The Silk Road is essentially a bunch of trade routes collectively known as a road which allowed passage from Asia, namely China, to Europe. The route is ancient and lengthy, established as it was over 2,000 years ago and stretching for 4,000 miles, about the same length as the Great Wall of China.

The Silk Road was so named due to its being set up to transport Chinese silk, as well as other luxuries, via caravans to ancient Rome well before the time of Christ. The Silk Road also has religious significance in that Buddhism and Islam infiltrated China along the route. You can clearly discern these religions through relics along the way. The likes of Marco Polo followed this route and he did so in the 13th century on his journey to China via Khotan.

As a direct result of the Silk Road, the extensive trade helped develop nations like China, India, Egypt, Persia (Iran), Arabia, Rome, and Byzantium (late Roman Empire). The route also helped transport dire diseases between the various regions. Only parts of the Silk Road were used by agents as opposed to a single lengthy journey. They would then trade in the large mercantile markets en-route.

You can of course make haste along the Silk Road today in the form of railroad, bus and car transport and can start in Europe or China. Xian in China and Istanbul in Turkey are the jumping off points.

The partial overland route using the Silk Road goes from Istanbul to New Delhi and even this is not an easy route for the uninitiated. If you want to simply explore the main part of the road in Central Asia, you’d be better off simply flying into a nearby city such as Tashkent, Urumqi, or Almaty.

Xi’an to Dunhuang

This is the main caravan route to the West from China, which started in Chang An (Xian) out west to Lanzhou and then north to Dunhuang to the far reaches of the Great Wall of China. You then have to go around the Taklimakan Desert, with the Northern Silk Route going via Hami, Turfan, and Korla to Kashgar; the Middle Silk Route via Cherchen and Korla to Kashgar; and the Southern Silk Route, or Jade Route, going via Cherchen, Khotan, and Yarkand before hitting Kashgar.

You will then be in the west of China at Kashgar, from where the main route goes to Kyrgyzstan via Central Asia - Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bokhara – onto Turkmenistan and Iran (Persia). You then head west to Baghdad, Damascus, and Istanbul.

Alternative Silk Road routes

  • Cross into Central Asia in the north and into Kazakhstan
  • Go north of the Caspian Sea and miss out Iran
  • Hit the Med at Lebanon or Israel instead of Istanbul

If you plan on doing the entire route then you’ll need a Chinese and Russian phrasebook and be aware that parts are impassable in the winter months. You may also struggle with the various borders depending on your nationality and any political goings-on at the time. Checking on the news of associated countries before you travel is advised, along with a visit your doctor to check on any required vaccinations.