3-5 weeks Silk Road Excursion
This trip is perfect for the adventurer who wants to kick up dust on the sands of the ancient Silk Road and explore the Uighur homeland of Xinjiang. You’ll encounter an exotic land with antique mosques, delicious lamb kebabs, burqa-clad women, and camels roaming the streets; you may even feel like you’re in Baghdad! By traveling fast, you can cut back on time, but if you decide to do both the northern and southern sections of the Silk Road in Xinjiang, you’ll be pushing the five week mark.
The Silk Road, stretching from Europe to Central China across the world’s most forgotten lands, was and perhaps still is one of the planet’s most epic journeys. You too can leave your footprints on the sands of the Silk Road right here in China without ever having to leave the country, and by following the Panda you can check off the essentials from the Islamic, Buddhist and Han cultural spheres along this ancient, international superhighway.
Xi’an, Shaanxi (2-3 days)
For merchants heading west, this was the start of the Silk Road. Arrive in Xi’an and give yourself some time to hike up Mt Huashan on the outskirts of town, feast in the Muslim Quarter, explore the Tomb of the First Qin Emperor and gawk at one of country’s top attractions: the Terracotta Warriors. Also try to squeeze in the Big Goose Pagoda and take a stroll along the city wall, but don’t exhaust yourself too much – there’s a lot more exploring left to do. Take the overnight train to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province.
Lanzhou, Gansu (2-3 days)
Immerse yourself in Tibetan culture at the Labrang Monastery and the Milarepa Palace in Hezuo, both just a few hours south of Lanzhou. Two days should be plenty, and that may be all you can handle from Lanzhou’s suffocating pollution, so strike north on a bus towards the Hexi Corridor once you check off these two top attractions.
Hexi Corridor, Gansu (4 days)
From Lanzhou travel north along the Hexi Corridor, the original natural mountain passage along the Silk Road connecting central China to Xinjiang. Some of the hotspots along the corridor include Mati Si (the Horse Hoof Monastery), carved into the side of a mountain, the gigantic Sleeping Buddha at Zhangye and the Jiayuguan Fortress at the end of the Great Wall.
Dunhuang, Gansu (3 days)
You cannot leave Gansu Province without visiting the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Mogao Caves (the most famous Buddhist grottoes in China), located on the outskirts of old Dunhuang. Do as the Silk Road travelers of the past did and catch up on your z’s in this quaint town; it has great hostels, hotels and Western restaurants and is the perfect connection to the badlands of Xinjiang.
Turpan, Xinjiang (2 days)
If you have time, first stop in the city of Turpan (nestled in the second lowest depression in the entire world) to visit the ancient ruins of former Silk Road trading posts like Gaochang and Jiaohe. They are both two thousand years old and are inundated with ancient history and dusty relics from the past. If you’re pressed for time, however, it may be best to skip out on Turpan and head straight to Urumqi.
Urumqi, Xinjiang (2 days)
If you skip Turpan, take the long, 24-hour train ride from Dunhuang straight to the capital of Xinjiang. Here, the landscape is punctuated by towering minarets, crescent moons and fragrant Islamic markets. A trip to Urumqi is incomplete without a walk around the Erdaoqiao Market and the International Grand Bazaar, where you’ll (literally) get a taste of Uighur food, culture and customs. If you have time to kill, venture off to the bravura Heaven Lake outside of town.
Korla, Xinjiang (1 day)
Take the train or bus to the Han city of Korla. It’s a developed city with modern amenities, so take full advantage of it before heading west into the sandy camel trails of the real Silk Road. That being said, from here, you (just like the traders of the past) must make a decision to, a) travel the northern route, b) kick up dust on the less traveled southern route, or c) do both and make a complete circle around the barren Tarim Basin.
Option A – The Northern Silk Road, Xinjiang (3-6 days)
The northern route passes along the cities of Kuqa and Aksu before reaching your final destination in Kashgar. The city of Kuqa presents the famous Kizil Thousand Buddha Caves, Subashi Ancient City ruins, and an authentic Uighur market. The city of Aksu is predominately Han and can be used to break up the journey between Kuqa and Kashgar, but you can skip it and head straight to Kashgar on a long overnight train if you’ve got the energy.
Option B – The Southern Silk Road, Xinjiang (1 week)
Extreme travelers might prefer to head south from Korla and venture into the Taklimakan Desert on the southern route. You can hop from town to town to discover the various antique trading towns of Charklik, Cherchen, Niya and Keriya, but the highlights are certainly Hotan, Karghilik, Yarkand and Yensigar. The once prominent city of Hotan has an incredible Sunday Market, carpet factory, silk workshop and plenty of Uighur culture; Karghilik boasts a 15th century mosque and a medieval old town; Yarkand keeps the spooky Islamic tombs of royal Uighur figures; and Yensigar is the knife capital of Xinjiang.
Kashgar, Xinjiang (3-4 days)
Whether arriving from the north or the south, Kashgar is the final destination. It’s old town is one of the best in all of China and is fitted with century-old dwellings, delectable street foods at a famed night market, and a bazaar selling everything from dried dates to dusty prayer rugs. The livestock market, which only takes place on Sundays, is where herders from all corners of western Xinjiang and Central Asia barter, buy and trade sheep and other livestock; it’s an absolute must (it may not sound special, but it truly is one of China’s best kept secrets). The exotic 15th century Id Kah Mosque in the center of the old town is also one of the country’s finest trademarks of Islam. When it’s time to wrap it up, Kashgar has an airport that will fly you out of town. If you’re craving for more, continue on with option C.
Option C – The Silk Loop, Xinjiang (2 weeks)
For the true Silk Road fanatic with a lot of sand left in your hourglass, don’t just end your excursion in Kashgar. If you arrived via the southern route, take the northern back to Urumqi and end your journey there. If you traveled the northern road, take the southern back to Urumqi. You can even detour onto the Karakorum Highway and cross into Pakistan for a real adventure!
If you start in Kashgar and end in Xi’an, you can combine this trip with the Imperial Tour or the Long March. If you end in Kashgar, you can even get your Tibetan travel permit and cross into Tibet to hook up with the Tibetan Kora in Lhasa.