Home China Guide Silk Road Travel

Silk Road Travel

silk roadSilk Road traders once used camel trains to cross China's desert areas.

Traveling China's Silk Road is a journey into China's ancient history and diverse culture quite unlike any other.

It’s a journey of contrasts: Han and Uyghur ethnicities, Buddhist and Muslim religion, Eastern and Central Asian culture, natural and man-made wonders, dry desert and Alpine mountain scenery.

What Was China's Silk Road?

The Silk Road was the world's most significant trade route that connected East and West for thousands of years. 

It started in the Yellow River basin where China's first civilizations developed, from ancient Chinese capitals: Xi'an or Luoyang, which is further east. It passed through the arid Gansu Corridor in Gansu Province to Xinjiang, the remore west of China, and beyond to Central Asia and Europe. See more on Silk Road Facts.

Silk Road Highlights

  • The ancient capitals of Xi’an and Luoyang, with the First Emperor’s magnificent Terracotta Army

In Gansu:

DunhuangDunhuang has the Silk Road's quintessential sand dunes and camels.
  • The Western end of the Great Wall and its desert forts at Jiayuguan and Dunhuang
  • The best-preserved Chinese Buddhist site at the Mogao Grottoes of Dunhuang
  • The beautiful Singing Sand dunes, where you can ride a camel like in times of old, also at Dunhuang

In Xinjiang:

  • Muslim Uyghur culture:  minarets, ethnic dancing, roast mutton, excellent grapes...
  • Ancient ingenuity at the canyon city of Jiaohe and the karez well system of Turpan
  • Heavenly Lake, nestling in lush green upland pasture of the snow-capped Heavenly Mountains near Urumqi
  • A famous market as fragrant and bustling as in ancient days in the frontier outpost of Kashgar

Discover Differing Ethnicities

youyifeng hotel Xinjiang cuisine is quite different from Chinese cuisine.

In Xinjiang, and Kashgar especially, you'll see how Central Asian peoples contrast the Chinese Han majority further east. See the Uyghur minority's minarets, dancing, and foods, such as roast mutton and grapes.

In Luoyang, Xi'an, and Lanzhou, as well as bread and roast dishes, you can enjoy Chinese style rice dishes. As well as minarets, there are pagodas such as Qiyun Pagoda in Lanzhou. You'll hear the call to prayer less and see tai chi in the parks more.

Contrast Buddhism and Islam

Buddhism and Islam entered China through the Silk Road, and during your trip you can see the ancient Buddhist sites such as the Mogao Grottoes and contrasting Islamic architecture in Turpan and Urumqi.

See Ancient Man-Made Wonders

Jiaohe RuinsThe Jiaohe Ruins

Turpan has ruins from the Silk Road era such as Jiaohe and the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves.

At the mouth of the Gansu Corridor, Silk Road fortresses such as Jiayuguan bear witness to the ancient past, and the westernmost Great Wall ruins still stand.

Older imperial antiquities can be seen in Xi'an at the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang. Luoyang, because it has been one of China's Seven Capital Cities, has ancient places that were built in several eras. You can learn about The History of Silk Road — Routes and Chronology

Experience the Contrasting Deserts and Mountains

Heavenly Lake in Xinjiang Beautiful watery natural scenery at Heavenly Lake in Xinjiang

During your travel along the Silk Road sites, you could be enveloped in solitude in natural places such as Dunhuang where you can climb the beautiful white Mingsha sand dunes and ride a camel like in times of old.

Further west, journey up from scorching desert austerity to watery blue mountain beauty and lush green pasture at Heavenly Lake.

Then plunge back down into the Turpan Depression desert that is the third deepest depression on the planet for a different kind of desert experience.

Then, if you have time, you could cross the austere Taklamakan desert to the frontier outpost of Kashgar that has a market as fragrant and bustling as in ancient days. See more about Silk Road Attractions.

Essential Silk Road Travel Information

id kah mosqueId Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang
  • What are the cultural issues on the Silk Road? Please do not talk about sensitive issues such as religions and politics when in Xinjiang. About 60% of the total population of Xinjiang are non-Han minorities.
  • Is it safe to travel in Xinjiang? In general, there is very slight risk of terrorism against tourists. Most visitors feel it is totally safe in the main tourist areas, though there may be an elevated police presence. Take precautions against pickpockets and opportunist thieves.
  • When is the weather suitable for travel? For Gansu and Xinjiang, May through October are the best months. Winter is long and bleak.

For more about weather, food, what to bring, road conditions, and cultural considerations, see Silk Road Travel Tips>>

Special Souvenir Products to Shop For

SilkChinese silk

Silk was the most luxurious fabric of all, and it was the favorite export product. Authentic Chinese silk fabrics are still popular, and during your journey, you might want to buy some.

Porcelain was traded on the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty era as well.

Jade has always been a favorite semiprecious stone in the region starting from the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC) when people imported jade from Xinjiang. You can buy quality jade articles for Silk Road souvenirs. Learn more about What Was Traded on the Silk Road and Why.

Silk Road Transportation

private tourChina Highlights' Silk Road touring transport services provides convenience, safety, and comfort.

Flights are the usual way to cross the large distances on the Silk Road to the major tourist cities, and then private transport is best for around the cities and main highlights. 

Kashgar has no train, and desert highway journeys are very long, so flying is recommended. See Kashgar Transportation.

High-speed trains:  China's HSR is the popular new way to travel long distances without using overnight sleeper trains, which are another more-"local" option. By bullet train, it takes about 3 hours to travel from Xi'an North to Lanzhou West. See Xi'an Transportation and Lanzhou Transportation.

Travel by D-class train takes about 16 hours between Xi'an and Urumqi. It takes 11 or 12 hours to travel between Lanzhou West and Urumqi South. This compares to about 25 hours to travel by vehicle on the highway for 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) between Xi'an and Urumqi. See Urumqi Transportation.

From Urumqi South to Turpan North, it takes about an hour by D train. See Turpan Transportation.

The roads in northwest China are not as good further east. Gansu is China's poorest province, and Xinjiang, though wealthier is remote. The travel highlights are scattered around the main cities, so you will need to face some bumpy and quite long road journeys.

Private transport: The most comfortable and convenient way to travel to the Silk Road's attractions is by private vehicle with your own private driver and guide. We provide you with the best drivers and guides available. You can stop where you want, and enjoy flexibility and expert adaptability.

Travel the Silk Road with Us

China HighlightsChina Highlights customers have special tour privileges, like seeing terracotta warriors close up.

The Silk Road has everything you need for a rich cultural journey into the heart of China’s past, and we can provide what you need for a comfortable, enjoyable, and worry-free experience designed to suit you. Our tried and tested itineraries are all modifiable:

If you tell us your interests and requirements, we will tailor-make a Silk Road tour uniquely for you.

Related Reading