From the time of the ancient Tang Dynasty, Buddhist monks and caravan traders crossed the vast deserts of northwestern China to transport luxury goods to and from the bazaars of Central Asia and Europe. Today, the principal routes they followed – collectively known as the ‘Silk Road’ – offer a wonderful prospect for any traveller with a sense of adventure and romance.
Our recommended Silk Road journey begins at the imperial capitals the great trade artery helped to create: Xian and Luoyang. After a visit to the Longmen Grottoes and Terracotta Army – two of China’s most spectacular archaeological sites – you head north to Jiayuguan Fort, at the far western end of the Great Wall, marking the limits of ancient China. From there it’s desert all the way as you proceed west to the famous Mogao Caves at Dunhuang, then on to Turpan, site of a couple of long deserted Silk Road cities, and finally, Kashgar, the fabled Uyghur market town at the crossroads of High Asia.
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Places to visit in The Silk Road
Bingling 'Thousand Buddha' Grottoes (Gansu)
Of all the great rock-cut religious sites along China’s Silk Route, Bingling boasts the most grandiose setting. Its 183 caves, carved over a period of 1,600 years by a succession of dynasties, encrust the foot of vast sandstone escarpments...
Crescent Lake & the Singing Dunes
Some of the highest dunes in western China – in fact the entire world – lie a short ride south of Dunhuang. Nestled at their foot is a small, half-moon-shaped lake, next to which a Buddhist shrine sits amid the incongruous greenery – one o...
Jiayuguan & the Hexi Corridor
Squeezing for 650 miles (1,000km) between the Tibetan Plateau and dunes of the Gobi Desert, the Hexi Corridor was the crux of the Silk Route’s northern branch. A necklace of oases dotted along this ancient trackway enabled caravans to trav...
Having squeezed around the edges of the Taklamakan Desert, the northern and southern Silk Roads converged on Kashgar, Xinjiang’s westernmost city. Crowds of farmers and nomads still flock in each week for the town’s famous Sunday market, t...
Labrang Monastery (Xiahe)
The lush mountains southwest of Bingling mark the outer limits of Tibetan influence – a fact dramatically underlined by the presence among them of Labrang Monastery, the largest and most important lamasery outside Tibet. Overlooking the ma...
Mogao Caves (Dunhuang)
Honeycombing desert cliffs above the Dachuan River, the ‘Caves of a Thousand Buddhas’ at Mogao, Dunes near the town of Dunhuang, are the greatest surviving monuments of the Silk Road. Around 500 chambers are all that’s left of a once much ...
This atmospheric Uyghur oasis town on the northern Silk Road owes its existence to a 3000-mile network of irrigation tunnels and wells, known as Karez, that collect and channel meltwater from nearby mountains. Turpan’s elevation, at 30m be...
Urumqi & Heaven Lake
A major stop on the old Silk Road, Urumqi is today the capital of Xinjiang’s ‘Uyghur Autonomous Region’ (UAR), with a population of over 3 million. It’s a sprawling modern city, of interest primarily as a transport hub, but does possess an...
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