Those of us who grew up on a healthy dose of Hopkirk surely know the original Great Gamer - Zhang Qian. An intrepid traveller and diplomat from the 2nd century Han country, Zhang is credited as being the pioneer of the Silk Road. Needless to say, I am all super excited that Keay devotes a few pages to Zhang in his China - A History, and in the interests of spreading excitement and information, you all have no choice but learn about Zhang.
By the second half of the second century BC, things have (sort of) calmed down since the Qin implosion and the civil war that followed in the last few years of the third century. Young Han Wudi is on the throne in the Han capital of Chang'an (around current day Xian). The Hans are in expansionist mode but there are these peope in the northern frontier under the leadership of a tribe called Xiongnu who are turning out to be a major problem. In English, Xiongnu is apparently rendered as Hun which means that these Xiongnu could very well be the later Huns of our Eurocentric history books. Over the first half of the second century BC, the Hans followed a "peace-through-kinship" strategy with the Xiongnu which wasn't very 'flattering to Han sensibilities'. As part of this policy, the Xiongnu promised to curtail their incursions into Han country and in return, they would be paid a tribute which included an imperial princess. With each treaty renewal, this tribute went up but the incursions didn't exactly go down. (Aside: Keay, being Keay, reminds us that this first international treaty bears an uncanny resemblance to imperial China's last in nineteenth century in that though ostensibly between equal parties, they were both deeply unequal treaties)
So anyway, Han Wudi decides that enough is enough and something has to be done. But what? News reaches the Han capital of another Xiongnu success - they have extended their dominion westwards by driving the Yuezhi people out of the Gansu corridor and Xinjiang to beyond the Pamirs and that the Yuezhi are looking for revenge. So the idea now is to make contact with the Yuezhi for an anti-Xiongnu alliance. Enter our intrepid hero - Zhang Qian, a palace official who volunteers to go establish ties with the Yuezhi. The year is 138 BC.
Working with a tiny military escort, Zhang is promptly captured by the Xiongnu and made the subject of furious diplomatic messages. In the meantime, he was sentenced to slavery, married a Xiongnu bride, escaped, and turned up thirteen years later in Chang'an bearing news of the wide world out there. His famous reports were quoted extensively in first century BCE Chinese histories. Keay compares the culture shock from his discoveries to that of Columbus. He had gone across the deserts of Xinjiang, the bleak ranges of the Pamirs, and reached the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. The places he visited included Ferghana in modern Uzbekistan, Bactria in northern Afghanistan, Parthia or Iran, and so-called Shendu (Sindhu, or India), the land of elephants. Many of these places had long established kingdoms shockingly unaware of the greatness of the Han Chinese, and even refusing to acknowledge they were far away from the Middle Kingdom, center of the world!
The one revelation that caused much excitement in the Han court was that of a trade route through Shendu. Zhang had noticed cloth and bamboo canes from Sichuan in Bactria which was said to be imported via Shendu. As Zhang knew from first hand experience, the northern access to Central Asia (over the Lop Nor) was controlled by the Xiongnu and the southern route controlled by their proto-Tibetans allies, so this possible route through the Shendu appeared promising. Needless to say, our man volunteered again to lead a secret expedition to explore this route and he set out in 125 BC. His intention was to cross Yunnan to an intervening kingdom of 'Dianyue' (Burma) before heading into Shendu. Our hero promptly came back to Chang'an in 123 BC as he couldn't quite make it past the hillsmen of Yunnan. Twelve years later, the Han troops (without Zhang) did force their way through Yunnan but they did not progress much beyond the upper Mekong river due to the 'perpendicular terrain' as well as the population. Zhang's silk and cane route would thus remain unchartered for centuries until the construction of the Burma Road in the run-up to the Second World War. Who knows what our history might have been if a direct trade route had opened up between India and China over the extremity of the eastern Himalyas back in the first century BC?
Anyway, back to Zhang. Disaster strikes. Zhang was sent to fight a few battles with the Xiongnu, some of which the Han lost. Zhang was demoted and was nearly beheaded as a scapegoat for one of these defeats but he bribed his way through and bid his time. Time came. He was recalled after a series of Han successes against the Xiongnu to provide information on the 'western regions'. His reports of the great wealth to the West ensured that Wudi diverted his troops to the flourishing states of Central Asia instead of progressing all the way North. The very commercial people of Parthia and Shendu were sure, Zhang said, to welcome Chinese trade. In keeping with the imperial beliefs, this was seen not as an end in itself, but rather as a means to making all these places acknowledge the emperor and eventually become vassals.
Towards this end, Zhang devised a new masterplan very similar to his first mission. The key, he decided, was to secure Xinjiang and its transit routes. Xiongnu had been resupplying themselves from Xinjiang's oases and the way to cut off their suppiles was to secure these oases. Wusum, a tribe in one of these oases had fallen out with the Xiongnu and were looking for an alliance against them. Zhang set off once again. This time to what we know as Chinese Turkestan. He was well received by the Wusun, and they even supplied interpreter guides for his envoys to Parthia, Ferghana and Sogdiana. Wusum signed a treaty with the Hans in 105 BC and received lavish gifts (including a bride) and in return, they were a willing feudatory and supplied Han with horses. Over the next few years, the Hans won a series of victories as a result of which the western regions including Parthia and Bactria now sent missions to the Han court at Chang'an.
(A note about horses here: Horses would become a very important item in the Han trade and enough battles were fought over them. Hopkirk fans no doubt know that this obsession with horses wasn't just a Han thing. Centuries later, in the 1820s, William Moorcraft of the English East India Company's stud farm would spend years searching for stallions in this same region and thus put the European participation in the Great Game into top gear)
Zhang didn't live to see the Han control of the west. He is supposed to have died in 113 BC soon after his success with the Wusums. When he died, he was recognised as the pioneer who opened the western regions and according to Sima Qian (the Grand Historian) "all the envoys who journeyed to these lands in later times relied upon his reputation to obtain a hearing. As a result of his efforts, the foreign states trusted the Han envoys". Thus ends the story of Zhang Qian, traveller and diplomat extraordinaire.
Oh, wait, one more India connection - remember Zhang's first mission? Whatever happened with the Yuezhi? Zhang ran into them 10 years too late in Bactria which they had just overrun and they had no interest in coming back east through the Pamirs to fight the Xiongnu. Their future lay South of the Himalayas where soon, they would found one of the India's greatest empires - the Kushan empire. In a century and half, they would also repay Zhang's visit by sending to China the first Buddhist missionaries.
Coming up next: Grand Historian extraordinaire - the story of the Sima Qian.
 Like Keay, I shall stick to pinyin
 The terracotta army people. For more, go read Keay.