rightSilk Road goods carried overland were not loaded onto camels and carried from China to Europe. Goods made their way westward in a piecemeal way, with a lot trading and loading and unloading at the caravan stops along the way.

Different caravans carried goods during different sections, with traders coming from the west exchanging thing like gold, wool, horses or jade for silk coming from the east. The caravans stopped at fortresses and oases along the way, passing their loads from trader to trader, with each transaction increasing the price as the traders took their cut.

Few people traveled the Silk Road from one end to the other as Marco Polo did. Many were simple traders who took goods from one town or oases to the next and then returned home, or they were horsemen who earned an income from trading and transporting goods between settled towns.

Websites and Resources

Websites and Resources on Deserts: United States Geological Survey ; Desert USA (good info on the world’s deserts); ; United Nations Global Desert Outlook ; Desert Biome article, University of California, Berkeley Desert Biome ; Blue Planet Biomes (about U.S. deserts) ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ;National Geographic online article National Geographic Oxfam Cool Planet ; Sand Dunes article ; United States Geological Survey

Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle ; Silk Road Foundation ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road History ; Silk Road Atlas ; History of Silk Road ; Old World Trade Routes ; Travel Photos ; Yo Yo Ma?s Silk Road Project ; Silk Road Society ; Silk Road ; International Dunhuang Project ; Camel Trains in the Desert ; China Page ; Ancient China Life Ancient China Life Books: The Silk Road (Odyssey Guides); Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey by Mike Yamashita (White Star, 2002). Television show: Silk Road 2005, a 10-episode production by China's CCTV and Japan's NHK, with music by Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. The original series was shown in 1980s.


Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; Marco Polo Odyssesy ; Footsteps of Marco Polo ; Open Directory Project ; Works by Marco Polo ; Internet Movie Database ; Marco Polo and his Travels ; Marco Polo in China ;

Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese ExplorationWikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique ; Zheng He’s Voyages ; Zheng He ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 ; Asia Recipe ; China Page ; First Europeans in Asia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci ; Matteo Ricci

Silk Road Caravans

20080317-sand cnto.jpg
Sand dunes in Xinjiang
Until fairly recently caravans with Bactrian camels were widely used in mountainous areas to carry flour, forage, cotton, salt, charcoal and other goods. In the 1970s, Silk Road routes were still used to carry enormous blocks of salt and caravanserai offered accommodation for less than few cents a night. Trucks have largely replaced caravans. But camels, horses and donkeys are still widely used to move goods on trails that can not accommodate vehicles.

In a caravan, five to twelve camels are typically roped together head to tail. The caravan leader often rides and even sleeps on the first camel. A bell is tied to the last camel in the line. That way if the caravan leader dozes off and there is a sudden silence the leader is alerted that someone may be trying to steal the camel at the end of the line.

Winter Caravan Through the Pamirs

In 1971, the French explorers Sabrina and Roland Michaud accompanied a winter camel caravan that followed the same route that Marco Polo took through the Wakhan, a long valley between the Pamirs and the Hindu Kush that extends like a finger in northeast Afghanistan to China. [Source: Sabrina and Roland Michaud, National Geographic, April 1972]

The caravan was operated by Kyrgyz herdsmen who lived in the high valleys. It followed the frozen Wakhan River through the 140-mile-long Wakhan corridor from the Kyrgyz's home camp at MulkAli, about 20 miles from the Xinjiang (China) border, to Khanud, where sheep were traded for salt, sugar, tea and other goods. Goods were carried on the backs of Bactrian camels. Men rode on horses.

The round trip of 240 miles took about a month and took place in the middle of winter. When the caravan was ready to go the ropes and felt padding of the camels were checked. A supply of bread was taken to supply food for the entire journey. The Kyrgyz caravaneers traded one sheep for 160 pounds of wheat with the Wakhis at their destination. The Kyrgyz need the Walkis for food supplies. The Walkis need the Kyrgyz for sheep, tallow, milk products, wool, felt and meat. Sheep are not brought with the caravan, They are delivered later.

The caravan existed because the Kyrgyz herdsmen could rely on milk from their animals for sustenance in the summer but in the winter they survive on bread and tea and had to trade to obtain these goods. In the past the Kyrgyz had traded with caravans that came up from Kashgar in China. But that route was closed down in the 1950s by the Chinese. After that the Kyrgyz started heading westward

Traveling on the Winter Caravan Through the Pamirs

Temperatures in the Pamirs often drop below -12 degrees F. The cameelers wore hats with floppy earflaps and protected their hands with extra-long sleeves. On icy trails sand was often placed on the ice to help the animals get a better grip. At night the camels and cameleers slept in stone shelters, often infested with rats and full of smoke. When the caravan stoped the camels wer prevented from lying down for two hours so they wouldn't get cold from snow melted by their hot bodies.

On frozen rivers it was possible to hear water rushing underneath ice that was three feet thick. Sometimes the caravans leaders placed their ears to the ice to listen for weak spots. If they could hear the loud sound of rushing water then they knew the ice was too thin. Sometimes animals broke through and drowned or froze to death. Special care was taken with the heavily loaded camels. When the ice was slippery they walked in mincing steps.

The Kyrgyz caravan traversed one high mountain pass. Describing a particularly treacherous stretch on the trail, Sabrina Michaud wrote, "On a narrow ledge over a dizzying precipice, my horse slipped and fell on its forelegs. I pull on the reins and the animals struggles to its feet. Fear dampens my body as we climb onwards...Ahead a camel slips and collapse on the path; it kneels and tries to crawl...Risking their own lives, men unload the animal so that it can stand up, then load it again, and move on."

Stops and Caravanserai on the Silk Road

Between towns and oases people on long caravans often slept in yurts or under the stars. Caravanserais, stopping places for caravans, sprang up along the routes, offering lodging, stables and food. They were not all that different from guesthouses used by backpackers today except that people were allowed to stay for free. Owners made their money from charging fees for animals and selling meals and supplies.

In the larger towns, the larger caravans stayed for a while, resting and fattening up their animals, purchasing new animals, relaxing and selling or trading goods. To meet their needs were banks, exchange houses, trading firms, markets, brothels and places where one could smoke hashish and opium. Some of these caravan stops became rich cities such like Samarkand and Bukhara.

Caravanserai had rooms for caravan members, fodder and resting places for animals and warehouses for storing goods. They were often in small fortresses with guards to protect the caravans from bandits.

A typical caravanserai was a set of buildings surrounding an open courtyard, where the animals were kept. The animals were tied to wooden stakes. The rates for a stopover and fodder depended on the animal. Caravanserai owners often supplemented their incomes by gathering manure and selling it for fuel and fertilizer. The price for manure was set according to the animal that produced it and how much straw and grass was mixed in. Cow and donkey manure was regarded as high quality because it burned the hottest and kept mosquitos away.

Traders and travelers had problems with local food and foreign languages like modern travelers. They also had to deal with rules prohibiting certain native costumes and get permits to enter city gates, which explained their wants and needs and showed they presented no threat.

Modern Caravans

The following descriptions come from articles on modern caravans in the Sahara. The information they yield offers some insights into what it must have been like to travel on a Silk Road caravan.

A typical caravan needs at least two camels per person---one to carry the person and one to carry supplies---in addition to the camels whatever goods are being transported. [Source: John Hare, National Geographic, December 2002]

Camels carry things like blankets, salt, millet and bales of hay in addition to more valuable trading goods. Goods are loaded on cargo racks which were tied on around blankets on the camel's back.

In the old days caravans stopped and picked up water and supplies at caravansaries, walled fortresses along major trading routes.

Caravan Daily Life

The main objective is to keep the caravan going. If you stop it can take hours to sort out the mess. Simply unloading and loading a camel can be a time consuming task.

The caravaneers most difficult job is loading the camels, which kick, snarl and make vicious noises when they are being loaded. It takes a lot of time to tie the ropes around the camel and its pack and getting the load balanced is important. Camels that are poorly loaded howl and complain until the job is done right.

When it is very hot, caravans sometimes stop around 11:00pm, the camels are unloaded and hobbled quickly and with the caravaneers dozing and sleeping on mats near small fires. Tying ropes and doing other chores can sometimes be difficult in the morning because it is so cold.

Caravans usually make a fire at night to stay warm in the cold desert. Food included grain or pasta that is carried by the camels and made into stews or soups with items---such as dates, goats, cabbage, onions and peppers---that are purchased along the way in oasis villages. Left overs dinner is eaten for breakfast. Dates are munched for lunch and snacks while the caravan is moving.

During the day the wind often blows so strongly that caravaneers have cover their faces and it is impossible to have a conversation with the other people on the caravan.

Caravan Navigation

Caravans are led by guides who are as skilled in talking and negotiating higher fees as they are in navigating. There are largely self taught or instructed by relatives or other caravan guides and insist they known every dune. Some guides are very good. Some suck and get lost.

Skilled guides generally don’t use maps or even compasses, They look upon global position devices with disgust. Instead they rely primarily on their knowledge of the desert, landmarks, wind directions, sun positions and the stars.

Sometimes guides are aiming to reach something as small as difficult-to-find knee-high well. Winds are a big help because they blow relatively consistently based on the time of year and the time of day. Ripples in the sand are regularly checked and a course is plotted by taking the appropriate angle across the ripples.

Caravans sometimes go at night following the North Star, early-evening stars knows as “La Ouaza, or the Intermediaries,” which point south, or some other stellar landmark. Guides generally only know a few constellations but claim they can see stars during the day. The problem with traveling at night is that sometimes landmarks seen in the day are missed, and it can also be very cold.

Today some people use global positioning devices and satellite phones.

Caravan Traditions

Describing the beginning of a caravan, Thomas Abercrombie wrote in National Geographic, "The madouga , or caravan boss, raises his staff, jerks the rope halter of the lead camel, and, to shouts and the clanging of pans and bowls, the half-mile-long train grudgingly lurches forward."

Describing a camel journey in southern Arabia in 1946, Wilfred Thesiger wrote: "We left the chill of dawn; the sun was resting on the desert's rim, a red ball without heat. We walked as usual till it grew warm, the camels striding in front of us, a moving mass of legs and necks. Then one by one, as the inclination took us, we climbed up their shoulders and settled in our seats for the long hours which lay ahead...The Arabs sang, 'the full throated roaring of the tribes'; the shuffling camels quickened their pace, thrusting forward across level ground." [Source: Eyewitness to History, edited by John Carey, Avon, 1987]

Many caravans starting the reciting of the end of the first chapter of the Koran: "Guide us on the straight path, the path of those you have blessed...not those who have gone astray."


Camels as Caravan Animals

Until the invention of airplanes and motor vehicles camels were the only means of crossing the vast deserts of Africa and Asia. Ironically camels can not cross barren deserts without the help of men. They need men to load grass for them to eat in places with no food and they need them to bring water up with buckets from wells.

Camels were known as the "ships of the desert" because they we used primarily in desert areas were no ships could be used. The Koran reads: "on them, as well as in ships, ye ride." Sea travel was much more efficient for long journeys than caravans. A large merchant sailing ship could carry as much as 6,000 camels.

Camels are the preferred caravan animal in dry climates. For some one-way caravans camels are bought at the beginning and sold at the end.

Great effort is made to keep a caravan moving. If it stops it can take great effort to get it going again. Camels on sand dunes find it easier to wind along the ridge tops than go up and down over the dunes.

Camel ticks bite and crawl on the caraveneers.

Camels on a Caravan

Caravans move at about the speed of a walking man. They typically move 2 or 3 miles an hour for nine hours a day from dawn until mid afternoon. Moving at that rate they can cover 1,000 miles in five to eight weeks. Describing a camel on a sand dune, John Hare wrote in National Geographic: “Although the camels sank hock deep in the loose, powdery sand, they struggled on, snaking around, up and over the dunes, grunting when the uphill going was difficult and surging forward on the downhill slopes.”

In the desert and on caravans camels are usually tethered head to tail in a line. Otherwise they tend to become disorderly and head any direction they want. They have to be kept going at the same pace. If not their tethers might break and then there would be a big mess. If they sense water or danger ahead they tend to close formation. Caravan camels are seldom ridden, they are used primarily as pack animals.

At oases the camels can eat palm fronds. Around wells they can feed on tamarisk and acacia trees. In barren areas the can feed on rough grasses and shrubs. Their riders can win their camel’s hearts by sharing some of their dates with them.

Along the caravan route where there is no vegetation camels are fed fed grass carried by the caravan, which the caraveeners sometimes sleep on at night.. Calculating how much grass to carry is important. If you carry to much the camels are unnecessarily burdened. If you don’t bring enough they go hungry. Although camels can go a long time without drinking if they work hard they need food to keep them going. When they haven’t eaten and their stomachs are empty their breath gives off a horrible smell.

Camel Health on a Caravan

If camels start to stumble it a sign that are dangerously sick or exhausted. In some places if a camel becomes sick or exhausted it is bled. If their feet are swollen or cracked sometimes boots are made for them from sheepskin or inner tube rubber. Caravaneers often rise before dawn and cauterize wounds on the camels caused by chaffing from the cargo racks.

If a camel can no longer go on it is abandoned. You can’t risk the other animals or the people. About making such a decision, caravan leader John Hare wrote in National Geographic: “At about 4 p.m. I am forced to abandon the exhausted camel which is being dragged along by its rope at the tail end of the other camels in the caravan. I hate doing it, but I know now there is no alternative. So we release the poor creature that has served us so well, to an inevitable end.”

Many desert tribes don’t like to kill animals by shoting them or slitting their throats so they simply let them go. Some caravan routes are lined with the bones of thousands of camels.

If a calf is born in the middle of a long journey, the caravan can not stop while it gains enough strength to walk for a long distance. The calf is placed in a hammock and tied onto a large camel, who is also carrying a large load, with the mother trailing behind. The calf is not placed with her mother because if she can't see her offspring she goes into a panic and starts heading in the direction of the place she last saw her calf.

End of Caravans

Large long-distance caravans had mostly disappeared by the 19th century but regional ones are still in use in harsh regions where other means of transportation are scarce.

Most caravans have been replaced by diesel trucks, jeeps and cargo planes. But in soft sand that causes vehicles to bog down nothing beats a camel. Speaking in defense of camels, one caravan leader told National Geographic, "The trucks are expensive to buy and maintain while camels are inexpensive to keep...If you are not rich there is only one answer: camels."

Most of the great Saharan oasis languish as ghost towns, market towns or military outposts. There used be hundreds, if not thousands of guides. Now there are only dozens and many get more business from tourist firms than merchants and traders.

Image Sources: Desert towns and and last caravan, CNTO; 1st caravan, Frank and D. Brownestone, Silk Road Foundation; others, Silk Road Foundation

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2010

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