Trekking the Ancient Silk Road in China

with 28 Comments

A trip always starts with a dream. A perfume, a promise and a thirst to discover different cultures and customs. The ancient Silk Road has always intrigued us. A trade route that connected Europe and China via Central Asia, and allowed not only for sought-after goods such as tea, silk and porcelain to spread through the west, but also ideas and religions. An almost mythological network of paths hiding a well of stories. Since we are a couple raised in different cultures, this trip felt personal. Why travel if not to open up to heterogeneousness?

 

But our first question was whether it was doable to travel the ancient Silk Road within a month. It didn’t take us long to realize that we had to split our trip in at least two different parts. China would go first. The other parts through Central Asia, and the Middle East towards Europe would have to wait for another year… Excited, we contacted a dozen local travel agencies to help us with the planning. China Highlights, which already lent us a hand during our Guilin-trip in 2015, replied straightaway. Because they stood out for their high reactivity and availability, we quickly decided to stick with them. And we have not once regretted our loyalty, since their service was impeccable from the start to the very end of our almost 1-month trip.

 

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Travel with Mei and Kerstin 👭🌍 (@travelwithmk) on

 

We flew to Beijing, where we visited a few of the landmarks, since Mei has always dreamt of wandering through the Forbidden City and hiking up the Great Wall of China. Since it was high season, we cruised through the domestic tourist crowds with a bit of discouragement at first. But soon, we adapted to the flocks of Chinese tourists. And sought out less-frequented corners, which remained possible as most Chinese vacationists shift in groups. This may be one of the first cultural differences we encountered. Many Westerners prefer intimate, customized tours and would not appreciate the company of their fellows. In Chinese culture the feeling for community is strongly appreciated. Companionship is valued, as well as meeting different ethnic groups from the same or different regions inside the “Middle Kingdom”.

 

Despite the impressive cultural sites and very modern skyscrapers in Beijing, three days in the Chinese capital was enough for us. And we couldn’t wait to start our journey along the ancient Silk Road… So the next day we took a high-speed train and traveled over 1000 km to Xi’an, the oldest city in China and the capital-city of 13 different dynasties. In ancient times, Xi’an was known as Chang’ an, and was both the starting point and the destination of the ancient Silk Road. Historically speaking, the Silk Road was not one but many routes that connected Asia and the Mediterranean. Our intention was to travel through Gansu Province and then head to Xinjiang Province in northwestern China.

 

Xi’an was equally as crowded as Beijing. But thanks to our local guide Rocky, we still had a great experience. When we faced the silent ranks of the Terracotta warriors keeping watch over Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb in the pits below us, we immediately forgot the swarm of Chinese tourists that gathered around us. We stood still, a bit frustrated by the impossible task to observe over 6000 clay generals, foot soldiers, cavalrymen portrayed with striking details. Each face is unique, as well as their height, their body shape, and their garment. The real bronze weapons, which once denoted the rank of each soldier, were all robbed by the rebels who brought an end to the Qin Dynasty and who stormed the entrances to the underground pits to set fire to the wooden chariots and roofs around 200 BC.

 

In the second exhibition hall, a horse was still half stuck in the clay wall, since the archaeologists did not yet excavate the other half. We admired the meticulously painstaking work, which will continue to occupy generations of archaeologists…

 

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Travel with Mei and Kerstin 👭🌍 (@travelwithmk) on

 

As much as we’d like to stay longer in Xi’an, we moved forward on our journey after two days, and headed to Lanzhou. As soon as we arrived at the train station, our local tour guide Frank and our driver took us to a Muslim restaurant to taste some homemade noodles. They work so fast in this local restaurant that the huge bowls of sizzling hot soups with delicious noodles were brought to us even before we sat down on a table. Being someone who eats quite slowly, I felt bad that the others had to wait for me to finish up. Luckily, we had about two hours to digest during our drive to Liujiaxia …

 

When we reached Liujiaxia Lake, we were surprised that the wharf was not very busy. A kid bathed and chuckled in the sunlight. A Muslim biker sped past us. An elderly couple was picnicking under a tree nearby, and a few sheep were grazing on the riverbanks. Mei walked slowly behind me, too mesmerized by the whole setting that radiated idyllic vibes. It seemed like we had left the crowds in the previous province!

 

We climbed in the pitching speedboat, eager to discover more. The river frothed, churned. Cows watching us from afar seemed to be whipped away into the water. The closer we got to our destination, the more beautiful the tortured gorge became. The sunlit mountains gleamed around “in a hedge of inaccessible purity” (James Hilton, Lost Horizon, 1933). We completely fell under their spell even before we docked. Now looking back, we can say with certainty that the Bingling Thousand Buddha Caves turned out to be one of the most unexpected highlights of our trip.

 

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Travel with Mei and Kerstin 👭🌍 (@travelwithmk) on

 

Cut into sheer cliff, above a tributary of the Yellow River, the Bingling Caves were built between the 3rdand 18thcenturies, and number 183 in total. The delicately painted frescoes are slowly fading, which adds to the charm of the site. Our guide Frank told us that these paintings couldn’t be compared to the more famous Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, which we would visit a week later. In retrospect, we couldn’t disagree more… The very colorfully restored caves in Dunhuang certainly attract many tourists. But perhaps because it has become such a touristy and crowded site, it cannot compete with the authenticity of the Bingling Caves.

 

An imposing Buddha statue that was looking down at us dominated the front of the caves. As we were admiring its features, my sight was caught by the wooden staircase that seemed to connect more niches high above to the top of the cliffs. When I asked Frank whether we would visit these alcoves, he told us that the cave located on the top of the cliffs holds the most ancient stone carvings executed by reclusive Buddhist monks, and are therefore more severely protected. We saw him pay additional money to a security guard dressed in army fashion, who then proceeded to unlock several doors for us.

 

At first, the narrow stairways seemed not too difficult to manage. But soon they were replaced by wooden ladders that creaked at each step. We left our backpacks to continue the strenuous climb. Mei’s legs were shaking as we reached the top, and I was silently fretting about the upcoming descent. However, the frescoes on the top cave were well preserved, and the crimson, turquoise and emerald strokes are so finely traced. For conservation purposes, it was not allowed to take pictures. We were very grateful to be even allowed to marvel at those treasures.

 

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Travel with Mei and Kerstin 👭🌍 (@travelwithmk) on

 

The Bingling Caves were void of tourists upon our arrival. But when we stepped down from the top cave, we suddenly noticed that we were the last visitors onsite. The sun started to set, and the scenery got more and more spectacular as we cruised back to Liujiaxia. On the way to Xiahe, we fell asleep and woke up a few hours later to gaze at the beautifully lit gate to the Labrang Monastery.

 

The Labrang Monastery is home to one of the six most important temples of Gelugpa, also known as the Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhism. On the following day, we circled around the monastery, where colorful prayer wheels were spinning ceaselessly. Founded in 1709, it consists of six great grand halls dedicated to the study of scriptures or sutras, numerous temples and the monks’ residences, intricately interwoven.

 

Our mind was blown away when we learned that to become a doctor, the monks have to study medicine for 15 years, but to become a philosopher they have to study for 25 years! Thus, the exploration of the sense of life takes priority over man’s healing. Anthropocentrism is axiomatic in western culture, but is it really, or should it be? Is mankind not a grain of rice in the big wheel of life?

 

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Travel with Mei and Kerstin 👭🌍 (@travelwithmk) on

 

We were lucky enough to hear the monks start chanting their prayers in the Grand Sutra Hall before we left the monastery, and set out to the Sangke Grassland where we rode on Mongolian horses. Two teenagers accompanied us and we laughed a lot, trying to communicate. They talked into their smartphones and let an application translate their dialect into English. They were eager to know more about us, and throughout our trip in China we met this curiosity especially among the younger generations.

 

In the following days, as we made our journey from central China to western China, we did not cross any “white” people. So I got a lot of stares or frowns, a few conniving smiles, and a few spits in front of my feet too. I guess I’d like to say that in an ideal world, the color of skin does not matter. But in our world, it still does. I did not feel insulted though. I just had to “endure” what Mei endures every day of her life. It certainly puts things into perspective…

 

Our following stop along the ancient Silk Road – and certainly one of the most memorable ones – was Zhangye, where Marco Polo started his journey to the East in 1274. We spent a few hours conversing happily with our local guide Tony, who made history come alive and had a knack for compelling storytelling.

 

 

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Travel with Mei and Kerstin 👭🌍 (@travelwithmk) on

 

In the Giant Buddha Temple, we admired a 35-meter-long wooden reclining statue of Sakyamuni. Its compassionate gaze radiates cheer. And nothing from the outside revealed that it actually hides a five-storey-structure inside its body. In the museum located behind the temple, we were very interested in the displayed artifacts, and above all in the scriptures of the temple’s famous Buddhist library. According to legend, a nun called Yao had the mission to protect these scriptures, some of which are written in gold ink. She ordered the construction of a hideout to keep these sutras in a safe place. But she outdid herself because when she died, she took the secret of the location of the scriptures to her grave. They were only rediscovered many years later.

 

After a copious lunch, we drove to the Zhangye Danxia National Geopark, a colorful desert landscape. Mei added this geological park to our itinerary because we didn’t get to see the rainbow mountain in Peru. The Chinese version has become a tourist attraction only about 10 years ago. But now it’s already a landmark of Zhangye. As we stood in front of the crimson, tangerine and golden hues of layered sandstone, a storm was moving towards us. The Chinese tourists were still taking selfies. Some dressed up in historical garment for the occasion, while others encouraged their kid to sing the national hymn, holding the Chinese flag or a portrait of Mao.

 

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Travel with Mei and Kerstin 👭🌍 (@travelwithmk) on

 

When the first raindrops started to fall, our guide Tony and the driver brought us to Jiayuguan, another important stop along the ancient Silk Road. After seeing the wonderful wall paintings in local tombs built between the 3rd and 5thcenturies, we climbed up the stunning ancient Great Wall a second time. This section is dubbed the “Overhanging Great Wall”, because it resembles a dragon hanging over a cliffside. From afar, it looks like a dried mud maze that zigzags its way up a stark desert mountain. The steep climb was rather tough with the blazing heat.

 

A few kilometers from the Great Wall stands the Jiayuguan Pass, a towering mud fortress, which rises out of the desert like a mirage. Under the Ming Dynasty, it was called the “First Pass Under Heaven”. And whoever wanted to enter or leave China at that time had to go through this pass to get a “visa”.

 

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Travel with Mei and Kerstin 👭🌍 (@travelwithmk) on

 

Leaving Jiayuguan behind us, we entered the Taklamakan desert. The arid climate was tangible. In Dunhuang, according to our program, we would set out to admire the Singing Sands Dune. It surrounds an oasis, now plagued by a deluge of tourists. The camel ride through the desert was supposed to be the highlight of our trip in Dunhuang. But unfortunately it turned out to be a tourist trap. At first we had to out ourselves in order to stop the camel driver from splitting us up, so that he could squeeze each one of us into a different family caravan. Our local guide Helen had a hard time trying to convince him otherwise. They were yelling at each other so hard that we were ready to give up on the ride. But finally they accepted to reorganize and dispatch us in the same caravan.

 

As our camels slowly walked up the sand dunes, we tried to understand why so many Chinese tourists wanted to spend time in a desert, if they have to buy plastic bags to prevent the sand from entering their shoes. But soon we understood that for them, the experience of the desert itself is subordinate to taking pictures of oneself in the desert. A modern-life vice?

 

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Travel with Mei and Kerstin 👭🌍 (@travelwithmk) on

 

In Dunhuang, we also mildly appreciated the Mogao Grottoes. These series of caves certainly contain an incredible wealth of Buddhist wall paintings. But the excessive restoration works and the touristy handling of the visit moderated our enthusiasm.

 

But our interest reignited when we explored the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves in Turpan. Located on the west cliffs of the valley of the reputed Flaming Mountains, which figure in the famous legend Journey to the West, these caves were excavated under the Uyghur Gaochang Kingdom. The frescoes tell fascinating stories about the early spread of Buddhism in China.

 

But unfortunately most of the murals were damaged by nature, and mostly by man: at first in the mid-15th century due to the dissemination of Islam in Turpan, then removed by German, British, Russian and Japanese archaeologists in the 19thcentury, and finally during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. On the ceilings, Buddha portraits have their faces rubbed out. And on the walls, blank patches show that the paintings were removed by 19th century archaeologists and treasure-seekers. A few of these frescoes can be seen in the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin. But many of them did not survive the Second World War. If only the German archaeologist Albert von le Coq had known that the frescoes were safer in Turpan…

 

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Travel with Mei and Kerstin 👭🌍 (@travelwithmk) on

 

On our second day in Turpan, we visited another – even more interesting – archaeological site, which was Jiaohe Ancient City. As we walked into this large islet, surrounded by two deep rivers, we met only a few Chinese tourists. With their facemasks, scarves and protective gloves, they looked like scientists entering a quarantine zone. In the desert heat, dripping in sweat, we walked along eroded mud walls, crumbled down houses and temples. The complex reminded us of a vanquished kingdom. And we enjoyed the quietness among the ruins. But suddenly a buzzing sound made us look up. A drone was hovering over us and seemed to stalk us long enough for me to get nervous…

 

Later that day, we stopped at a Muslim-Uyghur family’s home. Two ladies were resting on a wooden bed outside of their front door. We marveled at their traditional home with mixed feelings. We had invaded a private property… And although our local guide Judith bought grapes from them, thus justifying our visit, the desolation of their living room with worn carpets full of nan crumbs put us in a voyeuristic position.

 

It seems that access to education is not necessarily an important thing for Muslim-Uyghurs. They value afterlife more than their current life, so for many of them education does not matter at all. However, does this really justify their incarceration in re-education camps?

 

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Travel with Mei and Kerstin 👭🌍 (@travelwithmk) on

 

When we reached Ürümqi, we were glad to leave Xinjiang Province and to fly to Yunnan to explore the ancient Tea-Horse Road. The history and culture of Xinjiang is certainly overwhelming. But our general impression in this province was a feeling of insecurity. The multiple police checkpoints, the weapon detectors disseminated everywhere – may it be at hotel or restaurant entrances, at tourist attractions or railway stations-, as well as the myriad of surveillance cameras left us puzzled and nervous. We’ve both traveled to many countries and regions. But had never had to justify our identity as often as in Xinjiang. May it be by exhibiting our passport or letting a security agent rummaging through our bags. Does the threat of terrorism allow for this? It is a difficult question. One we cannot analyze here in detail, since it would require a different post altogether to do it justice.

 

The ancient Silk Road was once a string of trading posts, with its natural dangers and robbers. But in essence it was an opportunity to connect heterogeneous cultures. Today it crosses countries that are overcome by terrorism, which is the incarnation of the rejection of heterogeneity. One may wonder whether the East and the West may ever be prepared to peacefully exchange their goods, ideas and religions without igniting wars. We certainly enjoyed admiring the multicultural heritage sites, witnesses of a past when traders hauled caravans of jewels and spices.

 

The westernized and romantic idea of the Silk Road may be gone. But along the road we still encountered interesting characters and talked to people who opened up, once we were out of sight of a camera. If you want to get insight into regions off the beaten track and see how Islamic and Buddhist cultures interact, then the ancient Silk Road is the way to go.

Pin this for later

Pin this: Trekking the Ancient Silk Road in China © Travelwithmk.com

 

Pin this: Trekking the Ancient Silk Road in China © Travelwithmk.com

 

Pin this: Trekking the Ancient Silk Road in China © Travelwithmk.com

Follow Kerstin:

Traveler - Storyteller

Kerstin is a 30-something French teacher, born and raised in a tiny Luxembourgish village, but who used to live in Bordeaux, Paris, Athens and San Francisco with her wife Mei. Fluent in 5 languages, she's above all a huge book enthusiast, a fervent writer and storyteller, and could never refuse a good old single malt whiskey. Oh, and she also loves coffee and chocolate (not sure in which order though).

28 Responses

  1. Carolina Colborn
    | Reply

    What an adventure! It was great you covered Beijing and the terracotta warriors of Xian but I was wide-eyed as you traveled through Central and western China. It was fascinating to watch through your eyes the mixed cultures and the sense of insecurity that developed after a while. I would never be able to do this trip!

  2. travelgirlto
    | Reply

    I’ve been to Beijing and Xian but there is so much more of China I want to explore. Thanks for your great article on the Silk Road, and the gorgeous pictures. I would love to see more of China one day.

  3. josypheen
    | Reply

    Wooow this sounds like such an adventure – I would looooove to so a trip like this! I once did the Trans Mongolian train from China to Russia, but the silk road would be an even more down to earth trek. I studies some ancient Chinese history at university, so I love how many ancient sites you crammed into your travels.

    It is such a shame about the murals in the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves in Turpan. If only all that history was not wiped away. 🙁

  4. Nitin Singhal
    | Reply

    Terracotta army looks amazing. The level of preservation of details in sculptures is mind-boggling. Rock-cut Buddha sculpture reminded me of rock-cut Jain sculptures of Gwalior, India

  5. Smita
    | Reply

    The Silk Road sounds (and reads!) like a fairy tale trip! I had never given much thought to this region as a place to visit but you’ve changed my mind. The Zhangye Geopark looks phenomenal, such vivid colours!

  6. TravelByMaya
    | Reply

    Honestly, I am fascinated about the Chinese culture. It’s one of my biggest dreams to go there and I can’t wait to do it ! Even more after reading this post. China is so interesting and mysterious, I just have to go there already!!

  7. This sounds like a very cool trip! It’s great to know you had a good experience on the China Highlights tour and got to see so much of the historic Silk Road. I would love to see the Great Wall and Terracotta Army too. It’s interesting the cultural differences of Chinese preferring companions while traveling and Westerners wanting to have solo experiences! It’s also great to know about the beautiful Zhangye Danxia National Geopark. You’re right it does look a lot like the Rainbow Mountains in Peru!

  8. jordan@thesololife.com
    | Reply

    Wow this looks so wonderful! And I didn’t realize about the cultural differences, with Chinese culture emphasizing community so much. I learned so much from this post.

  9. Catherine
    | Reply

    I’m constantly fascinated by the history of China. This is something I’d love to experience and looks like such an adventure. I agree that Beijing is extremely busy and it’s best to get out of the city and explore all the other attractions in China. Thanks for sharing!

  10. The Travel Bunny
    | Reply

    The Silk Road is a travel dream for me. My fascination with it grew after I read the book Singură pe Drumul Mătăsii (Alone on the Silk Road), by Romanian writer Sabina Fati. In 80 days, she covered 15 000 kilometers and, in her book, he speaks not only about her trip, but also about the history of each road portion and those she met on her way. It’s absolutely amazing. I don’t know if it got translated to English, but keep it in mind if you ever come across it.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thanks Mirela! We have never heard of this book! Trying to find it in English or French or German now! 🙂

  11. Sage Scott
    | Reply

    What an amazing experience! That muddy river caught my eye. I get to visit Montana every year, usually in the late spring/early summer when all of the streams and rivers are full of melting snow. No matter how deep or wide the water is, you can see so far into it because it’s so clear. Then I come home to Kansas City, many, many miles south of that part of the country, and it all looks brown and muddy and meh. The water in front of the Bingling Grottoes makes me feel a little better about the Missouri and Kansas Rivers! 🙂

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Haha… yes, when we first saw the Yellow River in Lanzhou, we were a bit shocked that it’s so muddy. But we were told that it just rained a few days ago, so the sand from the nearby mountains and hills slid down into the river which made the water look even muddier. And then, well… there’s a reason why the river is called Yellow River. 😀

  12. Candy
    | Reply

    What an exciting journey and it makes sense that you had to split this journey in half as it’s very long. I’m like you and if I was happy with my previous service than I would definitely go back to the same company 🙂 I’m just in awe of the colorful dessert. It’s not a site I every seen when I read anything about China. Also very interesting information that it takes longer to be a philosopher than a doctor.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      You are right, the rainbow mountains in Zhangye is not very popular among foreign tourists. There were mainly Chinese tourists, but we think that it starts to attract more and more foreign tourists too. so make sure to visit before it gets overcrowded. 🙂

  13. Snazzytrips
    | Reply

    Looks like such an exciting and interesting trip with many fascinating places and people on the Silk Road, but the terracotta warriors and the Great Wall of China would be highlights for me. The grottoes and caves would be fun to explore too. It’s awful that you had people spit at your feet though.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, the Great Wall and the terracotta warriors in Xi’an are definitely one of the highlights of our trip. Despite the crowd, these sites are worth visiting. We hope you’ll get to explore them soon. 🙂

  14. Sally
    | Reply

    I just returned from China and we only spent 12 days there which is definitely not enough. I would love to go back and spend at least a month and do things like the Silk Road and the Trans Siberian. China was nothing like what I expected and it exceeded every expectation.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Oh where did you go in China? Since it’s such a big country, it’s good to return several times to explore different parts. The Trans-Siberian is also on our bucket list! 🙂

  15. Amy
    | Reply

    What an incredible adventure! I love that despite having a month, you decided to focus on China and give such rich quality to your journey. China is so diverse and mysterious, I love the Bingling Caves, would definitely love to explore there. Sorry to hear the camels in the desert turned out to be such a tourist trap, good to know as this would have been high up on our girls list.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, China is such a huge country, so it would not have been fair to “run” through it. There are probably other parts in the Chinese desert where you can enjoy a camel ride without all the stress and crowd, so make sure to ask your travel adviser or travel agent when you plan to go.

  16. Danik
    | Reply

    I have done a few of these sights in the Beijing area but havent been out to the others yet. Love my time in China and can’t wait to get back there. Following the ancient silk road sounds like an amazing adventure to do and I would love to try and trace the route myself one day.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      We hope you’ll get to travel along the Silk Road too someday. It’s amazing to see the change of culture from east to west. Just keep in mind that security checks in Xinjiang Province are more serious than in other parts of China.

  17. Delphine
    | Reply

    I went to China years ago for a wedding and only saw a few of the sights in Beijing. I really enjoyed the Great Wall of China, even though it was really hot that day. The Forbidden City was good, but crowded and dusty… Not enough time to go to Xi’An and see the terracotta army, I’ll have to do it next time.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Xi’An is also very crowded, but definitely worth visiting. When it’s not too hot, you can rent a bike or just have a walk on the city’s walls.

      • Natasha
        | Reply

        This looks like an awesome adventure! Happy travels!

  18. Sam Peach
    | Reply

    Wow this looks like such an amazing adventure! China is high on my travel list – however, I feel, much like you, that only a few days in the capital would be enough and adventuring to other spots would be ideal. I think the silk road looks astonishing and it is now added to my bucket list! I especially am intrigued by the Bingling Caves! How amazing!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thanks Sam. We hope you get to travel along the Silk Road too! 🙂

Share your thoughts!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.