibility to vital resources for communities to thrive in. The only successes being a few oasis towns that were able to thrive off the travel and trade of the silk road. The desert was a very large area that did not allow for the direct control and access to the territory it consisted of for any nation or power. This meant that despite Chinese claims it had no true occupant except the few brave colonists that thrived in the oasis towns established along its outer rim. It still prevents this today and will continue to do so for a significant period of time. It highly impacted the spread of the Chinese empire and its neighbors around it but allowed for the trade and interaction between them with the encirclement of the desert through the silk road.

 

 

Bibliography:

 

-Alitto, Guy S. “Takla Makan Desert.” Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. .03 Oct. 2016.

 

-“Taklamakan Desert.” Taklamakan Desert. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Oct. 2016, http://www.beautifulworld.com/asia/china/taklamakan-desert

 

-“Taklamakan Desert – Crystalinks.” Taklamakan Desert – Crystalinks. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Oct. 2016. http://www.crystalinks.com/taklamakan.html

 

-“Archaeology in China: Bridging East and West,” by Andrew Lawler

 

-“Sand Sea History of the Taklimakan for the Past 30,000 Years.” by Wang Yue and Dong Guangrun Geografiska Annaler. Series A, Physical Geography (1994)

 

-An ‘Academic’ Travelogue by Andre Gunder Frank Economic and Political Weekly (Nov. 17, 1990)

 

-“Taklamakan Desert.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taklamakan_Desert

 

-“Buddhist Ruins Discovered in Taklimakan Desert.” CCTV News. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Oct. 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Taklamakan Desert as seen on google maps:

The Size of the Taklamakan Desert in comparison to countries:

[1]-“Taklamakan Desert.” Taklamakan Desert. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Oct. 2016, http://www.beautifulworld.com/asia/china/taklamakan-desert

 

[2] Not directly quoted-“Taklamakan Desert.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taklamakan_Desert

 

[3] “Sand Sea History of the Taklimakan for the Past 30,000 Years.” by Wang Yue and Dong Guangrun Geografiska Annaler. Series A, Physical Geography (1994)

 

[4]Not directly quoted-“Archaeology in China: Bridging East and West,” by Andrew Lawler

 

[5] -“Taklamakan Desert.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taklamakan_Desert

 

[6] Not directly quoted-“Sand Sea History of the Taklimakan for the Past 30,000 Years.” by Wang Yue and Dong Guangrun Geografiska Annaler. Series A, Physical Geography (1994)

[7] “Taklamakan Desert – Crystalinks.” Taklamakan Desert – Crystalinks. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Oct. 2016. http://www.crystalinks.com/taklamakan.html

 

[8]Not directly quoted- “Taklamakan Desert.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taklamakan_Desert

 

[9] “Sand Sea History of the Taklimakan for the Past 30,000 Years.” by Wang Yue and Dong Guangrun Geografiska Annaler. Series A, Physical Geography (1994)

 

[10] Not directly quoted-“Buddhist Ruins Discovered in Taklimakan Desert.” CCTV News. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.

[11] Alitto, Guy S. “Takla Makan Desert.” Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. .03 Oct. 2016.

 

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