TRAVELLING THE SILK ROAD: HOW TO VISIT
Follow in David's footsteps and Make Your World Bigger with a Silk Road adventure of your very own.
First coined in 1877 by German geographer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, the Seidenstrasse - or Silk Road - is a legendary network of ancient trade routes connecting China with the edge of Europe.
Formally established by the Chinese Han Dynasty in the 2nd century BC, merchants traversed the routes for almost 1,600 years. A combination of geopolitical change and the shift of trade routes from land (slow) to sea (much faster) effectively closed the Silk Road to trade. However, while people in the past travelled the Silk Road out of necessity, today those following in their footsteps tend to explore at a more serene pace.
This ancient route of discovery offers a variety of natural, cultural and historical wonders, and there are dozens of tour operators who run Silk Road tours, ranging from half-day excursions to three-month overland adventures from China to Turkey.
Over 3,000 miles of the Silk Road run within China’s borders, and the Silk Routes Network of the Chang’an – Tianshan Corridor was added as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014.
Among a wealth of extraordinary experiences, you’ll find remote sections of the Great Wall built to keep bandits at bay; the famous Kashgar Sunday Market; and the 15th-century Idkah Mosque which can welcome 20,000 worshippers.
Kashgar as a region is ethnically and culturally diverse. At least 50% aren’t Han Chinese; they are descended from central Asian traders, Turkic tribes, and Hun warriors called the Uighurs.
A little-known fact about the Uighur people is that they’ve been credited with the invention of noodles and pasta, which travelled all the way to Italy from western China. Understandably, the Italians continue to dispute this!
To travel the Chinese Silk Road, there’s a 14-day Wild Frontiers Travel tour that starts and ends in Beijing. You can explore the wonders of the ancient city, and visit the section of the Great Wall at Mutianyu. You’ll also see the world-renowned Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, the starting point of the Silk Road; the Buddhist caves at Dunhuang; Kashgar’s Sunday Bazaar; and the stunning views of the Heavenly Lake.
On the Go Tours offers a 15-day Urumqi to Beijing adventure, taking in Urumqi, Kashgar and Turpan in China's far west before heading east to the dunes at Dunhuang, the UNESCO-listed Mogao Caves, the Yellow River, and the Terracotta Warriors.
Silk Road Treasure Tours has an 11-day tour of China’s Silk Road that takes in Beijing, Xi’an, Dunhuang, Turpan, Urumqi and Kashgar. You’ll see Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City; the Mogao Caves and the Mingsha Singing Dunes; and some of the best desert scenery the Silk Road has to offer. The tour ends - as most do - in Kashgar, so don’t forget to bring lots of money for the amazing goods you’ll want to bring home!
As caravans left China heading west on the Silk Road, they passed deep inside the steppe through Tamgaly Gorge and the Taklamakan Desert in Kazakhstan. But the country remains virtually undiscovered by modern western tourists.
Outside of the capital city of Astana, it often remains a traditional country, populated by descendants of the nomadic people complete with yurts and a diet of horsemeat and fermented mare’s milk. The Kazakh nomads believed the horse was holy, and traded them with the Chinese for silk. Caravans full of silk-laden camels were sent west, and a trade deal was negotiated – horses for silk.
Silk Road tours through Kazakhstan aren’t as plentiful as those through China, but there are some excellent offerings from Silk Road Tours including a 21-day tour of Kazakhstan that takes in the Ala Archa and Aksu Djabagly National Parks; the ruins of Silk Road ghost town Otrar; and the strategic city of Bishkek before boarding a train to Almaty where you’ll be able to see stunning views of the Tianshan mountain range.
The Silk Road routes in Kyrgyzstan were carved out by ancient traders. Without passage through this geographically isolated and mountainous country, the journey from east to west would have been far more treacherous - not to mention lengthy.
Many of the sites that made the Silk Road famous were destroyed by Genghis Khan’s Mongols, and today the country remains almost the same as it did back then. Lake Issyk Kul, home to submerged ancient settlements, offers stunning scenery. Visitors can stay in a traditional yurt for a taste of the nomadic way of life.
Go Barefoot offers a 13-day Pearl Steppes tour, offering the chance to experience the traditional life of Kyrgyz shepherds. Silk Road Tours offers a nine-day tour of Kyrgyzstan, starting from and ending in Bishkek. See its Soviet-era grand monument and buildings before visiting the rock carvings at the Stone Garden in Cholpan Ata. You’ll see how locals live around Lake Issyk Kul, and there’s even a chance to ride horses around Son Kul Lake.
Perhaps the least-known of all the Silk Road nations, Tajikistan is a poor country (as well as high - half the country lies over 3,000m) that has largely remained free of outside influence.
Before the Silk Road, the country had the Lapis Lazuli Route and the Nephrite Road. However, as the trading routes converged, four branches of the Silk Road coursed through this central Asian nation. The Sogdian Road ran from the famous city of Samarkand to Kokand; the Karategin Road connected Termez with Kashgar in China; the Khatlon Road headed south off the Karategin Road; and the Pamir Road ended up in Kashgar from the south.
Tours to Tajikistan are few and far between. They are usually combined with one or more of the other Stans, but Travel Local has a number of partners organising trips to this remote outpost, where you can follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great in the north, and Marco Polo to the south and east. Few travellers reach Tajikistan but, if you’re one of the lucky ones, you'll be in for a wondrous adventure unlike anything else in the world.
Uzbekistan was one of the most strategically important stops on the Silk Road, sitting on the cultural and geographical crossroads of central Asia.
It's the home of Samarkand, the Silk Road’s most famous city, which contains a heady mix of stunning ancient mosques, mausoleums and minarets. The old town (Registan) has been described as the most evocative and exotic-looking city on the Silk Road.
Notably, Uzbekistan is one of only two double-landlocked countries in the world. It is surrounded entirely by one or more landlocked countries, meaning you'd have to cross at least two national borders to reach a coastline (the other double-landlocked country is Liechtenstein).
For those seeking to avoid long road journeys, Cox and Kings offers an Uzbekistan: Aboard the Orient Silk Road Express tour, while Wild Frontiers Travel has a 10-day tour starting in Tashkent. See the magnificent medieval city of Khiva resplendent with towering, tiled minarets, before heading on to two of the most iconic and enthralling cities ever to grace the vast, meandering course of the historic Silk Road – Samarkand and Bukhara.
Turkmenistan is a country rich in architectural masterpieces as well as the eerily beautiful Karakum Desert, with its Gates of Hell gas crater. In ancient times, the UNESCO-listed city of Merv was one of the Islamic world’s great metropolises, and an important stop on the Silk Road. It was known as the Gate to Central Asia, and from here merchants could make their way to Bukhara and on to Samarkand.
For those seeking to travel to Turkmenistan to explore the Silk Road, an organised tour is a good option and it’s well worth the side-trip from Uzbekistan.
Wild Frontiers Travel offers an eight-day tour which includes spending time in the capital of Ashgabat and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Merv, once believed to be the world’s largest city. You'll fly to Dashoguz and the ancient capital of Khorezm at Konye Urgench. Returning to the capital through the desert, you will also catch one of the world’s most unusual sights – the peculiar Darvaza Gas Crater at night.
For centuries, Azerbaijan served as one of the most important points along the Silk Road, with the Country of Lights being the unofficial gateway between the mystical lands of China and the wealth of Europe. Azerbaijan was, in those days, a politically stable nation and as such attracted merchants from far and wide. Indeed the country had an additional bonus, which made it a crucial part of the trading routes: transportation by water via the Kura River, which was the cheapest and fastest way to travel.
Two routes (known as the Strabon Way) led through the country. One led upstream towards the Caucasian Iberians, and the other led to the western coast of the Caspian Sea. Between the 5th and 10th centuries, Barda, the then capital of Azerbaijan, was considered to be one of the greatest trading centres of crafts such as silk, carpets, jewellery and candlesticks in the world.
Silk Road Tours offers two packages to the largest but least well-known of the three Transcaucasian countries, including an eight-day trip from Baku into the medieval and historic trading towns as well as a two-week journey through the heart of the Caucasus nations of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. Penguin Travel has a nine-day tour of the northern part of the Silk Road, where you’ll see why Azerbaijan is one of the best destinations along the historic trade route.
Georgia is located on the crossroads of Europe and Asia at the eastern end of the Black Sea, with Turkey and Armenia to the south, Azerbaijan to the east, and Russia to the north.
The Caucasian Silk Road route gained importance in the 6th century following the confrontation between Byzantium and Iran. When it became unprofitable to deliver silk to Byzantium and other Mediterranean countries via Iran for economic and security reasons, Central Asian merchants explored a new route via Georgia. The route ran north from the Caspian Sea, crossed the Caucasus range (via Dariali gorge or other passes in the west of Georgia) before proceeding to Byzantium. The first caravan loaded with silk passed this route in 568.
Georgia has an amazing array of cultures, religions and fascinating landscapes, from the snowy peaks of the Caucasus mountain range, to fertile lowlands, steppes, deserts, wetlands and subtropics.
Georgia’s winemaking traditions date back over 8,000 years, making it one of the oldest wine producing regions of the world. The valleys of the South Caucasus are believed by many archaeologists to be the source of the world’s first cultivated grapevines and Neolithic wine production. Georgia prides itself on its deep rooted traditions of hospitality, and its gastronomy and viticulture represent a strong part of its national identity.
There are a number of experienced operators that offer tours of Georgia and its Silk Road heritage. Caucasus Travel offers a 13 day Soul of Georgia tour which takes in almost all of the geographical and historical provinces of the country. Departing from Tbilisi, the nation’s capital, the tour’s highlights include the David Gareja cave monastery; the 18th century town of Sighnaghi; the Tsinandali residence – the first wine factory in Georgia; the town of Mtskheta (a UNESCO site) and the rock-cut town of Uplistsikhe (6th century BC).
Also, Explore Georgia has a 12-day tour of the north east part of Turkey and the central and southern regions of Georgia. The tour begins in Trabzon – a famous political centre in the medieval period – and continues along the Choruh River. You'll visit mostly unexplored areas of northeast Turkey with impressive canyons and fortresses, passing monumental churches particular to Georgian architecture. Upon crossing the border of Georgia via the fortified city of Akhaltsikhe, you'll then explore the incredible heritage of the region – a mixture of indigenous traditions and influences derived from both the West and the East.
Turkey’s place on the Silk Road cannot be underestimated. It was known as the cradle of civilisations as, among others, the Mesopotamians, Ottomans, and Byzantines thrived here. Even today, Turkey is known as the crossroads of Europe and Asia with the continental lines dissecting the country.
One of the most famous routes along the Silk Road was the Persian Royal Road that ran for 2,900 km from the Aegean Sea port of Ízmir, across Anatolia, and through Cappadocia. This volcanic region is famed for its stunning scenery including hardened ash that over centuries formed into bizarre shapes, as well as Mount Erciyes and its underground cities carved out to withstand the threat of invasion.
There are a number of tour operators who offer the full Istanbul to Beijing experience, lasting anywhere up to four months, including Oasis Overland and Odyssey Overland. However, you can also take tours within Turkey that include not only the Silk Road elements such as Cappadocia and the Sultanhani Caravansary, but also the site of the Temple of Artemis and Ephesus with Fez Travel.
Travelling the Silk Road isn’t easy, nor is it cheap. Half the roads, routes, paths and traverses have been consigned to history and, depending on where you want to go, you may need visas and other documents of passage.
However, when you’re there, you won’t want to be anywhere else on Earth. You’ll find wondrous, ancient lands that may not be rich in material terms, but are teeming with a rich, intriguing and fascinating history – the history of the Silk Road.