In 747, at the height of Tang China and the first Tibetan empire, their armies clashed on the banks of the Oxus river – today called the Amu Darya. This was the Wakhan region, now northeastern Afghanistan, over a thousand miles from their capitals.
Located near the source of the Oxus, it is a remote and wild country. The high altitude and cold prevent most cultivation and the pastoralist people, who still live there today, rely mainly on their herds of hardy sheep, goat and yak.
But this was a strategic point on the Silk Road network. The route south over the glacial Darkot mountain – which rises to over 4,500 metres – was the most direct to the Indus River valley. The kingdom of Bolor lay between. To the east was the Tibetan plateau, to the northeast the kingdoms of the Taklamakan. A Chinese imperial report stated: ‘Bolor is the Tang’s western gate: if lost, then all of the western regions will be Tibetan.’
Bolor also controlled the Indus trade, and musk was an important commodity. Among the most precious of Silk Road trade items, this deer gland used in perfume was worth 30 times its weight in silver.
The armies had fought several times over Bolor. The Tibetans held on until 747, when the superior strategy of Ko Sonji, a general from Koguryeo on the Korean peninsula, led the Chinese to victory.
Today there is no sign of the battlefields – and it is hard to imagine thousands of armour-clad soldiers in this wild mountain land.
Dr Susan Whitfield curates the Silk Road manuscripts at the British Library and directs an international collaboration to digitise manuscripts and artefacts from the Silk Road. idp.bl.uk