In reality a shifting network of desert passages, the route nonetheless converged at great centers, giving rise to some of the most culturally diverse cities in Asia, smack in the middle of some of the most desolate and remote regions in the world. The representative western cities are Dunhuang, Urumqi, Turpan and Kashgar. Explore them all in a China tour that retraces the Silk Road, or visit one or more as fascinating destinations in their own right.
One of the great points of convergence along the Silk Road, Dunhuang is a city in three colors: an oasis of brilliant emerald fields set amidst sweeping brown sand dunes, with snow-white peaks towering in the distance. The tree-lined streets are picturesque thoroughfares for Mongolian ponies and locals in traditional dress. The city itself is a beguiling study in contrasts: ancient yet modern, lively yet relaxed.
It's worth a visit to Dunhuang's rustic local museum, which provides a good overview of the history of the area, as well as nearby sections of the Great Wall. The city's market is a delight, with colorful dried fruits-raisins in ten colors!-nuts, textiles and steamed dumplings. For an authentic, unforgettable China travel experience, take a camel ride at sundown through the Mingsha Dunes in the surrounding Gobi Desert to recall a way of life that reigned here for a millennium.
The massive Mogao Caves feature stone Buddhas large and small, hewn from sandstone walls, housed in ornate, protective structures. Many of the walls are adorned with elaborate, ancient frescoes. You may also want to explore the nearby Sui, Tang and Western Thousand Buddha Caves. Have dinner at a traditional farmhouse where a delicious local meal may be enjoyed amidst apricot orchards.
Unbridled development in Urumqi has resulted in bellowing smokestacks and architecture that is, to put it kindly, less than whimsical. Still, you've got to go, because from Urumqi you can access a truly fascinating area in China, with 13 distinct ethnic minorities calling the area home.
The Xinjiang Museum houses interesting exhibits relating to the many ethnic minorities who inhabit the area. It also showcases artifacts that reveal the daily lives of the Silk Road's early inhabitants, including some of their mummified remains, unearthed from the nearby desert of Taklamakan, which literally means "go in and you won't come out."
Take a day trip during your China travels to nearby Heaven Pool, a beautiful lake surrounded by stunning mountains, rolling green hills, grazing ponies and the circular yurts of the Kazakh people. Or better still, spend a night or two in a yurt and explore the area on horseback with a Kazakh guide to witness the equestrian skills that have always made these people famous and feared.
Be sure to sample the local Uyghur cuisine, a culinary crisscross of Chinese and Middle Eastern influences. Try thelaghman, thick noodles topped with a sauce of spicy lamb, eggplant, tomatoes, beans and garlic. The fresh tandoori-oven breads are scrumptious and go down well with a cold beer or green tea with nutmeg.
The essence of ancient Asia is like a pervading fragrance in Turpan. The place is awash in traditional scenes: twisting alleys lined with mud-brick houses; grapevines winding their way up trellises; raisins and apricots drying in wind-blown chambers, the summer sun too intense for the work; ponies pulling ploughs through fields of grain. This is the grape-growing region of China, and the Uyghurs who inhabit Turpan produce the delicious wine for which the region is renowned.
At the Gaochang Ruins just to the east of Turpan you can explore the remains of this ancient Uyghur capital, which flourished as a Silk Road center around the 9th century. Recalling Pompeii in scale, this city was lost to the sands of the Gobi for hundreds of years until recent excavation. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Ramble through the Grape Valley to see the picturesque vineyards surrounded by the starkest of desert landscapes. You can enjoy lunch among the vines, or a picnic while walking in the Flaming Mountains, named for their profusion of red and purple flora.
The area surrounding Turpan is a veritable archaeological sandbox and it seems every peasant you meet has unearthed Roman coins, Persian pottery, swatches of ancient Tang Dynasty silk, even carved wood, which predates the invention of paper. To stand at such a crossroads of antiquity is an awe-inspiring experience.
Synonymous with the ultimate exotic outpost, Kashgar was, and in some ways still is, the last frontier. Until the 21st century, it was almost frozen in time, a living relic of its trading heyday four centuries earlier. The old section of Kashgar remained much as Marco Polo found it: an intoxicating, marvelous confluence of Indian, Persian, Arabian and Chinese cultures layered one on top of the other. Recent renovations of the Old Quarter by the Han Chinese have taken place, resulting in many old mud buildings being demolished, and residents relocating to newer buildings that employ modern earthquake and fire codes. This has caused an outcry among some who fear ancient ways of life are vanishing. Some steps are being taken to preserve Kashgar's ancient relics, but the forces of modernity march on. However, there is still much to see.
The Sunday Market is fascinating, and it just may be the largest bazaar in all of Asia-an absolute must on any tour of China.
The Id Kah Mosque is huge and suitably impressive; around town you'll discover dozens of smaller mosques at every turn. While strolling the city's alleyways you'll catch glimpses through the mud-brick doorways of people engaged in all manner of ancient arts, including bread making, metal forging, musical instrument manufacturing and firing of hand-made tile.