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Daughter, your mother tells me you have been asking why we live on the edge of the desert in tents and not in the comfortable towns you hear about, towns with plenty of water and shade.  She also said you've been asking why we keep our eyes always to the horizons for the men on camels whose humps are piled high with goods of all sorts, including the silk which shines like a jewel in the desert sun.  Well, it is not an easy question to answer.  I would enjoy the comfort of a town as much as you.  I will explain.  

The Silk Road runs through this desert.  You might be thinking of a soft piece of fabric that rolls across the dunes like the train of a beautiful dress your mother might wear, but "Silk Road" is just a fancy name for something very important.  The Silk Road is the name for many trade routes that stretch all the way from the eastern Mediterranean to the middle of Asia and all the way to the east coast of China.  The Silk Road is also how we make our living.  No, I am not ready to tell you what we do yet.  Please be patient.  

The Silk Road runs right along the edge of this desert that we call home.  The Taklamakan Desert is one of the largest deserts in the world and is in Northwestern China.  It does not support much life.  You know, my daughter, that it can be as hot as fifty degrees in the summer and as cold as minus twenty in the winter.  The desert's name means "to leave alone" and most living things do just that.  On either side, though, are civilizations who make goods that the people on the opposite side need.  The Silk Road brings these goods back and forth.  So why do we stay right in the middle and not in the towns?  No, we are not traders . . .

Many people benefit from the Silk Road by becoming traders.  When silk is made in China, the maker can sell it to a trader.  This trader will ride his camel to the middle of Asia and sell the silk for more and that buyer will ride his camel to the Middle East and sell the silk for even more.  Prices just keep going up and up and up.  We have found a shortcut though.  We are bandits, people who steal from the traders on the Silk Road.  I steal from the traders who have carried their goods from the farthest country possible.  That way I can sell them for a lot more in the towns nearby.  We are far away from the authorities out here in the desert, and people do not like our kind in the cities.  They call us robbers!  Ha!  I say they are robbing everyone else with their high prices.  

There are things on the Silk Road which you cannot steal, my daughter.  You cannot steal ideas.  A long time ago, what was well known in one country did not spread to others because no one went outside of their country to tell about it.  People lived and died in the same place.  But since the Silk Road came along there's an idea from India that's spreading faster than any other, and it goes against everything a bandit believes.  Buddhism is a spiritual practice based around meditation that brings about wisdom and kindness and an end to people wanting things.   It's the idea that desire is the cause of all sadness.  They believe if you don't want anything, you cannot be unhappy!   If only these Buddhists gave up all their stuff, then gave it to us!  Now that I could believe in.

So that is why we live in the desert, my daughter.  The Silk Road is a series of trade routes that passes by the edge of the Taklamakan.  Traders bring goods across the dunes on their camels and we go and we take from them so we do not have to pay the higher prices.  It's a hard life, but it's a good one.  Yes, some people say that our stealing makes silk prices climb even higher for others, but . . .  What's that?  You want to become a Buddhist?!  But without a desire for things how will you keep up our family's long tradition of banditry?  It seems this conversation is far from over.


Department of Earth System Science.  "The Silk Road"  University of California, Irvine, 2009.  <>