The Silk Road is rapidly becoming one of China's most popular tourist destinations. Heaps of travel agents and tour companies offer tours there in 2010. So why is it so popular? But first let's examine where the Silk Road is and how to get there?
Starting at the time of Christ, the Silk Road extends from Xian in central China to either the Middle East or Europe. In fact there are many routes, some to Moscow in the north and those into India and Pakistan in the south. Just like travellers in the time of Marco Polo - thirteenth century - the ancient trade routes still exist although the type of goods sold and the method of transport have changed. The reason why the Silk Road starts/ends in Xian is that it was the ancient capital of China and internal trade routes, in many cases along the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, were already established to distribute goods within China.
Many tourists start their Silk Road journey in Beijing. The Imperial City, the Great Wall of China the many places of historic interest will make a 3-5 day stay worthwhile. Add to it a little shopping and time to experience northern Chinese cuisine and you are ready for your Silk Road experience.
How to get there Most international airlines fly into Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. There is a lesser choice of flights to and from western China and most of these are based out of the capital of Xinjiang Province, Urumqi.
China has rail connections north to Mongolia, Hong Kong, Tibet and west to Moscow. For the more adventurous there are multiple rail links into Vietnam.
Coach access from/to Pakistan is available along the Karakorum Highway, apart from November though April, when it is closed. Delays and discomfort can be part of this route so be prepared. Travel in Pakistan needs serious consideration. We spent 12 wonderful days travelling there in late 2007 but with the rise of the Taliban the risk for westerners has increased dramatically.
Visas are required for all access points to China and I recommend that these be obtained well in advance.
How to get around Train travel is popular in China although it does have an extensive coach network. Of course you could fly but that would really defeat the main purpose of visiting China - to meet the people. Train travel is reliable, fast and cheap. "Soft" sleeping compartments either for four or on some routes for two persons are available or if you want to join the locals try the "hard" class, but unless you are on a tight budget, it's not recommended. You will need assistance buying the rail tickets as few station staff speak English. The timetables and options can be complex. Ask a travel agency with China experience to help.
Many companies offer tours along the Silk Road. Most of these use a combination of coach and rail travel. International companies include GAP, Peregrine, World Expeditions, Travel Indo-China. You'll find these using Google. Some tours include a tour leader and guide. Standards of accommodation and comfort are reflected in the pricing.
Another option is to hire a guide through Chinese companies like Xinjiang Silk Road Adventures in Urumqi. Local guides can be provided on a per day basis or overall for a tour, at very reasonable prices. Tour guides are required to be licensed in China.
When to Go China is a vast country covering eight time zones. It's climate varies considerably. Summers can be hot and sticky and the winters extremely cold so the best months are in Spring and Autumn. Consult a good guide book for the temperatures that you can experience at the time of your planned travel so that you can dress appropriately.
Silk Road Highlights To get the most out of a Silk Road journey it should not be rushed. Allow a minimum of 14 days in addition to any stay in Beijing. If you are including Uzbekistan add another ten days:
The major attractions are:
• Xian the Terracotta Army and other historic sites
• The Labrang Monastery in Xiahe, in the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous region
• The Fort and Great Wall of China Museum at Jiayuguan
• Dunhuang for riding the two humped Bactrian camels in the vast sand dunes. Nearby are the Buddhist Mogao Caves set into a desert backdrop of the Flaming mountains.
• Urumqi has an excellent Xinjiang Regional Museum. Two hours away is the spectacular lake district of China, the Heavenly Lake. Here you'll find Kazakh people living in yurts and grazing their herds of horses, sheep and goats. If you have the time, stay overnight and experience the food and hospitality of the locals.
• Turpan is famous for its grapes, and nearby are the ancient cities of Gaochang and Jiaohe, the Bezeklik thousand Buddha Tombs and the underground water systems called karez that link Turpan to much needed snow melt from the distant Tian Shan mountains.
• Kashgar, a trade route city for thousands of years. Visit the old city before it's demolished and attend the famous Sunday animal market which although dusty is a great spectacle.
• Those with extra time may find the southern Silk Road oasis towns of Yarkand and Khotan of interest. This area is less visited but does have some interesting side trips including camel safaris and treks into the Taklamakan desert. This predominantly Uyghur area has much of interest for those that are looking for something a little different.
• A short train journey or flight will take you across the western Chinese border and then on to Tashkent the capital of Uzbekistan. Here the real gems of the Silk Road are to be found in the ancient cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Coach travel in Uzbekistan is comfortable and affordable, although the rail line west offers an alternative.
If you are looking for a vacation with a difference and you are a little adventurous, then travelling the Silk Road should be on the top of your list. It is safe and affordable. And it is a hugely rewarding experience. Yes, it will have its challenges but what a story you can tell when you get home, not to mention your fantastic digital photographs of the highlights of this scenic journey.
You could, like Marco Polo, even write a book about your experiences. I did. It's called Following Macro Polo's Silk Road.
Brian Lawrenson Author Following Marco Polo's Silk Road www.marcopolopress.com
About the Author
Brian Lawrenson is British born, South African educated, married to a New Zealander and lives in Australia. His favourite past-time is travel and he and his wife have visited more than 70 countries. Brian is a Rotarian, a PHF & PP