(Image:  James Reilly) Caravanserai were complexes which housed caravans traversing the Silk Route, also offering a market where they could ply their goods while resting. This caravanserai in Erzurum, in eastern Turkey, is still a market but now caters to the few tourists who find their way to Erzurum, particularly those from China.

Despite its moniker, the Silk Road was never a single ‘road’ and it always carried far more than just silk. In fact, disparate overland trading routes carrying a variety of goods from Western China along the Eurasian landmass date back to at least to 1600 BC.

The first great age of Silk Road trade emerged after General Ban Chao led some 70,000 Han Dynasty troops into Central Asia in the 1st century AD, securing these trade routes against nomadic bandit forces known to the Chinese as the Xiongnu.

Under Han protection, Chinese silks flowed to the Roman Empire in such quantity that the Roman Senate felt compelled to issue repeated edicts prohibiting the wearing of silk in a futile effort to stem the outflow of gold toward China. In one of the earliest examples of industrial espionage along the Silk Road, the great Byzantine Emperor Justinian (who ruled from 527 CE – 565 CE), sent monks as spies to China, successfully stealing silkworm eggs and thereby ending China’s lucrative monopoly on silk production.

The second great age of the Silk Road arose following the Tang Dynasty’s expansion of its Northwestern borders in the mid-7th century, enabling Persian and Chinese merchants to ply the lucrative East-West trade on the backs of camel caravans traversing the various routes across Central Asia.

The final surge of overland trade came, once again, following military conquest: this time by the massive Mongolian empire of the 13th century. It was under Mongol protection that European travelers began to venture across these routes to China—most famously the Venetian merchant Marco Polo, whose tales of adventure, relayed to a cellmate while imprisoned following his return, captured adventurous imaginations across Europe, including that of one Christopher Columbus.

By the mid-15th century, the Ottoman Empire had consolidated its control over Anatolia and Central Asia, monopolizing and constricting overland East-West trade. In response, Western Europeans began searching for a maritime route to China and the ‘East Indies.’ Emboldened by new maritime technology, most significantly the compass and advanced navigational techniques, they finally began to bypass the overland routes, thus ending the Silk Road’s third golden age.

Ironically, the ‘Silk Road’ label emerged only centuries after its decline: German explorer Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the term in the 1870s. Similarly, today’s Silk Road initiative promulgated by Beijing is more of an intellectual construct than a single realty; a policy ‘hook’ invented by Chinese leaders to describe a disparate set of initiatives and projects spread across a vast area, all of which happen to be located along these ancient trading routes.

Since the mid-1990s, China’s leadership has been striving to ‘Develop the West;’ hoping to extract resources while enriching its far-flung western provinces through strategic investment in infrastructure and expanded foreign trade. These initiatives spread across Chinese borders after 2001, as Beijing began to turn its vast foreign reserves toward more productive purposes. State-supported investments flowed into new railways, highways, and pipelines linking western China to central Asia. More recently, Chinese investment into developed economies—coinciding with the global financial crisis—began to emerge in China’s largest trading partner—the European Union.

Finally, in September 2013—just six months after becoming China’s president—Xi Jinping formally pulled these disparate initiatives together under the label of a “New Silk Road Economic Belt” in a speech at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University.

Chinese bureaucrats and officials quickly began struggling to present an image of a coherent policy strategy by pulling together these disparate economic initiatives.

In fact, as in many such policy proclamations emanating from Beijing, Xi’s declaration arrived in the middle of disparate policy initiatives. Following the pronouncement, central-level financial and political support grew rapidly, giving impetus and greater coherence to subsequent efforts.

Two years later, the core contribution of the Silk Road initiative is evident: the new railways, highways, and pipelines funded through major capital initiatives by Beijing. This infrastructure augments Chinese efforts to secure access to strategic natural resources and expand foreign trade, increasingly settled in Chinese currency. To assuage local anxieties, Beijing is offering cultural diplomacy and ‘people-to-people’ exchanges.

The hope is that these initiatives will secure the oil and gas needed to fuel China’s economic engine, bolster Chinese firms’ efforts to ‘go out’ into global markets, and enrich (and thereby stabilize) restive regions of western China. More broadly, the Silk Road strategy is designed to bolster diplomatic ties while easing China’s ascent toward the apex of global power.

Will it work?

While nobody knows the answer yet, by traveling over some of these territories this summer, I hoped to gain some insight into how Beijing’s initiatives are being received and to understand more about the challenges ahead. It is to these questions that we now turn, beginning with a trip along China’s high-speed rail network.

By JAMES REILLY