Silk Road Travel

Destinations — By on 12/02/2012 2:45 pm

Travelling the Silk Road is an adventure of a life time and a trip that will take you back in time to when Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire were connected to China by a network of roads and trade routes. If you travel on the Silk Road you will see fortresses thousands of years old guarding ancient strategic passes, ride camels across sweeping deserts and experience China’s most unique ethnic cultures.

What is the Silk Road?

The Silk Road was also a network of overland trade routes extending over 6500 kilometers that connected China to the Mediterranean over 2000 years ago. The route started in the ancient Chinese capital of Xian, crossed mountain ranges, deserts, steppes and oasis’s and finished in Levant, an ancient region now covered by Lebanon, Syria and Israel.

It was also instrumental in the development of ancient civilizations such as Persia, Arabia, Rome and China and was a critical influence in the development of the modern world.  It was also the source of legends and the inspiration of ancient explorers and traders such as Marco Polo and Friar John of Pian de Carpine.

Silk Road allowed the trade of goods such as silk, satin, hemp, perfumes, illegal drugs, gold and silver, exchange of technology, philosophies and religions.  The Silk Road was responsible for the spread of Buddhism from India to China and Japan. One of China’s classic novels “Journey to the West” is based on the spread of Buddhism on the Silk Road and follows the journey a Buddhist priest and his disciple of the Monkey King from China to India.

Not all of the exchanges on the Silk road were positive and the Silk Road was responsible for the spread of the bubonic or black plague that wiped out up to 60% of Europe’s population.

Trade on the Silk Road was not continuous and goods and ideas exchanged hands many times through a series of oasis town market places and bazaars in many different countries before reaching their final destination.

History of the Silk Road

The Silk Road began around 329 BCE when Alexander the Great conquered all of the known world, built the City of Alexandria Eschate and promoted trade to the east.

The next major development in the Silk Road was when the Han Dynasty wiped out the inhabitants of the Taklaman Desert, started settlements and established trade and diplomatic relations with countries to the west

After the Roman empire conquered Egypt in 30BCE, trade between China and Europe along the silk road boomed. Large numbers of ships sailed from Egypt to India every year to exchange goods on the lower Silk Road.  Growth in the trade of silk on the Silk Road was driven by strong Roman demand supplied by the Parthians (a silk road intermediary). Roman demand for Chinese silk was so strong that the balance of trade was in the red and Rome’s coffers were running dry. The Roman senate responded by sulking and prohibiting the wearing of silk.

Trade and the influence of the Silk Road grew after the collapse of the Roman Empire and peaked around the 12th century. The monopolization of trade by the Muslim Caliphate empires, the disintegration of the Mongol Empire and the establishment of shipping routes all led to the end of the Silk Road in the 15th century.

Silk Road Revival – Modern trade on the Silk Road started again when China and Kazakhstan connected their railway systems in 1990 you can now travel from Urumqi in Xinjiang to Almaty and Astana in Kazakhstan. The establishment of a freight rail link in 2011 between Chingqing and Duisberg in German was a much needed boost in Silk Road trade. Freight between German and China by train on the Silk road takes 13 days compared to shipping that takes 36 days.

Travelling the Silk Road

Silk Road travel begins in Xian (called Chang’an in ancient times), passes through Dunhuang and Urumqi and ends at Kashgar.  Depending on how much time you have, your budget and your method of travel, your trip can vary from see every major spot on the Silk Road to seeing just the key spots such as Xian, Urumqi, Kashgar and Jiayuguan Pass.

I have listed below each of the key sites on the Silk Road and the main features/attractions of each site.

Xian – Is over 3’100 years old and was one of the four great Ancient Capitals of China. Xian, formerly known as Changan was the capital of China during great dynasties such as the Tang Dynasty. When you travel to Xian, you can see the famous Terracotta Army, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, the Bell Tower and ride a bike in the city wall. Xian is

an incredible city and one of the many places you must see in China even if you have no intention of travelling the Silk Road.

Lanzhou – Is the capital of Gansu Province, is on the Yellow River and a major Silk Road travel hub. Near Lanzhou are classic attractions such as the Thousand Buddha Caves that are over 2’000 years old and the Labrang Monastry.

Jiayuguan Pass – Jiayuguan is a fortress on the Western end of the Great Wall of China guarding the strategic Shanhai Pass which is a critical Silk Road pass. The fortress is enormous, very well preserved and magnificent. The fortress is easily one of the most impressive spots on the Silk Road.

Dunhuang – Dunhuang’s claim to fame is it’s a trading hub and oasis on the Silk Road and its Magao Caves. The Magao caves are a series of Buddhist temples built on caves. Great to see but one of the less important spots on the Silk Road.

Turpan – This desert city is over 6’000 years old, a home to 21 different ethnic groups, a peaceful mix of eastern and western relgions and is located on a key junction between eastern and western China. Turpan is a gourmet’s delight with dishes such as kebabs, Nang and roast lamb available on the street. Turpan also has well known attractions such as the Flaming Mountain (hottest place in China), Emin Minaret (very tall ancient Muslim tower) and the Aydingkol Lake which is the lowest point in China.


Urumqi – Located in the foot of the Tianshan Mountains in far north west China, Urumqi is the capital of Xinjiang and famous for being a major city furthest from any ocean. The two main ethnic groups in Urumqi are the Uyghur who are native to the area and Han who are migrants. There is often tension and political turmoil between these two groups. Islam is the dominant religion in Urumqi and the Islamic influence is visible in the architecture, food, dress and behaviour of the Uyghur.

Urumqi is regarded as a beautiful city and it also has famous tourist attractions such as the gorgeous Heavenly Lake on a mountain peak east of the city (not to be confused with Heavenly Lake in Jilin Province) and Southern Pastures, a famous resort cum pastures to the south. Urumqi is not one of the key spots on the Silk Road but it does provide a fascinating insight into the ethnic make up of China.

Kashgar – Kashgar is the Muslim center of China and one of China’s most inaccessible cities. This gives Kashgar a look and feel different from any other Chinese city and different from the rest of Xinjiang. Kashgar is also an oasis city with a population much less than half a million which is tiny by Chinese

standards. Walking around Kashgar you could easily imagine yourself in the middle east.

Apart from colourful and fascinating culture and environment, Kashgir also has a number of attractive sights such as the Id Kah Mosque which is the largest Mosque in China and the Sunday Bazaar which is an enormous market typical of Silk Road bazaars.

Kashgar embodies the spirit, culture and environment of the original silk road and is a must see for anyone travelling on the Silk Road.

Taklamakan Desert – This desert separates the Silk Road, is China’s largest desert and the world’s second largest shifting sand desert. The continuous sand dunes in the desert are around a 100 meters high and can go to over 300 meters in height. The desert is ringed by bustling oasis towns supplied by rainfall from the nearby mountains that were key stops for the Silk Road caravans. Two cross desert highways have been built that link the oasis towns of Aksu to Hetian and Korla to Minfeng. Silk Road

Recommended Silk Road Route

Ideally you’d want to start in Xian, finish in Kashgar and see every spot on the Silk Road. Most of us can’t do this so I have listed recommendations below for getting the most out of your Silk Road trip.

Must see sites

Xian – Xian alone is an incredible city to visit and the starting point of the word’s most famous road. You cannot do a Silk Road trip with out seeing Xian.

Kashgar – This city embodies the history, spirit, terrain and cross cultural nature of the Silk Road.

Jiayuguan Pass – This is most western end of the Great Wall and an incredible fortress.

Taklamakan Desert – You can’t really know what travel on the Silk Road was like until you see and cross this desert.

Should see sites

Urumqi – This city provides an incredible contrast to the rest of China and will give you a unique look and at ethnic heart of western China.

Turpan – A multitude of ethnic groups, great food and desert location make Turpan a unique and compelling site.

This is my recommended route

Xian – Jiayuguan Pass – Urumqi – Turpan – Kashgar – Hetian (desert crossing) – Aksu – Dunhuang

From Dunhuang you can either fly to the international airport you’ll use to leave China or fly to another city such as Hanzhou where you can continue your travels in China.

How to Travel the Silk Road

You have three main choices for seeing the Silk Road 1 – A tour from Beijing, Shanghai or Xian 2 – Independent travel and local tours 3 – Complete independent travel.

Tours – I’m not a big fan of tours and normally avoid them like the plague BUT they are the easiest and most efficient way to see the Silk Road. If you do take a Silk Road tour, start and finish in Xian. Tours from Beijing and/or Shanghai will cost a lot more and waste 2-3 in the starting city before reaching any of the Silk Road sites. If possible, also choose a tour that has more emphasis on overland travel and less on plane travel.

Independent travel  and local tours – Making your way independently to Xian, Urumqi, Kashgar and the other major Silk Road sites by train or plane is easy and there will be many travel agents offering tours ranging from one day to over five days. This is the way I’d travel the Silk Road because you have the freedom of travelling independently and choose where you stay and for how long without the hassle and danger doing every thing yourself.

Complete independent Travel – Travelling independently and making all your own arrangements is difficult because you require local knowledge, a LOT of time and patience, a way to deal with multiple language barriers and a willingness to rough it.  Many of the ethnic minorities have their own spoken and written language so even if you speak fluent Mandarin, communications can still be very difficult.

On the bright side most travel agencies and hotels will hire cars and minivans with drivers at reasonable rates and buses between the larger cities are easy to catch. The three day bus trip from Urumqi to Kashgar provides spectacular views and a must do for independent travellers.

Road travel on the Silk Road

Western China has seen a lot of development and improvements in transport infrastructure so travelling by road is now practical, easy and reasonably safe. I’ve listed below the times and distances of key road routes.


(one way)

Driving hours

Urumqi-Heaven Lake















Kashgar-Lake Karakuli












Kashgar-Akesu /Aksu









Kuche-Kuerle /Kurla



Kuerle /Kurla-Turfan






Hetian–Akesu /Aksu




Train Travel in the Silk Road

Travel by train in the Silk Road is by far the best way. It is cheap, convenient, very comfortable with hard or soft sleepers, you get to see and mingle with the locals and see the landscape as you roll through the country. Trains go directly from all major cities to Xian and there are direct trains to Urumqi from Xian, Lanzhou, Beijing and many other cities. Every other city on the silk road from Kashgar to Dunhuang is connected by train.

If you are making a long train trip from east to west such as Beijing to Urumqi, make sure you take enough food and drink to last the trip because food and drink available on the train is often sold out after the first day, poor quality or very limited. Also make sure you bring plenty of entertainment, toilet paper and other toiletries.

Travel Tips for the Silk Road

Best Time to Go – Around May and October are the best months to go because summers are scorchers and winters are freezing.

Things to Bring – Even around May and October temperatures can vary a lot so bring clothes for summer and for a mild winter. Much of the Silk Road is at a high elevation where UV light is a problem so bring sunglasses, a hat and sunscreen.

Islam – Xinjiang is a Muslim dominated area so you will need to be respectful of the locals religious beliefs, don’t expect to eat pork and be suitably dressed if you visit any of the mosques. Women’s dress should be modest with legs and shoulders covered. Woman are not permitted in some mosques so be careful.

No McDonalds – Western food will be available in the larger cities such asUrumqi Kashgar but most places, especially in the rural areas will only have local food. You need to adapt to local cuisine which is includes a lot of fruit, beef, mutton, noodles and bread.

Avoid politics – Many Xinjiang people from ethnic minorities are not too fond of the central government so politics is a very sensitive subject. Best to play it safe and avoid politics all together.

pixel Silk Road Travel
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  1. Rosa Reid says:

    I    am  interested   in    SILK  ROUTE    
    Good  Morning  from London 

    • Brendon says:

      Good evening from Changchun Rosa. Sure, you can go west to east and end up in Beijing. That woudl be a brilliant trip. Timing is important though and you’d need to do a LOT of research.

  2. kim hill says:

    This is a great map and information.  Thank you.  Is the C = by car?  How long do you suggest for this trip?


    Also, looking for a hotel in Beijing on the subway line for 3 people, no hostel, but we can do a Chinese style.




    • Brendon says:

      Hi Kim, Yes, C is for car. Ideally you would want at least a month, idealy two months to see the Silk Road properly. Each of the major cities such as Xian and Kashgar can be can keep you busy for at least four days plus travel time. A Silk Road trip is not something you want to do in a rush. If you only have a couple of weeks, pick 2-3 key spots to see and make sure you spend a couple of days in the desert.


  3. Lily says:

    Thanks for the useful tips. Can you suggest the most reliable agent in China that do a tour based on your suggested route. Preferably agents that offer a good deal. Thanks a lot.

    • Brendon says:

      Hi Lily, I’ve had a look at a number of tours and have not found any I really like. They tend to go too fast and spend too little time in each destination. You really need at least two weeks west of Xian and you don’t want to be rushed. For example I ahve an itinerary for a one week trip that includes Urumqi, Kashar and a couple of cities in between. Crazy :)   If possible, plan your own trip then find a travel agent to book hotel rooms for you, sort out airtickets, local guides/drivers etc depending on your budget and comfort level.

  4. Chris says:

    I did the Silk Road trip with Intrepid travel which took 21 days to travel from Beijing to Kashgar in a small group (12 people). It was great!

    • Brendon says:

      Hi Chris, 21 days with Intrepid from Beijing to Kashgar….AWESOME!!! I just came back from a 10 day trip from Urumqi to the mountains west of Kashgar then south east to Hetian. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Intrepid so your trip would have been great. Which cities did you visit and what would you say was the highlight?

    • Meadhbh says:

      Hey Chris,

      How much was that trip? I want to travel the silk route but am a 24-yr-old irish female and will be alone, But I am also very independant and like doing things my own way in my own time and also like adventures like hikes, treks etc. Was the trip active and challenging with time in each place? Thanks

  5. Lily says:


    Love your write-up about the silk road travel. Can you give me advice on reliable tour agents in beijing as well as in Xian for this silk road travel. Must be English speaking and reasonable pricing.  I plan to go for this silk road tour in 2014.

    • Brendon says:

      Hi Lily, I recently went for a tour on the Silk Road that stretched from Urumqi to the mountains west of Kashgar then south to Hetian. Part of the tour was organized by the Xinjiang tourism department and part of it was organized by a travel company called China Culture Tour who I am doing a bit of work with. So far what I’ve seen of China Culture Tour and their guides is very good so you can contact them and see what they can offer you. You can email Grace who is one o the managers, her email address is 

      I’ll slowly making posts of different parts of that tour and will do a post on the actual tour itself later. Feel free to email me at if you have any questions about touring the SIlk Road.

  6. Meadhbh says:

    Hey Brendon,

    I plan on doing this route (and continueing into Europe) in November this year. I am a 24-yr-old Irish female travelling alone. I do not usually like tours as I find them constricting, but I would also like to have a bit of comfort kin knowing that I am safe etc. and as you said independant travel takes a lot of organisation and knowledge. I love nature, the wilderness, going on hikes, treks etc. Is the route you descibed above ideal for finding places like that on my own or would it be too difficult and dangerous? Thanks

    • Brendon says:

      Hi Meadhbh, You can do the entire Silk Road trip independently but you wil use a LOT of time and energy, many things can go wrong and you would be missing a lot because many of the attractions that are worth seeing need a car. Travel between the main cities by bus or train is easy once you reach your destination,  travel gets much harder. The best way to travel the Silk Road depends on your budget. Ideally you would go through a travel company and have them organize hotels, car and driver at each city but that would not be cheap.  I was in Xinjiang in June on a trip that was part tour and part independent travel with 3 other people. A great trip but it would have been very hard to do solo and extremely hard without knowing Chinese or having Chinese companions. If you want, email me at and I’ll give you the details of a good travel company that you can talk to about planning a trip.

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