of ancient adventure and the "in-between" places on
the Silk Road
for Michael Murrin to enter the Cobb classroom where his course
Travelers on the Silk Road will be held winter quarter, it's easy
to imagine the sights and sounds of a high-plateau caravansary
stop on the ancient East-West trade route.
and wrapped in brightly colored scarves or coats with thick faux-fur
collars, students have trekked across mountains of snow left on
campus by the blizzards of winter break. There are about 30 students
in all, graduate and undergraduate, with complexions ranging from
deep brown and olive to yellow and peach with freckles. One divinity
student, wearing the mustard and burgundy robes of a Tibetan monk,
sets a neat white pencil case atop his leather-bound Higher
Sanskrit Grammar. Stories of holiday travel mingle with more
academic discussions of Byzantine art and a call for papers on
and dressed in shades of gray, Murrin enters the room quietly
and surveys the colorful crowd, well-worn smile lines crinkling
behind his large eyeglasses as he recognizes several students
and nods hello to the student in robes.
we look at our readings?" asks Murrin, the David B. and Clara
E. Stern professor of humanities, English, and comparative literature
in the College and Divinity School. He works his way through the
syllabus, a chronology of first-person and fictionalized accounts
by people who lived and traveled along the Silk Road, the highway
that linked China with the West, carrying goods and ideas between
the two civilizations. Silk-and eventually gunpowder, porcelain,
and tea-came westward, while gold, silver, and Christianity went
will not spend much time in the court of Kublai Khan or the old
Seleucid dynasty capital of Antioch. If that's what you're looking
for, I am sorry to tell you, you won't find it here," Murrin
informs the students. "Rather, we'll spend our time in the
areas that caused all the trouble-where all the adventures took
place, where the travelers had their worst difficulties. Where
there were robbers."
this first lecture, Murrin assumes the air of a seasoned Scout
leader telling ghost stories to a captive audience camped in the
woods. He has expert timing, at times pacing the room to deliver
thundering descriptions of strange terrain and hostile inhabitants,
at times stopping to put on the visage of a pious holy man or
to peer down at a young woman taking notes in the front row. "If
you're worried about the streets of Chicago-" he says to
her, striking a mock-warning look. "Don't worry." He
grins, and the students watch him in amusement.
readings will carry the class along the very rocks and ruts of
the Silk Road as it carved through the heart of Asia over the
span of a couple thousand years. They will pass through countries
whose names and allegiances will seem as ephemeral as cherry blossoms-"territories
that are disputed even to this day," Murrin says. These are
what he calls the "in-between" places: towns and nomadic
stations in present-day Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan,
Northern India, the Tibetan plateau.
will follow Asians and Westerners traveling in both directions
on the road," he continues, and along the way, meet practitioners
of a host of religions: shamanism, Buddhism, and Islam, as well
as the more mysterious Manichaeism and Nestorianism.
road will be strewn with many obstacles, not the least of which
is language. "No one can know the languages of the Silk Road.
No one has ever known all of them. I know the languages of the
Western European accounts-Latin, Franco [the French-Northern Italian
vernacular of Marco Polo's Travels], Spanish. I used to
know Persian. I do not know Chinese or Sanskrit. But I think we
have some people here who do"-he eyes the student in robes-"so
this will have to be a cooperative effort.
for the old languages of the Silk Road," Murrin sits
on the table at the front of the room, "I doubt that anybody
in this room can know them. How many of you know Tokharian? Sogdian?
That's the merchants' language of the Silk Road. You don't?"
He strikes a mock-quizzical look, and a few students chuckle.
"How strange. How about Achoemenid Persian? Middle Persian?
You don't? Gee. How about Khotanese? The language of Khotan?"
Several students grin back at him.
worry!" Murrin shouts, eyes twinkling, jumping to his feet.
"They didn't write any travel literature. Not one of them.
You don't have to worry about it. But the names keep showing up,
and that's what's important." He turns to scribble on the
chalkboard: -kan, -kent. "That's a Tokharian ending. You'll
get used to that and a good many other endings and spellings,
because we'll keep going over the same road again and again."
begin their journey with what Murrin promises to be the quarter's
most difficult reading: a biography of Chang Ch'ien, a Chinese
gentleman commissioned by the Han emperor to forge China's earliest
westward trade routes in 140 b.c. During expeditions stretching
three to ten years at a time, Chang encountered bands of unfriendly
nomads and remote towns refusing to provide supplies for his exhausted
men. In the process, many a tribal king lost his head, and loyalties
to the faraway Han emperor waxed and waned like the phases of
the moon. By Chang's death in 113 b.c., he had traveled as far
as Ta Hsia.
turns to scrawl on the chalkboard behind him: Ta Hsia = Bactria
= northern Afghanistan. "Remember that," he says,
running his hand across the words as he speaks, almost erasing
them, "and you'll know where you're going." Several
students flip through the handout-30 pages, two-thirds footnotes,
most of which relate translators' quibbles over ancient Chinese
characters. "If you survive that," says Murrin gleefully,
"you'll stay in the course."
present-day place names will pose stumbling blocks for class discussion.
"To refer to India and be talking about Pakistan sounds as
if we're taking a position. And we most certainly are not. So
how about East Central and West Central Asia? A bit heavy-handed.
What do we do? I'm not sure. We'll try to work it out."
turns his lecture next to the terrain of central Asia, yet another
challenge for travelers and a topic revisited many times throughout
the quarter, with slide lectures and maps upon photocopied maps.
"Nothing," says Murrin, "is a fixed quantity for
travelers on the Silk Road-least of all the land. Prepare yourselves.
You're looking tired already."
Silk Road makes an indirect path between East and West, snaking
northward, dipping south, sometimes doubling back on itself where
the terrain is impassable. Geography is to blame: mountains, deserts,
even rivers conspire against travelers. "No matter how you
come across Asia, sooner or later you're going to hit mountains."
A tangle of the world's highest mountains ("They're still
growing! Everest has grown in my lifetime!") crisscrosses
an arid swath of deserts, some of which can be as cold and desolate
as others are hot and barren. Rivers change course or suddenly
class will repeatedly find itself at two bottlenecks: the Hexi
Corridor and the Pamir Mountains, a "knot" from which
several south-central Asian ranges radiate, including the Kunlun
Mountains of Tibet and the "killer" Hindu Kush. "The
Chinese called the Pamirs the Onion Mountains, because they thought
it was the local onions that made them sick. We now know it was
the altitude." Travelers looked for other routes, only to
be blocked by the deserts, where they could easily be lost with
no water or supplies.
names of the deserts suggest something already. Sahara
means 'uncultivated land.' Gobi means 'pebbled' or 'stony desert,'
which means you can go off the road here and not get stuck. Well,
that's not true. You can. I've been there.
Kum means 'red sand,' Kara Kum means 'black sand.' And sand
is worst of all because it blows and shifts. No one ever goes
into the sand dunes. They will never come out.
think you might like the Dasht-i-Kavir. It means 'firm floor soil'
in Persian. It's salt. But underneath is viscous mud, an expanse
of slime, whole channels of ooze."
fans, take note," he continues. The Gobi desert will be startlingly
last Murrin arrives at the cultural implications of a nasty terrain
peopled by strangers speaking mysterious tongues. "Towns
on the Silk Road are like oases," he says. Cut off from one
another, they weren't exactly welcoming to visitors with ulterior,
imperialistic motives. China and the West had to develop a network
of well-paid agents and needed plenty of money for bribes and
gifts-lest the "towns naturally revert to an independent
status," says Murrin. "If you control the west, you
can't control the east. States appear and disappear. It takes
a sophisticated system to manage it all."
lecture's end, the students gather their things to return to the
frigid outdoors. Murrin smiles benevolently after them. "Please,"
he calls out. "Be charitable to each other. We're in this