Even though the main “Northern Route” was the active hub of the Silk Route, the Eurasian Steppe route provided an alternative link between Asia and Europe, sometimes even surpassing popularity, particularly during the Pax Mongolia. This went up through the Gobi Desert and the Altay Mountains to cross Siberia, passing Omsk, over to Kazakhstan and Southern Russia before heading down across the Caucasus into Georgia and made its way into Europe from there.
As China marked the beginning of the Silk Road, Turkey is often seen as the Western entry point. While much of the route splinters out in Lebanon and Syria, modern day Istanbul was the main trading hub linking the Silk Road with Europe. From here, the caravans entered from the Black Sea, whether they came through the Russian route or via Georgia, to land caravans coming from Syria, the Caucasus or even from Iran going through Armenia or directly into Turkey. The main cities along the Silk Road are Konya, Antioch (Antakya today), Cappadocia and the abandoned city of Ani on the modern-day Armenian border.
While most of the branches went directly West, entering Europe through Iran, Iraq and the Eastern Mediterranean, one northern route of the Silk road route took a detour north after Bukhara and Samarkand, following the Amu Darya River towards the Aral Sea. This also bypassed Khiva, a city in Uzbekistan, which has an unsavoury reputation for its slave trade, painting a darker picture of the historic Silk Route.
After the Aral Sea, this branch crossed over to the Caspian Sea’s northern shore over the Volga Delta and up to Astrakhan. From here, it made its way into Russia and the Crimean Peninsula as one route into the Black Sea – taking the traded goods to the Balkans and even Italy. Other breakaway sections also included a road that went down into the Caucasus by land and then met the Black Sea that way or came over to the region via the Caspian Sea, landing in Baku and going up to the Georgian ports.
Leaving Dunhuang, instead of taking the northern or southern branch around the Taklimakan Desert, one Silk Road Northern route continued north and did not re-join the other traders at Kashgar. This took the caravans up into the Tian Shan Mountains through Turpan, Talgar and then into Almaty in modern Kazakhstan. It is most likely that this route came back to the main Northern Route at Kokand, after passing by Lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan.
The Southwest Silk Road route brought the Silk Road down into India and modern day Bangladesh, through the Ganges and Brahmaputra Delta, connecting India with China through trade, but goods from the West came to India via the Silk Road networks.
The logistics of this particular route is unclear, some academics believed it came through China over into Tibet, Nepal and then down into India. Others believe that the route went through Sichuan to Yunnan to Burma and then Bangladesh, where this route is known as the “Ledo” route, and has archaeological evidence to back up the claim.
Another way the Silk Road made it into India was also from the splinters of the Northern or even the Southern Route, coming down through Pakistan and Afghanistan into India via modern day Kashmir.
When people think of the Silk Road, they often think of the Northern Route that goes through Central Asia and Iran. However, there was another route that went in different direction from Changan (Xian) towards the south. This took the caravans down through the Karakoram Mountains directly into Pakistan, bypassing Central Asia completely. This route then turned slightly west, but still continued south crossing the Hindu Kush after entering Pakistan, and then further on into Afghanistan.
This route re-joined the Northern Route just before Merv and continued along the road taking the traders to the Mediterranean going through Iran, Iraq (then Persia and Mesopotamia) before going into Syria or Turkey.
After Merv, Turkmenistan the caravans crossed into Persia and continued in a straight line towards the Mediterranean. The route traversed modern day Iran and Iraq, passing the Persian cities of Mashhad and Rey, currently in modern day Tehran, before going onto Bagdad and the Mediterranean Coast. In Iran, the route also splintered down into Isfahan, Shiraz, and another strand led to the city of Yazd.
Towards the end of the land-based Silk Road, you can think of it breaking up into a delta of routes that carried the trading caravans in different directions.
Some of the caravans headed into Syria, to Damascus and the Syrian ports, others ventured slightly more north and into Antioch and made their way into Turkey from there, while further routes turned further south into Lebanon to the port of Tyre. A part of the road also travelled into Hera via Susa and the ancient city of Charax Spasinu at the head of the Persian Gulf and crossed into Jordan, going through the rock carved city of Petra before making its way down into Egypt to Alexandria. From the Mediterranean, the goods were carried to the rest of Europe by ship, or even into the rest of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
As one route went up towards the Fergana valley and Samarkand, another branch turned south towards the Alai Valley down into Afghanistan into Termez and Balkh in Bactria for a short detour before heading north over to Merv to join up with the Fergana Branch.
After Kashgar, the route divided into two branches again – making up the Northern and the Southern Routes, but even the route going into Central Asia took different directions and detours.
The main branch on the Northern Route crossed up into the Pamir Mountains, mostly in Tajikistan, and then towards Kokand in the Fergana Valley, in modern day Uzbekistan. This route then continued to the great Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, before reaching Merv in Turkmenistan, which was one of the largest cities in the world at the time. From here, the branch going through Bactria reconvened with the Fergana Branch, and also joined up the Southern Route.
More than half of the Silk Road is located in modern day China. The origin of the Silk Road began in Xian, formerly known as Changan, which was famed for its silk production. The road passed through today’s Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai, Henan and Xinjiang provinces in China, before moving into Central Asia, Russia and even down south towards the Indian Subcontinent.
At the Taklimakan Desert, the route divided into north and south roads so as to avoid the vast desert. Just after Dunhuang, in Lop Nor, one route went to the north in the direction of the Tian Shan Mountains to Korla, whereas the other branch went south towards the Kunlun Mountains, to Khotan before both routes reconvened at Kashgar, where the route splintered off in various directions before leaving China altogether.
The most common routes in the Silk Road are the Northern Route, which refers to the road going from Kashgar into Central Asia, and the Southern refers to the one which goes South in China towards India via Karakorum, which sweeps back up again to meet the Northern Route in today’s Turkmenistan.