The Silk Road – Following in the Footsteps of Marco Polo

The Silk Road in China, the network of trade routes between Europe and China in the first millennium, usually brings up a romantic vision – long ambling camel caravans traversing great deserts with the crescent moon looking down on a line of weary and ancient travelers.

And why not, it’s a part of our collective history after all.

History of the Silk Road

The route itself dates as far back as 3000 B.C., with its heyday being between the 1st century B.C. and the 10th century A.D. The land route (there was a maritime route as well) spanned Northern China, the giant Taklamakan Desert, Persia and the Middle East, and Constantinople ending in points along the Mediterranean, namely Rome and Venice.

The term “Silk Road”, coined in 1877 by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, is a bit of a misnomer considering silk was not the primary product to travel along the route. Historically, a variety of other items passed through including perfumes, spices, jewels, nuts, teas, salts and glassware, with lacquer and porcelain products coming from China. Hard goods weren’t the only thing either: local religions, art and political doctrines spread along the route, including methods of healthcare, lore and disease. It’s believed the bubonic plague came to Europe along the Silk Road.

silk road

Transasia Silk Road trade routes 1st century – click for larger version

The term has been driven into public consciousness more recently to give the epoch a romanticism and simplicity, not the least of which is to sell tourism to travelers who overlook northwestern China as a travel destination.

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Going to the Silk Road region

Due to its history, the perceived oriental mystery of the route, along with books written by Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin and the romantic wish to follow Marco Polo’s travels, tourism has been the newest visitor to the region, showing travelers this desolate region and its artifacts.

In terms of iconic sights there’s not a lot here, but the journey does take you deep into the Uighur heartland, allowing access to the rare lifestyle a marginalized people have built around them. Tours take visitors to monastery ruins and cave temples, along with giant Silk Road-style markets in cities like Kashgar and Gansu.

Silk Road Sunday Market Kashgar, Xinjiang

Kashgar Sunday Market, Kashgar, Xinjiang – by dperstin

These days the Silk Road region has narrowed down to a simple route in Northern China between Xian and Kashgar with stops in oasis towns long the way. If you’re interested in seeing this mysterious and unique area there are a few ways to do it.

Since China opened to tourism in the late 70s and early 80s, all foreign tour operators have been required to use official state-registered travel companies, usually arranged by one of three government companies:

  • China International Travel Service (CITS)
  • China Travel Service (CTS)
  • China Youth Travel Service (CYTS)

You can probably save yourself some money by skipping the western tour middlemen and booking directly through one of these companies or their overseas offices.

Do it on your own

The best way to see the Silk Road region of China though is to simply arrange for travel on your own. Unlike Tibet, it’s legal to travel outside of an organized group tour, thus saving money and any logistical issues ahead of your arrival. Take the Urumqi Express railway line from Lanzhou for the greater part of the journey.

For more reading on the historical aspects of the Silk Road click here. Or if you want to look at the costs for incorporating flights into Xian and out of Kashgar into a longer round the world itinerary, start a TripPlanner session and see how much it will be.

Or else you can discuss the idea with one of our amazing travel consultants by calling 1-800-AIRTREKS.