The Silk Road evokes tales of camels and caravanserais, of great explorers and warriors crossing the deserts of Central Asia. Joanna Lumley is the latest traveller to venture along this ancient network of trading routes, following in the footsteps of Marco Polo and Alexander the Great for her forthcoming ITV series Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure. The series promises to shine a light on a part of the world that is often overlooked by travellers, visiting countries that you may not even have heard of.
A lack of tourist infrastructure and the distances involved make independent travel difficult in most Silk Road destinations, so it’s no surprise that escorted touring is the most popular way to visit the region. From stunning Islamic architecture and ancient bazaars to snow-capped mountains and turquoise lakes, the Silk Road has so much to offer that you’ll struggle to fit it all into a single trip. Here are just a few of the highlights...
Uzbekistan’s trio of stunning Silk Road cities - Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand – are home to some of Central Asia’s most beautiful buildings. This desert land was once the centre of a vast empire forged by the brutal Timur, better known as Tamerlane, and Timurid architecture is typified by bulbous turquoise domes and intricate tilework. This style reached its zenith in Samarkand, a city once spoken about in the same semi-mythical tones as Timbuktu or Shangri-La. The breathtaking Registan Square, flanked on three sides by towering madrasas, is one of the most impressive sights anywhere on the Silk Road. Tours focusing on Uzbekistan include Explore!’s ‘Golden Road to Samarkand’ adventure, which includes Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, along with time in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, and a night in a yurt at a remote camp in the Kyzylkum Desert.
Western perceptions of Iran have been shaped by geopolitics, and the country remains terra incognita for most travellers. Those who do make it here, however, are invariably moved by the extraordinary warmth and hospitality of the Iranian people. And that’s before you even consider the rich culture and history of this ancient land, from the magnificent ruins of Persepolis to the sublime Islamic architecture of Esfahan. Although there are tours that race through Iran in 10 or even 7 days, we recommend spending at least a fortnight here. Exodus have a fabulous 14-night ‘Journey to Persia’ itinerary that visits all the key sights, tracing the Silk Road through Iran via bustling bazaars, atmospheric mudbrick cities and idyllic desert oases.
The Chinese province of Xinjiang is home to the Uighurs, a Central Asian people who have their own language and a distinctive Islamic culture. The region is dominated by the desolate Taklamakan Desert, and the route that winds along its northern fringes was one of the most treacherous parts of the old Silk Road. Travelling here is usually difficult and expensive, but budget-friendly operator Intrepid have a great ‘China’s Silk Road’ tour which visits key sights including the Buddhist caves near Dunhuang, the attractive oasis of Turpan and the old frontier town of Kashgar, home to a sprawling Sunday market where local farmers haggle over livestock.
Conflict between the Byzantine and Persian empires during the 6th century led to Silk Road traders seeking safer routes that bypassed Persia, and a new northern route through the Caucasus mountains began to gain importance. Modern day travellers are also flocking to this region in increasing numbers, lured by spectacular hiking, fantastic food and wine, and some of the world’s oldest Christian churches. Ramblers Walking Holidays offer a 13-night Georgia and Armenia tour which includes cosmopolitan Tbilisi, the stunning mountains of Kazbegi, the wonderful wineries of the Kakheti region and Armenia’s ancient monasteries.
The Chinese city of Xi’an was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, the main point of departure for the piles of silk heading west towards Europe. Although Xi’an is now a sprawling modern metropolis, plenty remains from the city’s glory days as a Silk Road hub, including the narrow lanes of the Muslim Quarter and the imposing Ming-era walls. But Xi’an’s most famous attraction lies just outside the city at the burial site of the emperor Qin Shi Huang, where thousands of life-size terracotta warriors were discovered in 1974. For the ultimate Silk Road adventure, Sundowners Overland’s 41-night ‘Grand Asian Caravan’ tour is hard to beat, beginning with Beijing and Xi’an before travelling west through Central Asia, Iran and the Caucasus, all the way to Istanbul.
The deserts and steppes of Central Asia are separated by spectacular mountain ranges, and adventurous travellers can follow the Silk Road into some of the most remote and unspoilt corners of the continent. The Tian Shan mountains run along the border between China and the little-visited country of Kyrgyzstan, where nomads still pitch their yurts amongst verdant mountain pastures and alpine lakes. More remote still is Tajikistan’s Pamir range, known as the ‘roof of heaven’, where the breathtaking vistas are scattered with isolated villages and ancient fortresses. Undiscovered Destinations explore both countries on their ‘Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan - Along the Pamir Highway’ tour, staying at simple lodgings and homestays en route.
The Silk Road is a slight misnomer, as it was actually a network of intersecting routes, rather than a single road from East to West. One branch wound its way from Persia through the Middle East and Anatolia, towards Constantinople and the Mediterranean. These days, of course, Constantinople is known as Istanbul, one of the world’s most compelling cities, and it’s the perfect start or end point for a tour exploring Turkey’s varied landscapes and fascinating historic sites. Trafalgar’s ‘Best of Turkey’ itinerary includes the subterranean Silk Road city of Sarhatli, the otherworldly landscapes of Cappadocia and the magnificent ruins at Ephesus, as well as plenty of time to soak up the East meets West atmosphere of Istanbul.
Of all the weird and wonderful places on the Silk Road, Turkmenistan is perhaps the most unusual. In ancient times this desert land was dominated by the fabled city of Merv, but as Merv has turned to dust so a spectacular new city has risen to the west. Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital, is a dictator’s playground of mind-boggling monuments hewn from white marble and gold, with the streets often eerily deserted. It’s no wonder this secretive state has been compared to North Korea! Vodkatrain’s epic 24-night overland adventure, ‘The Marco Polo’, includes time to explore Ashgabat and a visit to the bizarre Darvaza gas crater, which has been burning continuously since 1971 and is known locally as the ‘gates of hell’.
If you’re excited by the idea of exploring the Silk Road then take a look at the fantastic selection of touring itineraries on the TourHound website. Whether you want to focus on a specific country or travel the whole length of the Silk Road, you’re sure to find something to tempt you - simply Search, Compare, Select…