Filter +

Geographical Setting of the Silk Roads

Silk Road in Sumur, India today (sanjoyg/flickr)

Silk Road in Sumur, India today (sanjoyg/flickr)

The Trans-Eurasian Steppe Belt
The Steppe Belt is a zone of rolling grassland, steppe being the Russian word for this kind of treeless, grassy plain. It extends from eastern Mongolia west all the way into Romania and Hungary. In prehistoric times, the steppe was inhabited for tens of thousands ofyears by groups of hunter-gatherers who lived off the abundant big game that the grasslands supported. Gradually, hunting gave way to a lifestyle of living off managed herds, which in turn led gradually to the domestication of cattle, horses, sheep, and goats. Hunters had become herdsmen, and pastoral nomadism developed into a highly specialized and sophisticated lifestyle that took maximum advantage of steppe resources.

As with any short-grass prairie, some of the Eurasian steppe can beturned to agricultural use with the application of modern methods, including the steel plow and extensive irrigation. The wheatlands of southern Russia and Ukraine are steppe lands put to the plow. Prior to the invention of such techniques, the steppe extended for thousands of miles in an unbroken belt, only partly interrupted by mountain ranges and forest.

With the mobility afforded by the invention of horse- and ox-drawnwheeled vehicles, and later still by horseback riding, the steppe belt became a vast highway that facilitated the spread of populations, languages, and cultural traits across much of Eurasia long before the caravan trade routes of the more southerly Silk Road were ever imagined. Over the centuries, many groups of horse-riding warriors, including Huns, Turks, and Mongols, conquered their way across Asia, creating sometimes extensive but usually short-lived empires.

China can be divided basically into North China and South China, along a line roughly de.ned by the Han and Huai Rivers. North China is characterized by a relatively dry climate, where crops, especially grains such as wheat and millet, grow in the fertile soil of broad plains and terraced valleys. Geographically, North China is dominated by heavily eroded hills and valleys of loess soil in the northwest, and by the vast north-central flood plains of the Yellow River. The Yellow River has overflowed its banks many times throughout history, causing great damage to human settlements but also enriching the soil with a fresh layer of fertile silt. The northern frontier, site of the Great Wall of China, was long guarded against nomadic raiders, and people looked to the Silk Road and sea routes of the northeast for trade. Transportation in North China was land based, using pack animals and drawn carts. South China has a monsoonal climate. Its soils, leached by the heavy seasonal rains, require heavy fertilization, and the staple crop is rice. Transportation was often provided by riverboat or canal barge.

The strong geographical and agricultural differences between North China and South China tended to make the country fracture into northern and southern political entities during the periods of disunion.

Some trade routes in China historically fed into the Silk Road or distributed goods from it. Other trade routes competed with the Silk Road, including maritime trade from southeastern ports across the South China Sea, and a route from the mountainous southwest down the Red River to Hanoi and Haiphong in what is now Vietnam. In China, people were likely to look variously inland, toward Central Asia, or seaward for trade.