Despite the name by which this network of routes in known today, it wasn't a single road, but rather a number of different routes which combined to create a network of routes which stretched across Central Asia travelling both east to west and north to south. Although there were some notable exceptions, very few people would have travelled the full extent of the Silk Road, as Marco Polo described in his memoirs. Most travelled just one stage. They knew the route, where to find water, the places where to stay overnight, and so forth. The way was difficult and full of dangers and their local knowledge was of vital importance.
Also, it wasn't just silk, however, that was carried along the route. Other high value, no bulky, commodities such as spices, jewelry, porcelain, furs, gems and other exotic commodities were traded. As traders moved along the Silk Road, they not only took with them their merchandise. They also carried their culture, art, philosophy and beliefs. Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Christianity and Islam were all carried along the Silk Road by itinerant travellers. The Silk Road could just as easily have been called something like the “Road of Ideas”. Many of the adherents of these different religious faiths found a home and settled what is now Kyrgyzstan.
The mountains of Kyrgyzstan lie across several of the ancient trading routes that connected the mysterious Chinese Empire with the nation states of Europe until about the thirteenth century.
Just as today, in the days of the Great Silk Road, the border was carefully controlled. It was illegal to carry certain goods in, or out, of the Chinese Empire, (for example: silkworms or swords and the export of Rhubarb was strictly controlled. Once the merchants had cleared their passage with the authorities they departed on the way to the next market where they could trade their goods. Goods were traded and ideas exchanged in market towns with such exotic names as Antioch, Babylon, Erzenum, Harnadan, Bukhara, Samarkand, Kashgar and Xian as well as in many which have long since disappeared, (such as Nevkat, Suyab, Balasugin and Jul), and some whose names as no longer know.
These routes (and others further to the south) made up a network that was later to become known as the Great Silk Road.
A caravan would average the equivalent of about 25 kilometres a day, and if the going was good then they might go further, but where the terrain was particularly difficult they might have to call a halt long before this. In many places, where the conditions were suitable, settlements would grow up at the places where the merchants would stop for the night, So, for example, in the Chui valley the three large, prosperous and powerful ancient cities of Balasugin, Suyab and Nevkat grew up fairly close together at the foot of the Kyrgyz Range. Now, unfortunately, all that remains of these three once great cities, (Nevkat was once the size of the city of Rome at the same period), are the Burana Tower, some archaeological exactions and some earthworks where the cities once stood.
It was a different story, however, in the remote mountain regions which cover most of what is now Kyrgyzstan. These mountains proved to be a formidable barrier which had to be negotiated in order to take their goods to the next market, yet alone all the way to a strange civilization the other side of the world from their point of origin. Having crossed plains and desserts which stretch, both east and west, for almost half of the continent there stood a chain of some of the highest mountains in the world and in order to get their goods to the even the next market, merchants would have to negotiate a way across them.
There were several routes across the mountains, passing over passes such as the Bedel, Torugart, Terek and Irkeshtam. (For the modern traveller, only two of these of now open for crossborder traffic: Torugart and Irkeshtam.) The expedition taken by the Chinese traveller in search of Buddhist scriptures crossed the Bedel Pass and stopped at Barskoon, on the shore of Lake Issyk Kul, where they rested before he moved onto Tokmok and then Tashkent. The crossing over the Bedel Pass was a traumatic experience ... heavy snows had delayed his departure from Ak Suu in China, which was a portent of worse to come, and in one 40 mile stretch, (about 65km), he lost a third of his companions and animals.
Chinese legend gives the title Goddess of Silk to Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih, wife of the mythical Yellow Emperor, who was said to have ruled China in about 3000 BC. She is credited with the introduction of silkworm rearing and the invention of the loom. Half a silkworm cocoon unearthed in 1927 from the loess soil astride the Yellow River in Shanxi Province, in northern China, has been dated between 2600 and 2300 BC. Another example is a group of ribbons, threads and woven fragments, dated about 3000 BC, and found at Qianshanyang in Zhejiang province. More recent archeological finds - a small ivory Cup carved with a silkworm design and thought to be between 6000 and 7000 years old, and spinning tools, silk thread and fabric fragments from sites along the lower Yangzi River - reveal the origins of sericulture to be even earlier.
The paths were steep and difficult, and there were precious few settlements to offer support of any kind, let alone of any considerable size. It was difficult to reach and even more difficult to Sustain a large population. It may be several days before the travellers might reach another Settlement. Endeavouring to set as good a pace as possible they would have set a camp for themselves as best they could, in the most appropriate place they could find. It was in this environment that a caravanserai, (a sort of wayside Inn offering lodging, food and water and protection - from the vagaries of the weather as much as from bandits), such as the one at Tash Rabat, was a very important development.
Although time has passed and little may remain of the once great Silk Road settlements, and in their place may stand modern cities like Bishkek, Osh or Djalalabad, or small villages like Krasnaya Rechka, or nothing at all apart from archaeological excavations. However, much in Kyrgyzstan remains