Hexi Corridor is a historical route in Gansu Province, part of the Northern Silk Road that dates back to Western Han Dynasty almost two thousand years ago.
Now that there is a 21st century version of the Silk Road as part of the One Belt and One Road initiative, I got curious about the ancient Silk Road.
That’s when I found Hexi Corridor.
The documentary about the artery of the ancient Silk Road uses historical re-enactment instead of the usual dry and didactic monologues by professors and experts.
The director of photography is two-time Emmy Award winner Brian McDairmant, landscape photography is by Cory Brown, and music is composed by Yiannis Chrysomallis, using a 3,000-year-old instrument—the duduk.
Each episode is like period drama, a history lesson (a lively one), and a nature documentary rolled into one.
If we had something like this fifteen years ago, I would have managed to stay awake in history class for much longer.
Gansu Province is in the west of China. It runs in the northwest-southeast direction.
In the middle of the province lies a naturally formed trail that’s about 1,200 km long.
Its width varies from several km to about 100 km.
It starts from Wushaoling Mountain in the east,
reaches Xingxing Gorge to the west,
Qilian Mountains to the south,
and Longshou Mountain, Heli Mountain, and Mazong Mountain to the north.
Situated to the west of the Yellow River and shaped like a corridor, it was given the name Hexi Corridor (literally “Corridor to the west of the river”).
Qilian Mountains, with an average elevation of 4,000 metres, were formed at the same time as the Tibetan Plateau, due to movement of the earth’s crust millions of years ago.
Hexi Corridor connects the Mongolian Plateau to the north, Tibetan Plateau to the south, Loess Plateau in the east, and Tarim Basin in the west.
Rise of the Tibetan Plateau cut off the northward path of the warm and wet currents from the Indian Ocean,
leading to the formation of Gobi desert in the north.
Fortunately, Qilian Mountains are blessed with monsoon winds from the Pacific Ocean, which bring plenty of rainfall.
It led to the formation of an oasis in the arid west.
Ice and snow covering the top of Qilian Mountains and snowmelt led to the formation of the second largest inland river in China—He River (“he” as in “black”, not “male”, also known as the Ejin River).
The He River, along with Shiyang River and Shule River nearby, became the cradles of life.
Almost every type of landform on earth can be observed at the Hexi Corridor, with the exception of oceans.
It was the crucial route linking ancient China to Central and West Asia, and became the artery of the ancient Silk Road.
This year, Xiongnu cavalry surrounded Mayi City, and attacked Taiyuan in the south.
Emperor Liu Bang had just founded the Han Dynasty.
He led an army to support Taiyuan. But they were trapped in the ice-covered Baideng Mountain for seven days.
His entire army was almost wiped out.
The Siege of Baideng was the first formal battle between Xiongnu and the Han Empire.
Emperor Liu Bang was defeated, and had to adopt the use of marriage alliance, as well as giving Xiongnu a large amount of resources every year.
But the threat posed by Xiongnu remained.
141 BC, Western Han
Liu Che was great-grandson of the founding emperor of Han Dynasty—Liu Bang, and the tenth son of Emperor Liu Qi.
He ascended the throne at the age of 16.
It was the 64th year of the reign of the Han Empire.
His predecessors had defeated rebels and consolidated power. The economy was improving.
But it wasn’t all roses for Emperor Liu Che.
The Han Empire was weak in military and foreign affairs, and had been bullied by the Xiongnu Empire in the north for decades.
Emperor Liu Che wanted to find a way to improve the situation.
To the east of his territory was the ocean.
To the southwest was the impenetrable Tibetan Plateau.
To the north and the west were the strong Xiongnu forces.
Xiongnu was feared by many countries in East Asia.
They were a confederation of nomadic peoples, originating in areas that corresponded to modern Hetao and Yin Mountains in Inner Mongolia.
Ever since pre-Qin period, they charged out of the Mongolia Plateau on horseback, raided and rooted countries rich in agricultural resources.
Near the end of the Qin Dynasty and before the foundation of the Han Dynasty, Modun killed his own father and became the ruler of Xiongnu.
He drove out Donghu, Rouzhi, and other neighbouring peoples, unified the tribes in the desert, and founded the Xiongnu Empire.
The Xiongnu Empire controlled areas to the east of the Liao River, the Mongolian grasslands, areas near the Qing and Di peoples in the west, Lake Baikal in the north, Hetao and the northern parts of modern-day Shanxi and Shaanxi.
They were the strongest enemy of the Han Empire.
Liu Che was the fifth emperor, and he was determined to change the status quo.
Not long after he ascended to the throne, a Xiongnu army official was caught by soldiers of Han.
Interrogation of the official revealed a chaotic situation in Hexi Corridor.
The Corridor was under the control of various big and small sized nomad tribes.
The larger tribes were Rouzhi and Wusun.
Rouzhi drove out Wusun.
After Xiongnu came into the Corridor, the ruler of Xiongnu killed the leader of Rouzhi and made his head into a wine vessel.
The new leader of Rouzhi wanted revenge, but wasn’t strong enough. His tribe was forced to migrate to the west.
After receiving the information, Emperor Liu Che thought this was a good opportunity.
If he could join forces with Rouzhi and attack Xiongnu from the west and the east, they might stand a chance of defeating Xiongnu.
But almost none of his advisors and army officers knew anything about the Western Regions.
They did know that after crossing the Yellow River, they could reach the Western Regions via the Hexi Corridor.
Emperor Liu Che decided to openly recruit volunteers to go to the west to find Rouzhi, and convince them to unite forces with the Han Empire to defeat Xiongnu.
At that time, the Hexi Corridor was under the control of two of Xiongnu’s princes.
Nobody knew the whereabouts of Rouzhi.
The envoy would most likely be killed by Xiongnu before they could find Rouzhi.
Zhang Qian came from Chenggu, Shaanxi. He was 27 years old at the time, a palace guard and an intern official of court affairs.
Zhang Qian felt this mission would be a good chance to distinguish himself, and make a significant contribution to the Han Empire.
Emperor Liu Che was glad to have a volunteer.
He hand-picked the warriors to accompany Zhang Qian, and assigned Tangyifu to be his guide and translator. Tangyifu was from Xiongnu and had surrendered to the Han Empire.
Emperor Liu Che received Zhang Qian at the Ganquan Palace, 120 km from the capital Chang’an.
The 19-year-old emperor was uncertain if Zhang Qian could accomplish such a monumental task.
Biandukou is a canyon in the Qilian Mountains. It stretches to about 28 km.
Even today, Biandukou is still an important route linking Qinghai to the Hexi Corridor.
Zhang Qian and his delegation left the greenery at Biandukou and entered the Hexi Corridor.
They were already 1,000 km away from the capital Chang’an.
The desolate environment was a challenge for Zhang Qian and his men, all of whom had grown up on the plain with farmlands everywhere.
Sand stretched as far as the eye could see.
The sun scorched their backs.
Oasis and settlements were hard to find.
After that, it was into the desert.
Strong wind blew sand into their faces.
Danger lurked everywhere.
Unfamiliar with the terrain, they had no choice but to step onto the route controlled by Xiongnu.
Unsurprisingly, they were ambushed by a team of Xiongnu cavalry.
Zhang Qian and his men were captured.
Some members of the delegation died along the way, from thirst, hunger, and exhaustion.
The rest were escorted to the palace of Xiongnu, near modern-day Hohhot in Inner Mongolia.
The ruler of Xiongnu at the time was Junchen.
Upon learning that the delegation were headed towards Rouzhi, Junchen was furious.
He accused Zhang Qian and his men of trespassing, and detained them.
Grand Empress Dowager Dou passed away.
Emperor Liu Che was 22 years old.
It had been 3 years since Zhang Qian left.
No news came back.
Meanwhile, Zhang Qian was still detained in the camps of Xiongnu.
His life was spared, as Junchen wanted to obtain information about the Han Empire from him.
Junchen tried to convince Zhang Qian and his men to work for Xiongnu.
Zhang Qian refused.
He was put under house arrest and detained in the camps of Xiongnu soldiers.
Zhang Qian used the opportunity to learn more about the way Xiongnu soldiers lived and prepared for war.
He discovered that the Xiongnu army had superior weapons and military tactics.
Especially their cavalry.
Horses were used as a means of transport in peacetime and deployed at wartime.
Unlike Han soldiers, Xiongnu soldiers didn’t use shields to protect themselves,
They wore a type of light armour that gave them more flexibility in battles.
Xiongnu soldiers were fooled by Zhang Qian’s submissive attitude and eased surveillance on him.
It could also be due to Zhang Qian’s personality.
Historian Sima Qian wrote that Zhang Qian was broad-minded and honest.
Zhang Qian married a Xiongnu woman with the ruler of Xiongnu as the matchmaker.
Her name wasn’t mentioned in any historical record, and very little is known about their marriage.
But it was likely that her companionship gave Zhang Qian the courage and strength to carry on.
With all the time he spent at the Xiongnu camp, Zhang Qian developed a better understanding of Qilian Mountains and the Hexi Corridor.
The Xiongnu people revered the mountain. Qilian in Xiongnu language meant “heaven”.
It used to be the home of the Rouzhi people.
The abundance of water and grass nurtured high quality warhorses, giving the nomadic people an edge in long-distance battles.
Since the year 201 BC, the ambitious ruler of Xiongnu invaded the south. The harassed Rouzhi people were forced to migrate to the west.
The Qilian Mountains and the Hexi Corridor became the grazing ground of Xiongnu warhorses.
Emperor Liu Che had nightmares.
He often dreamt about the Western Regions, about bloody battles, and about the hopeless situation against Xiongnu.
It was the fifth year after Zhang Qian left.
Emperor Liu Che grew impatient, and decided not to wait for news from Zhang Qian anymore.
He summoned his advisors to discuss military strategy against Xiongnu.
Over the years, he had consolidate power, improved the economy, and encouraged the breeding of quality warhorses.
He promoted young military officials and tasked them with training the troops.
The emperor was determined to fight Xiongnu even without the help of Rouzhi.
Under the pretext of a marriage alliance, he planned to personally lead 300,000 soldiers and ambush the Xiongnu troops at Mayi City.
The plan had to be aborted when information about the ambush was leaked.
But it ushered in a new era where the Han Empire stopped the defensive strategies, and decided to actively fight back against Xiongnu.
Xiongnu attacked the north of the Han Empire.
Emperor Liu Che dispatched four armies to counter the attack.
One of the armies was led by Wei Qing.
This was the first time the Han Empire launched a full scale counterattack against Xiongnu.
However, two of the four armies sustained heavy losses. One of them didn’t achieve anything.
Only the army led by Wei Qing managed to capture close to a thousand Xiongnu soldiers.
This was the famous Battle of Longcheng.
Wei Qing’s victory heartened Emperor Liu Che.
But he was also saddened by the defeat of the other three armies.
Lack of military intelligence and understanding of the enemy severely limited their ability to defeat Xiongnu.
Zhang Qian had been gone for 9 years.
Emperor Liu Che wasn’t even sure if he was still alive.
Only Zhang Qian’s wife knew that he still looked in the direction of home—Chang’an.
One day, Zhang Qian and Tangyifu went out to hunt, like usual.
But his wife knew something was different this time.
She knew that once he left, he would be gone forever.
Zhang Qian and Tangyifu wore the clothes of Xiongnu and passed the checkpoints set up by Xiongnu soldiers.
But he didn’t return to Chang’an.
He rode west, intent of finishing the mission he was sent out for.
By this time, the Rouzhi people had split into two.
Most of them went west and resettled by the Amu River in Central Asia.
They were called the Greater Rouzhi.
A minority stayed near Dunhuang and lived with the Qiang people.
They were called the Lesser Rouzhi.
Zhang Qian learnt of this, and turned southwest to look for Greater Rouzhi.
They travelled along the Tarim River, and passed Karasahr, Kuqa, and Shule (now parts of Xinjiang).
There was hardly any settlement, and water was extremely scarce.
They crossed the Taklamakan, the second largest desert in the world.
After climbing over the Pamir Mountains, they finally reached Greater Rouzhi.
The length of their journey is equivalent to travelling from modern-day Inner Mongolia to Uzbekistan.
(I googled the straight-line distance between Hohhot, Inner Mongolia and Uzbekistan—3,949 km. Not to mention, Zhang Qian and Tangyifu didn’t travel along a straight line.)
They were received by the king of Greater Rouzhi.
The king wasn’t interested in fighting against Xiongnu.
He said that the land here was fertile, his tribe had moved on from the nomadic life and settled down here for agriculture.
He had no intention of returning to the east.
Zhang Qian stayed there for over a year.
But the king didn’t respond to his entreaties.
Zhang Qian was disappointed, but he felt the journey wasn’t wasted.
He passed through Dayuan, Kangju, Greater Rouzhi, Daxia and several other countries in the Western Regions.
He’d traversed the Tianshan range, Central Asia, and West Asia, developed a much better understanding about life in the Western Regions. Their cultures, ways of life, and even flora and fauna varied from that of the Han Empire.
He learnt of the existence of the Ferghana horse (“the horse that sweats blood”). The good-looking creatures were tall and elegant, and they didn’t exist in the Han Empire.
Zhang Qian thought if they could conquer the Hexi Corridor, they would be able to trade with the Western Regions.
Zhang Qian and Tangyifu set out on the journey back home.
To avoid Xiongnu soldiers, they changed the route to pass through Qinghai, occupied by the Qiang people.
They climbed over the Pamir Mountains, travelled along the Kunlun Mountains, passed through Yarkant and Khotan, and took the north route heading back to Chang’an.
But what they didn’t know was that the Qiang people had surrendered to Xiongnu.
They were captured again.
But for some reason, the ruler of Xiongnu didn’t kill him.
Zhang Qian was returned to the camp of Xiongnu, and reunited with his wife.
Junchen, the ruler of Xiongnu, died of an illness.
Zhang Qian seized the opportunity and ran away again.
This time, his wife went with him.
Zhang Qian had left for 13 years.
When he finally caught sight of the capital Chang’an, he knelt in relief.
News of Zhang Qian’s return shook the entire capital.
He had aged.
So had Emperor Liu Che.
Of the more than 100 members of the delegation, only Zhang Qian and Tangyifu returned.
He brought the map of the Western Regions, and seeds that were unknown to the Han Empire.
(Crops that were introduced to China by Zhang Qian: grape, walnut, pomegranate, garlic, cucumber, and watermelon etc.)
His account of the Western Regions mesmerised the emperor and the court officials.
Sima Qian recorded Zhang Qian’s 13-year journey in Records of the Grand Historian.
His expedition allowed the Han Empire to extend its sights to the Western Regions, Central Asia, South Asia, all the way to the Roman Empire.
Zhang Qian’s wife passed away after an illness, a year after Zhang Qian returned to Chang’an.
The valuable intel brought back by Zhang Qian strengthened the resolve of the emperor to fight Xiongnu.
Conquering the Hexi Corridor became an important military and strategic objective.
From February to April, General-in-chief Wei Qing led six armies against Xiongnu.
Zhang Qian served as the guide for Wei Qing. His familiarity with the Xiongnu soldiers and the geography gave the Han Empire’s armies a decided advantage.
After the victory, Zhang Qian was given the title of a marquis.
Zhang Qian paved the way for countless future delegations who travelled between ancient China and the Western Regions, eventually leading to the development of the Silk Road.