Chinese Section Silk Road was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The Chinese Section of the Silk Roads includes the Land Route and Sea Route. The Land Route is the ancient trade route that starts in the old capital of Chang'an, the present-day Xian city and the center of politics, economy, and culture in a long period of ancient China. It refers to the overland commercial route connecting Asia, Africa and Europe, which goes over the Longshan Mountain, follows Hexi Corridor, passes Yumenguan Pass and Yangguan Pass, reaches Xinjiang, stretches along the oasis and the Pamir Plateau, enters the Central Asia, crosses Central Asia, Western Asia and Southern Asia, and then leads to Africa and Europe. It also served as an important trunk road where the economic, political and cultural exchanges between the Orient and the West were taking place. In its very first beginning the function of the trade route is to transport silk, the fine, delicate, elegant and portable goods, representing the civilization of ancient China which enjoyed advanced agriculture and well-developed handicraft industry. Therefore, when the name of "Silk Road" was first given by the German geographer Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen in the 1870s, it was widely accepted. [Source: State Administration of Cultural Heritage, People’s Republic of China]

“As the first route connecting the west and the east, the Silk Road starts very early and lasts very long time. It is not only a trade route, but also a route of technological communication and exchange of minds and a route of friendship and inter-understanding. It exhibits the creative spirit of human kind. Culture heritage along the Chinese section of the Silk Road are tangible samples for the localization of foreign cultures. The typical example is the introduction of Buddhism and its art into Chinese culture. Silk Road is the main passage for cultural communications between the west and the ancient China, and areas along this road are all places for culture blending and melting. Hence the evolving process and tangible samples for the localization of foreign cultures, religions, art and especially Buddhism and Buddhism art are all completely recorded and preserved along the Silk Road.

“The Chinese section of the Silk Road is an excellent example and proof sample for coexisting, communication and melting of multi-cultures in the northwest of China. Areas along the Chinese section of the Silk Road are key part for multi-cultural fusion and Buddhism, Islam and other religions are all introduced and rooted along the Road, while at last they all turned into important parts of Chinese traditional culture. That enriches the connotation and value of the Road.

“Elite part of civilizations, which came into being in the process of cultural exchanges between the Orient and the West from 2 B.C. to 19 A.D., are well preserved along the Chinese section of the Silk Road. Due to special geographic and natural situations, cave temples, ancient buildings, city relics and tumulus have been preserved intensively along the Chinese section of the Silk Road. They are typical tangible heritage of civilizations from inter-communications between the Orient and the West in ancient time. With their outstanding universality and representative, they are epitomes for cultures within the whole Silk Road, to a certain extent.

“The architectures along the Silk Road embody the impact of the exchange of multi-culture and witness the development the architecture in the context of the culture exchange between the east and the west. Employing the architectural technique of lowering the ground to build the wall, the The cities and architectures along the Silk Roads embody the impact of the exchange of multi-culture, and witness the development of urban planning and architecture design in the context of the culture exchange between the East and the West. The urban planning, building construction, as well as complicated water management systems, embody the talent of ancient people to respect and utilize the nature. Ancient City of Jiaohe River have made full use of the large scale space. This kind of planning thought has adjusted measures to local conditions and been used in the outlay of the whole city, which is the excellent example of the land-use of the human beings.

“The route includes all the necessary elements, not only the cultural elements such as towns, villages, buildings, docks, post houses, bridges and so on, but also the natural elements such as mountains, lands, rivers, plants and so on. As a kind of linear cultural landscape, the criteria for the Silk Road can be international or domestic, inter-regional or regional, within a cultural region or among different cultural regions. The constitution of the value of the Silk Road is polynary and multi-layer, including the whole cultural value of this route, the ecological and natural value along this route such as mountains, plains and valleys and so on. Furthermore, there are both tangible values in the buildings and other single heritages and intangible values of cultural heritage.”

Land Route section of the Silk Road can be found in Henan Province, Shaanxi Province, Qinghai Province, Gansu Province, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the People’s Republic of China; Sea Route in Ningbo City of Zhejiang Province and Quanzhou City of Fujian

Early History of Chinese Section of the Silk Road

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: A large number of information in archeology and palaeoanthropology showed that the Silk Road had functioned as the main road for migration and communication before the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-25 A.D.). But the well-documented and conscious communications and exchanges between the different civilizations of the East and the West started in the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220) of ancient China.[Source: State Administration of Cultural Heritage, People’s Republic of China]

“In the second year of Jianyuan (139 B.C.) and subsequently in the second year of Yuanshou (119 B.C.) of the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220), Liu Che, Emperor Han Wudi, dispatched Zhang Qian as his special envoy to the Western Regions (the areas west of Yumenguan Pass, including present Xinjiang and parts of Central Asia) so that the relations between the people of China's Central Plains and the peoples and states of Western Regions became closer. Such an unprecedentedly great undertaking contributed to the establishment and development of the Silk Road. As a result, the growth of merchandise trade and traveling changed the daily life of the peoples along the road greatly.

“In Wei-Jin period (220-420), the Central Plains were plunged in war turmoil and thus the direct tour from the Western Regions to Chang'an was on the hazard. But the communications between the political powers of Europe, Africa, Southern Asia and Western Asia and those along the Hexi Corridor that took the responsibilities preserving the essence of Chinese traditional civilization remained unaffected. In fact, it was through the trade with the west that the political powers maintained their continuities.

“During this period, the Buddhism was introduced along the Silk Road on a large scale. In the areas of Xinjiang and Gansu it was, consciously or unconsciously, altered to suit the local societies in the process of popularization. In the period of the Northern Dynasties (386-581), with the strengthening of the unification tendency appearing in both the east and west ends of the Silk Road, and as the powerful empires emerged one after another, the traffic facilities, safety conditions and social order along the Silk Road had been improving continually. Thanks to these, the Silk Road reached its height of power and splendor.

Later History of Chinese Section of the Silk Road

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: After the Rebellion of An Shi (755-763), the regime of the later Tang Dynasty (618-906) gradually shank into the hinterland and Tubo (ancient name for Tibet) took up the middle section of the Silk Road. The communication between China and Central Asia, Western Asia and the rising Arab Empire, turned to increasingly growing sea route or made a detour through even more northern grassland. At that time the Silk Road entered the period of adjustment, but the friendly exchanges and the national amalgamation tended to be enhanced further. [Source: State Administration of Cultural Heritage, People’s Republic of China]

The emergence of Mongol Empire changed the relationship between Asia and Europe in the international arena greatly and objectively speaking, the passage between the East and the West was got through, which made the communications between different peoples more convenient for more options were offered. In this way the Silk Road was no more the only road to transport goods, so its strategic status was less significant.

After the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) (1279-1368), the society and culture of China came into a stage of long-time adjustment and inward reflection while the world stepped into the process of modernization. During this process, the traditionally classical states gradually went into decline or desegregation. At the same time, the sea trade developed further and weighed more than the overland trade from both importance and scale. However, even in this period, the use of promoting cultural exchange of the Silk Road had not lost completely. A good example is Islam spreading to the east, which marked the most significant event during this period. Eventually ten Moslem peoples came into being in Xinjiang'Gansu and Shaanxi, ie, the eastern section of the Silk Road. After 1840, China was forced into joining the unfair international order set up by the Western European powers. And the peoples and states along the Silk Road suffered a series of invasions by capitalism powers to different extents. From then on, the Silk Road finished its historical mission finally.

Silk Road and the Linking of Cultures

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The Silk Road had been playing the role of a bridge linking the economies and cultures between the ancient East and West as well as connecting the friendship of China and Eurasia. In the process of its formation and development, the major religions and cultures in the ancient world made plenty of communications, exchanges and amalgamations, which boosted the human being to create splendid and influential civilization and left behind valuable cultural heritage. These heritage sites can provoke and encourage the human beings to better understand the diversity. coexistence and communication of different civilizations along this magnificent route. [Source: State Administration of Cultural Heritage, People’s Republic of China]

“Serving as a passage to connect the Eurasia together to exchange cultures, the Silk Road meets well the definition and requirements of the World Heritage Centre (WHC), reading "A cultural route is a land, water, mixed or other type of route, which is physically determined and characterized by having its own specific and historic dynamics and functionality; showing interactive movements of people as well as multi-dimensional, continuous and reciprocal exchanges of goods, ideas, knowledge and values within or between countries and regions over significant periods of time; and thereby generating a cross-fertilization of the cultures in space and time, which is reflected both in its tangible and intangible heritage."

“Since the Chinese section of the Silk Road associates with the vast areas of the following six provinces such as Shaanxi, Henan, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai and Xinjiang, this section is located in the converging area where the civilizations of agriculture, grassland farming and the oasis meet and the cultures of the East and West intersect. Therefore, as a kind of precious cultural heritage, the Chinese section was characterized by the inseparability between the section and the whole road as well as the unique regional and folk flavors that were deeply rooted in traditional Chinese culture.”

Characteristics of the Chinese Section of the Silk Road

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Chinese section of the Silk Road also has the following characters: 1) Determined by its geographical location and natural environment, the Chinese section of the Silk Road becomes the key and the only section for presenting and preserving the historical process of the cultural exchanges and amalgamations between the ancient East and West in all aspects. The integrity of this section is a unique trait that other sections do not have. [Source: State Administration of Cultural Heritage, People’s Republic of China]

“2) The cultural connotation of the Chinese section of the Silk Road shows strong transition features. From the west to the east of it, how the other civilizations met, interacted and merged with the traditional Chinese cultural and how they became an integral part of the great Chinese civilization were clearly displayed.

“3) The Chinese section of the Silk Road presents strong multinational characteristic and multicultural style. In history the ancestors living in this region created brilliant civilization in merging together the cultures of the nationalities of Han, Tibetan, Uyghur and Qiang as well as the Western Regions.

“4) The Chinese section of the Silk Road shows the historical truth and keeps the records of the dual functions of outputting and learning that the ancient China took during the course of cultural exchanges along the Silk Road. In this course, the great vigor and potentials of Chinese civilizations fully reveal itself by absorbing other cultures, adopting excellent things from them and adapting them to suit the Chinese situations. Hereby, we shall enumerate the most representative parts in the cultural heritage of the Chinese section of the Silk Road: (48 parts in total)

Silk Road Routes Network of Chang'an-Tien Shan Corridor

Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang'an-Tien Shan Corridor was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014; According to UNESCO: This property is a 5,000 kilometers section of the extensive Silk Roads network, stretching from Chang’an/Luoyang, the central capital of China in the Han and Tang dynasties, to the Zhetysu region of Central Asia. It took shape between the 2nd century B.C. and 1st century AD and remained in use until the 16th century, linking multiple civilizations and facilitating far-reaching exchanges of activities in trade, religious beliefs, scientific knowledge, technological innovation, cultural practices and the arts. The thirty-three components included in the routes network include capital cities and palace complexes of various empires and Khan kingdoms, trading settlements, Buddhist cave temples, ancient paths, posthouses, passes, beacon towers, sections of The Great Wall, fortifications, tombs and religious buildings.[Source: UNESCO, World Heritage Site, 2014]

“The Silk Roads were an interconnected web of routes linking the ancient societies of Asia, the Subcontinent, Central Asia, Western Asia and the Near East, and contributed to the development of many of the world's great civilizations. They represent one of the world’s preeminent long-distance communication networks stretching as the crow flies to around 7,500 kilometers but extending to in excess of 35,000 kilometers along specific routes. While some of these routes had been in use for millennia, by the 2nd century B.C. the volume of exchange had increased substantially, as had the long distance trade between east and west in high value goods, and the political, social and cultural impacts of these movements had far-reaching consequences upon all the societies that encountered them.

“The routes served principally to transfer raw materials, foodstuffs, and luxury goods. Some areas had a monopoly on certain materials or goods: notably China, who supplied Central Asia, the Subcontinent, West Asia and the Mediterranean world with silk. Many of the high value trade goods were transported over vast distances – by pack animals and river craft – and probably by a string of different merchants. As well as conduits for goods and people, the routes allowed the exceptional flow of ideas, beliefs and technological innovations such as those related to architecture and town planning that shaped the urban spaces and peoples’ lives in many fundamental ways.

“Thirty-three sites along the corridor include capital cities palace complexes of various empires and Khan Kingdoms, trading settlements, Buddhist cave temples, ancient paths, posthouses, passes, beacon towers, sections of the Great Wall, fortifications, tombs and religious buildings. The formal system of posthouses and beacon towers provided by the Chinese Empire facilitated trade, as did the system of forts, caravanserai and way stations operated by states in the Zhetysu region. In and around Chang’an, a succession of palaces reflect the power centre of the Chinese Empire over 1,200 years; while the cities of the Chuy valley are witness to the power centre of the Zhetysu region from the 9th to the 14th centuries and their organisation of the long distance trade.” [Source: UNESCO, World Heritage Site, 2014]

Tien Shan Corridor of the Silk Road

According to UNESCO: “The Tian-shan corridor is one section or corridor of this extensive overall Silk Roads network. Extending across a distance of around 5,000 kilometers, it encompassed a complex network of trade routes extending to some 8,700 kilometers that developed to link Chang’an in central China with the heartland of Central Asia between the 2nd century B.C. and 1st century AD, when long distance trade in high value goods, particularly silk, started to expand between the Chinese and Roman Empires. It flourished between the 6th and 14th century AD and remained in use as a major trade route until the 16th century. [Source: UNESCO, World Heritage Site, 2014]

“The extremes of geography along the routes graphically illustrate the challenges of this long distance trade. Falling to 154 meters below sea level and rising to 7,400 meters above sea level, the routes touch great rivers, alpine lakes, crusty salt flats, vast deserts, snow-capped mountains and ‘fecund’ prairies. The climate varies from extreme drought to semi-humid; while vegetation covers temperate forests, temperate deserts, temperate steppes, alpine steppes and oases.

“Starting on the Loess plateau at Chang’an, the central capital of China in the Han and Tang Dynasties, the routes of the Tian-shan corridor passed westwards through the Hosi Corridor across the Qin and Qilian Mountains to the Yumen Pass of Dunhuang. From Loulan/Hami, they continued along the northern and southern flanks of the Tian-shan Mountain and then through passes to reach the Ili, Chuy and Talas valleys in the Zhetysu Region of Central Asia, linking two of the great power centres that drove the Silk Roads trade.

“The series of Buddhist pagodas and large, elaborate cave temples extending from Kucha (now Kuqa County) in the west to Luoyong in the east, record the eastward transmission of Buddhism from India via Karakorum, and demonstrate an evolution in the design of stupas as local ideas were absorbed. Their elaboration reflects the sponsorship of local authorities and the central Chinese imperial government as well as donations of wealthy merchants, and the influence of monks that travelled the routes, many of whose journeys were documented from 2nd century B.C. onwards. Other religious buildings reflect the co-existence of many religions (as well as many ethnic groups) along the corridor including Zoroastrianism, the main religion of the Sogdians of Zhetysu region, Manichaeism in the Chuy and Talas valleys and in Qocho city and Luoyong, Nestorian Christianity also in Qocho city, around Xinjiang and in Chang’an, and Islam in Burana.

“The massive scale of the trading activities fostered large, prosperous and thriving towns and cities that also reflect the interface between settled and nomadic communities in a variety of ways: the mutual inter-dependence of nomads and farmers and different peoples such as between Turks and Sogdians in the Zhetysu region; the transformation of nomadic communities to settled communities in the Tian-shan mountains, resulting in highly distinctive construction and planning such as semi-underground buildings; and in the Hosi corridor the planned agricultural expansion of the 1,000 mile corridor after the 1st century B.C. as an agricultural garrison and its transformation to settled agricultural communities. Diverse and large scale water management systems were essential to facilitate the growth of towns, trading settlements, forts, and caravanserai and the agriculture necessary to support them, such as the extensive Karez underground water channels of the extremely arid Turpan basin, many still in use, that supplied water to Qocho city, and were supplemented by deep wells inside Yar city; the grand scale of the network of open canals and ditches along the Hosi corridor that drew river water to the settlements, 90 kilometers of which survive around Suoyang city; and in the Zhetsyu region, river water distribution through canals and pipes and collection in reservoirs.

Silk Road Routes from Xinjiang (China) to Central Asia

The route from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan to Kashgar in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang is one of Central Asia’s premier overland adventures.The distance between Bishkek and Kashgar, China is about 710 kilometers (440 miles) and takes between 15 hours and two days depending on the vehicles you take, the stops you make and your luck clearing customs and immigration on the Chinese side of 3752-meter-high Torugart Pass. Along the way many travelers stop in and around Kochkar, Song Kul lake or Naryn.

It is said that this route follows the Silk Road route in Central Asia. The Silk Road routes in Central Asia were very complicated and usually defined by oases and passes which were open and accessible. Many goods carried across Central Asia were transported on the backs of shaggy, two-humped Bactrian camels or horses, or, in the high elevations, on yaks. The Himalayan caravan routes from India that passed through Karakoram Pass and Khunjerab Pass (on the modern Karakoram Highway) joined the Silk Road in Kashgar or Central Asia.

The two main routes that entered Central Asia from China were: 1) the northern route, which passed from western China into what is now Kazakhstan and went through or near what is now Alma Aty (Kazakhstan), Bishkek (Krygyzstan) and Tashkent (Uzbekistan); and 2) the southern route which left Kashgar and passed from western China in Central Asia through passes of the Tien Shan and Pamirs mountains that are now on China's borders with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

The main route likely passed through Irkeshtam Pass between Kashgar and the Fergana Valley in present-day Uzbekistan. Many Silk Road tours go from Kashgar over Torugart pass to Bishkek and then Tashkent and Samarkand because modern roads traverse this route. This route however is much longer and out of the way than the direct route from Kashgar to the Fergana Valley. Marco Polo used a route through the Pamirs between China and Afghanistan.

Tash Rabat and Caravanserais on the Silk Road of the Inner Tien Shan

Tash Rabat Caravanserai (110 kilometers from the town of Naryn in Kyrgyzstan) is one of the first caravanserai after leaving China. It is a fortified Silk Road caravanserai that dates back to the 15th century and was restored in 1984. One of the best Silk Road spots on Kyrgyzstan, it is beautifully situated among highlands and mountains in the valley of Kara Koyun at an altitude of 3200 meters. It is built of stones and particularly beautiful in the winter when it is surrounded by snow. It contains a well, a dungeon, a tunnel and some rooms once used by well-heeled travelers. There are some nice hikes in the area. It is expensive and hard to get to.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Another type of the monuments located on the Tien Shan branch of the Silk Road is caravans-sarays. Two sites have preserved: Tash-Rabat and Manakeldy (Chaldyvar). [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]

Tash-Rabat is located in the western part of the At-Bashy valley, on the small river of Kara Koyun, at the altitude of 3200 meters. Square construction, with the length of external perimeter of walls 32,4х34,8 by 32,4х35,1 meters, is made of slate plates. Facade, decorated with towers, is turned to the east. Internal lay-out consists of the central corridor, the square hall and a number of premises ceiled with the big dome and 19 domes of small diameter. It was constructed in Karahanid times, in A.D. 11th-12th centuries, functioned till Timur's time and served as caravan-saray for the routes going to Kashgar through Tash-Rabat and Torugart passes.

“Manakeldy is located in Ak-Talaa area, at the altitude of 2500 meters, on the bank of Ala Buka river inflow. It is a square construction, with the sizes 64х64 meters, maid of mud bricks and pakhsa. Entrance was in the centre of the northern wall, limited by two rectangular towers-pylons. Other corners and walls of the construction were fortified by towers, and the front northern wall was decorated by a half goffers. The internal lay-out had the following appearance: two lines of corridors along the walls and square and rectangular premises between the corridors. Adobe feeding troughs for animals were traced in different places of the external corridor. A court yard occupied the centre of the construction. Casing and domes were applied for ceilings. The caravan-saray provided services for travelers of the route from Fergana valley to areas of inner Tien-Shan and Issyk Kul. Main period of functioning is 10th-12th centuries AD.”

Why the Tien Shan Corridor of the Silk Road is Important

According to UNESCO: The vastness of the continental routes networks, the ultra-long duration of use, the diversity of heritage remains and their dynamic interlinks, the richness of the cultural exchange they facilitated, the varied geographical environments they connected and crossed, clearly demonstrates the extensive interaction that took place within various cultural regions, especially the nomadic steppe and settled agrarian/oasis/pastoral civilizations, on the Eurasian continent between the 2nd century B.C. and the 16th century A.D. These interaction and influences were profound in terms of developments in architecture and city planning, religions and beliefs, urban culture and habitation, merchandise trade and interethnic relations in all regions along the routes. [Source: UNESCO, World Heritage Site, 2014]

“The Tian-shan corridor is an extraordinary example in world history of how a dynamic channel linking civilizations and cultures across the Eurasian continent, realized the broadest and most long-lasting interchange among civilizations and cultures.” The “corridor bears an exceptional witness to traditions of communication and exchange in economy and culture, and to social development across the Eurasian continent between the 2nd century B.C. to the 16th century A.D.

“Trade had a profound influence on the settlement structure of the landscape, through the development of towns and cities that brought together nomadic and settled communities, through water management systems that underpinned those settlements, through the extensive network of forts, beacon towers, way stations and caravanserai that accommodated travellers and ensured their safety, through the sequence of Buddhist shrines and cave temples, and through manifestations of other religions such as Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity and Islam that resulted from the cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic communities that organised and benefitted from the high value trade.

“The Tian-shan corridor is an outstanding example of the way high value, long-distance trade prompted the growth of sizeable towns and cities, supported by elaborate, sophisticated water management systems that harvested water from rivers, wells and underground springs for residents, travellers and the irrigation of crops.

“The Tian-shan Corridor is directly associated with Zhang Qian’s diplomatic mission to the Western Regions, a milestone event in the history of human civilization and cultural interchange in the Eurasian Continent. It also reflects in a profound way the tangible impact of Buddhism into ancient China which had significant impact on cultures of East Asia, and the spread of Nestorian Christianity (which reached China in 500 A.D.), Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism and early Islam. Many of the towns and cities along the corridor also reflect in an exceptional way the impact of ideas that flowed along the routes related to harnessing water power, architecture and town planning.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China Web site; CNTO; Perrochon photo site;; University of Washington; Ohio State University; UNESCO; Wikipedia; Julie Chao photo site

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization),, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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