You may be wondering just what traveling down the Old Silk Road trade route might look like today. Although borders have changed, it is possible to follow a great deal of the original trade route. On a journey down the Old Silk Road, you’ll experience things your friends back home won’t believe- like horseback riding along the Son Kul glacier lake, spending time with the isolated mountain nomads, and seeing the ancient cities of Samarkand and Bukhara!
Here’s a breakdown of what the itinerary of a Silk Road journey might look like as it takes you through Kyrgyzstan, China, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
Starting Your Silk Road Journey in Kyrgyzstan
The city of Bishkek is a fantastic place to begin your Silk Road journey. This city started out as a fortress called ‘Pishpek’, built in the early part of the 1800s to control the existing caravan route through the area. It was renamed “Frunze” by the Soviets in 1925, and then Bishkek in 1991.
The city is built in Soviet-style, with large, square buildings and open city centers. You’ll want to see the many gardens in the city, as well as the State Museum, the Ala-Too Square, Victory Park, and the Osh Bazaar.
Bishkek also acts as a gateway to the Tian Shen mountains, where the breathtaking alpine lake Son Kul is located.
Son Kul is perched in the Tian Shen mountains at an altitude of approximately 9895 feet above sea level. The second largest lake in Kyrgyzstan, Son Kul translates into “the last lake.” Because of the high elevation of this alpine lake, there are approximately 200 days of snow a year and the lake is inaccessible anytime outside of summer months. The lack of trees and rich meadows make this a popular destination for nomadic shepherds. On your Silk Road itinerary, you can transport yourself back in time by socializing with the local nomads who are always happy to offer a sleeping mat and a cup of kumis, or fermented mare's milk. You can also explore around the lake on foot or on horseback.
If you keep traveling south through the Tian Shen range, or “Mountains of Heaven,” you will come across the ruins at Tash Rabat. This Silk Road relic is all that remains of a centuries-old caravanserai, which is an ancient version of a roadside inn. Travelers and their animals could stop and rest for a night or several.
What sets Tash Rabat apart is the unusual fortress-like structure on the site. It has about 30 rooms with a large domed room in the center. Archaeologists believe in was an ancient Christian monastery before it became a caravanserai. Exploring the dark, cool and quiet rooms of the structure at Tash Rabat is a must, as well as staying at the yurts nearby overnight. Bed and breakfast is provided, as well as horse rentals so you can see the surrounding area and enjoy the lonely beauty around the site.
Travel into China to Experience Kashgar
The ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar now lies within the borders of China. The fascinating markets and old section of Kashgar is still exactly the same as it was in the days of the Silk Road- mud-brick buildings and homes that have been passed down through generations, courtyards, and cobblestone streets.
While traveling through Kashgar, try to catch the Yakshambe Bazaar, or “The Sunday Market.” This is the biggest in all of Central Asia. It’s big enough to get lost in, so be careful!
Double Back Into Kyrgyzstan to Explore Osh
Osh is the second-largest city in Kyrgyzstan and a 3,000-year-old market town and should be part of any Silk Road intinerary. Osh has always been a center of trade because of its convenient position on the border of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, surrounded by mountains. The market is held in the same place as it would have been 2,000 years ago, and the quiet alleyways reveal spices and other goods for sale.
While here, you should find time to see Sulaiman-Too Mountain. This is an UNESCO World Heritage Site that is considered a sacred mountain. At least 17 places of worship can be found between its 5 peaks, including caves of petroglyphs and mosques. This includes the ancient mosque built by Emperor Babur atop the ‘throne of Solomon.’
Crossing into Uzbekistan
As you head into Uzbekistan from Osh, you’ll travel through the Fergana Valley towards Kokand. Kokand has been around since the 10th century. It was known by the name of Karavand and was an important trade junction, sitting atop two trade routes crisscrossing the continent from India and China. It was conquered by the Chinese, then reconquered by the Arabs before being burnt to the ground by Mongols in the 13th century.
The present city began in 1732 as a fortress and became the major religious center of the region. At one time, it had over 300 mosques! Some important sights to see here are:
- The Palace of Khudayar Khan- built between 1863 and 1874. It was one of the most opulent palaces in Central Asia in its time, however, only 19 of its original 113 rooms survive today. It now hosts a museum
- Jummi Mosque- a mosque built in 1800 that can hold 10,000 worshippers
- Amin Beg Madrassah
- Dakhma-I-Shokhon- A necropolis built in the 1830s.
Following Alexander the Great into Tajikistan
Traveling west from Kokand, you’ll want to visit Khodjent, the legendary location where Alexander the Great kept his forces along the Syr Darya River. He founded the city in approximately 330 B.C., intending it to be a fortress for his empire. However, the location soon turned it into a bustling city.
During the time of the Silk Road, it was an important city connecting Europe to China.
A must-see sight on any Central Asia tour is the steep Shakristan Pass that leads into the Fann Mountains. This area is a spectacular example of natural beauty that isn’t often seen as it’s off the beaten path for most travelers.
Nearby Lake Iskanderkul is rumored to be named after Alexander the Great. After all, Iskander is the Central Asian pronunciation of Alexander, and kul is the Tajik word for lake. It’s said he came through the area on the way to India and broke the dam that held back the waters of the glacier lake.
Ending the Silk Road Journey in Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan is home to one of the most iconic locations associated with the old Silk Road- the ancient city of Samarkand. Here, it’s as if you’ve gone back in time as you explore bazaars, mosques and centuries-old structures of one of the Silk Roads famous trading capitals.
One of the most iconic sights associated with Samarkand is the Registan Square. This area of the city is truly in the heart of Samarkand, with all main roads leading to it. This flat city center was host to public gatherings, executions, armies and more. Three giant madrassahs that have been erected throughout time around the square are a monument to medieval architecture. The Ulughbek Madrassah was built in 1417 by a great astronomer and mathematician of the same name. The Sher-Dor Madrassah was built two centuries later across from the Ulughbek Madrassah on the orders of Emir Yalangtush Baladur in the 1630s. He then commissioned the third, Tilla-Kori Madrassah in 1646.
Bukhara is the most complete example of a medieval Central Asian city left, being nearly 2,000 years old. Bukhara is known for the majestic tomb of Ismail-Samani, a 10th-century palatial Muslim resting place. There are also many 17th century madrassahs in the city.
The heart of Khiva is incredibly well-preserved, so much so that the city is often called a “museum city.” Sunrise and sunset are mystical here when you wander the mud-walled inner sanctum of Ichon-Qala. You’ll feel transported back and time as you admire the mosques, madrassahs, and mausoleums from centuries past in this perfectly preserved city with what some might consider to be a barbaric past.
No journey around the old Silk Road routes is complete without a visit to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Amongst the historic landmarks like the Chorsu Bazaar and the 16th-century Kukeldash Madrassah, you’ll find the rare jewels housed in the Amir Timur Museum. These are not actual jewels, but rather rare manuscripts, weapons, and relics from the far-gone Timurid dynasty. Here you will be able to see what the Silk Road journey was like through the lands of Uzbekistan up close.
A Silk Road journey winds through multiple countries and landscapes, oftentimes lonely and embroiled in history. As you wander desolate plains, steep plateaus and bustling city streets lined with centuries-old buildings, you may get a taste of what a trader experienced traveling along this journey of a lifetime.
If a Central Asia tour like this interests you, check out the 23-day Silk Road Odyssey Tour offered by Wild Frontiers.