THE DZUNGARIAN GATE
And what it is not, location is. And here is the place. A 3,000-mile, nearly impenetrable chain of mountains blockading China from the rest of Eurasia. 1.4 billion people, and all looking to get out. Or at least to expand a little, like they did in 471 A.D.
THE TIAN CHAN MOUNTAINS
The western mountain barrier of China is high and majestic. So far away, with snow-capped peaks reaching up to the Godly spaces. The east slope of those mountains is protected by vast deserts and arid grasslands that taunt those who approach with a thirsty death even before they can reach such celestial heights. They are called Tian Chan, the “Mountains of Heaven.” A place far away from Beijing. Or Baghdad. And even farther from here.
But such distances must be crossed. Chinese silk must find its market, and the central Asian mystery penetrated. Samarkand⎯is there a more exotic name in the world?⎯must be reached. Tamerlane’s beautiful capital of Transoxiana. The Silk Road demonstrated the power of trade then. It was the physical analog to our digital trade in stocks today.
So how to get that road of silk around those Mountains of Heaven? To make way for Marco Polo? Pasta, too, and paper!
THE DZUNGARIAN GATE
From China, to the south, lies the Tarim Basin, the Great Desert flanking a then independent Tibet. No water, few oases, and no grass. So no horses, and few marauding bandits riding them. Up north more water, more grass, and a pass! Ride through, but ride fast. You are not the only ones on horseback there!
The pass is a fault through the Tian Chan Mountains. A straight, flat, six-mile wide passage through to the grasslands of Central Asia and Lake Balkhash. Pass through, turn south, and head toward Samarkand. Follow the wind. For, surely this is the land of the Greek god, Boreas, master of the cold winter blasts. A land of gold guarded by Griffins. And there are dinosaur fossils in the region. You would be kept up at night in the ferocious blowing winds, convinced you were hearing the screams of those long dead monsters.
THE BATTLE OF TALAS
And that brings us back to 751 A.D. One-hundred-nineteen years after the death of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad in Medina, Arabia. Ninety years after the founding of the Umayyad Caliphate in Damascus, Syria. And only one year after the establishment of the Abbasid Caliphate, soon to be centered at Baghdad. The Abbasids were ascendant and were to enter a golden age of Islamic power and learning.
The Tang Dynasty of China was also in a golden age, exemplifying the advanced culture of Chinese civilization. But it was about to founder. It, too, was
interested in the Silk Road and trading lands far to the west in Central Asia. So China reached out across those vast deserts and grasslands.
Did their armies ride through the Dzungarian Gate? Probably, for they met the armies of the Abbasids just south of that area along the Talas River in Central Asia. They fought for five days, treachery eventually overcoming the Chinese forces. Twenty thousand Chinese prisoners, it was said, were captured.
It was one of those pivotal battles of history. The Tang Dynasty soon faced the “An Lushan” rebellion at home. So they adventured no further to the west. The Abbasids, seeing only deserts and arid grasslands beyond the gate, sallied no further east. Central Asia is predominantly Muslim today, as a result.
But other developments flowed from that battle. Chinese paper-making technology was brought to Baghdad by the Chinese prisoners. Much of the wisdom of the west was accordingly preserved in Muslim universities. And Buddhism in China, which had originally sprung up in India, was now cut off from its roots. No land route for its adherents to travel to India’s holy sites. Is that what caused Buddhism in the east to flourish and develop? What did Huston Smith say? “Big Boat” and “Small Boat” Buddhism?
So, if you were in that place, and your timing was right, you might have seen the battle that you never heard of. And one from which so much of our current world order, and knowledge, still flows.