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The Best Of Central Asia & The Silk Road

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

For centuries, adventurous merchants and enterprising adventurers from across the globe journeyed on dusty routes along some of the most challenging landscapes in the world, trading a menagerie of goods (silks, exotic spices, fragrant teas, precious stones, gunpowder and perfumes) from west to east and east to west. These routes stretched for approximately 4,000 miles and eventually came to be named, rather romantically, the ’Silk Road’. From Bazaar Life in Uzbekistan to the arid landscapes of the Pamir Highway — these are our top picks from Central Asia and the Silk Road.

Cities & Bazaar Life

While Iran arguably has one of the best (and oldest) bazaars along the Silk Road — the Tabriz Historic Bazaar Complex — the cities and towns within Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have the upper hand in beauty and sheer numbers. Begin in Uzbekistan’s Tashkent where its possible to view the world’s oldest Koran and visit the bustling Chorsu Bazaar and its powder blue dome for a spot of haggling. And from there, journey onwards via the express train to Samarkand, a city of radiant domes and stunning madrasas (schools) covered in elegant tile mosaics coloured a magical blue. For those with plenty of time, make the effort to journey to Bukhara, to wander the Fortress of the Emir, visit the picturesque old town, gasp at the incredible views from the top of the Kalon Minaret in the Po-i-Kalyan mosque complex and sample the fresh produce of the wonderful Zelen (Green) Bazaar.

Afterwards travel to the oasis city of Khiva, get lost in its warren-like old town and climb the Juma minaret to see the vistas of the desert landscape and the jade-shaded domes of the town. From here it’s possible to cross over to Turkmenistan to visit the fiery Darvaza Crater whose diabolic flame-saturated aesthetic has earned it the epithet ‘hell on earth’. From there journey to the striking capital Ashgabat — filled with white towers and eye-catching Soviet-esque iconography.

Tours of Uzbekistan are numerous, but Silk Road Adventure’s Classic Uzbekistan: Minarets and Madrassahs tour is one of the best and takes in many of the Silk Road classics. 

Wild Views Along The Pamir Highway

One of Central Asia’s most incredible secrets, Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway is perhaps also one of the world’s wildest and most stunning road trips. Those comfortable driving the route themselves should start in Dushanbe, where it’s possible to hire a 4x4 and travel east towards Qal'ai Khumb along the border of Afghanistan. From here the route travels adjacent to the Amu Darya River before reaching the Silk Road’s Wakhan Corridor — a narrow strip of land that separates the snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush mountain range from the southern slopes of the Pamir mountains.

There are but a handful of tours that take in the highway, but of those that do, Wild Frontiers offers one of the most comprehensive itineraries, with homestays with local Tajiks, tours of the capital, and visits to the stunning Karakul Lake and the lost in time villages of the Bartang Valley.

The Persian Silk Road

Of the various possible routes through Iran, beginning in western Iran is most rewarding as one can start their journey in Tabriz to see the mighty UNESCO-listed bazaar and the majestic Blue Mosque. From there take an overnight train to Tehran — Iran’s capital built atop Rey, an ancient Silk Road settlement, before traveling to Isfahan to see the elegant arches of the Si-o-se Pol bridge and the exquisite Grand Mosque — its façade an inspiring geometric mosaic of inky indigo and teal.

Many tours bypass the Iran segments of the Silk Road but Silk Road Adventures offer a good collection of tours along the Persian Silk Road, including month-long bespoke trips fine-tuned to each traveller’s preferences. 

A Luxury Silk Road Tour On The Rails

Whilst journeying along the Silk Road can be problematic for independent travellers, the Golden Eagle Silk Road Tour provides a luxurious and safe way to explore many of the Silk Road’s most beguiling destinations. Best for travellers wanting a firm overview of the Silk Road, the Golden Eagle crosses through China and some of the remotest corners of the former Soviet Republics. The journey begins in Beijing and carves an unforgettable route through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan before crossing the final border into Russia to visit Volgograd and Moscow.

Highlights include the mountain-ringed city of Almaty in Kazakhstan, enchanting Samarkand and Khiva (one of the Silk Road’s most important trading posts) in Uzbekistan and China’s Dunhuang where travellers will be led into the Gobi Desert and the mysterious Magao Thousand Buddha Cave Complex. The 21-day adventure includes journeys on the bullet train between Beijing and Xian, the stately Shangri-La Express and, from the China Kazak border (for the remainder of the journey), the timeless luxury of the Golden Eagle. Alternatively, the Taste of the Silk Road tour skips the China section of the journey and begins instead in Almaty aboard the Golden Eagle.

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