Tales of the Silk Road tell of intrepid adventurers, rowdy markets and camel caravans. Follow this ancient trading route through the extraordinary landscapes of the northwestern Chinese provinces of Gansu, Xinjiang and beyond, to the legendary trading hubs of Jiayuguan and Kashgar. If you want to follow the Silk Road farther, you can continue on into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in wander the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara.
At the height of the Silk Road, it was known as the ‘Golden City’, more recently it was named the ‘world’s most polluted’ but as time passes Lanzhou is becoming more and more of an attractive place to visit. The city changed hands many time as China and the Central Asian powers battled for supremacy, thanks to its position in a narrow valley on the banks of the Yellow River. Whilst in the city visit the Gansu Provincial Museum to see the excellent collection of Silk Road artifacts, before slurping down a hearty bowl of hand-stretched Lanzhou noodles. Around the city head out to the Thousand Buddha Caves of Bingling Temple, on the banks of the Yellow River, and the hilltop Baita Temple.
The monastic town of Xiahe sits in a beautiful mountain valley at 2,920 metres above sea level. It is a place where you can’t help but be swept up in the atmosphere, so exploring at your own pace is a must, to wander the streets, see the sights and even explore the surrounding mountains. The town has a majority population of Tibetans and attracts monks, nuns and pilgrims from all over the Tibetan plateau who come to prayer and prostate themselves at the Labrang Monastery, which dominates the town centre. A maze of prayer wheels, chapels and chortens, Labrang was established in 1709, when the area was part of Tibet. Much was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and was rebuilt in the typical Tibetan-style from the 1980s onwards. There is a three kilometre kora around the monastery is you would like to join the pilgrims. If you are not heading to Tibet at any point of your trip, taste the Tibetan momos (dumplings) whilst you’re here.
Surrounded by the otherworldly landscapes of North Gansu and marking the symbolic ( but not actual) end of the westernmost reaches China, Jiayuguan is home to the very last fort and end of the Great Wall. Beyond it is harsh wilderness and in imperial times, barbarian tribes. This is an important point on the Silk Road, the fortress built in 1372 to protect the Hexi Corridor, the only easily traversible road into China, through the Qilian Mountains to the south and the harsh, bleak desert to the north. The fort is perfectly restored and contains an excellent museum about the Great Wall and the Silk Road. Here you are standing on the westernmost extremes of the wall, which stretches over 5,000 miles eastwards from this point, an awe-inspiring thought.
Its skyline punctured by minarets, legendary Kashgar feels a million miles from China. The city thrived for two millennia as a crossroads on the Silk Road and continues to be an integral trading post today. The famous Sunday market still hosts thousands of people who descend on the city to buy and sell anything from fruit to boots to blenders. A visit here is a riot of textures, vivid colours and traditional dress – an unforgettable experience.
A fabled oasis set in a vast dry basin Turpan is famed for its grapes, its pleasant streets lined with lush vine trellises. The area surrounding the town has a long and important history and so is full of cultural treasures. Explore the ruins of the ancient city of Gaochang and visit the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Cave hidden in a gorge of the Flaming Mountains, easily combinable in a day trip.
Although no longer teeming with camel caravans, Urumqi still sits on its lush plain beneath the Tian Shan (Heavenly Mountains). Visit the Xinjiang Autonomous Region Museum for an introduction to the area’s history and minority groups before wandering the Uighur market stalls of Erdaoqiao Market. Whilst the city exudes an exotic Middle Asian ambiance, for a taste of the nomadic lifestyle head 45 kilometres up into the mountains to visit the spectacular Tianchi (Heavenly Lake). Here you can even spend the night in a Kazakh yurt on the lake’s grassy banks.
An oasis town on the edge of the Taklaman Desert Dunhuang sits surrounded by some of the world’s highest sand dunes. Once a refuge for those traversing the Silk Road this remote town is surrounded by many forts, towers and temples built by those who ended up staying for more than a night over the centuries. Today it is best known for the Mogao Caves with its excellent Chinese cave art, and its singing sand dunes.
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The world’s largest and most populous continent, Asia is a vibrant and rambunctious fusion of ethnicities, cultures and customs; an incomparably rich and turbulent history showcased by mindboggling feats of architecture and engineering; a geography that encompasses towering peaks, unfathomable gorges and paradisiacal beaches; and a biodiversity that is so abundant that you’ll be reaching for your wildlife guide.