Taking the Silk Road through Central Asia

Lonely Planet Travel Editor Tom Hall is on a mission to discover 52 of the most awe-inspiring places to visit across the world. This May, he discovers the Silk Road.

Silk Road, Central Asia

The Silk Road is one of the world’s great overland journeys. For centuries, the long, winding route across Central Asia to mysterious, distant kingdoms carried the promise of riches and adventure – along with years of hard travel.

But the Silk Road is not, and has never been, a journey from A to B. The merchants, warriors and holy men who trod this path were following a shifting trail across inhospitable terrain. If deserts, mountains and rushing rivers weren’t enough of a challenge, wars, bandits and disease meant the route east – and back west – was rarely uniform.

There was a series of start and end points, however: Eastern Mediterranean ports such as Tyre and Gaza, the great Byzantine capital of Constantinople and the Chinese city of Xi’an. In the enormous, wild mass of Inner Asia in between rose and fell cities and civilisations, and it is to here that today’s would-be Silk Roaders must head.

Central Asia today is a collection of stans. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan challenge anyone’s spelling skills and cover much of the old Silk Road. Each offers something different and carries its own little-known slice of history.

Uzbekistan is deservedly the most popular and is home to the colossal mosques, medressas, fortresses and palaces of Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent. Though these cities are at the heart of most Silk Road journeys you won’t be rubbing shoulders with many other travellers.

Turkmenistan is the most unusual of the Central Asian republics, with a capital packed with memorials to recently deceased President Niyazov and ancient cities such as Merv and Konye-Urgench.

How to travel on the Silk Road

The best way to tackle the Silk Road is by a combination of trains, buses and on foot, winding your way as you please through the stans. One overland route through mountainous Kyrgyzstan and oil and gas rich Kazakhstan leads to the Chinese city of Urumqi.

An alternative route is to do as Silk Roaders did for centuries and brave the Torugart Pass to marvellous Kashgar, in China. For truly off-the-beaten-track travel, take a trekking trip to Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains.

Planning your trip to Central Asia

Begin by checking the latest advice on travel to this region from the Foreign Office.

The area has a reputation for Soviet-style bureaucracy when it comes to visas, but things are improving. Some countries such as Uzbekistan still require an invitation from an individual or, more usually, an Uzbek travel company.

Turkmenistan requires you to hire a guide to be with you at all times. Others will need some pre-planning, especially if you’re thinking of visiting more than one country in the region.

Best time to visit Central Asia

Late spring or summer are the best times to be in the region, making May a great choice, though if you’re planning on trekking, July and August would be better. Winters are bitterly cold.

Further information

Tourism is a new phenomenon in this post-Soviet neck of the woods so official information is limited. Try Discover Central Asia and Oriental Express Central Asia.

©2009 Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd