Camels, Trucks Travel Ancient Silk Road

Zheng Yongquan sells heat - red chili peppers, grown in a desert oasis in northwestern China.

"Most of our products go to South Korea," Zheng told CBS News Correspondent Terry McCarthy through an interpreter. "Some go to Japan, Singapore."

Zheng's knowledge of the outside world is a bit sketchy. When we asked him about the president of the United States, it was a toss up.

"Clinton, Gorbachev?" Zheng asked.

But he did know the ancient Silk Road passed right through his hometown of Turpan. At the height of the 5,000-mile-long trading route, China prospered by selling silk, paper and furs to the West in exchange for gold, glassware and Buddhism. Now, China again stands at the crossroads of a new trade route. The country's $1.4 trillion export industry has made it the third biggest economy in the world.

Some things have barely changed along the old Silk Road. The markets still resound with a mix of Chinese and Central Asian languages, and silk is still a major commodity in stores.

But life has gotten faster in the past two millennia.

We drove along the main expressway across Gansu province, which follows - approximately - the old Silk Road. Our car sped along at 75 miles per hour while the camel caravans moved at the more leisurely pace of about 3 miles an hour.

There are still camels in China's northwest. Some even carry foreigners. But now 30-ton trucks carry most of China's merchandise. Zhang Jianjun is hauling electrical equipment from Jiangsu to Urumqi, a three day trip. Since he started driving trucks, China's roads have completely changed.

"Back then," Zhang told McCarthy through an interpreter, "we rarely drove on expressways. Now we are on expressways almost all the time."

In fact in the last 20 years, China has built 18,000 miles of expressways. Pollution was not a problem in the Silk Road era. Today China is the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. But towards the end of our journey we came across some wind farms. Compared to China's overall energy needs, it's a small gesture but a start.

"We are pretty proud of being part of the contribution to reducing pollution while keeping the country's economic growth," Thomas Yao Goldwind of Windpower Company told McCarthy.

Just like today, China was changed in the era of the Silk Road by opening up to foreign merchandise. It was changed even more by letting in foreign ideas, and that too could happen again.