Comparative culture

Silk Road



The landscape of the Silk Road


“The most striking feature we can see from orbit is the belt of desert that stretches, nearly unbroken, from northwest Africa to China, extending almost to Beijing.” Thus the astronaut Jay Apt described his experience from the Space Shuttle Endeavor. It was through this belt of rough terrain that much of the overland Silk Road traversed.


1. The land and sea routs of the Silk Road.


2. The Silk Road traverses high mountains and dry deserts.


At the heart of the Eurasian landmass stands the Pamir, the roof of the world. To its east is the leaf-shaped Tibetan Plateau, bound by the Karakorum and Himalayas on its south. The Qilian Range on its northeastern rim overlooks the mid section of a long natural depression, the Hexi Corridor or Corridor West of the Yellow River, the first leg of the Silk Routes out of China.


From the Pamir, another mountain range runs northeastward, the Tianshan or Heavenly Mountains, which, together with the Pamir and the Himalayas, constitute the western arc that bounds the People’s Republic of China. Tianshan’s northern slope shelters the fertile valley of the upper Ili River, which flows into Lake Balkhash. Beyond, the plain of Kazakhstan is a part of the great Eurasian steppe. Between Tianshan’s southern slope and the Kunlun’s northern side lies the Tarim Basin, a desert ringed by farming oases that skirt the mountains. A part of China’s Xinjiang Province, it is sometimes called Chinese Turkistan in western literature.


On the western side of the Pamir nestles the lush Ferghana Valley. Beyond are the lands of the Rivers Syr Darya and Amu Darya in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. South of the Amu Darya, a plain in northern Afghanistan meets the towering Hindu Kush, which, running southwestward from the Pamir, separates Afghanistan from Pakistan.


Interlaced with the mountains and extending beyond them is the arid zone of Central Asia.  Arid lands start from Syria and run through southern Iran and Pakistan. North of the Iranian plateau, the black desert of Kara Kum covers the lower Amu Darya region. East of the Pamir, the Taklamakan desert in the middle of the Tarim Basin is a howling hell. Aridity dominates all the way through the Hexi Corridor. North of the Corridor, running along the southern part of Mongolia, is the stony wasteland of the Gobi Desert, where dispersed depressions contain enough ground moisture to sustain a little vegetation.


North of the land of mountains, deserts, and oases lies the great Eurasian grassland, which stretches from the Hungarian plain in the west through southern Russia, Mongolia, to the Manchurian plain in northeastern China. These were the world of nomads.