Silk Road in China: The Ultimate Guide

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Tracing the steps of an ancient pilgrimage route, the Silk Road in China is an enticing adventure for culture aficionados, history buffs and nature lovers alike. Explore delicate architecture, mystical wonders of art, and surreal and vast landscapes located along this heritage trail on your trip to China.

In this ultimate guide to traveling the Silk Route in China, we list the most popular places you should see on your trip, from Xian in the east to Kashgar in the far west. These places are reminiscent of ancient cultures, showcase a trading spirit and put on show the magnificent landscapes the merchants shipped their goods through. Get ready to experience changes in cuisine, culture, and religion as you travel from one direction the other. Religion in Xian is mainly centered around Chinese folk religion and Taoism, but further west, the Islamic influence grows bigger, with food and culture being similar to the Middle East.

  • Recommended trip duration: Because of the length of the Silk Road and its countless sites, we recommend at least three weeks to complete the entire road without rushing too much.
  • Best time to visit: The weather in this region is marked by extremes in winter and summer. We recommend spring (April to June) as most suitable for proper exploring under moderate conditions.

6 Main attractions along the Silk Road

If you follow the century-old footprints of traders, you’ll have a chance to explore Xian, a historic business hub and one of the oldest cities in China; see the Great Wall in Jiayuguan; discover ancient ruins; and discover long-established cities like Urumqi and Turpan.

1. Xian 

A panoramic view of the towers and Xian City Wall in Xian, China
Xi'an, an ancient imperial capital, is the eastern departure point when touring China's Silk Route

Xian is an important stop while traveling the Chinese Silk Road. Strolling around Xian is like reading a history book, this metropolis has been the capital of many mighty dynasties, resulting in an impressive collection of temples and other cultural artifacts. Folk meets modernity in this megacity, for the skyline of Xian is dotted with skyscrapers and business offices as well.

Highlights: 

  • Gaze upon the Terracotta Army — a massive collection of terracotta warriors placed at the burial site of the first emperor of China for protection.
  • Witness Buddhist heritage sites and see the Small Wild Goose Pagoda and the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. These two multi-storied pagodas were built in the 7th century. Go to the view-deck on the roofs for amazing views of the city. 
  • Explore the Muslim Quarter with its fragrant food, colorful market and the calming beauty of the Great Mosque. 

2. Jiayuguan

A view of a Castle
Jiayuguan is most famous for the nearby Jiayu Pass, the largest and most intact pass of the Great Wall of China

Jiayuguan’s surroundings are barren as it is located in the Gobi Desert, near the border with Mongolia. Many sights here showcase the importance of this place and the trading business during the Silk Road’s golden ages.

Highlights:

  • Walk on top of the Great Wall of China, a defense wall that’s become one of the most superb structures humans have ever created. The wall hangs beautifully over mountain ridges just outside the city. Climb the top for priceless desert views.
  • Discover the First Fire Tower of the Great Wall, a rock on which essential messages were sent through smoke signals during the Ming Dynasty.
  • Head to Wei-Jin Art Gallery and check out tombs that are at least 15 centuries old.

3. Dunhuang

A view of a crescent shaped spring with a pavilion in the middle
Many Buddhist cave sites are located in the Dunhuang area, but the most famous is the Mogao Caves, 25 kilometers southeast of Dunhuang

Surrounded by the Gobi Desert, Dunhuang was another important hub during the Silk Road’s blooming days. Thanks to its oasis, it was a popular place for traders to stock up on water. They built temples, palaces, and fortresses, making Dunhuang an interesting cultural destination.

Highlights:  

  • Visit the Mogao Grottoes, a collection of Buddhist monasteries carved in rocks and decorated with artworks.
  • Explore the lush oasis at Singing Sands Dune.
  • Learn about historical dynasties and Buddhism in China in the Dunhuang Museum.

4. Turpan   

A view of a large tower
At 44 meters, Emin Minaret, is the tallest minaret in China

The city of Turpan is a place of extremes; the Turpan Depression is among the lowest places in the world (154-meters-below sea level). It’s the hottest place in China as well, with temperatures that can reach 50°C in July. Turpan has many vineyards, and as a visitor, you can feast on the best wines China has to offer.

Highlights: 

  • Visit the Flaming Mountain, the hottest place in China and an impressive sight as well.
  • Cool down in Grape Valley, where vines with grapes, peaches and pomegranates make for a refreshing environment.
  • Head east and discover the ancient ruins of Gaochang, a former desert city.

5. Urumqi

A view of well-lit tall buildings in a city
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Ürümqi is the most remote city from any sea in the world

Urumqi is the lively capital of the autonomous region of Xinjiang. This city is surrounded by many different landscapes; from green pasture hills to snowy peaks and unexplored deserts. 

Highlights: 

  • Wander around the Xinjiang International Grand Bazaar, the largest bazaar in the world with clothes, street performances and delicacies from all over China, among other things.
  • Leave the city for the quiet of Heavenly Lake. This glacial reservoir is surrounded by snow-capped mountains.
  • Go for a hike in the southern pastures, where pine forests and flowers can be found along the way.

6. Kashgar

A front view of a Mausoleum building with small patches of garden
Apak Hoja Tomb is the largest Islamic mausoleum in China, covering an area of 20,000 square meters

Kashgar lies in the middle of Central Asia. The city’s many mosques, bazaars and tombs of major Muslim leaders are proof of Islamic presence for centuries. Kashgar still produces silk, along with craftwork such as pottery.

Highlights: 

  • Explore the Old Town with its Uygur and Islamic architecture. These styles make this Old Town unique in China and remind of souks in the Arabic world.
  • Breathe in the local culture at the Id Kah Mosque, the largest mosque in China.
  • Try Chinese Muslim cuisine like kebabs, flatbreads and dried fruits on the Kashgar Bazaar.

Best way to travel

  • The train is a good way to complete the entire Silk Road trip in China. If you take the regular train, the journey from Xian to Urumqi takes 25 to 35 hours. On the bullet train, you’ll be able to cut this to 15 hours. Both types of trains stop at the major Silk Road city station. Keep in mind that traveling by bullet train requires a transfer in Lanzhou.
  • The journey from Xian to Kashgar takes over 44 hours.
  • Several cities are connected by air. 
  • For traveling between other popular destinations during your Silk Road tour in China, the train is a better option. 

Tips

  • All cities have youth hostels that offer affordable beds. You could, of course, spend more on luxurious hotels with pools, wellness treatments and fine dining.
  • Bring clothes for various types of weather; even in the warmer months, the nights and elevated areas can be chilly.
  • Get a VPN. Browsing the internet in China is limited, and a VPN enables you to watch Netflix and to post your travel pics on social media. 
  • Use Google Translate to communicate. Especially the spoken version is very helpful.

Traveling the Silk Road in China is a unique opportunity to experience a palette of cultures, ancient architecture and wondrous natural sights. Few routes in the world can compare when it comes to culturally enriching travels. Following this iconic trail literally is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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  • Ruby Zhao
    Ruby Zhao
    Travel Expert in China
  • Micheal Fan
    Micheal Fan
    Travel Expert in China
  • Cindy Wang
    Cindy Wang
    Travel Expert in China
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