Overland from Italy to China

“The Silk Roads are rising again”. At first sight, this seemingly nostalgic cry at the end of the recently published “The Silk Roads: A new History of the World” may appear to be in line with the author’s deterministic vision of history as being shaped by this commercial path. For many though, the Silk Road never truly perished. In the literary realm, Marco Polo’s account of his travels marked the beginning of a dreamy landscape constantly retraced in the imaginations of explorers, writers, poets, and photographers. In 2014, for example, National Geographic sponsored Michael Yamashita’s reportage following the traces of Polo’s adventure on the Silk Road from Venice to Malaysia.

Nevertheless, the wild landscapes depicted through the lenses of prose and film are changing. The Silk Road is returning to its historical capacity as a route of commerce.

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in late 2013 his intention to construct a “New Silk Road” which should boost regional trade by around $2.5 trillion within a decade. “Xi’s great game”, as the Financial Times’s “Silk Road column” defines it, is aimed at building adequate infrastructure to reopen the ancient trade routes and export its overcapacity by linking China to Europe through land and sea. This economic plan stems from a more subtle geopolitical and cultural one. The overwhelming spending figures attached to the New Silk Road also delineate Xi Jinping’s ambition to reassert China’s political presence in central Asia through a project comparable in size and scope to the post-war Marshall Plan. China’s trade with the oil and gas rich regions of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan has increased exponentially from $1.8bn in 2000 to reach $50bn in 2013. As China initiates plans to build oil refineries, roads and tunnels, its visionary economic and political project may face multiple challenges ranging from Russia’s own ambitions to a lack of understanding of local cultures across Eurasia..

This project aims to combine fieldwork in the ancient cities that characterized Marco Polo’s Silk Road with the exploration of the modern sites constructed via China’s investments. We aim to conduct research on the region to understand how China’s new silk road plan is changing the economic and political landscapes of these countries as well as focus on the social and cultural landscapes. Using our combined experience and skills we will write regular blog posts merging the micro stories of locals and of Marco Polo’s adventures with the macro trends shaping the new globalised Silk Road. Through writing, film and photography, we also aim to produce a refurbished version of Marco Polo’s travel accounts by identifying the stories, resources and cultures which define China’s encounter with the Central Asian region. The Silk Road has never left our imaginations. China is willing to write a new chapter to Polo’s never-ending story and we aspire to be the narrators.