Nowhere in the world enjoys such an ancient past and dazzling future as China. Travelling across this vast country, seeking out its epic history, you are constantly confronted by China’s rapid modernisation and perpetual state of change. It’s true to say that if you visited the Silk Road cities ten years ago they would be dramatically different to the vibrant, state-of-the-art oases of today and in another ten years they’ll be unrecognisable again. The dusty streets are being swept up and built on, donkeys and carts are being replaced by electric mopeds and mud-brick houses sit happily alongside new 5-star hotels but the cities are no less charming for it.
A modern lifestyle means that well-kept park areas are filled with smiling locals playing cards, exercising, dancing and singing. Marketplaces are abuzz with trade and are still fabulous places to pick up some bargains. The range of food venues is plentiful from local night markets to luxurious air-conditioned restaurants. And while clean toilets are harder to find than you might imagine, this has to be somewhere near the top of China’s list of things to build next!
Journeying the Silk Road from Xi’an to Kashgar it really does feel like you end in a different country to the one you started – the places are so very different ethnically, culturally and architecturally. While China’s former capital is a treasure trove of archaeological gems such as the Terracotta Army, Kashgar is geographically closer to Beirut than Beijing and has long enjoyed its strategic position at the crossroads with Central Asia.
Almost 90% of Kashgar’s population is non-Chinese, the majority being Turkish and Muslim and the difference in culture, lifestyle and food is plain to see. Travelling along China’s Silk Road reinforces the vastness of China and journeys on planes, trains, buses and cars will give you a new found respect for those who did it on camelback 2000 years ago.
For over a thousand years the Silk Road was the most vital trade route in the world. Connecting East with West it allowed the transportation of silk and all manner of exotic goods via weighed-down camel caravans ploughing a dusty path across Asia. Today, as China opens itself up to foreigners and travelling around the country is made infinitely easier, the route is more accessible to ordinary travellers than ever before. Gone are the risks of starvation, thirst, frostbite and bandits, nevertheless the Silk Road still has a semi-mystic quality inspiring adventure and enterprise.
The Silk Road is not one single highway but a web of trade routes passing through different oasis settlements. Merchants would vary their route depending on the climate and local political situation. It was unusual for any individual traveller to journey the entire route himself, and those that did, such as Marco Polo, have gone down is history as the greatest of adventurers.
The entire route, which stretches from Xi’an in China to Istanbul in Turkey, covers over 7,000km and passes through 13 countries. Over half the route lies inside China and crosses dramatic landscapes including arid desert, rivers and snow-capped mountain ranges.
- Top Sights and Festivals
- Local Cuisine
- Useful Books and Websites
The opening up of the Silk Road is accredited to the 2nd Century BCE Chinese explorer, Zhang Qian, the first man to bring back a reliable account of the lands of Central Asia to the court of China. Dispatched by the Han dynasty emperor Wudi in 138 BCE to establish relations with other communities, Zhang Qian’s missions opened up kingdoms and products then unknown to the Chinese and uncovered the way for commercial trade between these Central Asian states and the Han. Trade on the Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of China as a great civilization, and in several respects helped lay the foundations for the modern world.
The term ‘Silk Road’ was not coined until 1877 by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen.
First produced in China 5,000 years ago, silk was an unknown product in the West and therefore highly prized. For many centuries it was the most sought after and profitable item transported along routes from Central Asia to the Mediterranean.
After silk, paper was the most important commodity to come out of China in ancient times, invented by a eunuch named Cai Lun in 105AD. Jade and lapis lazuli were other valuable products traded with the West. China’s major contributions to civilization – paper-making, printing, compass and gunpowder – were introduced to Western countries via the Silk Road. In return, many aspects of Western civilization that influenced Chinese society made their way back along this road.
But it wasn’t just commerce that travelled along the Silk Road between Europe and the East. Travellers, missionaries and pilgrims also travelled the road, leading to the flow of religious ideas, philosophies and scientific thought (as well as the Bubonic Plague!).
The Silk Road was used primarily during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) and again in the 13th Century under the Mongols. As Maritime trade developed under the Ottoman and Qing dynasties, the Silk Road was barely used for trade.
Once the biggest, and arguably greatest, city in the world, in its prime Xi’an was 6 times bigger than Ancient Rome and 40 times bigger than medieval London! Now a modern metropolis (some say a bit of a dump!!) A visit to xi’an cannot be missed as within the city walls, you will find a rich treasure trove of archaeological sites to explore from the glories of 11 dynasties that have ruled here.
It was from Xi’an that the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang first united much of China in 221BC and it was once the capital of China for over 1100 years. It remained the region’s political heart until 10th century. Today, Xian is much smaller and more relaxed than Beijing with a population of around 3.3 million.
Xi’an was the chief beneficiary of the Silk Road – which turned the province into a melting pot of different cultures and religions that streamed in from Central Asia, the Middle East, India and Europe. A textile, medicine, and educational centre. Xi’an has about 40 colleges, universities and research institutes
Sights to Explore:
The Terracotta Army:
A World Heritage Site and one of the most famous archaeological finds in the world.. The Army of Terracotta Warriors is a subterranean life-sized army of thousands soldiers and horses finely modelled of clay and arranged in battle formation that have stood guard over Emperor Qin Shi Huang for more than 2000 years. Either Qin Shi Huang was terrified of the vanquished spirits awaiting him in the afterlife, or, as most archaeologists believe, he had the warriors built expecting his rule to continue in death as it had in life. The warriors offer some of the greatest insights we have into the world of ancient China.
Tomb of Emperor Jingdi
A very different emperor to Qin Shi Huang, Jingdi ruled during the Han dynasty (three centuries later) and was influenced by Taoism. The contents of his tomb are remarkably different to the Terracotta Army, as alongside terracotta soldiers and nobles there are herds of pigs, sheep and cows. Jingdi’s tomb is currently being excavated. Inside are 21 narrow pits, some of which are covered with glass so you can walk over the top and admire the relics inside. It attracts less tourists than the Terracotta Army but many say it’s even more amazing.
The Western Market
In 2008 archaeologists discovered wagon track marks in the centre of Xi’an. Further excavation revealed this to be the site of Xi’an’s legendary Western Market, the terminus of the Silk Road. Some 1300 years ago this huge site was a vibrant shopping area with a surface area that spanned 2 city wards and included wine shops, pastries, gruel, cereals and a Persian bazaar.
It was here that traders (up to 40,000 at any one time!) from the Middle East and Europe came to exchange their local products. Today the ancient Western Market has recently been re-built and re-opened at a cost of 3.5 billion Yuan ($460 million). One of the main reasons for rebuilding this historical site is to give visitors some insight into the Tang Dynasty which ruled from 618 to 907 AD. These were very prosperous years in China’s history, mainly due to flourishing trade on the Silk Road with foreign countries – before there was Paris, Milan and New York, this is where the world came to shop!
The Ancient City Wall
Xian’s city walls are the largest and best preserved defensive walls in the world, and include 5,980 different points where archers could shoot their bows and arrow. They were first erected in 1370 during the Ming dynasty when China was rebuilt as a commercially self-sufficient country, shutting itself off from the outside world. It is possible to walk the entirety of the walls in a leisurely four hours. You can also cycle round the wall from the South Gate or be whisked around in a golf cart!
One of the busiest parts of town in the evening, this is where locals and tourists alike converge to shop, stroll, and eat. Street-side chefs fire up the stoves and whip up tasty dishes while vendors ply the crowded lanes peddling their wares.
Common dishes on offer include cold noodles in sesame sauce, fried chopped mutton, fried pork or beef in pitta bread and kebabs. Walking the streets here is as close as you can get to being in Old Chang’an. The Muslim Quarter is also home to the largest Mosque in China.
The City Wall Park between the city wall and moat river is the local people’s favourite place for daily morning exercise. Here they practise Tai Chi, Qinqiang opera, Chinese chess and table tennis. It’s also a favourite place to take their birdcage for a walk! Come to watch or join in their dancing and Tai Chi and interact in local life.
Built at the insistence of Xuanzang, a seventh century monk, who made a historic pilgrimage to India along the Silk Road bringing back with him the scriptures of Buddhism.
For many years Xian’s tallest building at nearly 65 metres tall, the pagoda is an engineering enigma. While it looks like it’s solidly built of bricks, the bricks actually mask a tower built of rammed earth. Given the lack of construction cranes in ancient times, how they managed to construct such a tall earthen tower is a mystery to today’s architects.
Tang Dynasty Show
Xian has long been one of the strongest influences on the arts in China and performances of Changan music and dance which originated during China’s Tang Dynasty over a thousand years ago are recreated at the Tang Dynasty Theatre Palace every evening. The performance includes music from instruments which are no longer in common use today and dances including a sorcerer dance meant to expel illness and evil spirits. During the show you can also have a dynasty banquet which is only found in Xian.
Xi’an Railway Station
A crazier railway station you are unlikely to find. Trains go to every part of China from here and so around 23.6 million passengers pass through annually. The station comprises four sections: the main building, the ticket hall, the baggage office and the office area. In the main building there are a four large general waiting rooms and each waiting room can hold 1400 passengers at one time and it’s always busy!
- Once marked “the end of China” and the beginning of barbarian land.
- The entrance to the Hexi Corridor after which the traders of the Silk Road were facing the uncertainty of the open roa.
- Get a sense of Jiayuguan as a desolate outpost when looking out over the Gobi Desert to the East and the snow-capped peaks of the Qilian range.
- With a population of 180,000 – mostly Han Chinese – it claims to be China’s smallest city.
- An industrial town producing fertilizer, cement, coke and iron but not much to the town itself.
Translated as “Last Pass Under Heaven” the Fort stands in the desert overlooking the entrance to the Hexi corridor. Built in 1372 it is a physical demarcation of the last major stronghold of Imperial China and the end of the ‘civilised world’. Fully restored and in fine condition. Features various gates that were opened and closed to entrap invading armies and later slogans praising Chairman Mao.
Overhanging Great Wall
An important part of the defensive work of Jiayuguan Pass, the wall was built in 1539 in order to strengthen the defensive capability of Jiayuguan. Built on the eastern slope of Mt. Heishan (Black Mountain) the Great Wall is not visible to anyone looking from west to east. Enemies thought they could enter inner China from here, but they were totally mistaken. Viewed from a distance, the Great Wall appears like a dragon overhanging the slope, hence the name. The First Beacon Platform of Great Wall affords sweeping views over the river and dramatic gorge.
July 1st Glacier (90kms southwest of Jiayugan)
The glacier was named after the day it was found in July 1st 1958 by the Chinese Academy of Science. In summer it is possible to hike along a 5km trail at an altitude of 4300 amidst the Qilian Range. You can often see the glacier tail melting and waterfalls tumbling down as well as pheasants in the trees, and sheep and cattle on the slopes.
Travel: Train to Dunhuang from Xian (4hrs) Or drive / bus (5-6 hrs) used to take 3 weeks by camel!
- A desert oasis, now a modern and bustling market town thanks to increased tourism
- Means “Blazing Beacon”
- The last major watering hole before the Taklamakan Desert
The Magao Grottoes (popularly known as the Thousand Buddha Caves)
Praised as “a glittering pearl that adorns the Silk Road”, these are the most famous grottoes in China. The greatest and most consummate gallery of Buddhist art in the world, it was first carved out of the cliffs in 366 AD and there are 492 preserved caves with 2415 coloured statues and 45,000 square metres of murals.
Mingsha or Singing Sand dunes
Only 5 kilometres to the south of the city magnificent 300m high sand dunes stretch as far as the eye see. Two female British missionaries Mildred Cable and Eva French who travelled widely along the Silk Road in the early 1900s famously slid down the dunes on their toboggan thus making the dunes “sing”, a sound created by the vibration created. Today the location is less beautifully tranquil, with hordes of tourists renting sledges and descending the dunes.
Crescent Moon Lake
A camel ride takes us further out into the desert, where it’s possible to settle in for a night under the stars. You wake up to a beautiful sunrise above Crescent Moon Lake. Find a local fisherman and barter some fish as fish from this lake is meant to heal illness!
Dunhuang Film City
A movie set modelled on a Chinese town during the Song Dynasty (960-1279: when the Silk Road had lost much of its importance and the Chinese had to defend themselves against invading Mongols), can be visited 25 kms Southwest of the city. It covers an area of 12,700 square meters and is used for the filming of many historical military films. (Some books say it’s a bit tacky).
A “chilled out backpacker retreat” with an open courtyard, cabins amongst the fruit trees and tents and sleeping bags also available for hire. Situated very close to the dunes.
THE JADE GATE (Yumen Pass)
Approximately 90km Southwest of Dunhuang, the Jade Gate was one of the two most important passes in the western frontier, serving as a tollgate to western countries and an important stop for traveling merchants.
Though little is left of it now, the Jade Gate was of enormous significance. The gate marks the most westerly point of the Great Wall and you can see it’s mud and straw base in the sand. It is also where the Northern and Southern Silk Routes join and provided a pass that protected Dunhuang from attack.
Originally called Small Square City, legend has it that when the Silk Road was opened, the trade caravans from the west areas often transported jade through the pass to China and brought back silk in return. However, once the camels carrying the jade arrived at the pass, they would froth at the mouth and fall unconscious.
To bless the camels, the pass was decorated with exotic jades and the camels made a miraculous recovery! After that the pass went by the name of Yumen Pass due to the sparkling jades on the gate.
- Nicknamed the ‘Fiery Land’ or ‘Oven’ in summer temperatures soar to 40 degrees making it China’s hottest city.
- One of the lowest places on earth, a remote oasis in a scorching desert.
- Turpan is the centre of grape growing and wine making.
- did you know that the grapes and raisins here are the best in China!
15000 tons of raisins are produced annually in Turpan, making it the country’s raisin capital with 95% of national production. There are 50 different varieties. In season (July – September) they can be found at Grape Valley, a valley shaded by grape vines that is packed with restaurants and market stalls. There is also wine tasting at the local wineries.
Taking advantage of climatic and geographical conditions, the locals have created sand burying therapy to cure chronic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, hemiplegia, high blood pressure and neurasthenia. The Turpan Sand Therapy Healthy Center contains more magnetite sand than other sand dunes and is an ideal place for some sand therapy!
Traditional Uighur Dance
Xinjiang Province has always been regarded as the paradise of singing and dancing and as one of the two cultural centers in Xinjiang, Turpan’s dancing and singing performances have its distinctive charming styles. The Nazikumu dance, a kind of folk dances, imitates the postures of various creatures in nature and is quite humorous to watch (or try!).
2200 years ago it was the capital of the ancient Cheshi Kingdom. Its demise began a thousand years ago, possibly due to inadequate water supplies. A few centuries later the invading armies of Genghis Khan finished off what remained of Jiaohe but you can still walk the long-ago abandoned streets of Jiaohe.
So named because in the evenings the red clay mountains reflect the heat and glow of the desert and seem to burn, legendary thanks to a classical novel, The Journey to the West by the Ming Dynasty writer, Wu Cheng’en and and the popular TV series adapted from the novel. According to the story, The Monkey King kicked over an elixir oven while fighting with gods in heaven. Charcoals from the oven fell onto the mountain and started a fire.
Karez underground irrigation system
This mostly-underground system includes over 1000 wells, numerous reservoirs and almost 2,000 miles of canals. By constructing the system underground, evaporation is almost nil, preserving precious mountain snowmelt for crops and turning this otherwise barren desert into a man-made oasis.
Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves (alternative to Kyzil Caves)
77 rock-cut caves with murals of Buddha, many of them defaced by Muslim worshippers.
- A safe haven and popular resting spot approximately half way along the Silk Road – the first or last spot in China (depending on which way you’re travelling)
- The westernmost metropolis of China.
- Even though modernity has swept in craftsmen and artisans still hammer and chisel away in side streets and donkey carts still trundle the streets.
- The Sunday market is the real deal despite the bus-loads of tourists and everything sellable is haggled over her.
The market has been at the centre of Kashgar’s commercial life since at least the Tang Dynasty. Today a hundred thousand people converge on the town each Sunday. The ethnic diversity of the visitors matches the ranges of goods on sale, with Uighurs, Tajiks, Kyrgyz and Han Chinese trading in goods. Buy anything from knives, hats, cumin and scorpians.
Livestock Market (also Sunday)
Once it was here that traders exchanged their horses for yaks, before or after crossing the mountain passes and even today Kashgar has a lively Sunday market, where traders from a 50km radius come to sell their animals. The livestock market has recently been moved 7 km from the main market and it is the most vigorous section, with bearded men bartering for horses, camels, cattle and sheep.
A local tradition which takes place at the livestock market
Id Kah Mosque
Large mosque which holds 500 worshippers and the centre of Islamic activity in Xinjiang, playing host to the Kurban Festival and Fast-breaking Festival.
In the centre of Kashgar stands a Mao statue 12,26 metres in height in reference to his birthday (26.12.)
How to get there:
China’s major international airports are in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Taxis are cheap within the cities (in smaller, more rural environments taxis may take the form of donkey and cart or electric carts)
Car and bus rental with a driver is easily arranged
Public trains and buses run daily between cities but it’s best to book tickets in advance
When to Go:
March / April is Springtime when the weather will be warm but you should encounter less tourists.
May – August is high season during which time accommodation prices peak and you should be prepared for hot weather with the occasional summer downpour
What to Wear:
Cool, lightweight clothes are recommended in the hot Summer months. Shorts and skirts are fine in the larger cities but if travelling West, be respectful of the Muslim culture and dress modestly. Sleeved t-shirts are more appropriate than vest tops and knees should be covered.
Don’t forget to pack:
2. Favourite brand toiletries
4. Tissue paper / wet wipes (for use in public toilets)
5. Fan (to keep cool in desert)
Scarf or hat (to protect head in desert)
7. Closed-toe shoes (for sandy or rocky environments)
8. A book for the long journeys
The Yuan (RMB)
Mandarin, Cantonese, Uighur
Top Sights and Festivals
1. January: Chinese New Year
2. February / March: Lantern Festival
3. June: Dragon Boat Festival
4. September: Moon Festival
5. October: Kurban Bairam, 4 day Muslim Festival of Sacrifice (very lively in Kashgar)
1. Army of Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an
2. Jiayuguan Fort and Great Wall
3. Singing Sand Dunes, Dunhuang
4. Magao Grottoes, Dunhuang
5. Flaming Mountains, Turpan
6. Wire-walking, Grape Valley, Turpan
7. Khotan Jade market
8. Kashgar Sunday market (open every day!)
9. Kashgar Livestock market
10. Pamir Mountains
11. The Markets are filled with locally-made silk, silver and jade jewellery, hand-worked knives, embroidered or fur hats, spices, calligraphy products and artwork and handmade pottery.
Xi’an’s local speciality is dumplings which come in all shapes, sizes and flavours and shouldn’t be missed.
Centrally located Gansu has traditional Szechuan Chinese food – fried rice, sweet potatoes and local vegetables flavoured with garlic, chilli, peppercorns and ginger – as well as dishes influenced by their Muslim neighbours using beef, mutton and yellow noodles.
In Xinjiang the food reflects all the different ethnicities. Cumin is a more prevalent spice and dishes are often flavoured with the fat of the meat. Favourite dishes include noodles, mutton, kebabs, pilaf rice with lamb and naan bread.
Useful Books and Websites
1. Lonely Planet China
2. The Silk Roads by Paul Wilson
3. Insight Guides: The Silk Road
4. The Silk Road: Xi’an to Kashgar by Judy Bonavia
5. Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron
6. Silk Road: Monks Warriors & Merchants by Luce Boulnois
7. Life Along the Silk Road by Susan Whitfield
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