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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.
Are you thinking of a Silk Road trip in China? To help you get inspired and start planning, we've summarized what to see and do, weather, food, accommodation, culture, and transport information and tips.
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.
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!
In Gansu, heading west:
In Xinjiang, far west China:
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.
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.
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
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.
The Silk Road becomes drier as it heads west into China, given its extreme inland location. Since the road meanders through desert and mountainous areas, be prepared for extremes in temperature. The temperature in Turpan can reach 40 °C in the summer and –20 °C in January. Winter is long and bleak.
The best time to travel is from May to October. Weather conditions are pleasant from late spring to early autumn, with an average temperature of 15 °C. Although summer weather can be scorching, the heat is dry and more comfortable than in the humid tropics. The scenery is ideal when the fruits ripen, the flowers are in full bloom, and green grass covers grassland areas... in spring (April, May, June) and fall (September, October).
In the winter months, some parts get closed due to snow and general climatic changes.
The Silk Road requires a more thoughtful approach when it comes to planning out the trip, and research is important. We advise that travelers set aside a minimum of 5 days (for two or three destinations) to about 2 weeks if you want an immersive and rich experience from your travels.
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.
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.
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.
A clear division of hotels exists during the peak (June to Oct) and low seasons (rest of the year). During March, hotels offer limited options for breakfast, and cut off air–conditioning because of the low occupancy of 5–10% during this time. When traveling around the most inaccessible areas (e.g., Kuche, Hetian), only one or two hotels may provide lodging for foreigners with basic facilities and standard rooms that include a private washing room and a simple breakfast.
The days are as long as 12 hours, and it gets dark very late, at about 23:00. Follow your daily sleep routine to avoid getting tired the next day.
Most of our guides are from local ethnic minorities, and all have graduated from university. However, given the limits to their socio–economic upbringing, their spoken English might be not as fluent as people in Beijing and Shanghai, but they are eager to help and are hospitable. Moreover, they know the local people and area. When you visit local minority families, you are appreciated and well treated by them.
Our guides are pleasant and will take you to small local markets (bazaars) to avoid long driving times to larger shops for buying provisions. You’ll also stop to visit local scenic spots that provide good rest opportunities. Simple toilets can be found along the way, and bring your own tissue since there is none, nor is water provided.
Please do not talk about sensitive issues such as religion and politics when in Xinjiang. Sixty percent of the total population of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous region are minorities, and their primary belief system is Muslim. Please respect their customs (no pork) and follow your guides' advice when visiting a specific family or entering a mosque.
When visiting religious sites such as mosques, women should wear long–sleeve clothes. At certain times women are not allowed to enter mosques.
Taking photos at some attractions is forbidden; please follow your tour guide's lead. When you shop at the market, bargaining is taboo if you do not intend to make the purchase.
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.
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.
Xinjiang comprises one–sixth of all of China, resulting in long distances between cities. When traveling to southern Xinjiang Province (Kuche, Kuele, Hetian), visitors will spend more time in a van moving from one place to the next. The following table provides a general idea of the distance and hours between cities.
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.