The wayposts of the Silk Road are a litany of adventure and romance crossing half the world. Already ancient when Marco Polo set out from 13th century Venice, the 13,900-km (8,700-mi) route to Kublai Khan’s capital of Beijing is still fraught with the same historic dangers. War, pestilence, religious confrontation and plain banditry continue to influence travellers’ choices – and are the reason why the Silk Road is not one, but a series of fragmented routes which tell a collective history.
Created by trade, the Silk Road has always been even more important as a conduit for ideas. The exchange of science and technology, of philosophy, religion and artistic culture has scored a trail of monumental magnificence across two continents. Venice, Istanbul, Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Kashgar, Urumqi, Dunhuang, Lanzhou and Xi’an stand out, but the mountain ranges, deserts, steppes, rivers and other natural obstacles between them hide a thousand treasures ranging from whole medieval cities to the most exquisite Islamic and oriental objets d’art. There are only two rules for travellers who want to make the most of the Silk Road: always expect the unexpected, and embrace cultural differences to the best of your diplomatic ability.
In many ways, the present Silk Road is the legacy of Kublai Khan. From Turkey to the China Sea he established the ‘Ulak’ system of caravanserais, where travellers could rest, and couriers could change horses (he could send a message from Beijing to Damascus and get a reply in six weeks). You find them, a Byzantine arch or a quintuple-tiered pagoda, on the horizon of mountains and deserts – and just as welcome whether you arrive on foot, by camel train or truck. Kublai Khan’s ‘Big Idea’ always was communication between peoples – and there’s no better way on earth than to chase it down the Silk Road.
WHEN TO GO:
Year-round, according to which section you want to travel. A French team recently demonstrated that with meticulous planning, and travelling on horseback, you can travel the entire distance at the optimum season for each region.
TIME IT TAKES:
Many agencies offer tours of one or more sections of the Silk Road, ranging from 10-23 days, and including short treks on foot and by camel. Typically, 12-14 days for sections within Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan: 14-23 days for sections within China (Kashgar, Xi’an, the Great Wall west Gate at Jiahuagan and Beijing): 15 months (Venice-
Beijing, by horse). Most agencies will help you personalize their advertised tours
Riding in a camel train on the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert.
The very rare ‘Singing Sand Dune’ of Moon Lake.
The maze of markets and alleyways in Kashgar, where colourful traditional dress and a myriad range of Kyrgyz, Uighur, Tajik, Kazakh and Chinese faces demonstrate its
historic importance as a melting pot for trade and culture. The Sunday market draws 100,000 people, wherever you are on it, just the idea of being ‘on the Silk Road’ is totally
exhilarating – even when things aren’t especially comfortable or easy to handle.
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
The title of ‘Silk Road’ was invented by the 19th century German historian and geographer, Ferdinand von Richtofen, father of the ‘Red Baron’, the world war l Luftwaffe flying ace