Monday, July 11, 2011

I'll take the high road, you take the low: The Silk Road

The Silk Road was not a single route from one city to another. For centuries, merchants, pilgrims, soldiers, nomadic tribes, and explorers brought goods (and stories) between countries along the many trails. The Silk Road encompassed a large area: including the lands around the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, the Arabian Peninsula, China, Persia, India, and parts of Eastern Africa.

Silk was only one type of merchandise brought out of the Far East to be sold to eager customers throughout the many centuries. Basic everyday goods were carried back and forth: spices, tea, medicines, slaves, gold, fabrics, and jewels. Animals from Africa, musk, ivory, and horses were exchanged. Crops were traded between the countries. Various religions spread, including Taoism and Christianity.

One route was the Northern road, which started in the Shaanxi province of China. This route broke into three roads, two travelling around the Taklimakan Desert and one going just north of the Tianshan Mountains. The two routes going around the desert split at Khasgar, one moving south to Balkh and the other moving southeast through the Ferghana Valley and the Karakorum Desert. Both of these roads ended up connecting to the main southern road, just before Merv. The northern single northern road which went around the mountains eventually ended up at various Seas (Aral, Caspian, and Black). The Southern road connected China to Pakistan through multiple mountain ranges. This route also included sea ports within the Mediterranean Sea, Egypt, and the Persian Gulf.

Travel could be dangerous in the best of times. The adage, ‘there’s safety in numbers’ was especially true for merchants. A caravan full of trade goods was tempting prey for unscrupulous men. Europeans rediscovered the Silk Road during the Crusades. Thanks to the efforts of the Mongols in the 12th and 13th centuries, and military organizations like the Templar Knights, the regions stabilized. With politics settled, traffic back & forth was able to increase on the trade routes.

Not only were merchandise exchanged, but also cultural and religious ideas bantered back and forth. Muslim, Christianity, Taoism, or Buddhism flourished. Missionaries spread throughout the continent, preaching in favor of their chosen deity. Visitors, hopeful to make lucrative business contacts, brought back tales of beautiful mountains and forbidden cities. Familiar names such as Marco Polo, or not as well known men: Ibn Battuta of Morocco or William of Rubruck wrote of the splendors they saw during their journeys when they returned to their homelands.

As adventurous men and women took the chance and made the trip themselves, they quickly learned, the name “Silk Road” was just a name. The numerous paths around the land masses referred to as the Silk Roads covered some of the most inhospitable country in the world. The Taklimakan Desert is known for getting almost no water, having minimal vegetation, and having extreme temperatures, and there was the Gobi Desert northeast standing in the way. The mountain ranges are some of the highest in the world, including the Himalayan, the Kunlun, Pamir, Qilian, Tianshan, and the Karakorum. Mother Nature could be a hazard, with monsoon rains, sandstorms, earthquakes, floods, snowstorms, excessive desert heat, and the threat of plague.

The few men who chose to cut out the middle men and travel the Silk Road for themselves made the journey worthwhile. As with companies today, dealing directly with suppliers, business owners increased their profit margins and were able to pick out select goods that other merchants weren’t selling, possibly getting exclusive contracts for items.

In Thaelia’s World, the Silk Road begins in the Land of a Thousand Pearls, which is roughly equivalent to China. The Long Plains is an area about the size of Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan combined, that lays north of the Thousand Pearls. The Long Plains is a area of grasslands, rolling hills, and mountains that is inhibited by barbarian tribes.

King Teizhou of the Thousand Pearls maintains outposts along the border to protect his people against raiders preying on trader caravans. Knights of the Sacred Swords, along with soldiers from armies of Livanya, Royalem, Plasconcia, Opugren, and Naklessa, and Agrulac, share duty in protecting those who utilize the road outside of the Thousand Pearls domain. Those who brave the short, sea routes are on their own and must hire mercenary fighters to accompany them for protection against pirates.

Items coming out of the eastern area are eagerly sought after. The Land of a Thousand Pearls is the only country to have an uneasy truce with the barbarian tribes. Because of the limited trading, crafts and jewelry made by Centaurs, especially bows and swords are prized trade goods. Even the occasional Fae jewels manage cross over the border and into greedy trader hands.

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