From the architectural splendour of Isfahan to the arid high Pamir plateau, journeys along the Silk Road are steeped in history, with breathtaking views to match. Following its routes is one of the great travel experiences, says Bradley Mayhew
For many travellers, the Silk Road shimmers on the distant horizon with an almost hazy allure. But there was a time (120 BC-1450 AD) when it was the most important trade network on Earth.
For centuries, traders criss-crossed Asia on an epic network of routes, carrying not just bales of silk, jade and spices but also religious ideas, artistic designs and revolutionary technologies. To travel in their footsteps is to embark on one of the world’s great journeys. To this day, much of the Silk Road’s legacy is still visible, not least in the many cities that grew rich along its trade routes.
Whether shopping the endless bazaars of Tabriz in Iran, wandering the mud-walled backstreets of Uzbekistan’s Bukhara at dusk or waking up in a shepherd’s yurt high in the remote Pamir Mountains, to explore its ancient towns and landscapes is to see how this network once infused life across the Middle East, Central Asia and China.
For me, the Silk Road has always been about images of camel caravans, turbaned traders, desert crossings and oasis cities, and, even today, the route delivers on these romantic dreams. Yet travelling its ancient trails is, at heart, a trip through history. You will pass great treasures of Buddhist art and Islamic architecture, clamber through ruined cities once visited by Marco Polo and Genghis Khan, and traverse some of Asia’s wildest geography. Take a deep breath – this is truly an epic trip.
Night view of Azadi Tower in Tehran, Iran (Dreamstime)
Duration: 21 days
Best for: Architecture, history, cities
Route: Tabriz • Tehran • Qom • Isfahan • Yazd • Shiraz • Mashhad • Rabat-i-Sharif
Why do it? Follow Marco Polo’s route across the Iranian plateau, visiting the highlights of Persian architecture.
There are lots of routes across Iran with Silk Road connections. If you are overlanding via eastern Turkey, then a stop in Azeri-influenced Tabriz is a must, both to shop for carpets in the huge covered bazaar and to visit the sublime Blue Mosque.
From here, an overnight train is the best way to reach the country’s huge capital, Tehran, a modern city built atop the Silk Road settlement of Rey. At Tehran, it’s well worth detouring along a southern branch of the Silk Road that connected traders to the maritime route (the boats of which superseded the main overland route from the 15th century onwards).
A trip south via the holy city of Qom reveals the classical Persian architecture of Isfahan and the ancient Zoroastrian centre of Yazd, and also allows you to loop back to Shiraz, visiting the once powerful (now ruined) Persian capital at Persepolis.
From Shiraz, fly to Mashhad (1.5 hours), though purists may prefer to follow in the footsteps of Marco Polo, who made the 1,500km journey overland across the fringes of the Dasht-i-Lut Desert. Mashhad is home to the beautiful Timurid-era (1370-1507) Mosque of Gohar Shad and shrine of Imam Reza, and is a major Shiite Muslim pilgrimage site.
Admirers of Persian literature may also want to spend the day visiting the nearby tombs of two of Persia’s greatest classical poets, Abolqasem Ferdowsi and Omar Khayyam, buried in Tus and Nishapur respectively.
Finally, for a taste of what the Silk Road traders once experienced, continue on to the Turkmenistan border to visit the 12th century Rabat-i-Sharif Caravanserai, near Serakhs, where you can still make out stables, baggage stores and merchants’ rooms.
Song Kol Lake in Kyrgyzstan (Dreamstime)
Best for: Mountain scenery, homestays, horseriding, trekking, meeting locals
Route: Bishkek • Karakol • Kochkor • Naryn • Tash Rabat • Torugart Pass • Kashgar (China) or Osh
Why do it? An impressive network of homestays make this an easy place to get a taste for the nomadic life. Begin with a couple of days touring the Soviet-influenced sights of Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, from the Museum of Fine Arts to the statue of national hero Manas. Afterwards, hire a car, or taxi, via a homestay and dip east past the Silk Road-era minaret of Burana to Issyk Kul, a huge alpine lake fringed by the snowcapped mountains of the Tian Shan.
Karakol, in the east, is a particularly good base for some excellent short treks into the surrounding Alpine valleys, and an overnight stay in the Altyn Arashan Valley or a three-day trek to Ala Kul mountain lake is worth the added time. From here, head south to Kochkor, one of the best places to take advantage of Kyrgyzstan’s excellent array of community-based tourism organisations.
Homestays can arrange a wonderful three-day horse trek around the yurt-fringed mountain lake of Song Kul, staying with shepherds en route. Past Naryn, the one must-see detour is the Tash Rabat Caravanserai, a picture-perfect Silk Road landmark hidden down a side valley. Overnight in the yurt camp here before hiking up the ridge the next morning for views of stunning Chatyr Kul lake.
From here, you are just a couple of hours’ drive from the Torugart Pass, the incredibly scenic border crossing over the mountains to Kashgar in China, and beyond. But only consider taking this route between May and October, when the weather is more forgiving. If you are not crossing into China, take the little-travelled backroad south-west from Naryn to Kazarman and down into the ancient city of Osh, one of the great bazaar towns of the Fergana Valley.
Skull in Tajikistan mountains (Dreamstime)
Duration: 14 days
Best for: Mountain views, road trips, adventure, trekking, cycling, yurt stays
Route: Dushanbe • Khorog • Ishkashim • Murghab • Sary Tash & Irkeshtam (both Kyrgyzstan)
Why do it? Bordering Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, the Pamir Highway ranks as one of the world’s most scenic mountain highways, and follows part of the northern Silk Road.
After securing transport from Tajikistan capital Dushanbe, it’s a long, but scenic, two-day drive (or 45-minute flight) to Khorog, where you can join up with the Pamir Highway. This is the mountain capital of the autonomous far-eastern Gorno-Badakhshan region (note: travel within this area requires a permit separate to your visa); from here, your best bet is to hire a Soviet-era jeep and head south to Ishkashim, on the Afghan border, to travel the beautiful Tajik side of the Wakhan Valley.
Marco Polo travelled the area in the 13th century and you can still explore several of the Silk Road forts that date from that time. The views across the border towards Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush range are also amazing. As you swing back up north to the main Pamir Highway, you soon enter the high Pamir plateau, devoid of trees and broken only by the occasional turquoise lake or remote cluster of yurts.
Community tourism programmes based in regional capital Murghab can help you to explore what is one of the most beautiful, remote and little-visited corners of high Asia. From Murghab, swing north past horizons of deep blue lakes and muscular Pamir peaks, before rising into Kyrgyzstan at Sary Tash. Detour west for views of the 7,134m-high Lenin Peak, then head east to finish at the wild and beautiful Irkeshtam Pass, marking the border with China.
Ark fortress in Bukhara, Uzbekistan (Dreamstime)
Duration: 10-18 days
Best for: Islamic architecture, desert cities, bazaars, cultural life
Route: Tashkent • Samarkand • Bukhara • Khiva • Konye Urgench • Darvaza • Ashgabat • Merv
Why do it? With classic stops like Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, Uzbekistan is the architectural heartland of the Central Asian Silk Road.
Uzbekistan’s huge Soviet-era capital, Tashkent, is worth a day or two of your time, if only to visit its museums and to glimpse the world’s oldest edition of the Koran. From here, it’s easy to take the express train (around two hours) to the more architecturally impressive Samarkand, a city of luminous blue domes that has come to epitomise the exoticism of the Silk Road.
Stay a couple of days to soak up breathtaking Registan Square, the stunning blue tilework of the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis and the tomb of 15th-century warlord Tamerlane, who did more than anyone to shape the face of the city. A couple of hours away by rail lies Bukhara, a town that rewards longer exploration. Budget three full days to wander the fortress of the emir and take in the aerial view of the picturesque old town from the top of the Kalon Minaret.
The old trading halls here are the place to do your own bit of Silk Road trading for a Bukhara-style silk carpet or Uzbek-style suzani embroidery. From Bukhara, it’s a six-hour desert road trip to the oasis of Khiva, where a preserved walled citadel rises out of the horizon like a giant sandcastle. From here, flights can be had back to Tashkent from nearby Urgench (1.5 hours), but if you have time, it pays to detour into little-visited Turkmenistan, though it’s worth noting that UK citizens can only enter as part of a tour group led by a licensed guide.
Try to squeeze in such oddball sites as the ‘Gates of Hell’, or Darvaza Crater, a fiery pit of seeping natural gas that has been burning in Turkmenistan’s northern Karakum Desert for decades, before heading south to capital Ashgabat, where the architectural style is an odd mix of Las Vegas and Pyongyang. Historians should also pencil in the ruins of Konye Urgench, on the Uzbekistan border, and Merv (west of the capital), two of the Islamic world’s greatest cities until the Mongols pulverized them in the 13th century.
Muztagh Ata mountain, China (Dreamstime)
Duration: 14 days
Best for: Food, old towns, desert scenery, Uyghur culture, bazaars
Route: Kashgar • Tashkurgan (Lake Karakul) • Khotan • Kuqa • Turpan
Why do it? China’s western province of Xinjiang is one of its most interesting corners and home to the Turkic Uyghur people.
Start off in Kashgar, which was once a remote cul-de-sac set at the junction of the British, Russian and Chinese empires but is now reachable by flight or train from Urmqi, or via the exciting mountain passes from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Pakistan’s Karakoram Highway.
Most people time their visits here to coincide with the thunderous Sunday bazaar and animal market, where traders arrive in vast numbers to buy and sell livestock. But it’s also worth budgeting half a day to wander the ever-shrinking Uyghur (a Turkic ethnic group) quarter, with its traditional musical instrument shops and stalls dishing out hand-churned ice cream.
Fans of mountain scenery should make the overnight trip to Lake Karakul, a high-altitude lake set at the foot of snowcapped Muztagh Ata (7,546m) and Kongur Tagh (7,719m). Back at Kashgar, follow the southern Silk Road south-east to Khotan, site of another impressive Sunday market (a good alternative to bustling Kashgar) and where you’ll see jade being carved and silk being woven using the same techniques that have survived here for over two Millennia. Amateur archaeologists can get their kicks at the nearby Buddhist stupa of Rawak and the ruined Silk Road cities of Yotkand and Melikawat.
From Khotan, overnight buses make the 13-hour journey across the Taklamakan desert to Kuqa, and ensure you don’t waste a day travelling in the heat. Here, you can visit the Buddhist caves of Kizil, before making a side trip to explore the ruined stupas and temples of 1,500-year-old Subashi, 20km outside town.
Overnight trains make the long journey to Turpan more bearable, as you emerge in the region’s most enjoyable, but also lowest and hottest, town (avoid July and August). You could easily spend several days here, visiting the amazing ruined cities of Karakhoja and Yarkhoto, as well as the Buddhist Bezeklik Caves and the 44m-high Central Asian-style Emin Minaret – a fine example of how influences have spread along the Silk Road.
Jiayuguan Pass tower, China (Dreamstime)
Duration: 11 days
Best for: Buddhist art, temples, desert, food, history, trains
Route: Urumqi • Dunhuang • Jiayuguan • Zhangye • Lanzhou • Xi’an
Why do it? A train journey through Western China that takes in the Silk Road’s most evocative artistic treasures, along with forts, monasteries and the famed terracotta army.
From the transport hub of Urumqi, in China’s Xinjiang Province, overnight trains whisk you the 1,000km to neighbouring Gansu Province and Liuyuan, where connecting buses (two hours) can take you the stunning Mogao Thousand Buddha caves at Dunhuang (see ‘Top Tip’). History fans may also wish to backtrack 90km west to the Yumen Pass, the site of an eroded watchtower and customs post that once marked a major junction of the northern and southern silk roads.
Trains from Dunhuang station leave for Jiayuguan (around five hours), where the city’s impressive fort and the western-most point of China’s Great Wall evoke an ‘end of empire’ flavour. This was where criminals and out-of-favour bureaucrats were once cast out of China and thrust into the barbarian lands of the west. Road and rail links funnel through the narrow Gansu corridor, as the grey wastes of the Gobi are hemmed in by mountain ranges. Zhangye is worth a stop for its 34m-long reclining Buddha, which was also mentioned in the writings of Marco Polo (who has his own statue in town).
To get off the beaten track, make a day trip out to Mati Si (Horse Hoof Monastery), an impressive site carved into an imposing cliff face. A five-hour train ride from Zhangye delivers you to provincial capital Lanzhou. This is mostly just a transport hub beside the Yellow River, but you can peruse some Silk Road finds at its fine provincial museum, or make a day drip by boat to the Buddhist caves at Bingling Temple.
The trip ends, like the Silk Road itself, at Xi’an in Shaanxi Province. In the road’s heyday, this city was better known to travellers as Chang’an, the original capital of Imperial China and famed location of the Qin Emperor tombs and their terracotta army. Walk around the intact city walls and fascinating Muslim Chinese district and ponder your trip at the Wild Goose pagodas, built to house Indian Buddhist scriptures carried back along the length of the Silk Road.
Main image: On the Silk Road to China (Dreamstime)