The Silk Route: Cultural Adventures with Audley Travel
By Ian Mowbray-Williams, China & Silk Route specialist
The Silk Route was a journey taken by ancient entrepreneurs wishing to make their fortunes by trading with a society halfway around the world. Chinese businessmen would travel vast distances in large caravans of camels, horses, carts and men from Chang'an (now Xian), through the high passes of Central Asia into Persia, Arabia and Europe where they sold their goods to the Roman Empire.
The Silk Route spanned from the 2nd century BC to the end of the 14th century AD when ships became more advanced and trade by sea overtook land. However, it didn’t earn its famous name until 1877, when a well-known German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen named it after its main trade product – silk. A lot more than just silk was traded though and some of the other goods included China’s four great inventions; paper making, printing, gunpowder and the compass. These inventions went on to contribute towards the majority of developments around the world.
Thanks to the wonders of the modern world we can now visit the main sights along the Silk Route in a fraction of the time (it used to take traders up to two years to complete the journey). A journey of just three weeks could see you travel from China’s ancient capital, Xian to Khiva, five hundred miles across the desert from Tashkent in Uzbekistan.
On my visit to the 3,016 metre high alpine Lake Song Kol, I stayed in a yurt tent and rode a horse around the mountains. However, the highlight of my Silk Route journey would have to be the ancient cities of Uzbekistan like Samarkand, often referred to as the ‘Jewel of the Silk Route’ or Bukhara, one of the holiest places of Islam. I am no history buff but the power of places like Registan Square and the Ark in Bukhara imprinted a desire to learn more about the historic fables of this fascinating region. The wealth and strategic importance of the region has attracted numerous invaders across the ages; Macedonians, Russians, Arabs and Turks have all left their mark across Uzbekistan and this is what makes it such a special place to visit today.
The vast distances covered and various landscapes visited during a journey along the Silk Route mean timing your trip is very important. The mountain pass from China to Kyrgyzstan can be closed due to snow for months on end and the irregularity of flights in the region makes planning any journey here a challenge. I would recommend visiting during the UK spring or autumn months as the weather is warm enough to allow access from China to Kyrgyzstan via the Torugart Pass.
During autumn the fertile lands in the Kyrgyzstan mountains will attract the nomad farmers with their cattle, which means the landscapes are dotted with yurt tents, horses and other animals. Also, make sure you avoid the scorching summer temperatures in places like Turpan, the hottest place in China and the world’s second lowest depression at 154 metres below sea level, and the Kyzyl Kum desert in Uzbekistan.
A top tip for any journey along the Silk Route is to make sure you pack your sense of adventure. Travelling along the Silk Route should be seen as a journey, not a holiday, and it is the most epic journey you can embark on in the world.
Audley Travel offers a 22 day tailor-made trip along the Silk Route taking in Kashgar's world-famous Sunday market, the stunning Karakoram mountains and a stay under the starry skies in a traditional yurt from £6,945 per person. For more information, please call Ian or our Silk Route specialists on 01993 838 220.