The Silk Road of Western China and Central Asia elicit romantic notions of explorers on camelback gliding through the desert looking to barter their wares for exotic spices and silk. Connecting the East with the West, the Silk Road was a superhighway for cultural exchange and is today one of the most sought-after travel experiences around.
From its start in Xi’an, the Silk Road route takes many different paths. Journeying into the Xinjiang Province of Western China will take you into the Tian Shan Mountain Range through the second-largest sand desert in the world (the Taklamakan), over the 3700m Torugart Pass and into the snowcapped, green mountain wonderland of under-touristed Kyrgyzstan. Visit the nomadic Kyrgyz people in their yurt camps and Russian transplants in the soviet capital of Bishkek. Continue on into Uzbekistan for an amazing example of various cultures intertwined, mixed among ancient multi-coloured mosaic buildings, desolate deserts and solemn soviet bulk.
The route splits from here – into Kazakhstan, to Turkmenistan and Iran, across the Caspian to Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and into Turkey. Whichever path you follow, the Silk Road is sure to bring the ancient stories of traders and bandits to life while opening your eyes to Central Asian food, cultures and people that will make you yearn for more.
The Mingsha Sand Dunes are located in Dunhuang, China, just on the edge of town. Dunhuang is known for its specialty dish, donkey meat (quite tasty with chilis and garlic!).
Further into the Xinjiang Province is an area near the capital, Urumqi. In the Tian Shan Mountains you can stay with some friendly Kazakhs in a yurt camp and take in the gorgeous views.
Not far from the China-Kyrgyz border you’ll find a small nomadic community at Tash Rabat. This is an excellent opportunity to learn about Kyrgyz culture, sample some delicious Central Asian cuisine and sleep in a yurt in the middle of nowhere.
Bukhara is a shining example of multiple cultures living side-by-side. Uzbeks, Tajiks, Russians and Bukharian Jews live seamlessly in this small town. What is now a carpet museum was used hundreds of years back as both a mosque and a synagogue simultaneously. Bukhara is a great city for admiring architecture, wandering through carpet and handicraft shops, enjoying treats in a teahouse or visiting a 500-year-old working hammam.
Central Asia is filled with unique experiences, beautiful people, delicious food, mind-blowing scenery and fascinating history. The blend of cultures passing through these countries, in both ancient times and in recent history, make for an adventure that will call you back again and again, always with a new angle to explore, a new country to see and a new friendly face to discover.