Crossing Central Asia overland is undoubtedly faster and less eventful today than it was for sixth-century merchants looking to exchange weapons for spices, but if you’re planning to set out for a transcontinental journey of this kind, it will nevertheless be epic. With modern(ish) methods of transportation available and a relatively calm situation in most countries along the way, traveling the 5,000-mile route connecting east and west is mostly a matter of patience.
What is the Silk Road?
If we were to interpret the term literally, the legendary Silk Road should be traversed in only one direction, east to west. Silk, one of the most precious items to be traded by merchants in this part of the world, originated in China and traveled for months through Central Asia in order to reach Roman hands in Europe. However, the name coined by German geographer Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen in 1877 refers to something much larger than the mere exchange of fabrics.
What we call the Silk Road is not a single trackway linking two points on a map, but rather a constantly shifting network of trade routes expanded over centuries where cultures, technologies, religions, and people flowed, influencing one another. Early explorers didn’t have an easy life though: the geography of Eurasia was always an obstacle for the development of this traffic, with arid deserts and high peaks dotting the region.
Although archaeologists have discovered that trade between East and West did begin much earlier than the opening of the Silk Road, with the Tibetan Plateau and the Gobi deserts working as a natural frontier, the Chinese Empire remained mostly isolated until 130 BCE. It was around this time that the Han Dynasty decided to increase its territorial control to the West, and starting from the capital of Xi’an set out to reach the Tien Shan mountains on the opposite side of the continent.
Squeezed between majestic mountains and sweltering deserts, the Hexi Corridor had just been formed, allowing caravans full of exotic goods to begin their journey toward the Middle East. The opening of the Hexi Corridor (also known as Gansu Corridor) was a major breakthrough, considering that on the western side of the Silk Road trade had already been blooming since 339 BCE, when Alexander the Great had expanded his dominance until the Fergana Valley in modern-day Uzbekistan.
The main artery of the Silk Road was open for business. Eastern merchants began exchanging textiles, spices, and medicines with weapons, silver, and animals at the oases and caravanserais along the route, funneling precious goods all the way to Rome. While commercial trading fueled the traffic creating branches that spread out all the way to India, South East Asia, and Africa, the network of roads has been particularly valuable for its contribution in the development of modern cultures. Buddhism proliferated outside of India thanks to these connections and later Venetian explorer Marco Polo traveled along these routes to reach the Far East.
Dealings on the Silk Road saw a number of slowdowns during the course of its history — namely the expansion of the Islamic Caliphate in the 7th century and the fall of the Tang Dynasty in the 10th century — but remained active until the late Middle Ages. The discovery of sea routes caused the ultimate decline of land transport and many cities that had gained wealth due to their strategic position lost their fortunes.
Traveling Along the Silk Road Today
My personal journey along the Silk Road took me all the way from Eastern China to Italy through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Turkey, and Greece. After risking an arrest on the border of Turkmenistan because of what I’ve later recalled as a “visa misunderstanding”, I did have to skip the North Korea of Central Asia with a last-minute flight. The trip, however, is easily doable overland, given that your organizational skills are better than mine — which shouldn’t be too difficult.
Generally speaking, the entry point to the Silk Road is Xi’an, in the Shaanxi Province of China, while the final stop is in Istanbul, Turkey, at the doorstep of Europe. But there are no strict rules: between the two cities, the itineraries vary and you can explore these fascinating regions in any direction you wish. While I decided to head south from Uzbekistan and traverse the Middle East, it is also possible to exit China or Uzbekistan via Kazakhstan and cross the Caspian Sea into the Caucasus. From these two main routes, an almost infinite number of potential detours await.
After a brief stopover in the town of Zhangye, located along the Hexi Corridor and famous for its rainbow-striped rock formations, I proceeded toward the capital city of the autonomous region of Xinjiang, Urumqi. Western China is perhaps the least stable area along the Silk Road, because of the long conflict between the central government and the local Uyghur population, which still causes bombings and armed attacks to happen from time to time. Just a couple of weeks prior to my arrival a bomb had killed 43 people in the city center of Urumqi and shortly after thirteen people had been shot dead while they were trying to attack a local police station just outside Kashgar, where I was headed next.
Another night on the train had brought me to the last of Chinese cities. What I found though, wasn’t Chinese at all. A mosque established the city center, sand-colored buildings surrounded the market in which mutton stew has substituted steamed dumplings. The male inhabitants of this town had a darker complexion than their fellow countryman, wore square hats, had long beards and didn’t even speak Mandarin. The situation for the women was a bit different: the short skirts of Shanghai’s Bund had disappeared under thick veils that allowed only imagination to guess who was under them. Kashgar was as Chinese as Beijing on the map, but in reality, it seemed like somewhere else.
From Kashgar, in a matter of hours, you can be in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and, a little further, India. A central node in the Silk Road, this city has always seen the intersection between civilizations and it is still today a vibrant cultural nest.
A bus ride over spectacular mountain passes leads to Kyrgyzstan, a country of natural wonders which blends nomadic tradition, Soviet history with pristine landscapes. From Osh, the second largest city, you can access Uzbekistan in no time, but it is surely worth considering a diversion north, where Issyk Kul Lake and the Tien Shan Mountains are only waiting to be explored, together with the many jailoos, the summer pastures dotted by yurts set up by nomads in altitude areas.
The Karakol region and the area surrounding Song Kul lake are two of the best if you want to make use of the hiking boots you’ve been carrying in your backpack. Yes, it’s true that signage its lacking, maps are hard to find and trails are barely visible, but it is a price worth paying for an environment yet unspoiled. At least, that’s what I told myself before getting lost in the highlands.
Since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev replaced his authoritarian predecessor in 2016, Uzbekistan — a formerly closed off country — has opened up toward foreign tourism. Applying (and obtaining) a visa today is a much smoother process than in the past and this is definitely a situation to be taken advantage of. With ancient cities emerging from the arid steppe, Uzbekistan offers some of the most intriguing examples of Islamic architecture, restored to its former glory by the Soviets who despised religion but understood the value of these man-made treasures. Some of the most important centers of the Silk Road are here: starting from Samarkand, a city of turquoise domes founded in the 7th century BCE, to the 2,000-year-old walled fortress of Khiva in the West. Both, needless to say, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The newly acquired openness has not extended until Turkmenistan, which allows visitors only a short transit visa unless they join a guided (and extremely expensive) tour. However, the country is small and mostly empty, so the five-day permit to cross into Iran are usually more than enough for a short visit. The old Persia, on the other hand, will welcome you with its disarming hospitality and some of the most stunning historical sites on the whole route. After visiting millennia old castles, restored caravanserais and remnants of the Zoroastrian tradition you’ll reach the city of Tabriz, another key node on the Silk Road with it’s UNESCO listed brick-covered bazaar, a complex that has seen people from East and West exchanging goods for centuries. From there, it’s smooth sailing all the way the western tip of Turkey.
Some alternatives exist to the itinerary just described. From the city of Aktau in western Kazakhstan, ferries depart toward Baku, Azerbaijan. From Baku it is necessary, however, to go the long way via Georgia, as both the borders between Azerbaijan and Armenia and between Armenia and Turkey are close at the time of writing. For those able to obtain a Russian visa it is also possible to travel around the Caspian Sea and into the Northern Caucasus.
Know Before You Go
The Silk Road is not another Southeast Asian Banana Pancake Trail and although there are backpackers exploring this corner of the world, you won’t encounter full-moon parties with flaming jump ropes and cheap cocktail buckets. Let’s be grateful for that.
- Public transport is available in most areas and shared taxis are common in regions not covered by buses or trains. Especially in Kyrgyzstan, it is not unusual to see locals hitchhiking along the road. Traveling by thumb is possible, but remember that people offering a ride will expect you to contribute to fuel costs. Chinese trains are modern and comfortable and the same can be said of Iranian and Turkish buses. Most people still travel overland in this part of the world, finding a connection to your next destination will hardly ever be an issue.
- Kyrgyzstan has developed a great Community Based Tourism system, which allows you to find accommodation through local families in every corner of the country. Just walk into one of the CBT offices in the major cities and ask about the options, whether you are looking to reach a remote destination or sleep in a yurt with the locals, it can easily be set up.
- While each country has its own tongue and each region its own dialect, the most widely spoken language along the Silk Road is Russian. You can get by in English relatively easily; however, it may be helpful to learn some Cyrillic alphabet to decipher signs, at least.
- It is not necessary to invest 24 years of your life in this trip like Marco Polo did to complete the journey from Xi’an to Istanbul, but you will need at least two full months, preferably in the summer, if you don’t want to rush through.
- Although many destinations in Central Asia may appear isolated, there is a decent tourist infrastructure in every city along the way. Iran and the ex-Soviet States are safe to visit; however in Xinjiang incidents due to the Chinese — Uyghur conflict occur from time to time. This said, foreign travelers shouldn’t consider the current political situation an obstacle. Xinjiang is a region where the presence of the police is highly felt, checks are frequent, and tanks occupy the streets, but tourists can move freely and are hardly ever bothered.
- Uzbekistan used to have strict regulations regarding foreign travelers. Until a few years ago you had to register in every hotel and guesthouse you slept in and show the receipts upon exit at the border. Not providing proof of registration for every night spent in the country could mean arrest or deportation. This is no longer the case. Today you are still required to register at hotels at least once every three nights, but if you plan to camp or couchsurf it is also possible to use the online service Emehmon to pay your tourist tax.
- While Couchsurfing is no longer illegal in Uzbekistan, it is still officially not allowed in Iran. This said, Iran is probably one of the easiest countries to find a host in and many people use Couchsurfing to meet and help each other. If you decide to rely on the online platform to find hospitality, just be aware that it is technically forbidden.
- Although not essential, it’s a good idea to request both your Chinese and Iranian visas in advance in your home embassy in order to save time while on the road. Most embassies will require you to apply not earlier than three months before entering the country, so take this into account if you are planning a longer trip.
- During the research stages of your trip you’ll likely come across some nightmare stories of border crossings in Central Asia. Many travelers have had to deal with corrupt police in the past, but today the situation has greatly improved and as long as you play by the rules you will not experience any form of harassment.
- Of all the countries along the way, Kyrgyzstan is the easiest to access. This tiny and isolated nation understood quickly the value of letting foreign tourists in and allows citizens of 40 countries to stay for 60 days without a visa. This is particularly useful if you are planning to obtain other permits on the road, as waiting times can be long.
- Since February 2019, Uzbekistan has introduced a visa-free regime for all countries of the European Union and Canada, and an electronic visa service for citizens of the United States.
- Turkmenistan is still pretty much closed off to the outside world — so much so that it’s been nicknamed “The new North Korea”. In order to get a tourist visa, you need to obtain permission from a tourist agency with whom you need to book a guided tour that costs between 150 and 250 USD a day. It is possible however to obtain a transit visa, which allows crossing the country via two predetermined entry and exit points within three or five days. It is fundamental that you organize this part of your trip some weeks in advance, since the transit visa is date-specific and receiving it may take some time.
- Azerbaijan has also activated an online visa service since 2017. It is possible to request your permit through the official website and receive it within hours in your inbox. Just be careful to apply on the right website, as many agencies pretending to be governmental institutions have set up similar-looking portals where an extra fee is charged for the application service.
Caravanistan is the richest source of information regarding this part of the world. Each country has a dedicated page with up-to-date documentation and the forum contains many personal accounts of travelers crossing the region.
Pleco is a great smartphone application to communicate in Chinese. It offers a dictionary and OCR to scan and translate written words instantly.
This article first appeared on Matador Network.