- What is the Silk Road – a misnomer
- What countries comprise the Silk Road
- When to travel the Silk Road
- Challenges of the Silk Road – a tale of visas
- Other Hassles of the Silk Road:
- How to travel by land – trains, marshrutkas, and (shared) automobiles.
- A possible Silk Road Itinerary from China to Turkey
What is the Silk Road – a misnomer
The Silk Road is a term coined in the 19th Century. Contrary to what the name leads us to believe, it isn’t an actual road, but a series of routes that connected East Asia to Europe and the Mediterranean. Much more than silk was traded and carried through these routes. Spices, china, exotic fruits, carpets, and all sorts of goods flowed through the roads and, with them, religions, philosophies, science, and even gastronomy spread between Europe and Asia.
One can say that the two main terrestrial routes of the silk road can be divided into the northern route (through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan) and the southern route (through Pakistan and Afghanistan). This guide will focus on a more northern route, avoided more unstable areas, (namely, West Pakistan, and Afghanistan).
What countries comprise the Silk Road
Because it is a network of several routes, the countries crossed by these ancient trade roads are many. But the countries now more associated with it would be China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey.
When to travel the Silk Road
If you want to travel through the Silk Road, it is important to note that, while in mountainous places (like in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) the Summer months are the best time to visit, in the plains of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the summer months can be oppressively hot.
The winter months are considered less appropriate for visiting, due to snowfall and very low temperatures. However, I crossed the Silk Road in the winter, and despite suffering some limitations due to bad weather, winter travel on the silk road is possible, and can even be cheaper and much less crowded than in Spring or Summer.
Challenges of the Silk Road – a tale of visas
For people (especially westerners) used to traveling visa-free, on e-visa or visa on arrival, the Silk Road presents some challenges. Entry to many of the countries will demand some sort of visa, with the exception of very few nationalities. Some of them have more complex visa application processes, and some will demand letters of invitation. Watch out in particular for:
Iran – If arriving by land, you must apply for a visa. Before applying at an embassy or consulate, you must get a visa authorization code from an Iranian travel agency. I have applied twice through Touran Zamin, and have only good things to say about them. After you receive the code, you can pick up your visa from the consulate that you have chosen on your application. In the passport photo demanded with the application, women must wear a headscarf. Citizens of the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada face tougher travel restrictions. You might be denied entry if there is any sign on your passport that you have visited Israel.
Uzbekistan – You might need a letter of invitation from a travel agency (depending on your country of origin), which you will then present with your application at an Uzbek consulate or embassy of your choice. In my experience, the price of an invitation letter can vary wildly, so shop around for a good price (always from a reputable source). From July of 2017, Uzbekistan started offering e-visas for many countries, so you might be able to avoid all this hassle, depending on your country of origin/residence.
*Update: Uzbekistan became visa-free for 45 nationalities on February 1, 2019.
Turkmenistan – Probably one of the hardest countries to get to on the silk route. Independent tourist visas are (as far as I’m aware) inexistent, so if you are traveling independently, your best bet is to apply for a transit visa of up to 5 days (the length of the transit visa can vary, I only received a 4-day visa). You need to make a good case for why you need a transit visa. I was traveling between Uzbekistan and Iran, so I needed to provide a copy of my visas to both countries. I also needed to request specific dates to transit through the country, so there’s no room for improvisation. You can be denied a transit visa, though reasons are never given. Some people speculate that solo male travelers are more likely to be denied visas, but no one really knows. Reserve plenty of time to apply for this visa.
Pakistan – Another hard country to enter, mainly because you have to apply for a Pakistani visa from your country of origin or residence. From the time that your visa is issued, you will then have 3 months to enter the country. That can make your travel plans even harder if you add Pakistan (and the stunning Karakoram Highway) to your silk route. The visa application process also varies depending on the embassy or consulate. Some of them will not issue visas for solo female travelers (that used to be the case at the Lisbon embassy, fortunately not anymore).
Afghanistan – You need a visa, which will be a 30-day single-entry tourist visa, with 3-month validity. Depending on the embassies, you might need an invitation letter or a Letter of No Objection from your own embassy, and some embassies won’t issue tourist visas at all.
Kazakhstan – Visa-free (if you stay up to 30 days) for all EU and OECD countries. Registration within migration police is not needed if you are traveling through Astana and Almaty international airports. Additionally, Kazakhstan introduced a single-entry electronic visa for citizens of 117 countries on January 1, 2019.
Other Hassles of the Silk Road:
In some countries, you might need to register with the police, especially if you are not staying in a hotel or hostel. I had to register within 5 days when in Kazakhstan at the Migration Police (OVIR) in Almaty (although I have read reports that the situation has changed a bit since then).
Traveling the Silk Road does require some planning and organization, and is probably not the best place to just “wing it”. But it’s doable, and the sense of achievement that you feel when you finally get those hard visas is quite something. Plus they will live forever on your passport as a testament to your travel skills.
There is a myriad of ways to cross the Silk Road. I met people who traveled in their own vehicles (cars, jeeps), by bicycle, hitchhiking, and I even met one guy who crossed vast parts of it on foot.
But public transports is, perhaps, the easiest way to travel. For the most part, the main roads are quite good (Iran and China have particularly good roads, Turkmenistan has some of the worst). In the mountains, it might be harder to travel, especially in winter. But, with some patience, you will get to where you need to go.
Trains are scarce. China has some good train routes, and in Uzbekistan and Iran, you can travel by train between some of the main cities.
Buses are a very common way to travel. Iran and Turkey have truly luxurious coaches at very affordable prices. But in some countries, you will come across alternative public transport alternatives. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, the marshrutka rules the road. Whether in cities or between them, this shared minivan with set routes will take you where you need to go. You might need some patience because it will leave only when full.
In some routes, especially if they involve big mountain passes (like the Bishkek- Osh route) you might need to take a jeep. And in some parts of Uzbekistan (and in Turkmenistan) the only option you’ll have is a shared taxi.
A possible Silk Road Itinerary from China to Turkey
If like me, you decide to start from Beijing, you can take a very comfortable (if long) train ride to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province. This big city is not the prettiest, but its Grand Bazaar (Da Bazar) is a good place to start familiarising yourself with Uyghur culture (the Uyghur are a Turkic ethnic group, and are still the most numerous ethnic group in Xinjiang) and gastronomy.
Read more: A Mini-Guide To Beijing
Turpan, 2.5 hours from Urumqi, is known for its grapes, which are mainly dried into incredibly sweet raisins (production of wine is rare since this is a predominantly Muslim region). It’s also famous for housing the ruins of the ancient silk road city of Jiaohe, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In Xinjiang, the silk route takes two roads, surrounding the vast Taklamakan desert. If you take the southern road you will reach Khotan (a 20-hour bus ride from Turpan), one of the most Uyghur of cities in Xinjiang. The Khotan Bazaar is perhaps, the most unique and chaotic of all in this region. From Khotan, you can travel by bus (7 to 10 hours) to Kashgar, the most well-known of the Chinese silk route cities.
The old city of Kashgar has been pretty much rebuilt into a more “tourist-friendly” version of itself. To experience the old “old city” you have to reach the eastern edge of the city, where one neighborhood was left untouched. Despite the renovations, the city has a lot of charm and is home to interesting tombs and to the Id Kah Mosque.
The Sunday Livestock Trading Market can be both a fascinating and/or disturbing experience. You can see all kinds of animals, from horses to Bactrian camels, to the ample-bottomed central Asian sheep. But the way the animals are handled is not always the kindest. And you can also buy the freshest kebabs you will ever have if you can stomach the sight of your lunch being very much still alive next to you, and awaiting their turn to get the chop.
From Kashgar, you can take a bus or taxi to Tashkurgan, the closest city to the China-Pakistan border, and part of the Chinese Karakoram Highway. Tashkurgan is the seat of the Tajik Autonomous County, and its population is mainly Tajik, and quite different physically from both Han Chinese and the Uyghur. On the way to Tashkurgan, you will pass the stunning Karakol lake. In the summer there are yurts set up by Kyrgyz nomads where you can sleep. In the winter it is incredibly cold and windy by the lake, but stunning.
From Kashgar you can travel into Kyrgyzstan through the Irkeshtam Pass, taking a bus to Osh. In the winter, however, this border can close at any time due to bad weather conditions at this quite high pass (it’s about 3000mt above sea level). On the other hand, the border between China and Kazakhstan is open all year, and a bus between Urumqi and Almaty connects the two countries.
The situation at the moment in Xinjiang is politically sensitive, and that might make traveling in this region harder and more restricted for foreigners.
Do your research on using a VPN in China before your trip to avoid dealing with blocked sites while surfing the internet in the country. On the other hand, you can visit the online website of the Chinese embassy in your country and fill the form to obtain a Chinese visa. In case you don’t know exactly how to apply for a visa to China, seeking help online can speed up the process.
Kazakhstan is a very big country, and it’s hard to explore it fully. If (like me) you don’t have much time to spend there, the region around Almaty (the former capital of the country and its biggest city) has plenty of charm and lots to do. The city itself is one of the most developed in central Asia. With an underground system and a very extensive and efficient bus and trolley system (as well as a surprising system of private taxis – basically, if you want a ride just flag down any car, and negotiate the price of the ride with the driver), Almaty is easy to navigate, and has all the amenities that you expect from a developed city. It is bordered to the south by mountains, which provide ample opportunities for hiking in the summer, or skiing and snowboarding in the winter. You can also ice skate at the Medeu, considered to be the world’s highest Ice Skating rink (1691 mt above sea level), surrounded by pretty spectacular scenery, especially in the winter.
In the Green Market, you can sample delicious Kazakh cheese, Russian pickles or Korean salads (Kazakhstan has a sizeable Korean community). You can also enjoy some high culture at the Abai State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater. Close to the city you can also find (and hike up to) one of its most famous natural beauties, the Big Almaty Lake. 200km from Almaty is the Charyn Canyon, a stunning and extremely photogenic canyon (also known as the mini Grand Canyon).
From Almaty, you can easily reach Bishkek by marshrutka. The trip takes around 3 hours. At the border with Kyrgyzstan you will have to leave your vehicle and cross on foot, so take note of the license plate, as there will be many marshrutkas waiting around for passengers, and you won’t want to be left stranded at the border.
Kyrgyzstan has a lot going for it. Firstly, it’s the easiest country to enter, visa-wise (the citizens of many countries get a free visa on arrival). Secondly, it is a charming country, with plenty to do, and a lot to love, especially if you like horses. The nomadic culture of the country is deeply tied in with this animal, and all over the country, you can see the statue of Manas, the hero of the nation’s national epic poem. Manas, considered the father of the Kyrgyz, is always shown riding his horse.
If Bishkek is your first stop in the country, enjoy its pleasant nature, and it’s nice cafés and restaurants. It is by far the most cosmopolitan of Kyrgyz cities. Being the capital of a traditionally nomadic people, it doesn’t have much in terms of historic buildings. Quite a few Soviet monuments and a few commemorative statues are mostly what you can find. But, with the extensive Osh Bazaar, and the several banyas (public baths, a Russian tradition that was adopted all throughout the central Asian ex-soviet republics) you’ll have something to do for a few days.
Near the city, you can hike on the foothills of the Tian Shan Range (also known as the “Celestial Mountains”, and which reach all the way to China). The Ala-Archa National Park is the most popular destination for hiking, allowing you to hike several kilometers towards a glacier.
From Bishkek you can take a marshrutka towards Issyk Kul lake, and either get off at one of the various lakeside towns for a dip in the lake and a bit of sunbathing, or go all the way to the east of the lake, to Karakol.
Nestled in the Tian Shan range, this pleasant but unassuming city is the best place from where to organize hikes and horse riding trips in the Summer. In the winter you can take horse rides of up to 10 days, traveling during the day and sleeping in yurts. But even in the winter, shorter horseback rides are possible, even for total novices (like me). However, in the winter, skiing is by far the most popular activity. Karakol Ski base is, at more than 3000 mt, the highest ski resort in Central Asia.
From Bishkek, you can also head south towards Osh and the Uzbek border. The road is harsh, especially in the winter, so if you are prone to motion sickness, (or even if you aren’t), take some medication with you. There are several interesting places on the way to Osh, but the charming village of Arslanbob stands out. A marshrutka ride away from Jalal Abad, it is accessible even in winter (though with difficulty) and provides highly instagrammable moments. The accommodation provided is as charming as the village itself.
Kyrgyzstan has developed a network of homestays, with set prices and the possibility of getting some yummy home-cooked food. Just arrive at the CBT (Community Based Tourism) house, and ask for the availability of homestays. Apart from being an affordable alternative, homestays are a more sustainable form of tourism, because the money you spend stays in the community.
I was in Arslanbob in the winter, so the trekking opportunities were limited, but I was told by locals that in summer horseback riding trips can be arranged (also by members of the community), as well as several treks.
60 km northeast of Osh you can also visit one of the old Silk Road cities, Uzgen. Kyrgyzstan, being a country where nomadism was the way of life for so long, is not the most history-filled country. Uzgen, on the other hand, is a city rumored to date back to the 4th century BC. So, Uzgen’s Archaeological-Architectural Museum Complex, where you can find buildings the past silk road city, an impressive minaret, and several Mausoleums, might scratch that sightseeing “itch”. The city’s Bazaar is also a bustling place. It can be reached from Osh by shared taxi or marshrutka.
From Osh, the ride to the Uzbek border is fast and painless. There’s a marshrutka that takes you all the way to the border. Make sure to exchange any Kyrgyz money that you have before you cross the border.
Safety concerns in Kyrgyzstan – I had no issues with the police but heard one first-person tale of harassment by the police (to try to get some money from you). If you get stopped by police (and some criminals do pretend to be police) ask for official identification and don’t hand in your passport unless you are in an official police station. Carry a photocopy of your passport to hand out if you are stopped.
The first thing to know about Uzbekistan is that it is a more tightly controlled country than Kyrgyzstan. You will be made to declare all the money that you bring into the country. Your bag will be searched (in my case, very thoroughly). Any pornographic material or politically sensitive material might get you in trouble, so make sure you don’t leave it on you, or your phone (you might be requested to hand over your phone on arrival, and surely you will be requested to do so on departure). Codeine is illegal, as well as some other medication, so make sure you don’t bring any.
You will be given two immigration slips. You fill them and keep one with you to hand out when you leave the country. You will also be required to get registration slips for all your days in Uzbekistan (which are usually given to you by hotels, hostels, and guesthouses). This means that Couchsurfing or informal homestays in Uzbekistan will be harder. I know of one couple who managed to couch surf quite a bit in Uzbekistan, but I would make sure to at least not have big gaps between registration slips, just to avoid problems leaving the country.
From the border take a shared taxi to either Andijan or directly to Tashkent (though it will be cheaper to divide the trip; taxis to the capital will be cheaper in Andijan.
Tashkent might be dismissed as lacking the interest of other Uzbek “living museum” cities, but there’s still a lot to see. Chorsu Bazaar, with its interesting architecture and striking blue-green cupola, is an unmissable stop. And in Tellya Sheikh Mosque you can catch a glimpse of what is considered one of the oldest Korans in existence, the Uthman Qur’an, stained with the blood of the murdered Uthman Caliph, and written in ancient Kufic script. Or you could spend an evening watching opera or ballet for ridiculously low prices, at the Alisher Navoi Opera and Ballet Theater.
From Tashkent, you can take a train to Samarkand, probably the most famous of all Uzbek cities, and the site of truly some spectacular architecture. If you’re a history buff, here is where Uzbekistan truly starts to deliver. The imposing Registan Square, the elegant Bibi-Khanym Mosque, and the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis are some of the highlights, but there’s so much more to see.
You can also visit the mausoleum of Islam Karimov, the first president of post-soviet Uzbekistan (and some say a ruthless dictator), along with groups of locals that are allowed in batches, to pray at his grave (maybe stand in the back in order not to stand out).
The same train line that took you to Samarkand follows on to Bukhara, another one of Uzbekistan’s historic cities. Admire the Kalyan Minaret, with its dark history (for hundreds of years, convicted criminals were thrown from the top of the minaret to their deaths), wander through the Ark Citadel (guides are waiting for business at the entrance, by the ticket office) and enjoy one of the several historic hammams (bathhouses).
Outside the city, you can visit the summer palace of the last Emir of Bukhara (and feed the peacocks).
If you are interested in Sufism, the Bakhautdin Naqshband Mausoleum is worth a visit. Join the pilgrims and visit the resting place of the founder of one of the largest Sufi orders, the Naqshbandi. Bukhara is not only stunning, but you can also buy stunning things in it. In fact, Uzbekistan is rich in ceramics, tapestries, and silk products. Save some space in your backpack, you will want to buy some souvenirs.
From Bukhara move north-west to Khiva by shared taxi (from here on out, in Uzbekistan, this will be the standard means of transport). Khiva was, perhaps, my favorite city in Uzbekistan. It is undoubtedly a desert city, surrounded by an imposing wall. The sand-colored wall takes a golden hue at sunset, and from the top of the wall itself, you can see a lot of the city. For an even more spectacular view, climb to the top of the Islam Khoja Minaret (check the closing times to avoid being stranded inside, like I was). To avoid paying a fee to enter the walled city, don’t go in through the west gate.
Khiva has a dark history as a slave trade post, situated between the Kyzylkum and Karakum deserts, but is now a friendly city, where you can wander and get lost, chat to locals while you drink chay, and even get your boots fixed by a cobbler in the lively market right outside the western gate.
The northern city of Nukus is another shared taxi away from Khiva, a mostly Soviet city in the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, which is mostly a desert. The drive from Khiva is a treat for lovers of deserted and desolate landscapes. Nukus’ biggest claim to fame, apart from its proximity to several very interesting archeological sites, is the Igor Savitzky collection of Soviet art at Karakalpakstan State Museum.
Igor Savitzky was a painter and archeologist. Sent to Nukus to work at archeological sites, he took advantage of the city’s remoteness and amassed (saving from likely destruction) a large collection of works from central Asian artists, as well as Russian artists whose work had been banned by the Soviet regime. To see such an impressive and well-curated collection in such a remote place makes you feel like you found a gem in the desert.
If you can, take a taxi (or hitchhike) 40km out of the city to visit Shilpiq Kala. A solitary wide tower, seemingly growing out of the desert sand, it was most likely built as a dakhma, or tower of silence, where Zoroastrians left their dead to be consumed by the elements. Now, it still provides an awe-inspiring view of the empty desert landscapes of the Karakalpakstan region.
Nukus is also the base from where you can depart to visit the unusual sights of the town of Moynoq (by shared taxi or bus). Once a prosperous port city, it is now a bleak witness to the environmental disaster that is the retreat of the Aral Sea.
On the outskirts of the city you can still find a few rusting boats, standing in what was once the port, and now is just desert sand. The Aral Sea is now more than 100km away, its level dropping one meter per year. You can also visit an abandoned fish factory, a relic from better times. In Moynoq there are a couple of options to sleep, but they are informal homestays, so they won’t be able to provide you with registration slips.
From Nukus, you can take a taxi and easily reach the border with our next destination: Turkmenistan.
If you managed to get your transit visa, you will have a few days to see as much as you can. When you apply for a visa you have to provide the dates of entry in the country, as well as the point of entry and exit, and you can’t wander through the country at your pleasure. So choose your borders wisely.
My main interest in Turkmenistan was Darvaza, or the “Gates of Hell” (although when asked in a consular interview if I knew what it was, I feigned ignorance – visits to the gas crater are not encouraged by the government, to say the least). So I chose the route that would leave me closest to it.
At the border, be prepared to have your bag thoroughly searched and your phone examined at both the Uzbek and Turkmen borders. Make sure you don’t bring more than two packs of cigarettes into Turkmenistan. But do bring them, even if you don’t smoke, since they are an extremely expensive item in the country, and can serve as gifts.
When coming into the country, stop first at Konye Urgench. It’s not only a good place to rest for the night, and exchange money at a much more appealing rate than in the banks. It is also a historic city, mentioned by Ibn Battuta in his travel writings, and home to many Muslim scholars, and is now a Unesco Heritage Site. However, you would never suspect it to have received such accolades, as you wander completely alone and undisturbed through its minarets, madrassas, and mausoleums. This dusty, forgotten city is truly an unexpected treasure in the desert.
From Konye Urgench take a shared taxi to Ashgabat. However, you will not reach Ashgabat yet. Keep an eye on your GPS, and ask to be dropped in Darvaza, as close as possible to the dirt tracks that will take you to the Gates of Hell, or the Darvaza Gas Crater.
After a 7km walk, you will arrive at this gas crater, found in 1971 leaking gas, and set fire to in hopes of burning it out. It is still burning. If you are spending the night here, it might be a good idea to bring a tent, and a warm sleeping bag (the water I had brought with me froze overnight). And for the sake of your health, don’t set up your tent too close to the crater.
On the next day, your best bet is to hitchhike down to Ashgabat, since the shared taxis will be coming full from Konye Urgench. I hitchhiked with a truck driver that dropped me on the outskirts of the capital (I offered him a pack of cigarettes as a thank you).
Ashgabat feels somewhat of a surreal experience after the poor and dusty Konye Urgench, and the potholed road. Pristine, blindingly white during the day, and neon-colored at night, the capital of Turkmenistan doesn’t seem like a city made for people. Just for monuments.
Spend as much time as possible outside, taking in the strange sights, and if you need to communicate (finding internet is almost a mission impossible in the country), try going to the Paytagt Shopping Centre (carry your passport) and finding a shop from an internet provider. It seems that all social networks and VOIP call systems are blocked (and my VPN didn’t seem to work), but you might be able to send a few emails.
From Ashgabat, you can take a taxi to the border with Iran. The taxi will leave you at a pre-border point. There you will have to board a bus for another 30km up the Gaudan – Bajgiran border. Exiting Turkmenistan is pretty painless. If you are a woman, make sure you cover your head and wear appropriate attire (long sleeves, a tunic that covers your bum) before entering Iran. If you’re a man, just don’t wear shorts.
Iran is a country that can charm the pants out of you. Beautiful and varied natural beauties, stunning architecture, delicious food, and some of the most welcoming people in the world, no wonder it has become more and more popular. It is easy to travel in Iran, especially due to the multiple, very affordable, and extremely comfortable bus lines. The trains, although not so easy to book, are also quite pleasant to travel in.
When coming to Iran from Turkmenistan, you might be requested to provide proof of your travel insurance (although I wasn’t required to provide it).
Take a minivan to Bajgiran, from where you can take a bus to Mashad or to Tehran. In Iran, beyond the more visited cities of Kashan, Isfahan, Yazd, and Shiraz, I would invite you to travel further into the Lut desert, with its astonishing sand mountains, in the Kermanshah province, or down to the Persian Gulf, to visit the stunning islands of Hormuz, Qeshm and Hengam. Wherever you go, make sure to enjoy Persian hospitality with an open heart, (and be ready to eat a lot).
Despite a ban on Facebook and Twitter, as well as sites like Couchsurfing, a VPN will allow you to bypass these restrictions, (as many young Iranians do). Remember that you cannot use Iranian ATMs, so bring enough euros or dollars for the amount of time you will spend in the country. From Iran, you can head north and easily cross into Azerbaijan to visit Baku. Just make sure to get your Azerbaijan e-Visa to visit Baku in advance.
You can also head to Armenia.
Or head west and cross into eastern Turkey.
Crossing the Silk Road was one of the most fulfilling and exciting traveling experiences of my life. It can take time, it might require a bit of planning, but the weight of millennia of history under your feet, and the sight of astonishing mountains and endless desert roads is reason enough to take the leap, and get on the road.