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Traveling Along China's Silk Road — 10 Facts You Should Know

One of the first things that comes to mind when talking about traveling in and around China is its ancient Silk Road.

The modern day adventurous individual pegs this as one of key items in their bucket list. We at China Highlights present here the top ten historical, practical, cultural, and some little known things you should know in order to have the best travels along the famed route.

1. The Silk Road is over 2,000 years old!

The Jiaohe Ruins are evidence of an ancient Silk Road settlement The Jiaohe Ruins are evidence of an ancient Silk Road settlement.

For over 2,000 years, traders carried products — mainly silk, hence the name — through China's Gansu Corridor to the countries in the West and East. The Silk Road is not just one road but a set of routes that enabled trade between China, India, Turkey, Arabia, Europe, Persia and more territories.

The total length of the Silk Road has been estimated at 7,000 km (4,350 miles), spanning the Asian continent, mostly through China. 

In addition to Silk, the other key Chinese products that found their way to the rest of the world were Jade and Tea. The Silk Road also contributed greatly to the growth of Buddhism.

The Han Dynasty was responsible for the brth of the Silk Road (206 BC to 220 AD). The succeeding Tang Dynasty saw this route at its prosperous best, being the Golden Age of trade development (618 AD to 907 AD). This route ended with the Yuan Dynasty under the Mongols toward the end of the fourteenth century (1271 AD to 1368 AD). This route gained its name by a German geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen.

You can read more on the history of this iconic route here.

2. Famous travelers include traders, generals, and monks.

There were innumerable traders, travelers and nomads who used this route but some prominent travelers include Marco Polo — the well known Venetian traveler; Ban Chao — a very famous and successful military leader and diplomat of the Han Dynasty; Ban Yong — Ban Chao's son who was also a successful military general; and Xuanzang — a prominent monk responsible for spreading Buddhism as well as introducing the world with Chinese culture.

3. Some of the world's most stunning sceneries lie along the Silk Road.

The Flaming MountainsThe Flaming Mountains

Right from the mountain peaks near Kashgar to the Flaming Mountains and hot deserts of Xinjiang, to the high mountain lakes and meadows around Urumqi and its Grand Bazaar for shopping. Not to miss the parks, mountains and grasslands around the Gansu Corridor, the Yellow River and its sights, and the large city of Xi'an with their fantastic Terracotta Army and ancient mausoleums.

4. Terrains are tough and climates challenging.

Understandably, this is a challenging route that passes through some of the most difficult terrains and climates. The varying landscapes make it important for sufficient planning and preparation to be made in advance. 

Adventurous travelers are guaranteed a trip of a lifetime, complete with sand dunes in fiery deserts, camel rides, treks along steep mountains, Buddhist caves, caravan lifestyles, lakes, ancient forts, lively bazaars and more!

5. There are many prominent tourist destinations.

There are several key destinations for travelers to start or include in their itinerary. From east to west:

Heavenly Lake, Xinjiang Heavenly Lake
  • Luoyang: Longmen Grottoes, The Museum of the Imperial Carriages of the Emperor of the Zhou Dynasty
  • Xi'an (capital city of Chang'an in ancient China): Terracotta Warriors, Chang'an Ancient City Wall, Shaanxi Mausoleum
  • Lanzhou and the Yellow River: Bingling Thousand Buddha Grottoes, Gansu Provincial Museum
  • Gansu Corridor: Wuwei City, Confucius Temple, Zhangye’s rainbow colored sandstone mountains in the national park, Zhangye Giant Buddha Temple, Jiayuguan Fort at the end of the Great Wall of China
  • Dunhuang: The vast Taklamakan desert with its “singing sand dunes”, the Mogao Grottoes containing Buddhist caves
  • Turpan: Grape Valley, Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves, Karez, Jiaohe City Ruins
  • Urumqi: Grand Bazaar, Heavenly Lake in the Heavenly Mountains scenic area, Xinjiang Museum
  • Kashgar: Lake Karakuli, Kashgar Old Town, Grand Erdaoqiao Sunday Bazaar

6. Local Muslim food and souvenirs are very popular.

Traditional dried fruits of Xinjiang include raisins Traditional dried fruits of Xinjiang include raisins.

There is a lot of variety in food along the way. The most popular are the local raisins, cashew nuts, walnuts, almonds, dairy and fruit products in Xinjiang, the Muslim beef noodle soup in Lanzhou, rou jia mo (like hamburgers) and Uighur shish kabobs in Xi'an, Nang (Uighur bread), milk tea. Do not miss the traditional Muslim Yoghurt of Kashgar, roasted juicy skewers of meats and the various kinds of Muslim rice dishes along the way.

Souvenirs and local products include rugs, carpets, souvenirs, textiles, dried fruit and delicacies for friends back home, Chinese paintings, ceramics, silk, local alcohol.

7. Planning a trip requires good research.

The Silk Road requires a more thoughtful approach when it comes to planning out the trip, and research is important.

  • Duration of trip: Most often we have travelers who are keen to travel along the Silk Road in about 4-5 days’ time at most. We advise that travelers set aside a minimum of 5 days to about 2 weeks if they want an immersive and rich experience from their travels.
  • Packing well: Most of the route is arid desert climate so it is essential to pack in sunscreens, dust protectors and other items for hot desert travels. Plenty of water at all times of course.
  • When to visit: In the winter months, some parts get closed due to snow and general climatic changes. On the other hand, peak summer is also best avoided, as temperatures will leave you scorched despite your best preparation. Best times of the year to plan out your visit are in Autumn (September, October) and Spring (April, May, June).

8. Access and accommodation are very variable.

This part of China, given the landscape and remoteness, is one of the least connected regions, which adds to the adventure. Getting in is fairly simple, you can fly into Urumqi or Xi’an or Beijing to start your journey. You can take the trains to travel from Beijing through Xi’an and Lanzhou, to Urumqi. 

Having a knowledgeable guide along will be most helpful so that you can travel smoothly and get glimpses into local life. 

Buses are available for less accessible spots. Expect cars or mini-vans on hire which make transport more convenient if not much more comfortable.

Accommodation options range from expensive hotels to guesthouses in the cities (Turpan, Xi’an, Dunhuang, Lanzhou, Urumqi). In the remote parts of this route, you can expect lodges and local home-stays which would be modest but comfortable. We have guides to ensure your stay is safe, comfortable, enjoyable and affordable.

9. Turpan is China's premium wine country!

Turpan grapes

Not many are aware, but China’s Silk Route goes through Turpan, which is a must see itself as a famous Oasis Town. Turpan is home to grape valleys which make it a prolific wine making region in China. Sipping some fresh wine in the deserts of China would make this an experience never to be forgotten.

10. Languages and time zones can be different.

China as a whole is officially on the same time zone. However, when you get to the remote parts of the Silk Road, don’t be taken aback if you find train schedules working at a different timing. Xinjiang time is 2 hours behind Beijing Standard time.

Similarly, Mandarin is spoken and understood across the majority of Silk Road, but as you move towards the north west, you will come across local dialects including Uighur, Mongolian and Tibetan languages.

Touring the Silk Road with Us

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At China Highlights, we have Silk Road experts who can create the perfect trip for you for you for a rich experience and memories. Here's why you should choose us.

You could peek into our Silk Road Tours to help shape your own trip of the Silk Road.

If you want something very personalized, we have just the service for you – Create your own trip.

Further Reading