Travelling along the Silk Route (or "Silk Road" if you prefer) can seem a daunting prospect. Huge distances, high altitude and remoteness can put off many travellers. But we tend to find that those who do travel along the Silk Road are scratching an itch - they literally have to go. For me the obsession started with reading Peter Hopkirk's books "Foreign Devils on the Silk Road" and "The Great Game", both classics. I knew then, at the tender age of 15, that one day I would be heading out to Bukhara, Kashgar and the Tien Shan mountains.
So, how do you design the perfect trip? Here are some top tips to get you started your Silk Road tour.
1) Read around the subject. Peter Hopkirk, Colin Thubron and Robert Byron have all written classics about this region, and some of the memoirs are quite fascinating too - particularly Reginald Teague-Jones' The Spy Who Disappeared and FM Bailey's Mission To Tashkent. Reading these books helps you understand how all the historical and cultural strands come together in Central Asia, and the sights that are most relevant to your interests.
2) Pivot in Kashgar. Kashgar's market is an everyday market, but on Sundays it is bigger and more varied, and the livestock market - incredible for photography - really gets going. Everyone wants to see it usually, so use that as a fixed point around which to design the rest of the trip. Count backwards to tell you when you should start your trip in Beijing/Xian (where you can start your Xian tours), and forwards to see when you'll finish in Tashkent.
3) Don't forget the mountains. Many travellers along the Silk Route will try to spend more time in Samarkand, Bukhara, Kashgar, Turpan and Khiva than in the countryside. However the scenery is the crucial backdrop, and totally unmissable. The most common piece of feedback we receive is of regret that more time wasn't spent in Kyrgyzstan, for example. It is painful to watch a truly stunning country pass by the window of your car - stay longer and stretch your legs.
4) "The best things in life are free". They certainly are, and the Silk Route (famous travel route included in the packages of China best tours) is no exception. Once you've got yourself to your yurt in the mountains, take some time to explore on foot, and enjoy the company of your hosts. In Samarkand try walking from the Registan to the Shah-i-Zindah and then through the old town, up the hill to the Russian district. In Bukhara go to Kalon Square at about 1630 to get the best light, and very few tourists, then walk from the square south and slightly to the east, through the old white-washed houses, to the Labi Hauz. When you drive from Samarkand to Tashkent try to stop in Urgut and get a free glimpse of what a real Central Asian market looks like.?
5) Eat local. Most hotels will do reasonable food, but restaurants can be very hit and miss in Central Asia. The best food is always served in private homes. In Kashgar it's easier to find great street food. The two best meals I have had in Central Asia were not in hotels or restaurants. The first was a fantastic shahlyk (barbecued lamb) with warm Uighur bread - simple, filling and very tasty. The second was lunch in a yurt in Kyrgyzstan. The jam and honey were simply unbelievable.
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