Trade up: 7 of the best trips to Silk Road cities

Follow in the footsteps of Joanna Lumley on these Silk Road adventures connecting some of the most vibrant destinations throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe...

4 mins

1: Trace Mongolia's fallen empire

The world's largest statue of Genghis Khan, Mongolia (Shutterstock)

The world's largest statue of Genghis Khan, Mongolia (Shutterstock)

Believe it or not, Mongolia was the birthplace of one of the world's most powerful regimes, with fearless armies and an empire that stretched from Europe to Japan. During the 13th and 14th centuries, it controlled a vast portion of the Silk Road route – and Intrepid's Wild Mongolia trip follows in the merchants' footsteps.

Over 15 days you'll wander around Genghis Khan's Karakoram capital, sleep in a traditional ger tent, and soak in the hot springs of Tsenkher. There's also plenty of time to interact with local people, as you'll stay in the home of a nomadic family, watch monks conduct colourful Buddhist ceremonies, and meet the Mongolian horsemen who roam the Steppe. 

Trip: Wild Mongolia

Who: Intrepid

When: Departures Jun-Sep

How long: 15 days

How much: From £2,005 (exc. flights)

2: Homestays & horseriding in Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan

Kazakh horse rider (Shutterstock)

Kazakh horse rider (Shutterstock)

If you've only a few days to spare, G Adventures' Best of Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan adventure offers a snippet of Silk Road glory, taking in two of the route's most important regions. First up, you'll see the sights of Almaty, the little-visited capital of Kazakhstan, before driving to Charyn Canyon – a vast 90km chasm that rips through the wild Kazakh plains. 

Then, it's on to Kyrgyzstan, where you'll experience the hospitality of nomadic families in a yurt  homestay, cooking and eating with your hosts and exploring the surrunding area on horseback. The country's myriad attractions bring its rich history to life: the 11th-century Burana minaret, a yurt-building workshop in Kyzyl-Tuu, and hiking through the picturesque Chon-Kemin valley are among this trip's highlights.

Trip: Best of Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan

Who: G Adventures

When: Departures May-Oct

How long: 9 days

How much: From £789 (exc. flights)

3: Find ancient treasure in Turkmenistan & Uzbekistan

Khiva, Uzbekistan (Shutterstock)

Khiva, Uzbekistan (Shutterstock)

Traders flocked to the ancient city of Merv like bees to a honeypot: everything from ancient treasures to tea leaves were bought and sold here. Today, the city is mostly reduced to ruins, but some of Merv's magic remains – here you can peer into crumbling mausoleums, explore dusty palaces, and soak up the sheer nothingness of the Karakum Desert.

It's the first stop on Explore Travel's Wonders of the Silk Road trip – a 14-day journey that spans Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Over the border, three living and breathing Silk Road cities await, each as charismatic and beguiling as the last. Bokhara is renowned for its prolific poets and beautiful madrassas, while Khiva's old quarter has been painstakingly preserved – it dates back to the 10th century in parts. Finally, the ornate mosques and mausoleums of Samarkand belie its lucrative location on the Silk Road, where it prospered under the tyrannical Tamerlane in the 14th century.

Trip: Wonders of the Silk Road

Who: Explore

When: Departures May & Sep

How long: 14 days

How much: £2,475 (exc. flights)

4: Venture into Afghanistan

Panjshir Valley (Shutterstock)

Panjshir Valley (Shutterstock)

Travel in Afghanistan is much, much more difficult today than it was during the days of the Silk Road – but the rewards are equally (if not more) plentiful. The ever-intrepid folks at Wild Frontiers are among the few tour operators still operating in the country, showing travellers the incredible landscapes, rich heritage and genuine hospitality that newsreels never see. 

The Afghan Explorer itinerary travels from Kabul deep into the countryside, taking in the mountain caves of Bamiyan, the lush Panjshir Valley and Band-e Amir's sapphire lakes. The Bamiyan valley was a main artery for the Silk Route merchants, where languages, traditions and religions merged in the shadow of the Hindu Kush mountains. 

Trip: Afghan Explorer

Who: Wild Frontiers

When: Sep

How long: 12 days

How much: £5,295 (exc. flights)

5: Be inspired by Iran

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan (Shutterstock)

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan (Shutterstock)

Iran is one of this year's most popular destinations – after years of secrecy and sanctions, travellers are returning to discover its ancient cities and architectural treasures. Ask anyone who's visited, and they'll tell you that Iranian hospitality is among the friendliest in the world. 

Peregrine's 14-day Ancient Persia in Depth trip reveals the riches of Iran's former glory. You'll soak up the sights of Tehran with a local guide, before driving to Hamadan – one of the oldest cities in the world. This trip is as close to time travel as you can get: highlights include Kangavar's 2,300-year-old Anahita Temple, the faded glory of Persepolis, and Isfahan's 10th-century mosque, one of the oldest in Iran.

Trip: Ancient Persia in Depth

Who: Peregrine

When: Departures Mar-May & Aug-Nov

How long: 14 days

How much: From £2,405 (exc. flights)

6: Take on the whole Silk Road route

Mausoleum Shochi-Zinda in Samarkand (Shutterstock)

Mausoleum Shochi-Zinda in Samarkand (Shutterstock)

Stretching from Turkey to China, the Silk Road makes for an incredible overlanding trip – indeed, some people class the traders' journeys as the first forays into long-distance touring. You can't get a more immersive – or memorable – Silk Road experience than Dragoman's whopping 120-day Istanbul to Ulaanbaatar trip: it ticks off more ancient ruins, wild frontiers and lush oases than any other itinerary. 

You'll make tracks in a purpose-built overlanding truck, sleeping in homestays, family-run hotels and wild camps along the way. The highlights are too plentiful to list (trust us, it goes practically everywhere) – and you'll gather incredible souvenirs, fantastic photos and unforgettable tales wherever you venture. 

Trip: Silk Road Between Istanbul and Ulaanbaatar 

Who: Dragoman

When: Departures Mar, Jun & Jul

How long: 120 days

How much: From £8,365 (exc. flights and kitty)

7: Wander west along China’s Silk Road

The rainbow rock formations in Zhangye (Shutterstock)

The rainbow rock formations in Zhangye (Shutterstock)

Travel the Silk Road as its very first traders did, starting in Xian, China’s ancient imperial capital, and heading west on this adventure on the Chinese section of this fabled route with Travel The Unknown. 

After exploring the ancient walls and temples of Xian, and meeting its extraordinary Terracotta Army you’ll trace the ancient pathways of merchants, scholars and smuggles towards the bustling frontier markets town of Kashgar. Along the way you’ll clamber up Jiayunguan's Great Wall Fort, the final frontier of China's Great Wall, immerse yourself in the Buddhist heritage of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang and barter in the desert trading post of Turpan.

Finally, you’ll reach the boisterous bazaars and livestock markets of Kashgar, a fitting full stop to Chinese part of this extraordinary trade thoroughfare.

Trip: Silk Road Through China

Who: Travel The Unknown

When: Departures Apr & Sep

How long: 16 days

How much: From £3,595 (exc. flights)

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