The Silk Road, an ancient trade route named for the lucrative Chinese silk that could be procured along its path, dates back more than 2,000 years and was one of the earliest connectors between the East and the West. This historic path was traveled by Marco Polo and other explorers who paved the way and discovered the fascinating culture, natural beauty, and exotic goods of the new-to-them eastern regions.
The Silk Road connected traders, monks, soldiers and merchants from the Mediterranean Sea to China. The route begins in Xi’an, China (formerly known as Chang’an), then moves west through China’s Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai and Xinjiang. The Silk Road crosses more than 2,400 miles in China alone. The route then enters Central Asia and the Middle East before reaching the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea in Europe. All in all, the Silk Road spans more than 4,300 miles from Asia to Europe.
Today, tourists from around the world are intrigued by the history and beauty of the Silk Road, and will find magnificent natural scenery, captivating foreign culture and unforgettable experiences along the way. While traveling the Silk Road in its entirety is a longer journey than most tourists have time for in one trip, the vast Silk Road sites throughout China provide visitors a varied sampling of experiences, from cities to deserts, grottoes to Great Walls.
Here is an overview of the highlights for visitors along the Silk Road in China:
Xi’an, formerly known as Chang’an, is the capital of the Shaanxi province. It is easily accessible via flight from North America or within China. Along with Rome, Cairo and Athens, Xi’an is one of the “Four Great Ancient Capitals of Civilization” and it is the start of the Silk Road.
In Xi’an you can see the famous Terracotta Warriors, the army of thousands of handmade statues created to guard China’s first emperor in the afterlife. The Ancient City Wall, Fountain Square, and famous Big Wild Goose Pagoda are other must-see sites within Xi’an.
From Xi’an, the Silk Road heads east toward Gansu province and the desert city of Dunhuang. At the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, there are 492 caves housing more than 2,000 sculptures and almost 485,000 sq. ft. of murals. The ancient Buddhist art found there dates back 1,600 years. The nearby Singing Sand Mountain (where the sand actually echoes as the wind blows or you cross it), Crescent Spring and famous Dunhuang Night Market, and incredible desert views (with the opportunity to ride a camel, if you wish!) give visitors a sense of what it was like along the Silk Road so many thousands of years ago.
Xinjiang is the largest of China’s provinces and it is there that you will start to see eastern and western culture blending together. In Turpan there are many relics from the Silk Road days, including the picturesque Tuyoq ancient village; Jiaohe city ruins; Buddhist caves dating back to the 4th century; the Karez wells and channels, which brought water to the dry desert towns thousands of years ago; and the Flaming Mountains, where summer temperatures reach 122°F or higher, making them the hottest place in China.
Urumqi, once a major hub on the Silk Road, is now a burgeoning modern-day city. The Xinjiang Museum houses archaeological treasures from the Silk Road, including well-preserved mummies from thousands of years ago.
A short flight to Kashgar allows visitors to experience its vibrant mix of people and cultures. The Sunday Market is a site not to be missed, where traditional Uygur silks, Chinese cotton, carpets, jewelry, livestock and more can be purchased and haggled over. The largest mosque in China, the Id Kah Mosque, and Abakh Khoja Tomb are other important historical sites in Kashgar.
Kashgar is close to the border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, so from many tourists continue along the Silk Road route into Central Asia and the Middle East or return to the larger cities in China.