Although China has come closer to us in recent decennia, the country remained isolated for most of its history. What few people realize is that in the wake of Alexander’s expansion beyond the heart of Central Asia an opening was created. After all, in 329 BC he founded the city of Alexandria Eschate (very appropriately being Alexandria the Furthest), the later Khojend in modern Tajikistan.
Yet, even Alexander and his successors were not the first to penetrate into China or Seres as Strabo calls the country. A few years ago, I learned about prehistoric mummies that were found in the Desert of Taklamakan. These were blond-reddish haired people and their clothing included tartans, a clear hint to western European origins. This discovery seems to have remained a fact on its own, as I found no hint to link this migration corridor to historians on which Alexander could have relied, but altogether might have known? As so often, it is not because this fact has not been documented that it did not exist. It sounds rather logic that if people were able to move as far east in prehistoric times, to even doubt about Alexander’s knowledge of this route and destination.
Anyway, putting my thoughts about these western European people on the side, the Greeks in Central Asia were there to stay for the next three centuries following Alexander’s conquest. Seleucos established his empire in that area, which later on was taken over by the Greco-Bactrian kings who steadily expanded further eastwards. The leader in this expansion certainly was Euthydemus I (230-200 BC), who even went beyond Alexandria Eschate. He may have gone as far as Kashgar in the region of Xinjiang, as reported by Strabo.
Around 130 BC, it is known that embassies of the Han Dynasty went to Central Asia as the Chinese emperor Wudi was interested in the sophisticated civilizations of Ferghana, Bactria and Parthia. Numerous embassies left every year to these countries and it has been documented that more than ten such missions were dispatched every year to Parthia, Seleucid Syria, Chaldea and north-western India.
Ensuing contacts followed when the wealthy Romans became interested in the precious silk that was supplied through the Parthians as early as the first century BC, causing a serious outflow of gold. The Roman historian Florus is one of the few to mention the numerous Chinese envoys who visited Augustus (reigned from 27 BC to 14 AD). The expensive land route, by now appropriately known as the Silk Road, was soon to be supplanted by a prosperous maritime route through China controlled ports in Vietnam, India and Sri Lanka on one end, and Roman controlled countries like Egypt and the Nabataean territories.
Much of this period of history was well documented in China, like, for instance, that of a Roman delegation arriving in China by this maritime route in 166 AD but fewer testimonies have survived in our part of the world, and consequently much of this Silk Road sank into oblivion till it was revived by the tales of Marco Polo.