A journey from East to West
The Silk Road is actually a number of ancient routes which were taken to deliver silk around the world in a time before trains, planes, cars and buses. Silk has an ancient Chinese origin which spread to the rest of Asia and Europe during the Han dynasty around 206BC-220AD. The Silk Roads were worn by travellers in caravans which consisted of horses or camels.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that travellers became interested in the Silk Roads. Today, many archaeological and UNESCO world heritage sites line the roads including Mogao Caves. The route is also defined by shared cultures across Eurasia.
Travelling the Silk Roads
The Silk Roads span most of China, running through desert dunes and along the Great Wall, before branching north to Russia and west to Asia and Mediterranean Europe. The route winds its way from cities to isolated villages and towns. When travelling the road, visitors encounter around 20 different ethnic groups, each with their own language, food and culture.
Countries along the Silk Road
It’s important to note that many of the silk routes pass through present-day war zones and are therefore inaccessible.
The majority of the Silk Roads are located in China where routes pass through Xi’an and along the Great Wall. Of its 7,000 kilometre length, 4,000 kilometres are located in China. A high speed train now links Lanzhou to Urumqi, making it easier for travellers to journey along the ancient road. Much of the road within China is now listed by UNESCO.
Popular with horse riders, Kyrgystan offers rugged countryside landscapes with mountain passes and fertile valleys. Homestays and yurt stays are becoming more popular as travellers take on the silk routes.Mongolia
Linked to the Silk Road through Chinese trade and Genghis Khan, Mongolia is home to eagle-hunters, horse riders and nomads. Ger stays are common in the countryside. Visitors here can also jump on the Trans-Siberian railway.Tajikistan
The least visited country in Asia, Tajikistan is home to mountain hiking and camping. Visit the capital, Dushanbe, where the largest extant Buddha statue stands.Turkmenistan
Home to the beautiful Karakum Desert with craters and canyons. The Silk Road here travels past archaeological ruins at Nisa and Merv which were major stops along the ancient route.Uzbekistan
New and improved train lines make it easier for visitors to explore Uzbekistan’s mosques, mausoleums and ruins linked to the Silk Road. Samarkand, the major city along the route between China and the Mediterranean, is home to many of the ruins.Others
Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are offbeat Silk Road destinations that are accessible via flights. Israel, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey also played a role in the Silk Route but are often inaccessible due to safety concerns.
Travelling the Silk Road is much easier compared to centuries ago thanks to improvements in road and rail. Train travel is recommended for its convenience and inexpensiveness. Sleeper trains are great but you’ll need to bring your own food and plenty of water and toiletries.
Buses are the cheapest but slowest way to travel along the Silk Road. Alternatively, rental cars offer access to towns further from the major cities for those planning to explore further. Travel by air is suitable for visiting major cities along the route but it’s also the most expensive.
When to go
May and October are the best time to travel the Silk Road as winters drop below freezing and summers can be extreme.
Some of the countries along the Silk Road require a visa. Check you have the right documentation before you leave.