Follow the Famous Silk Road
Once a trading passage for exotic materials and spices, the Silk Road is today littered with historic sights. Discover its many mysteries…
The Silk Road, or the Silk Route as it is also known, is an ancient link between the East and the West, formed as merchants travelled in both directions to sell their wares. Extending from China through South Asia and the Middle East, the network of routes very quickly became a trading artery for products from the East – including tea, paper, furs and spices, which were exchanged for valuable commodities such as gold, silver, precious stones, glass, ivory, wool and horses.
Over 5,000 miles long, very few travellers actually journeyed the whole distance of the Silk Road as goods would be passed from trader to trader in short segments.
Today, the route is firmly on the tourist map as travellers visit the fascinating historic sights along the way where fortunes, knowledge and ideas were once sought.
A Brief History
Named in the middle of the 19th century by the German scholar, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, the Silk Road is regarded as the greatest East-West trade route.
The Egyptians first purchased silk from the Chinese around the second century BC, but it wasn’t until the luxury fabric caught the eye of the Romans that trade really began to flourish. Soon, silk was sought-after in much of Europe, including the Spain, France and Italy.
Besides linking Eastern and Western traders, the world’s oldest information super- highway was also responsible for spreading Buddhism from India to China via Afghanistan and central Asia, and to China, Korea and Japan.
However, the region separating China from Europe is a very hostile one. The Taklimakan Desert – the driest and hottest desert in all of China – dominates a large portion of it. On a clear day, you can witness tornadoes from a single viewpoint, and sandstorms in April and May can bring darkness at midday.
The Silk Road lost its importance after Portugal’s Vasco de Gama circumnavigated Africa in the late 15th century and discovered a water route to India. It then became easier to travel between Europe and China by sea.
Mapping the route of the Silk Road
The best known segment of the Silk Road starts in the Chinese capital of Xian. It then takes traders westwards into the Gansu corridor through Lanzhou, Tianshui, Zhangye, Jiuquan along the Hexi Corridor reaching Jiayuguan – the giant barrier of the Great Wall and the first key point of the route – Dunhuang. From here, the route continues through Turpan, Urumqi and Kashgar, ending on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.
We take a mini tour of the Silk Road…
Xi’an was the starting point of the Silk Road. Xi’an has a vast number of precious relics and historical sites, which include 8,000 beautiful life-size statues known as the Army of Terracotta Warriors. There are also two historical Buddhist Pagodas, the Great Mosque and the Ancient City Wall.
Lanzhou, once known as Gold City, is the political, economic, and cultural centre of Gansu Province. An industrial city, Lanzhou lies on the banks of the Yellow River and its list of attractions include: The Green Corridor, Five Spring Mountain, White Pagoda Mountain, Sun Yat-sen Bridge and Waterwheel Garden.
Xiahe is a small yet busy town centred in a valley. It is situated 3,000 metres above sea level and is well-known for being home to the fabulous Labrang Monastery – one of the most significant monasteries for Tibetan Buddhists – and Sangke Prairie.
Called Liangzhou in the past, Wuwei is a place of affluence, and regarded as a city of culture and history. There are more than 543 relics and historical sites in the city and thousands of relics stored in museums. And the Wuwei Desert Park is well worth a visit.
Jiayuguan served as a significant trade link between China and the other parts of the world and is now home to one of the grandest forts on the Silk Road – the Jiayuguan Fort – located 6km from the city. The largest and most intact pass, or entrance, of the Great Wall is also here, known as the Jiayuguan Pass.
One of China’s most important ancient trading posts, Dunhuang is famed for the Mogao Caves which feature caves with Buddhist works of art carried out over a period of 700 years. Also known for the White Horse Pagoda, the old Yangyuan City and the beacon lights dating back to the Han dynasty.
Turpan got its name from the dark red sandstone dominating the area. Despite its harsh conditions, Turpan is nationally known for its grapes, cantaloupe and sun dried raisins. Popular sights here are Gaochang Ancient City, the Astana Tombs, and the Flaming Mountain.
Hotan has remained famous for centuries for its jade, silk and carpets. There are historic sites and various unearthed cultural relics in Hotan.
Sights to see along the Silk Road
If you’re feeling adventurous you may like to attempt the route taken by Marco Polo and other legendary travellers – self-made tours can be harsh, so it pays to take a guided tour with one of the scores of experienced operators you’ll meet along the route.
There are many sights to marvel at along the way, including such wonders as the ancient Chinese capital, Xian, and the Terracotta Warriors; the Jiayuguan Fort at the end of the Great Wall of China; the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang, with the greatest collection of Buddhist sculptures and murals from the 4th to 14th centuries; the scity of Turpan, with its colourful Uighur Bazaar and ancient underground irrigation system; Urumchi and the Heavenly Lake; Almaty in Kazakhstan, surrounded by the Tien Shan Mountains; Tashkent and its fascinating Old Town.
Then you can marvel at the three incredible Muslim cities – Samarkand with its spectacular Registan Square; Bukhara featuring stunning mosques, minarets, medressahs and fortresses; and the ancient feudal city of Khiva at the crossroads of Russia, Mongolia, China and Persia.
Go back in time
One of Australian Pacific Touring’s most popular routes is the Captain’s Choice tour, which covers the Silk Route by private train.While the journey may present great difficulties to the independent traveller, The Captain’s Choice Tour makes it safe, easy and luxurious.
The train comprises the finest sleeping cars available, ornate dining cars and a bar/lounge car. Guests are accommodated in top quality hotels in each city with daytime and, on occasions, overnight travel aboard the train.
The 27-day journey is offered in both directions and covers fascinating sites across Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
Another feature of the Silk Route tour is the chance to add on an optional pre or post-tour extension in St Petersburg, Shanghai or both. Guests travel with the support of a tour manager, a team of tour escorts and even a tour doctor to ensure a safe, healthy holiday.
The Captain’s Choice tours are all-inclusive and prices include hotel accommodation, travel, meals, a welcome drink at group dinners, bottled water while touring and with meals, luggage handling as well as taxes and travel insurance.
To book this trip of a lifetime, call the Captain’s Choice Tour on 020 8879 7705 or visit the website at www.captainschoice.co.uk