Silk Road


Overview

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The Silk Road is the greatest travel route of all time. Spanning roughly 8,000km from Istanbul to Beijing, the Silk Road isn’t even one distinct highway, but rather a network of spidering tributaries once used by ancient traders to get their goods to and from the Orient, tying the Mediterranean to the Pacific.

Those tributaries take in some of the most fascinating sites of Asia – leaving Turkey to pass through, among others, Syria, Iran, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and China. Other Silk Road stalwarts – Iraq and Afghanistan – are sadly off-limits for now.

In the 13th century the Silk Road’s most famous follower, Marco Polo, became the world’s first professional traveller. To follow the route set out in his book, The Travels, will take the modern-day explorer some considerable time and planning – but what an adventure!

Planning is indeed key. Crossing this much ground, and this many countries, you will need to have all of your documents in order, which means negotiating a mountain of red tape: practically all of the Silk Road countries require you to have visas, with varying restrictions imposed.

Then there’s your mode of transportation: if you chose to take your own vehicle, that’s more red tape to sort out; buses will be flexible but limiting and time consuming; trains possible for most of the way, but incredibly slow. Some hardy souls chose to cycle – time and comfy shorts essential.

And which route to chose? You could do a small chunk (say Bukhara in Uzbekistan to Kashgar, China) in a couple of weeks for an atmospheric taster; spend three months plotting a course from Istanbul to Xi’an; or take six months for a full-on Istanbul-Beijing jaunt, allowing plenty of time for trekking and riding detours en route.

The Silk Road can be a massive undertaking or a great focus for a fortnight’s trip to a smaller slice of Asia. Get out the map and start scheming… 

Further Reading

Silk Road Top 5

  1. Cross the Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey – the watery divide between West and East. Though only a short and cheap ferry ride, this stretch of water is the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and your gateway to a whole new continent. Of course, don't miss the sites on the European side of Istanbul (the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the Grand Bazaar...) before leaving.
  2. Explore the Roman ruins of Syria’s desert oasis, Palmyra. Spend at least 24 hours at these well-preserved remains: see them at sunrise and sunset (the latter is best from the nearby hilltop; any local cafe/hotel will be able to arrange transport).
  3. Marvel at the glittering tiled domes and ancient medressas (colleges) of Bukhara and Samarkand, Uzbekistan. In Bukhara visit the Ark, a World Heritage-listed royal town-within-a-town; in Samarkand head for the 15th-century Registan, a central square that is home to some of the region's most dazzling architecture. From here, continue east to Tashkent and Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan).
  4. Drive the hair-raising Karakoram Highway, Pakistan, stopping off for mighty mountain trekking en route. The drive itself is a big part of the experience: you'll share the rock-hewn route with multi-coloured trucks and occasional landslides, the River Indus burbling below. Notable highlights include the point where the Karakoram, Himalaya and Hindu Kush ranges meet, and the scenic splendour of the Hunza Valley,
  5. Shop at the Sunday market in Kashgar, China, where traders from all over Central Asia come to sell their wares. This ancient commerce hub may be in modern-day China, but it's distinctly Islamic in feel – and is home to the country's largest mosque.