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Before the opening of the sea route around the Horn of Africa in the 16th century, the principal way valuable merchandize travelled between China, India and Europe was overland, via the vast deserts and mountain ranges of Central Asia. Silk, a fibre whose origins were kept a closely guarded secret for thousands of years by the Chinese, formed the mainstay of this ancient trade, which is why the tangle of tracks along which it travelled came to be known as the ‘Silk Route’.
Writers from Goethe to Keats were fascinated by the near mythic cities that punctuated the road. Yarkhand, Kashgar, Bishkek, Khiva, Samarkhand and Bukhara . . . their very names evoke images of great caravans of twin-humped Bactrian camels marching across vast, undulating steppes, of turquoise-tiled minarets and onion domes rising against chimeric mountain backdrops, and of fabulous bazaars, where merchants from Aleppo, Baghdad and Damascus traded bolts of shimmering silk brocade, gold, silver, ivory and Mediterranean coloured glass for Chinese porcelain, paper, tea, perfumes and medicinal herbs . . .
With foreigners forbidden under pain of death to set foot in many of these far-flung capitals, most of what was known about them was, in effect, Chinese whispers until the Great Game of the 19th century, when they became pieces in a vast geopolitical chessboard.
Since the break-up of the USSR, however, the dusty heart of Central Asia has never been more readily accessible. Many of the great monuments have received spectacular facelifts, and there are plenty of comfortable hotels to stay in while you explore them.
Travelling overland and by plane, TransIndus Silk Route tours offer the chance to see the pick of the architectural treasures along the historic trade artery, from Beijing and the Caves of Mogao to the masterpieces of Kashgar, Samarkhand and Bukhara. You’ll also get to cross the legendary Tian Shan mountains, ride horses over the open steppe, and spend a night in a felt yurt with Kyrgyz nomads – all unforgettable experiences on one of the world’s greatest journeys.