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Silk Road Travel Tips

Silk Road

Chinatravel.com has several Silk Road tours, some originating in Beijing and some ending in Shanghai, neither of which cities belonged to either of the ancient Silk Road routes, the overland or the maritime route, though the city of Shanghai might conceivably have belonged to the Maritime Silk Road route, except that the city first received the foundation that would make it the modern city it is today beginning with the deeply resented, mid-19th century trade and territorial concessions forced upon China - i.e., the period when China was the subject of colonialism at the hands of Europe, North America, Russia and Japan. It was during this period that the foreign powers in question placed their respective trade and diplomatic representations in the modest fishing village that would eventually become the bustling metropolis of Shanghai, expanding that modest fishing village and thus changing its destiny forever.

So when we speak of the Silk Road in terms of travel tips, we are referring to the ancient overland Silk Road that basically ran through the Hexi Corridor, aka Gansu Corridor because it runs almost the entire length of Gansu Province, and further westward around the Tarim Basin, in whose center lies the Taklimakan Desert, specifically, around the northern rim of the Tarim Basin where the basin meets the foothills of the Tianshan Mountains, since many of the ancient cities along the basin's southern route, where the Tarim Basin/ Taklimakan Desert meets the foothills of the Kunlun Mountains, are either ghost towns, or towns that were buried under sand - sometimes within hours, judging from the traces which indicate that the residents fled for their lives, sometimes leaving their dogs tethered to a stake in the front of the house - that have since become the subject of much historical exploration (to learn more about the Silk Road and its fascinating history, click here).*

Silk Road Weather

In general, the Silk Road defined above is arid, with extreme diurnal (day to night) swings in temperature, which factor alone calls for layered clothing (see below). But there can also be extreme seasonal temperature shifts along the Silk Road. For example, the city of Turpan (sometimes written "Turfan" on older maps), can reach 40 degrees Celsius in the hottest month, August, while it sometimes dips to -20 degrees Celsius in the coldest month, January. Arid places generally have little cloud cover, which phenomenon results in baking hot summers and freezing cold winters.

Silk Road Fare

The typical fare in the cities along the Tarim Basin stretch of the Silk Road is meat-rich, featuring beef and mutton. Noodles are also a favorite staple, and are quite filling. The fare is a bit on the heavy and oily side, but for reasons of cultural-religious sensitivity, visitors are expected to adjust themselves to the local traditions.

While fresh vegetables may not be plentiful in this part of China, fruit is, so the intrepid, modern-day Silk Road traveller can balance out his/ her meat-&-noodle-rich diet with ample servings of fruit. The Tarim Basin is known for its deliciously sweet fruits such as melons, grapes, apricots, figs and apples, as well as a variety of deliciously sweet and fragrant, exotic fruits that are native to the area.

Food Cautions:

  • A word of caution when eating fruits here: do not drink hot tea while eating, or shortly after consuming, fresh fruit, as this might result in diarrhea due to the rapid growth in bacteria, bacteria which will most likely be foreign to a visitor's stomach (the stomach can easily adjust to normal bacteria growth, even the growth of unfamiliar bacteria, but it can't handle a rapid, exponential growth in such bacteria).
  • While pork is a favorite staple in other parts of China, it is of course not consumed by Muslims, and many if not most of the communities in the Tarim Basin are Muslim. For reasons of cultural sensitivity, visitors are strongly advised not to even bring food made of pork with them, should they purchase food elsewhere enroute to the Tarim Basin stretch of the Silk Road. Naturally, no pork is served, not even in restaurants, in the Tarim Basin's Muslim communities.

Silk Road Lodging

For various reasons not particularly interesting to the visitor, tourism is not as well-developed in this part of China as it could be, and one of the first indicators of this is the slight number of lodgings that the visitor can choose from, as well as the rather simple amenities on offer. It is greatly hoped that this state of affairs can change soon, as increased tourism to the region would benefit, not least, the local populace, since tourism dollars always help to boost the local standard of living via the numerous local jobs that such initiatives provide.

As things currently stand in the Tarim Basin stretch of the Silk Road - especially the route along the southern rim of the basin (cities such as Kuche, Kuele and Hetian/ Khotan, the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Yutian) - it can sometimes be difficult, during the peak season, to find a hotel that offers rooms with the minimum standard of service that the foreign guest is accustomed to elsewhere in the world, including elsewhere in China, since these cities generally have only one or two such Hotels at present. However, during the off-season, one can generally find such a room easily, though, where the occupancy level is drastically reduced, the visitor may discover that otherwise ordinary amenities such as air conditioning are limited, and the usual sumptuous breakfast that is part and parcel of the peak season may be absent, with only a very spartan breakfast on offer.

The Asphalted Silk Road

For DIYers (Do It Yourself'ers) who wish to rent a vehicle and take the drive themselves, today, there is a system of interconnecting, inter-provincial highways through the Hexi Corridor and around the northern and southern routes of the Tarim Basin. Highway G312 stretches through the Hexi Corridor, turning north at the city of Guazhouxian, about 125 kilometers west of the city of Yumen, roughly midway between Yumen and Dunhuang (highway G313 continues on to the latter city), and continues on to Turpan and Urumqui. From Urumqui you can take G216 in a southwesterly direction, linking up with G218 some 75 kilometers, as the crow flies, northeast of Bosten Lake, and then follow G218 further southward, where it links up with G314, some 25 kilometers due west of the lake.

Silk Road
The Asphalted Silk Road

G314 leads to the ancient Silk Road cities of Aksa and Kashgar. If you then wish to take the return trip along the southern rim of the Tarim Basin, G315 leads from Kashgar south and eastward along the southern rim of the Tarim Basin through the ancient Silk Road cities of Khotan and Niya, and on to the city of Qakilik, where you can either continue due eastward on G315 through the Qaidam Basin, ending in Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province (after skirting around the northern shores of Lake Qinghai), or, you can reconnect to G218 at Qakilik, heading north, then northwest to the city of Bayingolin, where you reconnect with the east-west oriented G314.

Here, you can either take the reverse route from Bosten Lake to Urumqi, Turpan, Yumen and on southeastward through the Hexi Corridor, or, you can continue eastward, then northward on G314 at Bayingolin, skirting first north and eastward around Bosten Lake and eventually reconnecting with G312 about 100 kilometers southwest of Urumqi, where you can follow G312 eastward back through Yumen and the northwestern entrance of the Hexi Corridor, before arriving ultimately in Xi'an.

A third wrinkle to this southern Tarim Basin return scenario is to pass through the ancient city of Dunhuang. To do this, follow the return route as given above, i.e., follow G315 eastward beyond the city of Qakilik, except that at the split in G315 near Lake Xitaijinai'er (about 350 kilometers, as the crow flies, east-southeast of the city of Qakilik), you must take the northern branch of G315 (both branches reconnect about 350 kilometers farther eastward, roughly halfway between Lake Xitaijinai'er and the city of Haixi, the latter of which lies about 250 kilometers, as the crow flies, west of Lake Qinghai) to the city of Yukaxiang, where you turn northwestward on G215 to Aksay Kazakzu, then on northeastward to Dunhuang.

Unless you are familiar with these routes (i.e., unless you have been on a previous guided tour by bus along these routes), you are strongly advised to take a prepackaged tour, where you either fly from city to city, or take a guided tour bus along the route.

Cultural Sensitivities

As indicated above, many of the communities of the Tarim Basin are Muslim. Throughout Xinjiang Province, Muslim Uyghur make up about 60% of the ethnic minority population (not all Uyghurs are Muslims, by the way, though the great majority are). Therefore, an awareness of non-Muslim practices that could offend a devout Muslim are especially important. If in doubt, observe the customs of your Muslim hosts, and behave as they behave, such as removing footwear before entering a mosque, etc., and of course, as also indicated above, Muslims do not eat pork, so the visitor should not bring along any food items containing pork when in Muslim communities.

When visiting a Muslim Uyghur family, follow the guide's (more on our local guides immediately below) instructions. In general, good etiquitte would suggest that it is best not to discuss potentially controversial issues such as politics and religion with your Muslim hosts throughout Xinjiang (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), just as you would't broach potentially controversial subjects with your own countrymen in a social setting that might cause embarrassment.

Our Friendly, Able Tour Guides

Silk Road
Our Friendly, Able Tour Guide

Most of our tour guides along the Silk Road route belong to a minority group - in Xinjiang Province, they are usually Muslim Uyghurs. While our guides are all university graduates, most of them have had little opportunity to practice their textbook English in a more informal setting before serving as official tour guides, therefore their English will probably not be as fluent as that of our tour guides from the more populated areas of China, where the student of English has ample opportunity to practice his or her textbook English on one of the many tourists who wander about in the large metropolis asking for directions. We ask that you bear this in mind. What our friendly, able guides may lack in proficiency in spoken English, they more than make up for in an eagerness to help, and their help is priceless in mediating your visits with local ethnic minority families.

Our tour guides can also provide invaluable assistance when your group visits a local, open-air market (a bazaar) - and they know the shortest and the fastest routes there, also when the traffic can get congested. On most of our tours, we invariably stop at certain lesser-important tourist sites - they can't possibly compare with China's more renowned tourist sites - not for their intrinsic value, but in order to provide you a brief respite from the journey, where you can stretch your legs, pay a visit to the toilet, etc. (note, in this connection, that such toilets tend to be primitive, with no running water or even toilet paper, therefore you are advised to bring along toilet paper and a bottle of disinfectant for cleaning your hands).

What To Bring Along On A Silk Road Tour

  • It is imperative to bring along clothing that is appropriate for the hottest summer as well as clothing that is appropriate for the chilliest evenings and early mornings, since the temperature swings considerably from day to night in arid, desert-like regions.
  • A good pair of shoes that have been broken in, and are therefore comfortable to walk in over sustained periods, is also a must.
  • Since desert areas are not only arid, but are generally windy as well, it is a good idea to bring along an adequate sunscreen, a good lip pomade, and sunglasses to protect your eyes from the intense glare. Additionally, a hat is a good idea when out of doors for longer periods, as it also protects the neck and ears from sunburn. Remember that in desert areas in general, UV radiation can be several times more intense than in cities, where cloud cover helps to trap particles that partially block the effect of UV radiation. The Tarim Basin, though a natural depression, lies on a high plateau, meaning that UV radiation here is intensified even more acutely.

Lastly, it is not a bad idea to bring along a cheerful disposition, a sense of humor, and an appreciation of the differentness of other cultures - isn't their differentness, after all, one of the main reasons for visiting foreign places?!

* Cf. the 1894-1908 Central Asian expeditions conducted by Sven Hedin (1865-1952), the Swedish geographer, topographer, photographer and explorer, as well as the Central Asian explorations, the first in 1900 and the last in 1930, conducted by the Hungarian-born British archeologist and professor - and real-life Indiana Jones - Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943), who, among other expeditionary objectives in Central Asia, set out to find the "lost" cities of the Silk Road, inspired partly by the works of Sven Hedin and partly by the travels of the famous Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty Buddhist monk, Xuanzang (made famous in the 16th century Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty novel, Pilrimmage to the West, aka Monkey), who travelled via the Silk Road (the only overland road in and out of China in ancient times) in order to reach India, where he hoped to study Buddhism at its source).

Scenery On the Silk Road

Click on the cities names to see Silk Road attractions
Kashgar Attractions Aksu Attractions Kuqu Attractions Korla Attractions Hotian Attractions Turpan Attractions Urumqi Attractions Hami Attractions Dunhuang Attractions Jiayuguan Attractions Zhangye Attractions Wuwei Attractions Xining Attractions Lanzhou Attractions Xiahe Attractions Xianshui Attractions Xi'an Attractions

Shangri-la Express Luxury Train Tours

In tradition of the famed Orient Express, the Shangri-la Express is luxury, privately owned hotel train traveling the route of the caravans of the ancient Silk Road. Commencing 1985 the Shangri-la Express provides the first leg – Beijing to Urumqi. The Shangri-la Express offers the perfect way to see this magnificent country in comfort and style. More about Shangri-la Express»

Shangri-la Express Luxury Train Tours

Silk Road Adventure Tours

The Tracks of Marco Polo Tour

The Tracks of Marco Polo Tour

Destination: XianLanzhou → Xiahe → WuweiZhangyeJiayuguanDunhuangTurpanUrumqiKashgar
Duration: 17 days
Feature: Early traders blazed a trail from Europe to the orient world and found exotic treasures and peoples. Try to explore yourself for the treasures and cultures on the trail.
Price: from $ 3264
Book This Tour

Silk Route Adventure & Golden Triangle Tour

Silk Route Adventure & Golden Triangle Tour

Destination: BeijingXianDunhuangTurpanUrumqiKashgarShanghai
Duration: 15 days
Feature: Looking for adventure, you've found it! We combine the spectacular Bund, Great Wall, Forbidden City and Entombed Warrior with the mysterious sights, sounds & smells of China's Silk Road.
Price: from $ 3765
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