The Silk Road Endures: Lord of the Mountains
It’s difficult to say when the Silk Road began or what it constitutes. Indeed, it obviously isn’t a road at all—merely a series of outposts, oases, fortresses—and it’s not as if silk was the main commodity, carrying everything from armies and gold to priests and jade. But, surely, the Silk Road is a tale of the mysteries, wonders, and appetites of the East, of China. The road has changed hands from emperors and kings to local bandits and rebels. None of them owned it; they simply rode in its wake.
Perhaps what most defines the Silk Road is that it endures. It was built in the fires of battle during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), but the path to and the hope of the East existed long before. Long after the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) put the Silk Road in its heyday in the second Pax Sinica, the Silk Road remained. Even when China itself was completely overrun by the Mongols of the North, the Silk Road thrived. And, today, even as shipping lanes and international logistics have made the path all but obsolete, the Silk Road endures.
So, where then can the Silk Road be found? Where else but in the enduring stories and people that made it happen—that bore its journeys, that protected it, learned from it, succeeded from it, and died by it. History often records the most famous: Marco Polo, Xuanzang, Genghis Khan; but the Silk Road has a million tales to tell and all of them came at a cost. With each step on the Silk Road, one steps over a story. Here are three of them: a general, a servant, and a long-haul trucker.
Lord of the Mountains
Under the scorching midday sun, amidst the drifting dust, the clatter of hoofs, the clang of iron, arrows swishing through the air, screaming echoed in the valley of the Talas River. It was a summer day in 751 when General Gao Xianzhi (高仙芝) anxiously oversaw the battle—the fifth day since the Tang army engaged the Black-robed Dashi (an ancient Chinese name for the Arab Abbasid Calilphate), and the odds were not in the Tang’s favor.
As he watched the glare of shattered armor and the gushing red of fallen soldiers, the stalwart General Gao refused to waver.
His success had elevated him to the very top of the Tang military ranks, the highest military commissioner of Xiyu (西域), the western region of the Tang Empire, in charge of 30,000 troops spread over four military towns and garrisons, as well as the power to command soldiers from Tang’s many dependent states in the region.
Ahead of him lay a grand fortress, above which black triangle flags billowed in the wind—the city of Talas (near the modern city of Taraz of Jambyl Province in Kazakhstan) and Gao’s ultimate goal. It was a rich city nurtured by the melt water of the snowy mountains, a fertile oasis. Farmers, cattle breeders, craftsmen, and merchants from various nations abounded in this major center of trade, stopping to replenish their stock and sell their wares on what would later be known as the Silk Road. But, this oasis came at a price; every major power wanted it for themselves.
General Gao Xianzhi was a descendent of the Goguryeo (an ancient Korean kingdom), a state conquered by the Tang in 666, and his father served as a general guarding Tang’s west, bringing his son into the military world. By the age of 20, Gao had grown into a good-looking young man, an expert in horse riding and archery, full of courage and decisiveness. But from time to time, his father would still give him worried looks, believing him to be too gentle and tolerant for military life. Now an experienced commander, Gao recalled those looks with pride, knowing he had proved his father wrong, especially with his career defining victory over the Tubo in 747.
A strong rival for influence in the Pamir Mountains and Kashmir region, Tubo (an ancient Tibetan state) married a princess to the king of a small country known as Lesser Bruzha (Gilgrit, Pakistan), exerting control over its affairs. Along with more than 20 other previous dependant states of Tang, Lesser Bruzha stopped paying yearly tribute. More importantly, a path to the West was blocked. Three generals were sent to take these states back, all failing until General Gao was appointed.
The expedition over the Pamir Mountains was arduous. Gao managed to effectively mobilize around 20,000 soldiers and horses with plentiful supplies at a sickening altitude and over the glaciers, a two-month march. When they arrived, the troops still had the energy to fight. From there, he reached Lianyun Fort (Langar, Afghanistan) guarded by a few thousand Tubo soldiers, with its major force of 8 to 9,000 stationed a few kilometers behind. Gao’s army managed to cross a raging river in the night and breach the fortress in the morning while the enemy was barely awake. The battle lasted the entire day. By sundown, Gao’s troops slaughtered 5,000, captured 1,000, and the rest fled in panic.
After a short rest, a 4,600-meter ice mountain became Gao’s newest obstacle. The soldiers were terrified; even if they survived the cold and the climb, there could be hostile forces waiting for them on the other side. But, Gao knew that forward was their only choice. In order to convince his soldiers, he told them that on the other side was a friendly state that would welcome their arrival. He sent 20 some pioneers to climb the mountain first, disguised as locals. It may have been an accurate divination or perhaps just luck, but when the troops climbed over the mountain to the city at the foot of the mountain, the previously Tubo controlled state didn’t put up a fight, opening its gate to the Tang troops. For Gao and his army, the worst was over. Forces were sent to Lesser Bruzha, capturing its king and his wife, the Tubo princess, all while blocking Tubo reinforcements by destroying a key bridge.
Military campaigns like this won General Gao wealth and fame, and the gentleness and tolerance Gao’s father saw in the young man faded. It was Gao’s conquest of Shi (Tashkent, Uzbekistan) in 750 that ultimately lead to the battle of Talas. At the time, Gao accused the country of being disrespectful to the Tang. Its king swiftly surrendered. While pretending to sign a peace treaty, Gao attacked the capital of Shi while its guard was down. He captured the king, who was later sent to the emperor’s court and beheaded. The elderly and the weak among the captives were not spared, while Gao filled his own pockets with loot. The Prince of Shi fled and recounted Gao’s war crimes to the nearby states, and, angered by such atrocities, many states decided to help the Caliphate, a major and rising power in the area, to fight the Tang.
Knowing this, Gao planned a preemptive strike. But, this time, he was facing a different opponent. Serving as the enemy commander, the Persian slave-born military genius Abu Muslin had recently helped the ambitious Caliph As-Saffah seize the throne a year before. With the information on Tang’s imminent attack, the Caliphate was more than ready when he arrived. Although the specific numbers of the forces are still a subject of debate, historical records from both sides show the Arabs had at least double the number of soldiers. Here, General Gao would finally find defeat.
General Gao fought bravely on the field of battle, but it wasn’t until his right-hand man pulled him from battle that Gao realized that failure was palpable. Night fell, and the outcome couldn’t have been any clearer. Not only were the Tang soldiers faltering, but the Qarluq mercenaries under Gao’s command turned against him mid-battle, cutting the infantry off from the main forces and letting the Caliphate break them one by one. General Gao’s army was annihilated. As such, Gao fled, hoping to avoid the fate of so many he had captured and put to the sword. It was his first defeat and his last battle for the fate of what would someday become known as the Silk Road.
For the rest of his life, Gao wanted nothing more than vengeance against his black-robed enemy, but a rebellion that shook the Tang Dynasty to its core soon broke out and Gao was pulled away from the West. Before Gao could get his revenge, it was done for him; his vaunted enemy Abu Muslin was beheaded when a new caliph accused him of conspiracy. A year later, the great General Gao met the same fate when, in a battle with the Tang rebels, he was falsely accused of corruption.
But, there is a bit more to Gao’s legacy. When Gao marched, the earth shook under his soldiers’ feet and city-states quaked at his approach; in his wake he left a bloody trail of bodies, but also something quite unassuming but unbelievably important: paper. Among Gao’s captured army were craftsmen and papermakers. The battle of Talas is considered by many as the event that sparked the spread of paper-making in the Arab world and later the West. War spreads violence and horror, but in the case of the Silk Road, even the bloodiest battles led to cultural serendipity.
Stay tuned for other stories from the Silk Road, and in the meantime, learn about how The Battle of Talas paved the way for the Renaissance.