One of the best ways of discovering the history of China and central Asia is to follow in the footsteps of people from the past. And in China you can actually do this in quite a literal sense by taking a trip along the famous Silk Road.
Now, this ancient trade route is absolutely colossal in size, so following it isn’t like taking driving round the M25. Plus, it crosses barren, difficult terrain in places. So, the most reliable way to make sure your adventure is a success (and that you see the best sights along the way) is organising a tour through a specialist company – something you can find out more about by visiting this website.
What is the Silk Road?
Let’s begin by taking a quick look at what the Silk Road actually is. Spanning around 4, 000 miles, it begins in Xi’an and splits into three individual routes when it reaches Dunhuang. It dates all the way back to 200 BC, when it was used as a way to connect traders, pilgrims, merchants and more with the Mediterranean Sea.
Its name comes from the fact that, at one time, one of the primary functions of the road was to transport silk for the Chinese silk trade – a particularly lucrative, important business. These days the road is more popular with tourists than traders, but it offers a brilliant insight into Chinese history.
What to see along the way
One of the joys of the Silk Road is that it passes so many amazing places. So, you’ll have your pick of attractions to visit (just as a quick note, if you haven’t yet booked your tour and you’ve got your heart set on seeing any of the below, make sure you check exactly where the itineraries you’re considering call in at, because schedules can vary).
First up are the Mogao Caves, which are in Xi’an. Famous for housing some incredible examples of Buddhist art, they were once used as monasteries and hermit dwellings. Today, though, you can see everything from murals and clay sculptures to beautiful silk paintings.
Our next suggestion is over in Xinjiang, and is another cave complex that’s home to some wonderful Buddhist art. This place is often called the Thousand Buddha Caves, which should give you a pretty clear indication of just how prolific the creativity was here! Many of the paintings are regarded as masterpieces of religious art – though sadly a fair number were lost after being moved to Berlin in the early 20th century and falling foul of World War II bombings.
The Bezeklik Caves can actually be found in my next recommendation – the Flaming Mountains. Also known as the Gaochang Mountains, these red sandstone hills earned their name from the flaming appearance they seem to take on at certain times of day. They’re really impressive to look at no matter when you visit, though, since erosion has created some pretty distinctive patterns on the stone.
Also known as Lake Tianchi, Heavenly Lake is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s close to Urumqi. As you’ve no doubt guessed from its name, it’s a remarkable place in terms of scenery – it’s worth having a full day to explore here just to drink it all in.
Abakh Khoja Tomb
Last up is the Abakh Khoja Tomb, which is 5 km outside of Kashgar. An unbeatable example of Uigur architecture, this mausoleum is the most spectacular in Xinjiang today. Interestingly, while being the 17th-century family cemetery of the Islamic leader in the Kashgar area, it’s actually better known in China as the tomb of Xiang Fei, a concubine of the Emperor Qianlong (of the Qing Dynasty) – and the only one of Uigur heritage.