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The Silk Road—Part 2: Ancient Cities, And A VIP Invite

16 Oct
Camel caravan at Gobi desert. This is a famous place part of the silk road in Dunhuang, Gansu, China. silk road

The Silk Road—Part 2: Ancient Cities, And A VIP Invite

“Few people like you make it this far,” our guide Anthony told us with a big smile as we approached the ruins of the central pagoda of the 2,300-year-old city of Jiaohe.

He meant white people.

In this part of this country, the travelers are nearly all Chinese. The burgeoning local middle class is keen to explore, but we foreigners are thin on the ground this far west…

Like Paris, Jiaohe was built on an island. A garrison outpost of the Han Dynasty, it was formed of rammed earth and mud bricks on a plateau 100 feet above the confluence of two rivers.

Thanks to the desert climate, much of Jiaohe remains, more than two millennia later.

You can follow roads through the entirety of the city. It’s an archeological, architectural, and historical treasure, one of the best-preserved ancient cities in the world, and was a highlight of Lief and my Silk Road adventures in 2020…

The ancient Silk Road was the pathway of trade between East and West for hundreds of years… British author Peter Frankopan has even written an entire history of the world—appropriately called The Silk Roads—around the story of this trade route…

The road (in fact, more a series of roads than a single route) traveled from China, westward to Europe, carrying silks, furs, gold, silver, opium, and much more…

In 2020, Lief and I explored a portion of the route in rural China.

Our two-week Silk Road tour was, I have to admit, the most challenging trip I’ve undertaken. I returned not rested but bulwarked and fortified.

Having survived those two weeks, I figure I’m ready for anything…

Don’t be put off. I mean that as an endorsement of the experience.

In fact, the experience was actually so unique, we’re planning to travel another portion of the Silk Road next year, in Uzbekistan…

Indeed, if you’ve fantasized about the legendary exploits and escapades of the original Silk Road explorers and entrepreneurs, right now is the best time in your lifetime to follow their sandy trails.

Even just a few years ago, the trip was a less reasonable undertaking than it is today. Cities in this wild west were virtually inaccessible, and the going from one to another was rougher than most travelers are up for…

However, as this part of the world continues to invest in opening up to global tourism and as more comfortable options for transit and accommodation come online, I predict it won’t be many more years before the “Silk Road Tour” moves to the top of the 21st-century adventure traveler’s bucket list.

If you’ve an interest, you should see it before that happens.

And in fact, you’ll have the opportunity to do just that… you can join me and Lief on the second part of our Silk Road tour next year, as a member of a very special group we’re setting up for our most dedicated readers—intrepid souls like us… (Get all the details here.)

Developers from China and Europe have been investing along the route of the Silk Road in hotels of legitimate international standard. As recently as a few years ago, you could not have found a bona-fide comfortable place to spend the night after a day traipsing across the Gobi on camelback. Now key towns have one or two four- or five-star hotels with modern bathrooms, abundant hot water, cable TV, Wi-Fi, and restaurants with options beyond local rice and noodle specialties on their menus, terrace bars, and even (occasionally) champagne on their wine lists.

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For our trip next year, for example, Lief and I have only booked four-star and five-star hotels…

While I contemplate next year’s Silk Road adventure, I’m reminiscing about some of the highlights from the first part of our Silk Road tour a few years ago…

Here are some of my most memorable experiences…

#1: The Rooftop Terrace Of The Dunhuang Hotel

After a long, hot, dusty day, followed by another long, dusty drive… we arrived finally at the Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel.

Though we’d asked our guide to book us into the best accommodation available in each of the cities where we planned to stop for the night, we’d learned to keep our expectations in check. This time, we were delightfully surprised to find ourselves welcomed by a grand, high-ceilinged lobby, friendly, competent staff… and signs pointing in the direction of a rooftop restaurant.

We followed the wooden staircase to the open terrace where the hostess made room for the 13 of us then took our orders for appetizers and chilled wine.

We sat in silence a long while, soaking up the view and making a memory of the scene. All around, in every direction, dwarfing sand dunes… like something out of Arabian Nights… or, well, the Kumtag Desert of western China.

Finally, the sun set, and the falling temperatures and our heavy eyelids drove us inside to our rooms.

This terrace is one of the best-kept secrets of today’s Silk Road.

#2: The End Of The Great Wall

All those Silk Road traders and travelers needed protecting… so China built a wall, in stages, over successive dynasties, to keep away the bad guys. That wall ends at Jiayuguan. From this point onward was beyond the pale, the world outside civilized China, a land of desert demons and barbarians.

Exiled to this back of beyond were criminals, soldiers derelict in their duties, and poets. No one I asked could explain why the poets.

This remains a back-of-beyond no man’s land. We lost cell signal.

In fact, you wouldn’t describe the wall at this point as “great.” It’s just high enough to slow the approach of attackers on horseback.

More impressive is the 14th-century fort built at this critical juncture to guard the narrow pass between the Qilian and Hei Shan mountain ranges. Inside is a temple dedicated to the great warrior general Guan Di, so renowned for his successes in battle that he managed to earn the respect of all Chinese and to unite the country at a time when different religious beliefs were creating great conflicts.

#3: Ruins Of The Ancient City At Jiaohe

If Disney were to build an ancient city carved out of the earth, Jiaohe is what it’d look like.

But Jiaohe is the real deal, one of the oldest and best-preserved cities in the world. Like many such superlative sights in western China, you can wander it at will, imagining what life might have been like for the 7,000 monks and regular folk who called this Death Valley city home 1,600 years ago.

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#4: Riding Camelback In The Desert

If Disney were to build a desert theme park… Singing Sand Dunes and Crescent Lake outside Dunhuang is what it’d look like.

And, in this case, we are talking about a theme park.

When we approached and realized what lay ahead—turnstiles where our tickets would be scanned then, on the other side, a series of areas offering organized attractions and activities—Lief and I almost opted out.

I’m thankful that some in our group urged us on. Yes, this is tourism central, with tens of thousands of Chinese tourists passing through the day we visited, but the camel ride made it worth the stop.

My camel was tethered with those of three friends, and the four of us were led to the top of the immense sand dunes where we meandered around a while before heading back down to the crowd. I don’t have a lot of camel-riding experience, but this one wasn’t as kitschy as I feared it would be. I’d recommend it.

Indeed, we’re planning to take another camel ride through the desert on the second leg of our Silk Road tour in Uzbekistan in 2024 (which you can join us on)

#5: The Mummies At The Xinjiang Museum

When our guide promised mummies, I expected the wrapped-up variety I’ve known elsewhere. But the 3,800-year-old mummies in Urumqi’s Xinjiang Museum weren’t wrapped at all. They were clothed. They had hair, teeth, beards, tattoos, and fingernails. You half-wondered if one might rise before your eyes inside his (or her) glass case.

#6: Arriving in Turpan In Time For The Grape Harvest

In Turpan, you are 154 meters below sea level.

Surprisingly, this is also the sweetest spot in China, the capital of this country’s grape-growing and wine industries.

The ground water and fertile soil of the Turpan depression make it an oasis in the desert.

The growing focus is grapevines. Along the highway, along the roadsides, in the medians, in the parks, overhead across pergolas, and latticed in parks, vines are a constant in the Turpan landscape, and this time of year they’re heavy with ripe fruit.

We tried many varieties of the grapes, fresh and dried. Our guide recommended against sampling the wine, though, so we enjoyed the atmosphere created by the vineyards but stuck with French vintages at dinnertime…

I’m looking forward to even more unforgettable experiences along the Silk Road next year…

If you do want to join us, here’s a sneak peek at our itinerary…

Day 1: Explore Tashkent By Car

Our driver will meet us at the airport and drive us to the hotel.

We’ll explore Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, by car. Tashkent is 2,200 years old, and we’ll visit the historical part, the complex Khast-Imam, where the famous Koran of Caliph Osman is kept.

You will have the chance to experience the local bazaar, Chorsu.

In the city’s modern part, you can visit the Independence square, the Amir Timur Square, and the Museum of Applied Arts.

Day 2: A 2,500-Year-Old City…

We’ll transfer to the city of Khiva, meet our guide in Khiva, and start the city tour.

Khiva is 2,500 years old and the city is famous for its well-preserved city wall that surrounds Khiva’s old town, known as Ichan Kala (“inner town”).

We’ll take a walking tour around Ichan Kala, and visit Khiva’s largest madrasah, Mukhammad Amin-khan, next to which the Kalta Minor (“short minaret”) is located. It’s famous for its unusual shape and decor.

The citadel Kunya Ark was the Khan’s main palace until the 19th century when the construction of the Tash-Khovli palace was completed. The latter is known for its beautiful harem…

Days 3-4: One Of The Most Important Stops On The Silk Road…

Bukhara was one of the biggest trading centers and stops for caravans during the height of the Great Silk Road—and has a very rich history.

We’ll visit the Ismail Samani mausoleum, considered to be a masterpiece of the 10th century’s architecture. Since the 1st century, the Ark citadel was the residence of all Bukhara’s emirs.

One of the most beautiful places in Bukhara is the Poi-Kalon complex. We’ll stroll through the three trading domes, visiting one of the city’s oldest mosques, Magoki-Attori…

We’ll reach Lyabi-Khauz, the favorite square for locals, which is the center of the old town and surrounded by several architectural monuments…

We’re planning a 10-day trip—so, this is just a taster.

If the idea of “bucket list” travel in the company of some of the world’s most experienced travelers—me and Lief, as well as friends from our network around the world—appeals to you… you’re more than welcome to join us.

Until next time,

Kathleen Peddicord Signature

Kathleen Peddicord

Founding Publisher, Live And Invest Overseas