The empires of Rome and China developed during the second century B.C., with only vague knowledge of each other because a east to west land route did not exist. At the time, the Chinese called the Romans by the name of Ta Ts'in or Li Kun, while the Romans referred to China as Seres or “Kingdom of Silk.” At first, the Romans believed that silk was grown in trees. However, all of this would change during the Han Dynasty.
War was common in the second century, and the Huns had emerged as a constant threat against the Chinese. Over and over they had attacked deep inside the Chinese interior until the Chinese had been forced to build the Great Wall. Because of this constant threat, Emperor Wu di was in need of fresh recruits in his ongoing efforts to stop the Huns. He decided, to send his trusted ambassador General Zhang Quian (138 BC) to recruit the Yuezhi people. The Yuezhi had just been defeated by the Turkish Huns. Han Wu di believed that they would want revenge against the Huns.
Zhang left the Chinese capital of Chang (Xian) with a caravan of 100 men. It didn't take long before he and his men were overrun by the Huns. They would be held captive for 10 years before Zhang and what was left of his men escaped. Once free, they continued looking for the Yuezhi people along what would become the northern Silk Road. Eventually, Zhang found them, but they were happy living in Central Asia, and no longer wanted to seek revenge against the Huns. Zhang stayed with them for a year gathering information on 36 kingdoms, including Rome. Eventually, he would return home with just one other survivor. Emperor Wu di was amazed by Zhang's reports, and he was eager to develop what would eventually become the Silk Road. The first land route between the East(China) and the West(Rome). Wu di was especially interested in the report of a new powerful breed of warhorse that Zhang had seen in the kingdom of Ferghana.
The Silk Road caravans traveled at a snails pace over some of the most inhospitable land on the planet. They traveled over large expanses of desert, and climbed over snow covered mountain passes. During the hottest months the caravans traveled through the desert at night. It was not uncommon for them to become blinded by sandstorms for days at a time. Sandstorms brought everything to a halt, making travel impossible. Before long, banditry became a huge problem, so for their own protection they began traveling in caravans of as many as 1,000 camels. Only the two hump Bactrian camel was used at this time, largely because it was capable of carrying up to 400 pounds. They found that the one-humped camels were unable to keep up the pace.
Silk was just one of the commodities that the camels carried. In addition, the caravans brought, gold, silver, textiles, ivory, furs, perfume, wine, spices, books, woven rugs, and valuable bronze weapons. Very few caravans made it from the start of the Silk Road in Chang'an (Xi'an) China all the way to Rome. Usually, the goods were traded several times before reaching their final destination, and each time the price was raised. Eventually, the goods would reach Rome in the hands of Jewish or Greek merchants. Trade along the Silk Road flourished until sea routes were developed between Canton, China, and the Middle East.