The Arrival of the Heavenly Mare
The heavenly horses have arrive from the Western frontier
Having traveled 10,000 li, they arrive with great virtue
With loyal spirit, they defeat foreign nations
And crossing the deserts all barbarians succumb in their wake!
--The Shiji, Chapter 24 (“The Treatise on Music”)
This Ode to the Heavenly Horse sings of the Han Emperor Wudi’s (武帝) great joy upon obtaining horses of such a superior breed from the regions to the far west. Generally, when we talk about the Silk Road, we date the origins of the overland trade route to Zhang Qian’s (張騫) great 2nd century journey from China to Central Asia.
However, there was another overland route that was in use long before that of the Silk Road. Known today as the Steppe Route, it reached all the way across the northern steppes of Central Eurasia along 40 degrees north latitude (stretching some 10 degrees north and south).
The steppe region of northern central Eurasia has been known from ancient times for its horse breeding and horse-riding nomad peoples. Trading goods and exchanging information on horseback, the Steppe Route served as a great northern overland highway connecting peoples and ideas.
Objects originating in faraway places, such as a lacquer finished ear-shaped goblet with a later Han date inscription from China along with a woolen rug featuring Late Scythian-style griffin patterns were found at the Noyon-Uul (Noin-Ula) burial sites in Mongolia, which was excavated by the Russian explorer P. K. Kozlov.
Objects such as these tell us much about the historical exchanges that took place along the ancient Steppe Route.