Below are some of the major travel highlights for Silk Road. For more in-depth attractions of each country on this route, click on the country names below or select a route to see the highlights on this section of the journey. Click on the icons below to focus on specific types of features (click again to return to all).
|In-depth highlights: China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia|
Highlights of Beijing - Istanbul
Like the country of which it is capital, Beijing is a vast city with a hugely rich history and a wealth of attractions in addition to the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace and a trip to nearby sections of the Great Wall (detailed in other entries). These include Tiananmen Square, the world's largest public square and site of Chairman Mao's mausoleum and his portrait above the Gate of Heavenly Peace. The hutongs are the maze of historical lanes and alleyways of Beijing, surrounding the Forbidden City, which offer a great insight into the traditional life of Beijing's residents. Also worth checking out are the many fascinating shops and markets, a night at the Beijing Opera or the astonishing acrobatics shows and not forgetting the chance to sample Beijing's cuisine, particularly the famous Peking Duck.
The Forbidden City in Beijing was the site of supreme power for 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties from 1416-1911 and was off limits to commoners for all of that time. The Imperial Palace, now known as the Palace Museum, is remarkably well preserved and covers an enormous area within Beijing. At 720,000 square metres it is the world's largest palace complex and the largest and most complete series of ancient buildings in China. It comprises landscaped gardens, intricately carved walkways and many magnificent buildings containing almost 10,000 rooms.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Imperial Palaces of the Ming and Qing Dynasties in Beijing and Shenyang
|Great Wall of China|
One of the Wonders of the World and one of the most extraordinary structures ever created, the Great Wall of China is truly a must-see for every traveller. Building walls to defend China from invasion was a strategy dating back to the 8th century BC, but it was under the first Emperor Qin Shi Huang from 220BC that the separate sections were restored and linked to form one structure stretching 5,000km from the Jiayuguan Pass in the Gobi Desert to Shanhaiguan on the east coast. Much of the original work on the Wall was completed during the Qin and Han dynasties up to 220AD but it was revived and extended during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) due to conflict with the Mongols. Over a million workers were involved in its construction and many died with the effort. Today the Wall, partially ruined, stretches across mountains, plateaus, grassland and desert over nine provinces, though only one-third of the original remains. There are several sections of the Wall that can be walked along, allowing you to appreciate the breathtaking nature of the construction and how it integrates into the surrounding landscape.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: The Great Wall
Xian is the capital of Shaanxi Province and the largest city in northwest China. It was the first capital of a unified China in 221BC (under Emperor Qin Shi Huang) and has been capital of the empire on 12 separate occasions. Being the terminus for the Silk Road, Xian was also one of the world’s largest, richest and most cosmopolitan cities. Many monuments in the city attest to its great history. The remains of the city walls demonstrate how vast and impressive they were and Xian is one of the few cities in China with preserved walls, some 15km in length which can be cycled on to appreciate views of the city. The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is a 64m, a 7-storey high structure which was built in 648 AD to house Buddhist scriptures brought back from India. The Muslim Hui District contains the 15th century Great Mosque, one of the largest in China, set amidst narrow streets with quaint shops, bazaars and food stalls. Elsewhere the Shaanxi History Museum contains artefacts from prehistory to the Qing dynasty.
The tomb of the first emperor Qin Shi Huang was discovered in 1974 and was considered one of the archaeological finds of the century. Thousands of life-size warriors were sculpted from clay and buried with the emperor to protect him, with the complex designed to echo the urban plan of the capital Xianyang. It took approximately 700,000 people 36 years to create the tomb and its clay warriors. The warriors and their horses and chariots are standing in battle formation, and each is unique, with different ranks, hairstyles, costumes and even facial expressions. The first pit contained an army of approximately 2,000 warriors, with infantry, cavalry and archers which have been reconstructed but left on their original positions. The second pit was similar with the third thought to be the command post, containing officers, dignitaries and a cart with four horses. Much of the site remains to be excavated and renovated. The Terracotta Warriors are a must-see of any trip to China and one of the most extraordinary historical sights in the world.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor
Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu Province and was one of the first staging posts after Xian on the Silk Road. Its main attraction today is the Bingling Temple, a series of Buddhist caves dating back to the 5th century AD. These are set in steep cliffs overlooking the Yellow River and contains hundreds of high quality stone statues and murals. Other attractions in Lanzhou include the Gansu Museum, White Pagoda and Water Wheel Garden. Just south of Lanzhou lies the remote town of Xiahe, a centre of Tibetan Lamaism and popular pilgrimage destination for Tibetan monks. The impressive 18th century Labrang Monastery is the most important Tibetan monastery outside of Lhasa.
Although it is nowadays a modern industrial town, Jiayuguan in the past marked the western limits of the Chinese Empire. Situated in a narrow pass between striking mountain ranges, Jiayuguan was a vital transit point between China and central Asia, both for traders and armies. The Ming dynasty Jiayuguan Fort built on the pass marked the end of the Great Wall and guarded China’s westernmost frontier. As well as visiting the Fort, you can walk on the Overhanging Wall, built in 1540 to guard the Shiguan Xiakou Pass, and explore the Xincheng Tombs.
The oasis town of Dunhuang, set amidst desert landscapes and the last stop before entering the feared Taklamakan Desert, was an important stop on the Silk Road. The nearby sand dunes are known as the Singing Sands and can be explored on camel to see spectacular views of Crescent Moon Lake. Dunhuang is also the location for the famous Mogao Caves, a series of Buddhist shrines dating back to the 4th century AD. The 492 caves contains thousands of statues and 45,000 square metres of colourful murals, created by travelling monks and merchants and constituting some of the best Buddhist art in China.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Mogao Caves
The oasis town of Turpan is set in the Turpan Depression, the second lowest place on earth after the Dead Sea, where summer temperatures average 40C earning it the nickname 'Fiery Land'. Surrounding Turpan are many fascinating historical sites. These include the ruins of the ancient Silk Road cities of Gaocheng and Jiaohe. Jiaohe was a former garrison town destroyed by Genghis Khan. Gaochang was founded in the 1st century AD and was once the capital of the Uyghur people. Although abandoned 700 years ago, it still boasts impressive ruins of the city and the Tombs of Astana. Turpan is renowned for its grape production in Grape Valley, which is irrigated by the 2,000 year old Karez water channels, fed by melted snow and conducted via underground waterways. Other attractions near Turpan include the Flaming Mountains, the Bezeklik Caves - a Buddhist monastery between the 6th and 14th centuries, and the Emin Minaret, constructed in 1778.
Kuqa is located between Urumqi and Kashgar, a key stop on the Silk Road, and situated between the Tienshan Mountains and the Taklamakan Desert. Kuqa was the former capital of the ancient Qiuci Kingdom and is today the heart of the Uighir people. Just outside Kuqa lie the Kizil Buddhist Caves with murals dating back to the 5th century. These murals were thought to be some of the finest in Asia, but many have been removed over the years. Some of the murals that remain however display the fusion of eastern and western cultural influences along the Silk Road. The nearby Kizilgaha Beacon is one of the best preserved towers on the Silk Road - these were placed every 5km and fires on the top signalled the approach of invaders. The ruins of the ancient capital of Subashi are also worth a visit and include the remains of the 3rd century Buddhist Grand Pagoda as well as monk dwellings and the prayer hall.
Hotan lies on the southern end of the Taklamakan Desert, the world's second largest desert which means 'once in, never out' in the Uighir language, highlighting its treacherous nature for travellers along the Silk Road. Situated on the southern Silk Road, Hotan has been famous through the centuries for its silk production, carpet weaving and production of white jade. These industries are still important for the town's economy and you can visit factories demonstrating silk production and carpet weaving and see the locals searching for jade at the Yulongkax River.
Located at the foot of the Pamir mountains in the west of Xinjiang, Kashgar was a strategically important town and staging post based at the point where the northern and southern Silk Roads converged, with easy access to India, Persia, Central Asia and Russia. Kashgar has been fought over for centuries between Chinese and Arabs, has been conquered by Genghis Khan and Tamerlane and was the base for the Great Game between the Russians, British and Chinese in the 19th century. Today Kashgar is still evocative of the Silk Road era with a maze of narrow alleyways and open air markets run by Uighir, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Tajik merchants. Its 1,000 year old Sunday market is one of the most famous and colourful in Asia as 100,000 people gather to buy camels, livestock, leather, rugs, daggers, jewellery and silk. Kashgar's other attractions include the Id Kah Mosque, the largest in China, and the 17th century Abakh Hoja Mausoleum.
Travelling on the Silk Road from Kashgar in China to Kyrgyzstan will take you through the stunning Torugart Pass (at 3572 metres) and descend through alpine scenery to Tash Rabat. This is an ancient 13th century caravanserai where you can stay in yurts and explore the beautiful surroundings before heading further into Kyrgyzstan.
Issyk-Kul is a spectacular and enormous lake situated between two mountain ranges with peaks of up to 4,700 metres. It is the second largest alpine lake in the world after Lake Titicaca and is 170 km in length, 70 km wide and up to 700 metres deep. The lake was a popular resort for Soviet officials during communist times and remains a favoured holiday destination for Russians and Kazakhs. As well as absorbing the stunning views of the lakes and the surrounding mountain ranges, travelling around the lake's edge takes in a number of interesting destinations. The northern resort town of Cholpon-Ata has beaches and ancient petroglyphs, while the southern shoreline boasts Barskoön Gorge and the red sandstone formations of Jeti-Öghüz Canyon, perfect for trekking or horse riding. The eastern village of Karakol is known for its Russian wooden houses, the Chinese Dungan Mosque (built in 1910), the Russian Orthodox Cathedral and the Sunday livestock market. Staying in the lakeside villages and sleeping in traditional yurts allows you to experience traditional Kyrgyz culture in an amazing setting.
Surrounded by green pastures amidst a mountainous backdrop, Son-Kul Lake is a popular spot for nomadic herders to make summer camp. Staying in a traditional yurt by this lake allows you to experience the stunning beauty of Kyrgyzstan and its traditional culture. Swimming, hiking and horse riding around the lake and eating and drinking with locals out under the stars gives you a great taste of the Kyrgyz nomadic life. The village of Kochkorka near Son-Kul Lake has opportunities for homestays to meet friendly locals and the chance to visit workshops that made traditional Kyrgyz shyrdak felt carpets.
Bishkek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan and located in a beautiful setting at the foot of the Tien Shan mountains. It's a modern city of wide streets and many trees with a strong Russian influence. The city has open spaces such as Ala-Too and Victory Squares, several museums of note and interesting markets in Osh and Dordoy Bazaars. Outside of the city, the Ala Archa Gorge has snow-covered peaks and steep spruce-forested slopes while the 11th century Burana Tower is a minaret from the old city of Balasagun, once capital during the Karakhanid reign.
|Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain|
Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain is located in the Ferghana Valley overlooking the Silk Road city of Osh. Sulaiman has been revered as a sacred mountain for over 1500 years, and contains numerous ancient places of worship including two reconstructed 16th century mosques and over 100 petroglyphs representing humans, animals and geometric forms. Sulaiman represents the most complete example of a sacred mountain in Central Asia.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain
Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan and the base for exploring the country. Much of the historic old town was destroyed in an earthquake in 1966 with much of the city now an example of 1960s Soviet architecture. It is nevertheless a modern, spacious and green city with a mix of Russian and Uzbek influences. Its attractions include the central tree-lined Timur Square, the lively spice and food market at Chorsu Bazaar, Alisher Navoi Theatre, the History and Applied Arts Museums and the mosques and madrassas of the old town.
Samarkand is perhaps the most famous of the Silk Road cities, one of the oldest cities in the world and one of the great destinations in world travel. From its founding in the 7th century BC, Samarkand has been as the crossroads of great trade routes, cultures and peoples and was conquered by Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. In the 14th century, Tamerlane made Samarkand the capital of his empire and transformed the city into one of the finest in Central Asia. Its most famous feature is Registan Square, bordered on three sides by the three huge and stunning blue tiles madrassas Ulugbek, Sher Dor and Tillya Kari, perhaps the defining image of Central Asia and the Silk Road. Bibi Khanum Mosque has been compared to the Taj Mahal as Tamerlane constructed it for his wife. Other notable features include Ulug Beg's Observatory, where the great medieval astronomer calculated the length of the year to within 10 seconds, the Shakhi-Zinda Mausoleum complex and the gold-lined Gur Amir, the mausoleum of Tamerlane and his sons and grandsons.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Samarkand – Crossroads of Cultures
Shakhrisyabz is located southwest of Samarkand in a valley surrounded by the Pamir Mountains. The birthplace of Tamerlane, it contains a number of historic monuments dating back to the 14th century. These include the remains of the Ak-Sarai Palace with its 50 metre high gate towers, the Dorus Saodat Complex of religious buildings and the intended royal mausoleum and the Kuk Gumbaz Mosque.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Historic Centre of Shakhrisyabz
Nurata, formerly known as Nur, was founded in the 3rd century BC by Alexander the Great as a frontier outpost - the ruins of his hilltop Karazy Fortress still exist and offer great views. Nurata was also a place of Muslim pilgrimage with devotees flocking to the Chasma complex of religious buildings, memorials and graves.
Bukhara is considered the best preserved example of a medieval city in Central Asia, with its overall design and many monuments having changed little in centuries. With over 100 officially preserved buildings, it rewards extensive exploration. Highlights include the Ark Citadel, heart of the city and residence of Bukhara's Emirs and the Kalyan mosque and minaret from which prisoners were thrown to their deaths. The Ismael Samani mausoleum dates to the 9th century and is the resting place of the founder of the Samanid Persian dynasty. The Lyabi Hauz Square is a pool of water surrounded by mulberry trees and madrassas and the perfect place to visit a traditional teahouse. Aside from the historic monuments, Bukhara's charm lies in exploring the narrow and twisting alleyways and seeking out jewellery, spices, cloths and other goods in the bazaars.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Historic Centre of Bukhara
The ancient city of Khiva in north-western Uzbekistan is one of the most atmospheric and evocative of the Silk Road cities. Strategically located on the Volga branch of the Silk Road, Khiva has been fought over for centuries by Arabs, Mongols, Persians and Russians. The inner town of Itchan Kala is enclosed by unbroken 10 metre high walls with 40 bastions. The town is beautifully preserved and perfect for exploration amidst the madrassas and minarets. The notable buildings include the Kunya Ark fortress, Pakhlavan Makhmud complex, Toza Bog Palace, Muhammed Amin Khan Madrassah and Djuma Mosque, whose minaret offers great views of the city below.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Itchan Kala
The origins of Kunya-Urgench go back to the 5th century as part of the Persian Empire. As capital of the Khorezm region in the 12th century, it rivalled Bukhara in wealth and importance as a Silk Road city. Destroyed by the Mongols in 1221, the city recovered but 150 years later the inhabitants were forced by Tamerlane to move to the new town of Urgench in present day Uzbekistan. They left a series of very impressive monuments behind though, which influenced architecture in Iran, Afghanistan and the Mogul Empire in India. These include the 11th century 60 metre high Kutlug-Timur minaret, the 14th century Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum, the monument of Ibn Khajib, the Ak Kala Fortress and the Tash Kala Caravanserai.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Kunya-Urgench
The five ancient cities of the Merv oasis, covering over 100 km², have been important in this region for millennia. Merv reached its peak in the 11th and 12th centuries as part of the Great Seljuk Empire as key city along the Silk Road and famous for its libraries that attracted scholars from all over the Islamic world. The city and its million strong population were destroyed by the Mongols in 1221. Today, Merv is the oldest and best-preserved of the oasis cities of the Silk Road with notable monuments including the Beni Makhan mosque, Sultan Sanjar's Mausoleum and the windowless castle of Kyz Kala. The Museum of History in the nearby town of Mary contains an excellent collection of relics rescued from Merv.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: State Historical and Cultural Park "Ancient Merv"
The capital of Turkmenistan was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1948. Since independence in 1991, it has been extensively renovated by President Niyazov with many futuristic, controversial and bizarre buildings. In particular the huge Arch of Neutrality is topped by a 12 metre golden statue of Niyazov which revolves with the sun. Other attractions in the city include the Presidential Palace, Independence Square, the Mosque of Khezert Omar, the Turkmenistan National Museum of History and the Earthquake Monument. The Tolkucha Bazaar is famous for its sea of traditional Turkmen carpets.
Yazd is a desert city that was a major centre along the Silk Road and is the centre of Zoroastrianism, Iran's state religion before the arrival of Islam and a belief which predates Christianity. Over 10,000 believers still reside in the city today. Here the Towers of Silence on a hilltop was the traditional Zoroastrian burial ground, where bodies were left to be eaten by vultures. The Zoroastrian Fire Temple has a flame that has burned for over 1,500 years. Yazd is also renowned for its wind towers or badgirs which captured breezes and cooled living quarters below. The old town of Yazd is perfect for exploring on foot amidst the clay brick houses, ancient Islamic buildings and labyrinthine of narrow alleyways. Other notable attractions include the Jameh mosque with its twin 48 metre minarets, the Doulat Gardens and the Amir Chakhmaq mosque.
Esfahan is Iran's pearl, one of the finest places in the Islamic world and one of the great destinations in world travel. Although it dates back to the beginning of the Islamic period, Esfahan reached its peak under Shah Abbas the Great when he moved his capital here at the beginning of the 17th century. Esfahan's most impressive site is the enormous and spectacular Royal Square or Meidan Eman, over 80,000 square metres and the second largest city square in the world. The square, built as a royal polo ground and once home to entertainers, preachers and Silk Road caravans, is bordered on each side by four monumental buildings. The Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah is renowned for its beautiful dome and exquisite tile work. The Ali Qapu Palace was developed from an earlier Timurid palace and was used by the Shah to receive guests and foreign dignitaries. It is renowned for its superb plaster works and paintings and has a balcony overlooking the square. The magnificent Royal Mosque and the Portico of Qaysariyyeh complete the historical masterpieces. The Imperial Bazaar leads from the square to the north, a labyrinth of alleyways selling carpets, sweets and spices, tiles, jewellery and bright clothes. Other buildings of note include Vank Cathedral in the Armenian quarter of Jolfa, Chehel Sotun Palace also known as 40 Columns Palace due to the reflection of its 20 columns in waters of its fountain and the shaking minarets of Minar-e Jonban. The historic bridges of the Zayandeh River include Si o Se Pol (the Bridge of 33 Arches) and the Khaju Bridge.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Meidan Emam, Esfahan
Iran's capital is a huge, sprawling metropolis of some 15 million people and its main attractions are its numerous imperial palaces and museums. The Sa'd Abad Palace and Museum complex includes the White Palace, the former summer palace of the Pahlavi royal family, which highlights the opulent lifestyle of the Shah. Golestan Palace comprises several buildings and a beautiful garden and was constructed in the 19th century by the Qajar rulers. The National Museum of Iran houses a huge and impressive collection of historical artefacts from around the country with one building detailing ancient Persian history and another dealing with the Islamic period. The Carpet Museum contains over 100 exquisite Persian rugs while other museums of note include the National Jewellery Museum, the Glass and Ceramics Museum and the Islamic Museum.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Golestan Palace
|Tabriz Historic Bazaar Complex|
Tabriz was one of the most important cultural centres on the Silk Road and its bazaar complex is a reminder of this period and traditional commercial centres in Iran. Tabriz was the capital city of the Safavid kingdom from the 13th to the 16th centuries and remained an important commercial hub until the end of the 18th century.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Tabriz Historic Bazaar Complex
The town of Urfa (or Sanliurfa) is known as the 'City of the Prophets' and was supposedly the birthplace of Abraham before he moved to Canaan. Urfa was an important staging post on the ancient trade routes and silk products are still sold in its 16th century bazaar. The ruined Crusader castle at Urfa sits high above the city, affording amazing views. The nearby village of Harran is supposedly one of the oldest settlements in the world and was once a wealthy merchant city which traded with the Phoenician city of Tyre. Today it is famous for its traditional mud-brick beehive houses.
Turkey's most important city spans Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus and has been capital of three empires - Eastern Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman throughout its history (including its previous incarnations as Byzantium and Constantinople). This has left it with an incredibly rich historical heritage that makes it one of the great cities of the world. The Blue Mosque is perhaps the city's most famous sight, built by the Sultan Ahmet I in the 17th century, with a stunningly impressive scale and elegant design. Aya Sophia was built as a Byzantine Christian church in the 6th century, converted to a mosque after the Islamic takeover in the 15th century and now a museum. Its huge dome and walls include some superb mosaics. The 4th century Hippodrome of Constantine was the site of political demonstrations, chariot races and polo matches. Topaki Palace, built in Islamic style, was the home of the Ottoman sultans for four centuries. Other buildings of note include Suleymaniye Mosque, the Kariye Camii church and the ancient ramparts and aqueduct. One of Istanbul's most famous attractions is the vast Grand Bazaar, a labyrinth of some 4000 covered shops, cafés and restaurants, where you can haggle for jewellery, clothes, sweets and spices.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Historic Areas of Istanbul