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China Silk Road Destinations and Top Things to Do

The Silk Road in China has a wealth of fascinating and beautiful destinations and attractions. This ancient Chinese trade route has many contrasting things to do. There are several key destinations for travelers to consider including in their itinerary. From east to west:

The Flaming MountainsThe Flaming Mountains near Turpan
  • 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
  • The 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
Heavenly Lake, XinjiangHeavenly Lake near Urumqi
  • 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

From east to west a suggested visiting route is: Luoyang-Xi'an-Lanzhou-Xiahe-Tianshui-Wuwei-Zhangye-Jiayuguan-Dunhuang-Turpan-Urumqi-Kashgar. See what to do in each city below.

Silk Road Map

1. Luoyang: Discover Ancient Capital Sights

white horse templeWhite Horse Temple

Luoyang is one of China's Four Great Ancient Capitals (alongside, Beijing, Xi'an and Nanjing), and for some of its history the Silk Road started there. It is located 300 km (200 mi) east of Xi'an in Henan Province. A small city (pop. 1.5M) by Chinese standards, it was the capital of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770–256 BC), the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220), the latter Tang Dynasty (907–960) and others.

White Horse Temple: Although it is not the largest nor the most beautiful Buddhism monument in China, this temple with its large number of Buddhist artifacts, is well worth a trip.

Other Luoyang Sights

  • Guanlin Temple: At the end of Guanlin Nan Lu, Guanlin Temple was built to commemorate the great general Guanyu of the State of Shu during the Three Kingdoms Period (220–280).
  • The Cave Dwellings in Luoyang are modern dwellings dug out of loess cliffs, a unique form of architecture.
  • Luoyang Museum traces the history of this ancient capital.
  • Museum of Ancient Tombs

2. Xi'an: Meet the Terracotta Warriors and the Makings of China

xian the terra-cotta warriors and horsesTerracotta Army

Xi'an is where the Silk Road began while it was capital of China, and what better to start with than a top 10 China attraction... The Terracotta Warriors and Horses are the most significant archeological excavations of the 20th century. The site is one of the Eight Great Wonders in the world. It is a sight not to be missed by any visitor to China.

The 16,300 square meters excavation site reveals more than 7,000 life-size terracotta figures of warriors and horses arranged in battle formations, built in 246-208 BC.

The museum covers an area of 16,300 square meters, divided into three sections: Pit 1, Pit 2, and Pit 3 respectively. Pit 1 is the largest and it was first opened to the public on China's National Day in 1979.

Altogether over 7,000 pottery soldiers, horses, chariots, and even weapons, have been unearthed from these pits. Most of them have been restored to their former grandeur.

Location: Litong District, 35 kilometers east of Xi'an City, Shaanxi Province, about 40 minutes' drive. 陕西省西安市以东35公里的临潼区

Suggested visiting duration: 3 hours

Other Xi'an Sights

3. Lanzhou: See the Significant Yellow River Bridging City

The Bingling GrottoesThe Bingling Grottoes

Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu Province. About 3.2 million people live in the urban area. Lanzhou was an ancient city on the Silk Road because it is at the entrance of a lowland corridor to the west. On either side of this big long valley, there are high mountains, deserts and plateaus that blocked travel to the north and south.

The main ancient attraction near Lanzhou is the Bingling Grottoes. Another is the White Pagoda park area.

4. Xiahe: Detour for Tibetan Culture at Labrang Monastery

Xiahe is the best place to experience Tibetan culture outside of Tibet. Labrang Monastery is located at the foot of the Phoenix Mountain, north-west of Xiahe County in Gannan Tibetan Nationality Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province. It stands by the Daxia River and faces the Dragon Mountain.

The monastery was founded in 1709 by the first Jamyang Zhaypa, Ngawang Tsondru. It is Tibetan Buddhism's most important monastery town outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

In the early 20th century, it housed several thousand monks. Labrang was also a gathering point for numerous annual religious festivals.

The white walls and golden roofs feature a blend of Tibetan and Han architectural styles. The monastery contains 18 halls, six institutes of learning, a golden stupa, a sutra debate area, and it houses nearly 60,000 sutras.

It has a Buddhist museum with a large collection of Buddha statues, sutras and murals. In addition, a large amount of Tibetan language books, including books on history, are available for purchase, together with medicines, calendars, music and art objects.

Location: at the foot of the Phoenix Mountain, north-west of Xiahe County in Gannan Tibetan Nationality Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province. It is about 5 hours' drive from Lanzhou.

Songke Grassland is located in the south-west area of Xiahe. Being a natural pasture of the Tibetan nomadic peoples, Songke Grassland is famous for its superb grassland scenery. As you ride on a horse you can listen to the pastoral songs and feast your eyes on the beautiful flowers and blue sky.

5. Tianshui: See the Maiji Mountain Grottoes

Maiji Mountain  GrottoesMaiji Mountain Grottoes

The Grottoes on Maiji Mountain, with an altitude of 1,742 meters, is one of the four most famous grottoes in China. From the mountain top to the foot, it is 142 meters. There are 194 extant niches, which house more than 7,200 big and small clay sculptures and stone statues, and 1,300 square meters of frescoes.

All of them were made on the cliffs of Maiji Mountain. The grottoes were first built during the Later Qin Period (384-417). The grotto group is divided into two parts: the east and the west. There are 54 extant caves in the east part and 140 caves in the west part.

Different from the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, there are mainly clay sculptures.

Features:

  • The grottoes are mostly located on sheer cliffs and steep brinks. It is breathtaking.
  • The sculptures are more like common people, as opposed to more serious ones, like sculptures of god. 

Opening times: 08:00-17:00

Tips: Different from the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, carrying bags and taking photos are admitted in the Maiji Mountain Grottoes.

Location: Maiji Mountain, Maiji District, Tianshui City, Gansu Province; about 50 kilometers from Tianshui City, a one hour drive. 甘肃省天水市麦积区麦积山

Suggested visiting duration: half a day

6. Wuwei: See the Han Tomb of Leitai

The Han Tomb of Leitai is located in the old Leitai Park of Wuwei. The tomb consists of a 19.34 meters long passage, three coffin chambers and three side chambers. There were 231 gold, silver, bronze, iron, jade, bone and pottery articles, and 99 bronze warriors and horses excavated there, among which the Bronze Flying Horse is the most valuable. The horse is depicted in a full gallop, supported on just one foot upon the back of a bird in flight.

Location: Leitai Park, Beiguan Mid Road, Liangzhou District, Wuwei City, Gansu Province 甘肃省武威市凉州区北关中路雷台公园

7. Zhangye: View Awesome Landforms 

Zhangye's awesome landforms

Zhangye was called "Jin Zhangye" in old times. Due to the strategic importance in its military and geographical location, Zhangye became the center of politics, economy, culture and diplomatic activities of every past dynasty in the north-western part of China. Zhangye was one of the four counties in Hexi Corridor (the Western River) in ancient times and was once known as Ganzhou.

Zhangye has now become famous for its eye-catching red and even rainbow-colored landforms, known as Danxia: photographer's eye candy.

Zhangye Grand Buddha Temple

grand buddha templeZhangye Grand Buddha Temple

Zhangye's  Grand Buddha Temple, built in 1098, houses China's largest indoor reclining Buddha the Nirvan of Sakyamuni Buddha lies in this temple.

The length of the Buddha's body is 34.5 meters, the shoulders are 7.5 meters, the ears are 4 meters and the feet are 5.2 meters. One man can lie on the middle finger of the Buddha, while eight people can sit shoulder by shoulder on the Buddha's ear.

Beside the two houses stand 18 arches. The frescos on the walls are descriptions of stories from "Journey to the West" and "Classic of Mountains and Seas". There are more than 6,000 Buddha sutras granted by Emperor Yingzong of the Ming Dynasty in the Depositary of Buddhist texts. These sutras are well preserved.

Location: It is in the Grand Buddha Temple Lane, Minzu West Street, Zhangye City, Gansu Province 甘肃省张掖市民主西街大佛寺巷

7. Jiayuguan: Visit the West End of the Great Wall

the jiayuguan passJiayuguan's Great Wall Fort

The fort at Jiayu Pass linked with the most westerly section of the Great Wall formed a strongly fortified defensive system between two mountain ranges, across the narrowest part of the Gansu Corridor. There are many stories concerning the unique construction of the walls, including "goats carrying bricks on their backs" and "transporting wall stones using an icy path".

Located 6 kilometers (3.73 miles) south-west of the city, the Jiayuguan Pass is in the middle of the narrowest valley. The Great Wall on both sides of the pass crosses the Gobi, neighboring the Overhanging Great Wall on the north and the First Fire Tower of the Great Wall on the south. The Jiayuguan Pass represents the western starting point of a section of the Great Wall constructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Location: 6 kilometers south-west of Jiayuguan City, Gansu Province甘肃省嘉峪关市区西南6公里处

The  Overhanging Great Wall

The Overhanging Great Wall is an important part of the defensive work of the Jiayuguan Pass fortifications. Built in the year of 1539 during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), it is 11 kilometers (6.83 miles) from the downtown Jiayuguan, and located 6.5 kilometers (4 miles) north-west of the Jiayuguan Pass. The main body of the Overhanging Great Wall was built with gravel and soil, including three fire towers.

Its outline seems much like the Beijing Badaling Great Wall, so people have nicknamed it 'West Badaling'.

Location: about 14 kilometers north of Jiayuguang City.

9. Dunhuang: See the Mogao Grottoes (Thousand Buddhas Caves)

mogao grottosMogao Grottoes

Dunhuang is considered by many to be the best stop on the Silk Road in Gansu and is the gateway to the Xinjiang Region.

Of the four famous Buddhist Grottoes in china, the Mogao Grottoes are considered to be the best. They contain thousands of Buddhist images and statues, including the world's third largest "Giant Buddha", dating back up to 1,700 years ago. The colours and details have been well-preserved in the cave environment.

It is the largest and best preserved shrine of Buddhist art treasures. It is located 25 kilometers (15.5miles) from downtown Dunhuang on the eastern slope of Mingsha Shan (Echoing Sand Mountain).

735 caves are preserved there. The artistic features of the treasured Buddhist murals perfectly represent the artistic style of the Northern Wei (386-543), Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties through the combination of the architecture, statues and murals in the caves.

Mogao sculptors improvised where the rock surface did not work well under their chisels. They placed clay statues in front of the cave walls, carved relief murals as backdrops, and painted the sidewalls and ceilings with art decor. The largest statue is 34.5 meters (113 feet) tall and the smallest is a mere 2 centimeters (0.79inches) high.

Artists in each dynasty painted with their own distinctive palette. A visitor can tell the difference between works from the Tang Dynasty and those from the Song Dynasty.

Location: 25 kilometers south-east of Dunhuang City, Gansu Province 甘肃省敦煌市东南25千米

Suggested visiting duration: 3-5 hours

Note: Taking photographs is not permitted inside the caves. An electronic torch may be helpful as it is a bit dark inside.

Other Dunhuang Sights include Yumen Pass, a strategic fort on the ancient Silk Road.

Enjoy Dunhuang's Echoing Sand Mountain (Mingsha Shan)

the singing sand mountains and crescent springEchoing Sand Mountain

The Mingsha (Singing Sand) Dunes are a beautiful natural sight. These dunes are not only unusual for the noises that can be heard from the sand, but also the pristine state they return to every night, all footprints immaculately erased. The smooth yellow sand and blue sky contrast with the lush green crescent sprng, a mini oasis. Activities there include camel rides, sand sledging and quad bikes.

The mountain is five kilometers (about three miles) away from the city of Dunhuang. Seen from afar, the mountain is just like a golden dragon winding its way over the horizon. As you approach you become aware that the sand has many colors ranging from red to yellow, green, black and white. On days when a strong wind blows, the fast shifting sand roars; but when the wind is little more than a light breeze, the sand produces gentle, dulcet sounds akin to music.

Encircled by the mountain, there is Crescent Lake, so called because of its shape. The water in the lake is pure and sweet and it looks like an emerald set in the sand. It has been in existence for hundreds of years without ever being buried by the sand.

To go to the top by camel is an experience of a lifetime. You can also climb the mountain on foot, or go by Moto or Jeep, but when you are in the desert, a camel is the best!

Location: The mountain is 5 kilometers (about 3 miles) away from the city of Dunhuang.

Suggested visiting duration: 2-3 hours. The best times to visit are either in the morning or at 16:00-19:00pm in the summer.

Notes: the sand particles are tiny so please take good care of your camera.

10. Turpan: Discover the Flaming Mountains and Ancient Innovations

the flaming mountainsFlaming Mountains

The Flaming Mountains are very popular due to a classical novel, Journey to the West with the monkey king Sun Wukong.

The mountain lies 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) east of Turpan City, covering about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from east to west with a width of 9 kilometers (5.6 miles). The average height is 500 meters (1,640 feet).

The mountain is barren and extremely hot in summer. During the trek approaching it, visitors will find the soles of their shoes soften in the intense heat. With the red sun overhead, the red mountain looks like a fiery dragon in front of you; it's a great spectacle. 

Location: 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) east of Turpan City.

Gaochang Ancient City

Gaochang Ancient CityGaochang Ancient City

The city's name means 'the King City'. It was founded during the first century BC and abandoned during the 15th century. Ascending to a height to enjoy a distant view, you can see the whole city.

The city was initially built as a garrison town in the first century BC, called Gaochang Wall. After 2,000 years, the weather-beaten ancient city still displays its past greatness and glory; even though the walls are incomplete, the magnificent outline remains.

The ruins are an irregular square, covering an area of about 2,200,000 square meters (2,631,178 square yards). The layout is similar to that of Chang'an City in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The city is composed of three sections: an outer city, an inner city and a palace city. The outer city, with a perimeter of 5.4 kilometers (3.4 miles), is enclosed by a city wall which is 12 meters (39 feet) thick and 11.5 meters (37.7 feet) high, and is built with tamped earth.

As one of the key points along the Silk Road, the ancient city of Gaochang was also a sanctuary for world religious culture. Xuanzhuang, a well-known Buddhist monk in the Tang Dynasty, stopped there and delivered lectures on his way to India. Today, the remains standing there remind us of the grandeur and prosperity of the ancient city.

Location: It is located at the foot of the Flaming Mountain, about 46 kilometers (29 miles) south-east of Turpan, Xinjiang.

Tips: The best time to visit is from June to August when various melons and fruits in Turban are ripe, so that you may taste the delicious fruits. The Grape Festival held in August every year is also quite exciting and is very enjoyable. During the Grape Festival, a variety of cultural activities such as evening parties and the Grape Wine Festival are enjoyable events to attend.

The Karez Wells

the karez wellsKarez Wells

It is an underground irrigation system used in the Turfan area. It is a historic inheritance and promotion of the sinking technology of the Central Plains, and plays a very important role in the study of the sinking technology, both in the Central Plain and in Middle and West Asia, as well as in the production and daily lives of the people in the Turfan area.

The Karez wells in the Turfan area totaled to over 1,100 sets. A Karez well generally consists of four parts: the open channel, the underground channel, the vertical well and the small reservoir.

A Karez well can realize irrigation by water flowing automatically, which means a low cost for running the system. It reduces evaporation and avoids contamination caused by sand storms, to ensure the regular flow of irrigated water. It is stable in its runoff volume and the water is of a good quality which meets the standard for drinking and irrigation.

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.


11. Urumqi: Enjoy Heavenly Lake

Heavely lakeHeavenly Lake

Located at the foot of the snow-capped Tianshan (Heavenly Mountain) Range, Urumqi is the capital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in the far northwest of China.

Heavenly Lake: Here is awesome natural beauty! The snow-capped Heavenly Mountains reflect in crystal clear lake waters. The mountainscape stretches into the distance, and is painted with flocks of sheep and horses and yaks grazing among the wild flowers. Just 2 hours outside Urumqi.

Other Urumqi Sights include South Pasture: located on the Heavenly Mountains east of Urumqi, it's a green land of yurts (round tents) and mountain pastoralism.

12. Kashgar: Experience a Remote Tradepost and Muslim City

id kah mosqueId Kah Mosque

Kashgar is China's most Muslim city, just 100 km (60 mi) from the border with Kyrgyzstan. It used to be an important stop on the Silk Road. The city's relative inaccessibility has had a great influence on its character, and the preservation of its Sunday Bazaar.

The Id Kah Mosque, a magnificent Islamic building at the center of Kashgar City, has a history of more than 500 years. The mosque, which is 140 meters long from south to north and 120 meters wide from east to west, covers an area of 16,800 square meters and consists of the Hall of Prayer, the Doctrine Teaching Hall, the Gate Tower, a pond and some other accessory structures.

Every day, a few thousand worshippers go there to pray, with 6,000-7,000 going there on Friday afternoons. During festivals, the numbers can surge to 20,000-30,000. During the Corban at prayer time, the mosque, the square, and the surrounding streets are full of piously kneeling Muslims. It is a great spectacle in Kashgar.

Location: Jiefang North Road, Kashgar 喀什解放北路

Suggested visiting duration: one hour

Other Kashgar Sights include Lake Karakuli. Remote, rugged and exotic at 3,600 meters above sea level, it is surrounded by 7,000 meter tall mountains. It is 200 km (130 mi) from Kashgar in a region disputed with Tajikistan.

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