In 1260, with the Mongols rampaging through what is now Poland and threatening Jerusalem, it is believed that Pope Alexander IV sent emissaries to the court of Kublai Khan. Their commission was to persuade the Khan to an alliance, and to redirect the Golden Horde against the Muslim Mamluks in the Holy Land. This epic commission inspired my novel, Silk Road.
When my two ill-matched ambassadors, Dominican monk, William, and his Templar bodyguard, Josseran Sarrazini, set out on their great journey, China – or Cathay, as it was known then – was still as mysterious to them as deep space is to us.
‘Some say that in the land of Cathay there are creatures with heads like dogs, who bark and speak at the same time. Others say there are ants as big as cattle. They burrow in the earth for gold, and tear anyone who comes across them to pieces with their pincers.’
Fortunately for William and Josseran, the man-eating ants were fake news. In fact, at a time when most of the western world was still emerging from the Dark Ages, those medieval travellers who did make the long and dangerous journey along the Silk Road were astonished at the advanced civilization they found in Kublai’s empire.
Books, for instance. William carried with him a Bible, a rare and precious object in the Christian world. But in China everyone owned at least one almanac and perhaps an edition of the Tao.
These books were not copied by hand, as they were in Christendom, but manufactured in large numbers using wood-cut plates which reproduced their calligraphy on paper. This was two hundred years before the Guttenberg printing press.
The Chinese also knew how to make gunpowder – ironically, they discovered it while searching for an elixir of eternal life. And Chinese soothsayers were already using a compass made from lodestone – iron ore that becomes magnetized when struck by lightning. Their version used south, not north, as the cardinal direction.
Although they had not yet harnessed gunpowder as a weapon, they did have other military secrets. A general named Jugo Liang, who lived during the Han Dynasty, had weaponised wheelbarrows as early as the second century, which he deployed as mobile barricades. They were also used for transporting spears, armour and supplies.
The wheelbarrow did not appear in the West for another thousand years – on building sites.
Their most precious discovery was silk. Demand for the fabric was so voracious, it gave rise to the fabled Silk Road which stretched from China to the Mediterranean. Jade, tea and Buddhism also made their way from East to West on camels and horseback, as did the Black Death; the plague-bearing ticks hitching a ride on the merchants’ camels.
The Silk Road was not one road, but a spiderweb of trading routes, that had been in use for over a thousand years by the time William and Josseran made their journey. These ancient tracks linked China, Korea and Japan to Europe, Arabia and the Horn of Africa. Few merchants travelled the whole nine thousand kilometres – goods exchanged hands many times along the way.
Those intrepid souls that did travel from Acre to Xanadu would first have to cross a landscape still depopulated and mostly in ruins, thanks to Genghis Khan’s depredations two generations before. Then, having crossed the ‘Roof of the World’, they would have come across intricately carved Buddhist cave temples, as well as vast underground irrigation systems. They would have to survive the Singing Sands and the forbidding black hurricanes of the Taklimakan desert – ‘Taklimakan’ means, in the local dialect, ‘go in and you won’t come out.’
Eight hundred years later, the Silk Road remains a byword for travel, romance, adventure, and ideas, even though it has long since been displaced by rail and maritime trade. But its greatest secrets may be yet to be discovered. Many mummified bodies found recently in western China display Caucasoid features. One, from Yingpan, is six and a half feet tall. A Roman glass bowl was found in the grave alongside it.
But for William and Josseran, their greatest discovery on the Silk Road was not the many foreign cultures they encountered, but the truth about themselves. And this, as any adventurer will tell you, is the best reason to travel in the first place.