Silk Road travel guide

Silks and spices gave the world brilliance and flavour, but the people who travelled the Silk Road shared the priceless gifts of art, architecture and, above all, ideas.
The Silk Road is not a road – it is an entire history of trade and intrigue spread across a huge network of spidering tributaries linking China with Central Asia and continuing on to India, Persia and the Mediterranean. Those tributaries, once used by traders to peddle their wares to and from the East, can lead intrepid travelers to some of the most fascinating sites across Asia, but don’t be overwhelmed – not many of us have six months spare for a full-on Istanbul-Beijing adventure, and the route can be broken down into manageable chunks. Ancient archaeological sites where pink hollyhocks and purple mallow grow among the ruins; cities floodlit in technicolour; bazaars heavy with the scent of spices; and swathes of desert. You will see them all, no matter which path you choose.

Lose yourself in the twists and turns of ancient trading with this Silk Road travel guide.

The Silk Road is…

an evocative journey of history and architecture.

The Silk Road isn’t…

great for small children.

What we rate & what we don't



Khiva stands out among the treasures of the Silk Road, thanks to its pristinely preserved Islamic architecture. Walk through the imposing gates of Ichan Qala, the old town, at night to the light of flickering gas lamps and make sure to admire the carved wooden pillars and ceiling of the Juma Mosque.

Tashkent Metro

The bulk of Tashkent’s beauty sits underground in the stations of its stunning subway system. Each station is an original work of art designed to a theme and the interiors are rich in engraved metal, glass, granite, marble and smooth carved alabaster. There’s nothing quite like stepping aboard a train beneath the domes and mosaics of Alisher Navoi station, built after Uzebkistan gained independence.

Kashgar sunday market

There are markets and then there’s Kashgar Sunday Market, the former Silk Road meeting point where global empires still come to trade in their thousands. The personalities that sell there make it extraordinary, but most wonderful is the produce: food is sold in colourful heaps, meat in the form of live animals and a mound of manure is far more marketable than any sportswear brand.

Local hospitality

The welcome shown along the Silk Road route will win the heart of even the most seasoned traveler. Those old men playing chess do exist and they will offer you a game, and local guides will help you meet merchants as interesting as the products they sell, and regale you with tales of myth and legend.


Carpets are big business in Turkmenistan; there’s even a museum devoted to them. Original Turkmen rugs have been hand-woven for centuries by nomadic tribes using locally gathered wool and natural dye – these days their wool and dye are a little more readily available but the quality of an authentic Turkmen is obvious. It’s well worth buying a rug from a local trader and having it shipped home.


Between the 9th and 16th centuries it was common for even the smaller cities along the Silk Road route to house over 200 mosques, and to this day the skyline of almost everywhere you encounter will be punctuated by dozens of bright azure, onion-shaped domes. Prepare to be dazzled by some of the best-preserved examples of ancient Muslim architecture in the world.

Camel trekking

There is little more evocative than the image of camel caravans crossing the desert laden with precious cargo. A camel trek along the Silk Road not only gives you perspective on the sheer undertaking that trading along the route must have taken, but it’s also a stress-free and ultimately fun way to travel with knowledgeable local guides.

Hand-painted porcelain

A defining characteristic of Silk Road architecture is the use of glazed turquoise tiling in intricate geometric designs. After learning about the history, symbolism and work gone into these pieces of art, you can pick up a gorgeous selection of porcelain from artisan tilemakers dotted around the route.


There are ethical issues regarding the production of cashmere, with many farming methods tailored more to short-term profit than long-term sustainability and goats being treated badly in unsuitable conditions. It’s probably best avoided, but if you do buy it make sure you’re buying it from a responsible source that benefits local people directly.

Vegetarian food

If you’re headed to western China and you like noodles, you’re in luck, but generally the food in the Central Asian countries of the Silk Road isn’t veggie-friendly. Filling, fatty meat (read: sheep) and rice is a staple. If you’re a nomadic carnivore, brilliant, if you’re a vegetarian, prepare for some serious bread bloat and an awful lot of tomatoes.

Long-distance road travel

Driving about within the region that you’re touring is all well and good; your guide will doubtless be behind the wheel of a hardy tour bus – pretty much the only way to tackle the Silk Road’s rocky roads. And they really are rocky: a sort of uneven tarmac with a sloping central spine and a sea of potholes lurking beneath. Explore one Silk Road region and save the rest for another visit.


Poor agricultural practices combined with a massive over-production of cotton – a material that drinks water by the bucketload and is unsuited to Central Asia’s arid climate – has led to land degradation and salination on a huge scale. Solutions are being worked on, but for now your money is better spent on a more sustainable local product.

Our top trip

The Silk Road small group tour

The Silk Road small group tour

Discover the Silk Road in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China

From US $4200 to US $5100 14 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2024: 9 Apr, 23 Apr, 30 Apr, 14 May, 21 May, 28 May, 11 Jun, 19 Jun, 26 Jun, 17 Jul, 7 Aug, 21 Aug, 28 Aug, 4 Sep, 18 Sep, 25 Sep, 2 Oct, 9 Oct, 16 Oct
2025: 9 Apr, 23 Apr, 14 May, 21 May, 4 Jun, 11 Jun, 18 Jun, 25 Jun, 16 Jul, 6 Aug, 13 Aug, 20 Aug, 27 Aug, 3 Sep, 10 Sep, 17 Sep, 24 Sep, 8 Oct, 15 Oct
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Silk Road or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Food, shopping & people

Eating & drinking

‘Plov’ is the Uzbek national dish of mutton, onion, carrot and rice.

Tea is the drink of choice in Uzbekistan, sometimes green tea, with kefir yoghurt drink served with breakfast. Stay clear of the vodka.

Don’t expect cornflakes in Kashgar. A typical Uyghur breakfast is home-baked bread, hardened yoghurt and olives.

Gifts & shopping

The Artisan Development Centre in Bukhara is a hive of productivity where you can watch artisans create local handicrafts using traditional methods and pick up hand-sewn tapestries, miniature paintings and chess sets.

If you look at something on a stall at Kashgar’s infamous Sunday bazaar, but you don’t want to buy it, put your right hand on your heart and walk away so as not to cause offence.

There are tons of places to buy a silk souvenir along the Silk Road; the scarves are beautiful, but make sure what you buy is hand-painted.

A brief history of the Silk Road

The foundations for the Silk Road, the most important route for both trade and culture in history, were laid over 2,000 years ago and were born of China’s curiosity about the people and the land beyond its borders.Read more
Written by Polly Humphris
Photo credits: [Page banner: Rudra Narayan Mitra] [Is/Isn't: tjabeljan] [Underrated: Arian Zwegers] [Rated: Dave Proffer] [Overrated: Jelle Visser] [People & language: Arian Zwegers]