Our China travel guide lifts the lid on the Ming vase with information on what we rate & what we don’t helping you find out how to travel like a local on your China vacation as you read up on food, shopping & people as well as a brief history of China to help you put things into perspective.
The history of the Silk Road
The start of the Silk Road in China
The house of Han, reigned over China from 206 BCE to 220 AD. This was considered China's Golden Age as the Han dynasty wielded great power and brought prosperity to the nation. Science, art, technology, astronomy, cartography and paper making all saw significant advances. Under the leadership of several emperors, including Emperor Wu, the Han expanded their territory into northern China and onwards to the Tian Shan Mountain range and into Central Asia. The further the regal tentacles reached the more they discovered about a world that was previously outside their realm. Official diplomats and special envoys were employed to explore and bring back information to the imperial court, and through missions such as these navigable routes into Central Asia began to develop. By around 114 BCE, these routes were opening up to traders and merchants who were keen to take advantage of the potential trade and myriad merchandise offered by these new markets. Tea, porcelain, perfumes, paper, rice and items made from silk, were exported from east to west.
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The Silk Road in Persia
Long before the existence of the Han dynasty, the Persian Empire controlled territory stretching from the Aegean Sea to the eastern outreaches of modern-day Iran. In order to keep abreast of what was going on across his empire, King Darius I (550–486 BC) employed mounted messengers to relay information between the ancient cities of Sūsa (Shush, Iran) and Sardis (Sart, Turkey). The royal riders were expected to make the entire 2,700km journey in less than nine days; on foot, it took 90. The Royal Road, as it became known, was later used by Alexander the Great, after he defeated the Persian Empire in 333 BCE. The king of ancient Greece continued to wage war across Central Asia and into North West India. In so doing, Alexander was unwittingly preparing a path for the forthcoming Roman Empire which would subsequently use many of the military routes for trade with the Han dynasty.
All roads lead to RomeThe meeting of the two empires, Han and Roman, in the middle of Central Asia, brought benefits to both nations. The Chinese valued the metal weaponry, armour, glassware and horses coming from the west, whilst rich Roman households valued the silk items from China amongst their most prized possessions. The connection between continents provided prosperity, and allowed for cultural, philosophical and religious exchanges, too. Markets in towns and cities flourished, whilst roadside inns and rest houses (caravanserais) provided lodgings and a place to refuel for traveling merchant entourages. Unfortunately, diseases, such as the bubonic plague, were also thought to have been rife on the road around the time of the Roman relationship with China.
Stolen silk & severed tiesAlthough the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD did nothing to dent the popularity of the trading routes, it did lead to a discovery that would damage meaningful trade beyond compare. The Byzantine Empire discovered how to create silk. It’s thought that a couple of western devils disguised as monks sneakily stole and smuggled silkworms and their eggs back to the folks at home, enabling the Byzantines to develop their very own, and very profitable, silk industry. The subsequent fall of the Byzantines to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 did nothing to revive relations and all routes with the west were severed forthwith.
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A road by any other nameAround 300 years before the collapse of the Silk Road, a young Italian writer named Marco Polo travelled from Europe to Asia, with his merchant father and uncle. Now, Marco Polo certainly wasn't the first to make the journey; however, he was one of the first to record his discoveries. The Travels of Marco Polo was based on the stories that Polo had recounted about his experiences in the Far East. The book provided many Europeans with their first inspirational taste of travel adventures – including the Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus.
Another European traveler also left a lasting legacy when documenting the geographical and economical activity of ancient Asia. German Ferdinand von Richthofen was the first to use the term Seidenstraße – Silk Road – in 1877, in his Asian atlas.
More recently, certain routes, such as the 5,000km-long Chang'an-Tianshan Corridor, were inscribed onto the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Many cities in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, for example, are renowned for their Silk Road significance. A two-week small group tour takes you overland between some of the sites that would have provided travelers and merchants on the Silk Road with opportunities to refuel or sell their wares. Sightseeing in cities like Samarkand, Bukhara and Almaty, as well as overnight camping trips within the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains, will all go some way to revealing the allure and the romance of the road. Although times must have been incredibly tough, there’s no getting away from how exciting and epic an adventure it must have been for those early travelers on their first forays far, far, from home.
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The Silk Road stretches from Asia and into Europe so deciding on when to visit the Silk Road will depend on where you’re planning on heading to first.
Unravel centuries of history on our Silk Road travel guide that leads you through what we rate and what we don’t, and our best and worst of Silk Road vacations, as well as inviting you to read a brief history of the Silk Road as well as tips on food, shopping and languages that you’ll find across the continents.
In order to make the most of your time we advise reading our Silk Road map & itineraries page which features information on our favourite Silk Road highlights in addition to travel times from Urumqi, Kashgar, Tashkent, Bukhara and Mary.
There are plenty of things to do along the Silk Road to help you get a deeper understanding of the people, the legends and the landscapes of this iconic trading route.
We’ve dedicated this page to answering the question: what is the Silk Road? So all you have to do is read on for enlightenment and learn about the Silk Road in detail before, during or after you set off on your travels.
Central Asia’s cities and mountain foothills were once pivotal to the Silk Road, and today’s journeys along these routes reveal the historic threads that bind them together.
Getting a few tips from our friends along the Silk Road is always best advice with shopping, road travel, food and packing all covered by our Silk Road travel advice experts Marianne Grimshaw and Linda Maguire.
Understanding human rights and land degradation issues is imperative for approaching Silk Road responsible tourism in the right manner and if you want to know what you can do to help or just want to know how to travel right along the Silk Road then read on as these are issues that matter.