One of the 5th century travelers on the early Silk Road that a detailed written account of his experiences is Fa-hsien, a Chinese Buddhist monk who, at an age of 65, went on a pilgrimage from central China to Tamluk in what we today know as West Bengal, India. In English, his name is sometimes spelled Faxian.
Starting in 399 AD, and traveling chiefly on foot, Fa-hsien passed through the Taklamakan Desert region, crossed the Pamir Plateau, and reached the mouth of the Hooghly River, one of Ganges’ distributaries. He then returned back to China by ship, visiting places such as Ceylon and Sumatra along the way, and reaching the Chinese mainland in 413 AD, having been away for over a dozen years. With him from India he had a spiritual treasure: books of the Buddhist canon and images of Buddhist deities.
Fa-hsien wrote down his experiences and knowledge on bamboo and silk, to the benefit of future travelers. The information was compiled into “Record of Buddhist Countries”, which today is more well-known under the title “Travels of Fa-Hsien”. This book includes, among other things, a detailed account of Fa-hsien’s journey along the Silk Road.
Crossing the Taklamakan Desert
Fairly early in his journey, Fa-hsien reached Tun-huang (Dunhuang) at the Chinese Frontier. In his text, he describes being at the end of the Great Wall and how the frontier is held by the Chinese military for a distance of 80 le* from east to west, and 40 le from north to south.
After staying in Tun-huang for over a month, the governor of Tun-huang gave them the provisions they needed to cross the fearsome Taklamakan Desert. They traveled with an envoy of a camel train. Fa-hsien describes how there are “neither birds above nor beasts below” in this arid land, and how “gazing on all sides as far as the eye can reach in order to mark the track, no guidance is to be obtained save from the rotting bones of dead men, which point the way.” He also explains that there are great many evil spirits and hot winds in the desert.
After traveling for 17 days, covering a distance of roughly 1500 le, they finally reach an oasis in Shan-shan, a kingdom located at the north-eastern end of the Taklamkan Desert, near the great salt lake Lop Nur. Fa-hsien describes the land as “rugged and hilly, with a thin and barren soil”. He points out that the King of Shan-shan has received the faith (i.e. Buddhism) and that there might be more than four thousand Buddhist monks here, all students of the Smaller Vehicle (Hīnayāna).
Fa-hsien stayed in the oasis for about a month before moving on.
*Le, also known as li, is a traditional Chinese unit of distance, also known as a Chinese mile. Today, it has a standardized length of 500 meters, but in the past there was no such standardization so it is difficult to know
exactly how long the 80 le and 40 le distances mentioned by Fa-hsien were. As late as the 1940s, the effort required to traverse the land could impact what was considered to be 1 le. The character for le is a combination of the characters for field and earth, since it was considered to be roughly the length of a village.
The Kingdom of Khotan
While traveling on the southern arm of the Silk Road, Fa-hsien stayed for three months in the Kingdom of Khotan. He reports that this kingdom has 14 large monasteries plus an unknown number of smaller ones.
The Kingdom of Kashgar
In the Kingdom of Kashgar, Fa-hsien reaches the point where the southern Silk Road merges with the northern branch.
Afghanistan / Punjab
Fa-hsien rested in Afghanistan / Punjab during the summer. About this region, he reports that there are about 3000 monks, some belonging to the Greater and others to the Smaller vehicle.
The Middle Kingdom of India is described by Fa-hsien as a place with a temperate climate, where there is no frost or snow, and where people are happy.
He spent six years in India, during one of the most prosperous epochs of the Gupta dynasty.