I have been spending a lot of time this October in Osh. (Map: Coordinates)
Oh, not literally in Osh – as wonderful as that would be – but in terms of my work-in-progress, “City of Jade,” the sequel to my short story, “City of Gold.” “City of Jade” is set mid-twelfth century and is essentially a road trip novel set along the Northern Silk Road, from Constantinople to Hangzhou.
That’s all very nice, I hear you say, but gosh, where and what is Osh? (Okay, I couldn’t resist the rhyme there. Forgive me!)
Osh is in the Fergana Valley, in the Kyrgyzstan section. The Fergana Valley is shared between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In the twelfth century, and indeed, for much of the Silk Road’s heyday, it was a major center of trade. Osh was famous for its silk, cotton and the horse trade. It was also the last major settlement before China, and the dangerous mountain pass over the Tian Shan Mountains.
My characters, Gallienus, a former soldier in the Byzantine Empire’s armies who was wounded in battle and sent to guard the wall of Constantinople, and his lover, Misahuen, a man who escaped war in his homeland of Korea and joined a merchant caravan bound for Constantinople, have embarked on the long journey of the Silk Road together. They are working as caravan guards for a Byzantine merchant named Stephanos. In the short story where Gallienus and Misahuen first met, realizing their lives would be in constant danger due to the laws against homosexuality, they decided to leave and travel to a land that would be more understanding of their relationship.
Osh is the middle of their journey across the world, and so far they and the caravan have encountered bandits, the hot and dry summer and the hot and humid summer. They have travelled over Persia and through greener lands to reach the Fergana Valley and they have seen and experienced things both men never thought they would. Writing these characters is such a joy for me, as Gallienus, slightly gruffer than his lover, is completely smitten by him but because of his nationality and the laws he grew up with, is much more reserved when it comes to their relationship. Misahuen has no such reserve, he is the aggressor in bed, but he understands and accepts Gallienus’s concerns. Misahuen is also a happy, sunny personality while Gallienus is given to brooding, and between them there is a lot of banter, a lot of joy and a lot of mutual understanding that I think we all desire in our own relationships.
Back to Osh. Osh has been where they have tried new foods, touched finely woven silk, guarded the wares of the merchant who has employed them. While it wasn’t common for merchants to travel the whole distance of the Road from Constantinople to Chang’an (modern Xi’an), it did happen, often enough to be written about by chroniclers.
It’s a common assumption too that the first European to enter China was Marco Polo. In fact, he was the first well-known European. There were others, long before the Polo’s began their travels, from diplomats from first century Rome, and later. The Byzantium Empire was in fact called Fu-Lin in China, and detailed accounts of Chinese experiences are found in such sources as the Hsin-t’ang-shu, ch. 221 (written mid-11th Century AD), for 1060 AD, he Nestorian Stone Inscription, cols. 12-13 (written 781 AD), the Sung-shih, ch. 490 (written late 13th Century AD), for 960-1279 AD, Ma Tuan-lin, Wen-hsien-t’ung-k’ao, ch. 330 (written late 13th Century AD), Chao Ju-kua, Chu-fan-chih (written late 13th Century AD) and the Ming-shih, ch. 326 (concluded 1724 AD), for 1368-1643 AD.
I have looked at so many photographs of places along the Silk Road, of the towns, cities, mountains and valleys, rivers and lakes that my characters would encounter. There is so much beauty, so much extraordinary variety that my own desire to travel along the Silk Route has only increased. It’s certainly on my bucket list. And in the interim, I’m enjoying travelling with Gallienus and Misahuen, as they make their journey eight-hundred years ago.
L. J. LaBarthe loves history, especially medieval and Byzantine, China and the Silk Road. Her primary interest is the events between 1100-1300AD. Her blog can be found here and her twitter is here. Her short story that leads up to this work-in-progress and (hopefully!) soon-to-be released novel is “City of Gold” and her other books with Dreamspinner Press, including the current series, “The Archangels Chronicles” is here. She also has work published and forthcoming with Less Than Three Press.