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Along The Silk Road

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Journeying Along the Silk Road

As the annual Festival of the Arts at Southwest Virginia Community College approaches (April 21 – May 2), attendees may want to orient themselves to the locale of the Silk Road.

Marco Polo made the Silk Road famous in the West, but he was not the first or the last traveler to marvel at the places he saw.  In fact, the Silk Road had been in existence some 1,500 years before Marco Polo’s time (1254-1324) and has been in more or less continuous use since then.

What exactly is the Silk Road?  More than a single highway, the Silk Road is an entire network of routes, both overland and sea, connecting the East with the West.  The routes allowed China to trade silk and tea for glassware, silver, gold, and horses, and became the vehicle for exchange of languages, beliefs, scientific knowledge, and cultures.  Although the routes had been followed since about 300 BCE, the term “Silk Road” was coined only very recently, in 1877, by a German geographer to describe the routes of exchange.

The silk routes connected Beijing and other eastern cities with the Roman Empire at Jerusalem and Constantinople and, from there, with numerous points in the Mediterranean.  A list of the cities on the various silk routes is available at, illustrating the very wide reach of ancient commerce and communications.  Countries (in today’s geography) linked included Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Oman, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Japan, Korea, and China.

The armchair traveler has many options for exploring this exotic part of the world through the words of other adventurous travelers.

Denis Belliveau and Francis O’Donnell lead the reader “In the Footsteps of Marco Polo”, their two-year journey to trace the travels of Marco, his father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo Polo.  Taken in the early 1990s, the latter journey was fraught with peril and involved not a little intrigue, baksheesh, and careful playing of one warlord against another.  Luckily, they survived to write their story, which is the companion to a PBS film.  This is an easy-to-read, beautifully illustrated account which offers an overview of the entire route taken by the Polos, and interesting commentary on the contemporary state of affairs across Asia.

Greg Mortenson
Greg Mortenson has always been a traveler.  Raised in Africa as the child of medical missionaries, he became interested in mountain climbing and tackled some of the world’s most difficult peaks.  But his failed attempt at climbing K2, one of the world’s highest, led to his greatest success.   Stumbling into a tiny, poor village in eastern Pakistan near the foot of K2, the sick, emaciated climber found a caring people who nursed him back to health.  To thank them, he embarked on his life’s journey to build schools for the children of Pakistan and now Afghanistan, a story he tells in “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones into Schools”. 

Christina Lamb 
Lamb is a British journalist who worked in Afghanistan in the 1990s.  After September 11, 2001, she decided to return to Afghanistan to see how the country had been affected by the rule of the Taliban, a journey she recounts in “The Sewing Circles of Herat”.  Each chapter, recalling a separate episode in her journey, is woven into a tapestry connected by smuggled letters from a young teacher describing what life is like for one whose livelihood and opportunity are stripped away by the repressive Taliban regime.  Lamb is well acquainted with many Afghan leaders and paints fascinating portraits of them, including Hamid Karzai, the exiled king, several tribal warlords, as well as ordinary citizens caught up in horrible circumstances.  In the title story, she accompanies girls who meet ostensibly in a sewing circle to socialize while they sew but, behind closed doors, open their sewing baskets to reveal books and lessons, a practice forbidden by the Taliban. 

Rory Stewart 
Stewart, a young Scottish professor of history, had walked across Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal to gain a closer understanding of the people and cultures of the region, but was interrupted in his journey by the events of September 11, 2001 and not allowed to enter Afghanistan.  After months of persistent effort, he obtained the necessary approvals, and set out to traverse the country from Herat in the west to Kabul on the eastern border.  For his route, he followed in the footsteps of Babur, the 15th century emperor, from whose writings he often quotes.  His knowledge of the region’s history and its languages, as well as his interest in the people he meets, enable him to survive a sometimes harrowing journey, and to give the reader greater insight into the nationless character of the Afghan peoples.  Although not everyone exhibited the famous code of hospitality for travelers, Stewart found many generous souls who shared their meager meals and accommodations with him and inspired him with their humanity in the face of unspeakable poverty. 
Vikram Seth
After two years of graduate work at Nanjing University, Vikram Seth hitchhiked from Nanjing on the east coast to Heaven Lake on the Silk Road, then south into Tibet and Nepal, and finally to his family home in New Delhi.  “From Heaven Lake: travels through Sinkiang and Tibet” is the story of his journey and his encounters with nomadic Muslims, Chinese officials, Buddhists, fellow students, and other travelers.  This beautifully written, brief account is a most interesting portrait of China.

Joesph Needham
Simon Winchester, in “The Man Who Loved China: the fantastic story of the eccentric scientist who unlocked the mysteries of the Middle Kingdom”, tells the fascinating story of Joseph Needham, the brilliant Cambridge scientist who unlocked the most closely held secrets of China--long the world's most technologically advanced country. This married Englishman, a freethinking intellectual, while working at Cambridge University in 1937, fell in love with a visiting Chinese student, with whom he began a lifelong affair. He became fascinated with China, and embarked on a series of extraordinary expeditions to the farthest frontiers of this ancient empire. He searched everywhere for evidence to bolster his conviction that the Chinese were responsible for hundreds of mankind's most familiar innovations--including printing, the compass, explosives, suspension bridges, even toilet paper--often centuries before the rest of the world. His dangerous journeys took him across war-torn China to far-flung outposts, consolidating his deep admiration for the Chinese people. After the war, Needham began writing what became a seventeen-volume encyclopedia, “Science and Civilisation in China”.  Listen to the audio version of this.  Winchester’s expert reading makes this biography un-put-downable.

Rob Gifford
Route 312 is the Chinese Route 66. It flows 3,000 miles, passing through the factory towns of the coastal areas, through the rural heart of China, then up into the Gobi Desert, where it merges with the Old Silk Road. “China Road” witnesses every part of the social and economic revolution that is turning China upside down. In this surprising book, radio journalist Gifford, a fluent Mandarin speaker, takes Route 312 from its start in the boomtown of Shanghai to its end on the border with Kazakhstan. Gifford reveals the rich mosaic of modern Chinese life in all its contradictions, as he considers the crucial questions that all of us are asking about China: Will it really be the next global superpower? Is it as solid and as powerful as it looks from the outside? And who are the ordinary Chinese people, to whom the 21st century is supposed to belong?

Enjoying armchair travel along the Silk Road is the perfect way to experience the romance and mystery of ancient times and, at the same time, connect the dots between today’s hot spots and gain a fuller sense of the reasons for contemporary conflicts in this part of the world, and of the challenges as well as opportunities to come.

For more about the Silk Road, visit or call 988-2541.

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Online collection of animated, talking picture books to encourage reading in children.


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