The original Silk Road was a trading route that began in Eastern Asia and ended in Europe. This was one of the first major examples that opened up trading opportunities between the east and the west between 130 BCE and 1453 CE. Under Kublai Khan, the 5th Khagan or Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, allowed for the Silk Road to exist under Pax Mongolica (Mongolian Peace). There was an assurance that the Silk Road would be protected without fear of robbery during traveling periods. The Mongols ruled a huge empire, were known around the 13th and 14th century to have safeguarded the northern Silk Road that crossed the Eurasion region. Under Ghenghis Khan’s rule, the extensive army was able to allow for the protection of an inter-connectivity within the world. As borders became more stringent, mostly after the decline of the Mongol Empire, the Silk Road became an overcrowded passage throughout many continents.
Although the decline of the Silk Road ended abruptly due to its exponential uselessness, the road was used as a was for Kublai Khan to understand his geographically extensive empire. Through the non-local agency of Marco Polo’s dubious accounts of cities he has supposedly encountered on the way. The Silk Road represented a time of interconnected networks of humans that would have never had a relationship otherwise. The physical web that the Silk Road had established represented the beginning stages of humanity’s current globalized world. All events that led to the generation of of this trade route led to our virtual, invisible, and anthropological world.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino truly explores a fictitious, yet extremely authentic travelogue of the cities along the Silk Road. Over 55 cities were documented, in the most poetic way, through Marco Polo’s accounts of his travels to Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler. Through the descriptions of the cities, ontology, ethics, semiotics, linguistics, and metaphysics are conceptual attributes that come into play. Even more so, all these topics bring to question how we should live within a city, especially through Polo’s description of each individual place. The Silk Road was a gradient of cultures that only those that traveled it could experience. In Invisible Cities, Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan:
“With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the threads of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”
It is important to note that every city is unique in its own and therefore Italo Calvino constructs his novel by grouping all of these cities into categories. This quote within Invisible Cities describes the basis for which a city was imagined. Even more so, how the Silk Road came to be a vast, interconnected field condition. By learning from one human to another, the Silk Road persisted and grew to be a network unforeseen by many, and those who had control of it were of the most powerful.
Shanghai attributes itself as the dominant eastern city in China. Shanghai then acts as a starting and ending point along the Silk Road, therefore allowing itself to be a catalyst for what could exist along the route. What could prevail is an infrastructure for this globalized attraction that puts itself as a leader in a physical network around the world. Yo-Yo Ma, cellist best known for his Silk Road Ensemble (a group of musicians from diverse countries that were linked via the Silk Road) referred to the Silk Road as “the internet of antiquity” however, it begs the question of how a modern day Silk Road could afford an experience of a contemporary global inter-connectivity.
Rather than just being a road, a more complete and complex infrastructure can provide a layered ensemble of spatial framework and infrastructure. However, its scale must exist to be more predominant than human understanding in order to imply a virtual backdrop for a network this vast.
Being the first physical example of an infrastructure, the Silk Road sustained an important opportunity for humans to interact in a commonplace through trade. The attention this interconnection calls leads to global cultural, political, and economic integration, then allowing for an ability to advance and communicate with humans worldwide. Without this integration, humanity is limited to its location, in turn limiting the ability to survive efficiently.
Understanding the Silk Road, is the same as understanding the origins of globalization in our society today. Humans can trace back their ancestry in order to find the intermingling that truly began within the human race.
On this dusty morning, there was a crisp smell of boiling water alongside the bitterness of the tea infusion. Every day I would wake up to this distinct questioning of what I would do without this morning tea time. To bathe was to be enveloped in a bold coldness all flowing down my body into the wood planks that had covered my feet from the invasive parasites that could crawl up my legs. As I meticulously place the fabrics from afar, my mother calls me to the surprise that my father comes home. It was my time to go. My father had come home every year with something new he had found along the road. An excitement belittled me, only because I knew this adventure of mine was not merely an adventure, but an obligation of unknown results. The sac, as if it had a mind of its own, threw itself over my body, ready to experience a world beyond this one I have been living for 18 years on end.
To know that it is day 289—at least I think it is—makes me feel as though I have aged 289 years since the day I left. We have lost two, one to the plague, a horrible and unforgiving disease, and one to a grape trade gone wrong. There is no telling how much longer there is to go until I get to this far away, foreign land of tea, rice, and opium. My sac has left me. My brain has failed me. But this pain seems minuscule compared to the indescribable euphoria from creating linguistic-free connections along this seemingly infinite road. How was it that my father came home an unchanged man, year after year, when I have spent only 289 days becoming a newly enlightened individual. The two people I have left traveling with me don’t seem phased by this explicit experience I am having.
Arriving in the all renowned land of China, something even more unfamiliar has hit my palette—more unfamiliar than the people I have met and the mountains I have seen. Extremely colossal and geometric slabs of what looks to be stone has come across my path. I reckon that 730 days have passed and yet again, it appears the years have replaced the days, seeing as these objects in my way are so alien in nature, yet used by humans alike. The wheel has progressed to some robotic self-relying figure and to my surprise, HUMANS are entrusting themselves to these aliens! What has become, and yet the physicality of these objects is used by the most diverse nature of people trading along this extreme path.
Making it to the town of all goods, the home of the trade, I see why there is a superiority. There is this an unearthly height to the architecture surrounding the place. The mere fact that I have not seen the original ground as I am on this trade route leads me to believe that the road is a vortex of time where goods and oddities lure the humans of earth in. How could my father have returned when my urge to stay is so grand? Going back to this dynastic land of Rome where the grass grows too high and the rocks break too fast seems like a tragedy. However, to know that many others from around the land have taken the Silk Road allows me to feel included in a global passage. How could I ever go back?
As I arrive in the dense vastness of the Chinese town, I was overwhelmed by fear of the unfamiliar, infinite roads and exceedingly high structures. The colonization of this vast river seemed oddly familiar to my coastal sense back home. However, as I traversed along the never ending path-- to compare with the road I have just traveled to get here, this road seems equivalent. In my mind I know then, there is a lot more to go. How has this transition from place to place to place become eerily more unfamiliar then I have ever expected?
One last step is to follow that path over the river. Is this possible? There is no end to this river, meaning the only way is over. Not a single other being is attempting this feat, something impossible to me, but necessary in tradition. All my ideas, all my expectations, all my comfort has ceased to exist in this foreign land, because all it is to me is a foreign entity with different preconceptions from mine. How could I have never heard of such a place-- all I knew was the origin of tea and opium, but there is more than I have words to describe. Linguistics had crippled me more than expected. No one needs a simple trade, everyone has what they desire here. Absolute assistance is impossible-- although I need to find a way over the river, the people here will be disagreeable with my goal.
As I debated my limited options, I begin to witness something even more alien and more unusual than the things that surround me in this place. A distant object appears as if from the water and I have a strange feeling it has activated to direct towards me. The object has points and jagged edges, while still appearing inviting to the human body. Elevated high above the water, the object appeared as a monstrous and mechanical bird flying in one direction. A clear shield wraps the exterior, something assumed for protection, while its attachment to the water seems as though it is grabbing to every piece of water in the river to forward itself.
My vast fascination ended with my quick look around to see if other bystanders were witnessing the awe of this event. The standardization that seemed to exist within others struck me even more than the moving object in the water. And as this alien structure approached me, I felt less scared and more recognizable. Something about the columns that existed within -- the far-off stone that compiled the top, and the cobblestone that created a strange aggregate, implied by Roman home. Instead of fearing this omnipotent object, I welcomed it to achieve my goal of completing the silk road and crossing the river.
I entered this thing, and there was a warm feeling, a homesick feeling, that all encompassed me. For the first time on this journey, I was truly reminded of where I came from and where I was going. The mechanism was loud. We passed over some strange form of boats-- probably the chinese boats that are world renowned-- and as I looked around, I was able to see the place I was in. Never have I experienced a town so large but in its totality. Never have I been so high up in the air. And my curiosity landed me on another object, in the distance, compiling itself for someone else. Instead of looking simply like home, it began to resemble the celebration of lights in the most obscure way. It lit up itself with familiar pieces of the cathedral I would attend on this holiday. I questioned myself. How could it know? How could this object represent something that is so far away? And then it really blows me away. It transforms itself into a form of the celebration of lights where no one enters, but it moves in the most swift way in order to present itself as important to a certain person-- me. Today is the day for this holiday. Today I would be celebrating at home.