Few names carry such rich and romantic associations as the ancient network of trade routes known as the Silk Road, said Diana Preston in The Sunday Telegraph (U.K.). Several great Eurasian empires once grew fat on its cargo, and the journey eastward along its Central Asian trunk remains a great adventure today—marked by teeming markets, evocative monuments, occasional nomad camps, and long stretches of “awesome mountain beauty.” Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat, which is just north of the Iranian border, makes a good place to start.
From Ashgabat, it’s a journey of about 4,500 miles to Xi’an, the former capital of China and the Silk Road’s eastern terminus. My first stop is nearby Merv, once the “Queen of Cities” and today a site where pink hollyhocks grow among the ruins left when Genghis Khan and his Mongol army swept across Asia, “destroying any Silk Road city that resisted.” In Bukhara, Uzbekistan, my next stop, the story goes that Genghis Khan was so impressed by the city’s 155-foot Kalon minaret that he spared it and the rest of what today is Central Asia’s best-preserved medieval city. Beyond Samarkand—another city noted for medieval architecture—rise the snowcapped Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan, where “felt-hatted” nomads pitch their yurts on “flower-dotted hillsides.”
Past the cobalt blue lake Chatyr Kul—“reputedly the coldest place in Kyrgyzstan”—lies the Torugart Pass, a gateway into China 12,000 feet above sea level. The first city we encounter during our descent “disappoints at first”: Much of Kashgar, an old mud-brick city, is being torn down and rebuilt. Yet closer investigation reveals stretches of city wall behind which stand artisans’ workshops and “ancient, vine-shaded houses.” Farther on, in “another Silk Road oasis”—Dunhuang—I spend “several mesmerizing hours exploring the Mogao Caves and their delicate murals of serene Buddhas” from the 4th century. Ancient traders arrived by caravan at Xi’an, my final stop. “Drinking rose-flavored tea at a market stall and breathing the smokiness of grilling kebabs seemed a good finale to my own journey in their footsteps.”
The tour operator Travel China Guide (travelchinaguide.com) offers travel packages along the Silk Road starting at $1,649 a person.