(Image:  James Reilly)

The Silk Road encapsulated disparate trading routes across Central Asia linking the Chinese empire with Western Europe. These are the routes that Marco Polo traveled along, or at least the stories did that he later heard and recorded.  Buddhism arrived to Northeast Asia from India via these routes—first to China and then Korea and Japan.  These well-trod pathways brought horses to China and sent tea to Europe via the famed Cha Ma Dao (Tea Horse Route) of the Tang and Song Dynasties.

As we slip deeper into the 2nd millennium, China is once again spilling outward across the Eurasian landmass.  Chinese migrants are traveling outward in search of business opportunities.  Chinese state-owned banks and enterprises, their coffers overflowing with the savings of a billion Chinese citizens and the proceeds from consumer goods exported from the ‘world’s factory’, are investing in mining, railways, shipping, and manufacturing. Seeking to capture the strategic and economic benefits arising from these trends, Chinese leaders urge their companies and citizens onward—pushing them to travel, trade, and invest along China’s New Silk Road.

What does this ‘road’ feel like today? Are Chinese goods, ideas, and individuals once again spreading their influence across the Eurasian landmass? If so, are they being directed from Beijing—or is this more of a bottom-up swell of economic activity by entrepreneurial individuals? And what of the local response—is China being welcomed, or is the growing presence seen as worrisome?

This blog seeks to capture some of the sights and sounds along China’s New Silk Road.

It began as research for my next book, on China’s economic statecraft in Europe and Asia. I employed my favorite research technique, borrowed from anthropologists, of ‘soaking and poking’—immersing myself in the world that I strive to understand.

I soaked and poked all summer long, as my family and I traveled along China’s ‘New Silk Road’ in moving ourselves from our home in Sydney, Australia to our new home for the next year: Florence, Italy.

For five weeks, we traveled overland from central China to Florence; on a research adventure that I jokingly dubbed ‘the reverse Marco Polo.’

Along the way, I spoke with local officials, journalists, experts, and scholars—and more importantly, with local taxi drivers, café owners, street sweepers, and university students. I took pictures and kept notes; listened, smelled, and watched; and struggled to understand more about the countries, the societies, and the people whose historic lands are traversed by China’s trumpeted ‘New Silk Road.’ (To view the Google Map of this trip, click here)

Our trip began in the heart of central China—in Changsha, the ancient capital of Hunan province.

We then headed northwest to Lanzhou, in southeastern Gansu province, before boarding China’s newest high-speed train, traversing the 1,900 kilometers from Lanzhou to Urumqi in a comfortable 8 hours. As we turned west, the pace (and comfort level) declined considerably, as we mounted an aging Kazakh train for the 3o hour trip to Almaty, covering a mere 940 kilometers.

Unable to secure the various visas required to traverse the Caspian Sea region, we flew directly into the Caucuses, to Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi.  From there, an overnight train brought us into the wellsprings of Georgian civilization on the eastern shores of the Black Sea. A series of bus adventures moved us slowly around the southeastern coast of the Black Sea to Trabzon, a historical trading port on Turkey’s eastern Black Sea coast.

Trabzon was where my illustrious predecessor, Marco Polo, ended his land travels by mounting a ship home to Italy (where he was soon jailed, from whence he dictated his famous tales).

We instead turned south, hailing a Turkish bus into the heart of the dry highlands of eastern Anatolia.  From Ezurum, we turned west once again, mounting the venerable ‘Dogu Ekspresi’ for the leisurely 19-hour journey to Ankara, followed by a fast train that sped into Istanbul’s eastern suburbs.

A bus, subway, and then ferry crossing of the Bosporus brought us finally onto the European continent. From there, a daylong bus carried us to the southeastern corner of the Balkans, to the lovely capital of Sofia, where we mounted trains of various vintage to Belgrade and then to Zagreb. After a few welcome days on the northern Croatian coast, we moved easily to Tireste and then finally, arrived in Marco Polo’s hometown, and our new home for the next year: Firenze.

So, what did I learn from this trip?

Turn the page, and I’ll tell you.

By JAMES REILLY