Last May, when our identified world was a technique, we started planning these tales. By final month, once we had been ending work on this problem, the world was one other method.
LIKE OUR JOURNEY from the womb, or by way of millennia of evolutionary modifications, the Silk Road is a visit that feels elemental to the human situation. We can’t keep in mind, usually, how we discovered of it, solely that information of it appears to be a birthright: It will not be the primary story of human motion, recorded or in any other case, however it’s the most abiding.
At its most prosaic, the Silk Road was a collection of commerce routes that started hundreds of years earlier than the Common Era and lasted till (relying on who you ask) the 15th or 16th century (although many students argue that it continued for for much longer). Over the a long time, as kingdoms rose and faltered and conquerors redrew broad swaths of what’s now Central Asia, the Middle East and Southern Europe, the route swerved and shimmied, calving tributaries that crossed mountains and deserts and ultimately even the ocean. A map, for a lot of civilization, was a mere suggestion, a diary of conquest written in pencil, and one of many victor’s privileges was the best to remake the world to his liking. Heading west from the traditional metropolis of Chang’an (now Xi’an) in China trundled caravans of silk, tea, paper and spices, inching towards their terminus in Rome or Constantinople; heading east got here glass, gold, silver and horses. The route was some four,00zero miles, and harmful; the individuals who plied it did so figuring out that they might be felled by perils each human and climatic, that at any second, the lands they traversed may grow to be hostile territory.
And so why did they persist, these early vacationers? For one factor, there was their curiosity, their longing for the brand new, as elementary to our situation as starvation or thirst. It wasn’t simply new objects or applied sciences that they encountered on the route, both: It was new concepts, new religions, new philosophies. Buddhism and Islam had been each conveyed eastward on the Silk Road. To journey was to threat not solely bodily hazard, however a distinct, headier sort of threat as nicely — the possibility that you simply would possibly discard what you’d all the time believed for another ideology altogether. This was a tribal age, and the street may change you so profoundly that you simply would possibly by no means once more be welcomed again dwelling.
For one other, there was the attract of journey. Yes, the trail was harmful. Yes, you would possibly by no means see your loved ones once more. But motion can also be intrinsic to the human expertise. It is why the romance of the Silk Road endures all these years later: Although you’ll be able to interpret it as the primary, most sturdy experiment in capitalism, you can too see it as a testomony to not simply our want, however our want to discover. Every traveler who leaves dwelling subsequently follows within the spirit of our Silk Road forebears, stepping out of our identified world within the hopes that we may be dazzled.
I HAD ALWAYS wished to create a problem that follows the previous street. And so final May, when our identified world was a technique, we started planning these tales. By final month, once we had been ending work on this problem, the world was another way.
Yet as I read these pieces, I realized that the Silk Road has more lessons to offer us in this moment than I’d previously thought. Because while it is a reminder of our desire for interconnectedness, it is also a reminder that although open borders and movement bring wonder and awe to our lives, they can also bring war and disease. Over the course of the Silk Road’s operation, humanity had to face some of the worst illnesses in recorded history, from the Justinian plague of the sixth century to the Black Death of the 1340s to a global syphilis outbreak in 1495 to a tuberculosis epidemic in the 1500s to the second cholera pandemic of 1826. The Justinian plague killed up to half of the global population at the time. Eight hundred years later, the Black Death killed as many as 100 million — nearly a quarter of the global population.
But through all of these horrors, through all of these sorrows, the road continued. Trade continued. The need to discover new things and new people, to look down the road ahead, continued. What else could they do, those long-dead travelers? They could no more ignore what they desired than they could unlearn what centuries of exploration and interaction had taught them. The only way through was forward.
It is the same for us now, too. The only way through is forward. Let us find some comfort, though, in the knowledge that we are preceded by centuries of human endurance, those travelers who remind us that every journey, no matter how difficult, ends with our finding our way back.