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Getting from Here to There

Traveling Along the Silk Road
China, <i>Pair of Camels and Driver</i>, Tang dynasty, earthenware with pigment
zoom China, Pair of Camels and Driver, Tang dynasty, earthenware with pigment


Would you like to ride a camel? You would probably say no if you knew the camel’s reputation. Camels are bad-tempered, stubborn, and smelly. They don’t particularly like to be ridden. And when annoyed, they may spit or kick.

In ancient China, however, camels were the ideal form of transportation along the trade routes known as the Silk Road. The routes included several spans of desert that were too difficult to cross with carts and too dry and barren to sustain horses.

Why are camels such good desert travelers? Camels can go for several days with little or no food or water. They can even lose as much as a quarter of their weight without damaging their bodies. And their humps are full of fat that gives them energy when food isn’t available. So, camels can easily survive in the desert.

Camels are also extremely strong. They can carry very heavy loads—up to 900 pounds. This made them invaluable to the traders of the Silk Road. In large caravans, 100 to 1000 camels were used as pack animals to transport a variety of trade items. Silk, textiles, gold, lacquer, jade, furs, ceramics, bronzes, books, spices, and medicines were just some of luxury goods that were carried on camels’ backs.

The ceramic camels you see here were once placed in a tomb. In China during the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-906), camel figures became popular grave objects, symbolizing the wealth acquired through trade. The great size of these camels—they are much bigger than typical tomb figures—shows that they came from an important burial.

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1. The Silk Road began in China, with routes spreading across Asia into Europe.
2. A closer look reveals a bit of the camel’s character. With its open mouth and bared teeth, it could be ready to spit!
3. Most camel herders came not from China but from Mongolia, Tibet, and central Asia. This herder rides a two-humped, bactrian camel. The camel with a single hump is a dromedary.


October 2006