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Highlights of the Silk Road

The Silk Road was an ancient network of intercontinental trade routes connecting China and the Far East with the Middle East and Europe. As well as exchanging luxury products like Chinese silk, spices, salt, sugar, jade, and fur, the disparate civilisations connected by the Silk Road also forged deep social, cultural and religious links – a meeting of minds that played an essential role in the development of the region.

It was on the Silk Road that overland travel was born, and to this day it remains one of the quintessential overlanding journeys. But with a network of routes spanning over 7,000km, there’s a lot to take in – so we’ve highlighted some of the top sights and cities you can see along the Silk Road below.

 

Come face-to-face with the Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an are one of the world’s most famous archaeological discoveries. This thousands-strong, life-sized, highly-detailed (no two faces are the same) army was set in place over two millennia ago to guard the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, and remained undiscovered until 1974, when it was stumbled upon by local farmers drilling a well. In the years since, it has become Xi’an’s premier attraction.

 

Rest your legs at Tash Rabat

Nestled high in the hills of Kyrgyzstan is Tash Rabat, a well-preserved stone caravanserai dating from the 15th Century and which would have accommodated travellers and merchants making their way along the Silk Road. In a country known more for its mountainous landscapes than its historical landmarks, it’s particularly remarkable; built from crushed stone on clay mortar, it consists of 31 dome-shaped rooms laid out in perfect symmetry. Its location near the Torugart Pass into China is spectacular and makes for an atmospheric and essential stop on a Silk Road journey.

 

Be mindful at Bǐnglíng Sì

The relatively inaccessible Buddhist grotto Bǐnglíng Sì sits along the Yellow River and is home to a wide array of carvings and frescoes – notably the centrepiece Maitreya Buddha, a 27m-high statue carved into the cliff side. There are over 180 small caves and nearly 700 statues at Bǐnglíng Sì, all well-preserved in spite of centuries of damage from erosion and earthquakes.

Gaze into the ‘Door to Hell’

Appropriately known as the ‘Door to Hell’, the Darvaza Gas Crater in Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert was first discovered in 1971 by Soviet engineers, who were drilling the area for oil. This huge pocket of natural gas was only protected by a thin crust of earth, which collapsed as they began drilling, not only subsuming their drilling equipment but also now spewing out methane in great quantities. To prevent the gas spreading, the engineers set it on fire – and it’s believed to have been burning continuously ever since.

Explore atmospheric Bukhara

The city of Bukhara in Uzbekistan was once a very powerful Khanate, controlling most of Turkmenistan and the surrounding area. Many of the buildings here are spectacular and well-preserved (the government has invested a considerable amount into maintaining it), particularly the Ark Fortress, Ismail Samanid Mausoleum, and the famous Kalyan Minaret (also known as the Death Tower). Exploring the streets, you really get the feeling that this is how Central Asia was before Soviet domination.

Discover historic Samarkand

A city brimming with history, Samarkand became famous in the 14th Century as the birthplace of the warlord Timur and the capital of his Sultanate. Thanks to its central location along the Silk Road, the town originally grew prosperous as a crossroads between East and West, creating a melting pot of different cultures and traditions whose influences are still very much apparent today. Highlights include the iconic Registan Square, Guri Amir and the Shah-i-Zinda mausoleum.

Walk around rocky Göreme

Göreme is an enchanting little town in the heart of the Cappadocia Mountains, and one of the few such settlements in the area in which the rock-hewn houses are still inhabited. The region is perhaps most famous for its rocky landscape of “fairy chimneys”, magnificent pillars of volcanic ash eroded over millions of years into unique and surreal shapes, and its celebrated open-air museum, which contains the finest of the area’s rock-cut churches and some beautiful frescoes.

Photograph the colourful Zhangye National Geopark

The Zhangye National Geopark is famous for its so-called ‘Rainbow Mountains’, Technicolor rock formations produced over the course of 24 million years by the accrual of sandstone and other mineral deposits, which have then been eroded into the most remarkable shapes. Located in the Gansu province in northwest China, the 124 square miles of this National Park are some of the most beautiful, not just in China, but anywhere along the Silk Route.

Haggle at the Kashgar Marketplace

Kashgar is a remote western outpost in the Uighur province of Xinjiang, which has managed to maintain an exotic atmosphere despite the ubiquitous march of Chinese modernity. For resident and visitor alike, the highlight of life here is the massive Sunday Market, for which tens of thousands of people from miles around flock to the city to buy and sell. You can find just about anything you can imagine here, as well as a few things you can’t...

Trek the hills at Jeti-Oguz

Seven spectacular red sandstone cliffs stand guard over the entrance to the Jeti Oguz Valley. Local tradition says that the cliffs were once wild bulls, immobilised by the gods to stop them terrorising local yurt dwellers. It’s perhaps Kyrgyzstan’s most beloved natural landmark, which is no small feat in a country renowned for its mountainous beauty.