Trade routes don’t come more evocatively named than the Silk Road. This ancient trade route linked Rome with China, and was the means by which these two great civilisations exchanged goods and ideas. Named for the silk that made its way from China to the west, it’s a name that evokes exotic images of the past. You can relive a little of the journey the traders took with an adventure of your own, travelling from Xi’an to Urumqi on the Chinese stretch of this iconic route. These are some of the places you should visit along the way.
The Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an
Once part of the Silk Road, Xi’an is famous for the awe-inspiring Terracotta Warriors nearby, a statue group that depicts the army of the first emperor of China. Unearthed in the 1970s by farmers digging a well, they were buried with the emperor in the late 3rd century BC. It was believed that these thousands of life-size terracotta soldiers, chariots and cavalry horses would protect the emperor in the afterlife.
In the heyday of the Silk Road, Lanzhou was known as the ‘Golden City’. Located on the banks of the Yellow River, it was a major stop on the ancient trade route. These days, you can enjoy a walk along the river and climb White Pagoda Hill for fantastic city views, but an even more memorable site lies hidden underground some way from the city itself. The Bingling Si Caves are a series of isolated carved grottoes, the oldest dating back to AD 420, and they can only be reached by boat – and only in the summer. The Buddha carvings inside span numerous dynasties and corresponding periods of art history, so it’s well worth the journey.
Rugged and remote, Jiayuguan can be reached by overnight train from Lanzhou. The snow-capped Qilian Mountains are juxtaposed against the reddish sand of the Gobi Desert to create a stunning and unusual contrast. Get the best view by visiting a remote but well-preserved stretch of the Great Wall of China: a section, built in the 1300s, that’s visually very different from the eastern parts of the wall, using rammed earth instead of bricks.
Gaochang and Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves
Gaochang was once a garrison town on the Silk Road, and it’s now on the World Heritage List as one of China’s most important archaeological sites. Not far away from Gaochang, you’ll find the even more enigmatic Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves in the Flaming Mountains. Once the setting for a priceless assortment of Buddhist cave art spanning AD 400 to 1300, the caves have sadly been plundered of many of their murals over the last few centuries. However, the paintings and carvings that remain offer a fascinating glimpse of the people who once occupied the area, so it’s still a worthy stop on your journey.
Heavenly Lake, Urumqi
High in the Tianshan Mountain Range is a beautiful alpine lake that no Silk Road traveller should leave without seeing. Aptly called Heavenly Lake, its crystal-clear water is a beautiful sight and a complete contrast to the cities of modern China. The region isn’t far from the borders with Mongolia and Kazakhstan, and traditional yurts scattering this area make Urumqi and its environs feel like a place where cultures meet – an apt way to end your journey along a route that once connected entire civilisations.
Image credits courtesy of Insider Journeys