For many centuries, the old Silk Road of ancient legend – a vast and far-reaching network of land and maritime trade routes, stretching the entire length of the Eurasian landmass from around 120BC to the 1450s – was a beating heart of global commerce and cultural interaction that brought the great dynasties of Ancient China, the empires of India, the Middle East, East Africa, and the Roman Empire in its various forms, together.
Deriving its name from the lucrative trade in Chinese silk that took place across the great cities and sea ports along its length, the Silk Road came to be during the age of the Han dynasty between 207-220BC, and slowly expanded across Central Asia following diplomatic missions and explorations by Chinese imperial envoys over the ages. This intercontinental trade and coming together of far-off empires and cultures acted as a catalyst for the development of the great civilisations which flourished along its route.
Suffice to say, the ancient iteration of the Silk Road was perhaps one of the crowning achievements of humanity, and the rewards reaped from this ancient trade network are still visible today. With this in mind, the emergence of a new Silk Road, part of China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ strategy, fit for the modern age is something which could once again trigger a modern Golden Age of trade and commerce, more pronounced even than in recent years. At a time when insidious forces threaten our globalised world in favour of isolationism, economic protectionism and xenophobia, the symbolism of a new Silk Road is especially potent.
As was the case with its ancient predecessor, a resurgent, outward-looking China is currently in the process of reviving land trade routes stretching from China to Madrid, with the difference being that, today, merchants will bring their exotic wares to new lands by train.
The re-establishment of the Silk Road achieved an exciting milestone last month, when a rail freight train from China made its maiden 7,500-mile journey to London – a latter day Venice, equal in influence to the great Italian trading city of old. The East Wind locomotive, with 34-carriages in tow, passed through Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Poland, Belgium, and France before arriving in England, following a 16-day journey.
Traders of the past travelled from China with silks, spices, porcelains and gunpowder from the Far East; today, the East Wind came bearing household goods to the value of £4 million. The trains that follow will shuttle further goods between both countries, including home appliances, laptops, and all manner of high-value stock. Certainly, this heralds the beginning of a new era in Anglo-Chinese trade relations.
Of course, as with any endeavour of such ambition and complexity, the re-establishment of the Silk Road hasn’t been without its challenges. Setting up maritime routes is a fairly simple task because the cargo vessels and the ports are already there, but crossing several countries by train presents a number of practical difficulties, if only because different countries use different size rail gauges, meaning that a single train cannot travel the entire route. That said, the inconvenience of transferring goods between trains is still easier and cheaper than air or maritime transportation.
There is a lot of work to do but, then again, Rome wasn’t built in a day. A cynic might say that China is set to do very well from its lead role in implementing the new Silk Road, but so too will the wider world, particularly countries which have so far struggled to connect to the global economy. Here’s hoping that today’s Silk Road proves to be as lucrative as the ancient one.