The Silk Road was the traditional route through which caravans carried products from the East and the West for centuries. More than that, it was a corridor through which philosophical ideas, scientific knowledge and the foundations of Buddhism and Islam were transmitted. Want to go, but not sure where to start? We’ve created the ultimate 11-day China itinerary following the Silk Route from Beijing to Kashgar. Hop on.
Beijing was my first point of contact with China, and the first stop on our China itinerary. The capital city takes pride in its rich history, its revered temples, palaces, and proximity to the Great Wall. This historic appeal is enlivened with creative dining and nightlife, and an edgy contemporary art scene. On the first day, I visited some of the signature attractions, such as the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and Drum and Bell Towers. Take a rickshaw around the lakes at Houhai.
Rise early on the second day for a tour to the Great Wall of China at Badaling, 43 miles northwest of Beijing, taking in the Ming Tombs. If you have time, book lunch or enjoy sundowner drinks on the terrace of Commune by the Great Wall with views over the Shuiguan Valley.
On the final day in the capital, explore the numerous contemporary art and photography galleries at 798 Art District. Visit some of Beijing’s revered temples, including the Temple of Heaven, Lama Temple, and Confucius Temple, with dinner at Temple Restaurant, housed in a restored Tibetan Temple Complex. I boarded the high-speed overnight train to Xi’an for the next leg of my journey.
On day four of our China itinerary, start exploring Xi’an, with its numerous well-preserved historical buildings, such as the Great Mosque and two imposing defensive towers among its high walls of the Ming period (14th-century). Outside the walls, there are several Buddhist temples, among which the pagodas of the Ocas and the temple of the Eight Immortals stand out. You can reach the latter through a street that houses a thriving market where you’ll find relics and imitations ranging from fossils and Buddha sculptures to miniature statues of Mao and ancient coins.
I kept my most awaited attraction of Xi’an, Museum of Terracotta Warriors, for the second day. The stone army of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang Di was discovered in 1974 by some peasants and today receives thousands of visits daily. The museum is located about 20 miles from Xi’an, and you could see thousands of statues of life-size soldiers, horses, and carriages in its three huge pits.
Xi’an to Dunhuang
During the ancient times, old caravans from Xian headed towards the oasis of Dunhuang, the door of the desert and place of rest before undertaking the most feared stretch of the Silk Road: the Taklamakan Desert. The name of this desert means “go in, and you’ll never come out” in Uyghur, the language of the Turkmen ethnic group that lives in the current autonomous regions of Gansu and Xinjiang. The Silk Road divided here into two branches that surrounded this ocean of dunes.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to endure the 1200-mile journey from Xian to Dunhuang on horseback, thanks to this modern-day invention called airplanes.
Dunhuang is a small provincial town on the fringe of Gobi Desert. Located just three miles away, Crescent Lake is an oasis in the middle of the desert. It is surrounded by dunes which you can explore on camelbacks.
I reserved the second day in Dunhuang to explore the Mogao Caves, popularly known as Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. These caves were founded in the fourth century by a monk named Yuejun. Following his example, other monks excavated caves on the cliff, most of which are decorated with beautiful frescos.
Dunhuang to Turpan
The most comfortable way to travel to Turpan is on board the night train that, for a reasonable price, allows you to sleep in a cabin with first class bunk beds.
Turpan is a region of vineyards thanks to the defrosted water of the nearby Tian mountains, collected by wells and tunnels, and distributed through a network of canals. Seeing the crops, no one would say that this city is 154 meters below the sea level and is the hottest part of China, where summer temperatures can exceed 120 °F. One of the most exciting thing about Turpan is its culture. This is one of the few Chinese cities that has an Uyghur majority population, and this reflects in the different customs, food, nightlife, and architecture of the place. Visit the earthy colored Emin Minaret, explore the ancient Karez Wells, and end the day with a cold beer in one of the vineyards.
On day 8 of your China itinerary, visit the bustling bazaar, full of stalls that still reminds what this ancient Silk Road town might have looked like. A few kilometers from Turpan are the ruins of the oasis cities of the Silk Road. The ancient ruins of Jiaohe and Gaochang offer a peek into the intriguing history of the region.
Urumqi is the modern and populous capital of the province of Xinjiang. The city surprises you with its skyscrapers, an out-of-place sight of modernity in the middle of the desert. Visit the Erdaoqiao Market to see the ethnic diversity of the region and taste the best Uyghur cuisine, which stands out for its dishes based on rice, vegetables and lamb, and yellow noodles, in addition to a large number of fruits such as grapes, apricots, and watermelons.
It is worth adding the Museum of Ethnic Minorities to your must-see China itinerary. Despite its somewhat ramshackle appearance, it offers a glimpse of life in the oasis cities of Taklamakán millennia ago. In addition to Buddhist frescoes and painted silks, it exhibits 4000-year-old mummies discovered in the Tarim river basin.
Tianchi, the crescent-shaped alpine lake popularly known as “Heavenly Lake,” at an altitude of 2,000 meters, allows you to escape from the prolonged desert scenery. It is one of the favorite getaways for the Urumqi locals, and you’ll find large crowds here on weekends. You can walk through the pine forests through the paths that border the lake and spot the Kazakh and Kyrgyz nomads who plant their yurts (tents) as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. Farther north, in the green meadows of Nalati, the picture seems to repeat itself: yurts, horses, and snowy mountains as a backdrop.
Urumqi to Kashgar
Kashgar, 1000 kilometers to the west, is the place where the north and south routes meet once again. This was the final stop of my journey China itinerary through the Chinese Silk Road. Currently, a small but modern airport receives regular flights from Urumqi.
Culturally, Kashgar is closer to the Middle East than China due to its Islamic influence. One of its most important monuments is the mausoleum of Abakh Hoja (a holy man who ruled the region in the seventeenth century), crowned by an incredible green-tiled dome. Kashgar is most famous for its Sunday market, which has been held here for more than a thousand years. The place becomes a hotbed of vehicles, ranchers, and merchants who sell their sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, and camels between noisy negotiations and endless bargaining. There are also stalls for carpets, nuts, handicrafts, and local food.
If you want to see the road that followed the caravans heading west, you will have to drive 100 miles and add Karakul Lake to your China itinerary. Located at an altitude of 3,800 meters, it is the last enclave before the Khunjerab Pass that leads to Pakistan, where today vibrant trucks have replaced the camels that crossed the mythical Silk Road.