Journey along the ancient Silk Road
Travel the Silk Road in the footsteps of Marco Polo and the Monk XuanzangMap
Journey along the ancient Silk Road - Travel in the footsteps of Marco Polos and the famous Chinese Monk Xuanzang
The Silk Road travel information. Travel in the footsteps of Marco Polo and the famous Chinese monk Xuanzang. Xuanzang's (602 - 664 A.D.) historically documented journey from China to India on the ancient Silk Road was recorded in the 16th century by Wu Cheng'En in the novel "The Journey to the West". The novel combines travelogues with Chinese legends and folk tales as well as themes of Buddhism and Daoism and today belongs to the four classics of Chinese literature. Along your journey along the Silk Road there are still many references to the protagonists of the novel.
The term Silk Road was first used in 1877 by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen and describes not only a road, but a network of ancient caravan routes connecting East and West. The main continental route of around 6,400 kilometers in length began in Xi'an, China, and followed the course of the Great Wall of China towards the northwest, while at Anxi the route divided into a southern and a northern route. While one route crossed the Taklamakan Desert to the north and led via Kashgar and Samarkand to today's Turkey, the second route ran south of the Taklamakan Desert, overcame the Pamir Mountains and led via Afghanistan to the east coast of the Mediterranean.
Until the 14th century the route along Silk Road was of great importance for trade and cultural exchange. Various power struggles, changing means of transport and differences in political interests in East and West later made this trade route fall into oblivion.
To the west silk, spices, jade and porcelain were transported, to the east, in the opposite direction, wool, gold, silver and glass found its way to China. Gun powder also found its way to the west via the Silk Road. Trade promoted contact with other cultures and thus influenced the way of thinking in East and West. Buddhism, for example, came from India along the Silk Road to China.
Travel to Xi'An: Starting point of the Silk Road in China
Journey along the Silk Road. The modern city of Xi'An (Xian) in central China was long considered China's gateway to the West. Xi'An was considered the beginning and end point of the Silk Road and developed into an important transshipment point for goods traded on this ancient trade route.
Already about 2000 years ago merchants and diplomats from all over the world came to Chang An, the old name of Xi'An, to trade. Here camel caravans unloaded their goods from the Eurasian region and in return were loaded with valuable goods from China that were sought after in the West. Chinese silk in particular was in great demand in the Roman Empire.
The city of Xi'An is both culturally and historically a worthwhile stop on a journey along the Silk Road. The capital of Shaanxi Province is considered the cradle of Chinese culture and has been the imperial city of various dynasties for 1000 years. Xi'An experienced its first heyday during the Han Dynasty (221-206 B.C.) when it was chosen as the first capital of China under Emperor Qin Shi Huang.
Xi'An became world famous with the discovery of the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang in 1974. The emperor's tomb is located just outside the present-day city of Xi'An and has been guarded by the famous terracotta army for over 2000 years.
On your journey to Xi'An you will visit the Mausoleum with the Terracotta Army, discover many culinary delicacies on a tour through the Muslim quarter and experience Xi'An on a bicycle tour on the former city walls from a different angle.
A trip along the Silk Road usually starts in Xi'An. Thanks to the modern high-speed trains, Xi'An can be reached from Beijing in about 5 hours. From Chengdu in Sichuan the train journey takes about 4 hours to Xi'An. From the modern airport of Xi'An there are flights to any major city in China.
Lanzhou : Travel to the famous Bingling Grottoes
Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu Province in northern China on the banks of the Yellow River. With around 4 million inhabitants, Lanzhou is also the largest city in Gansu province.
Because Lanzhou is located at the southern end of the Hexi Corridor, the city has always been an important trading post and melting pot of different cultures and religions on the northern Silk Road. Later, Lanzhou developed into an important base for goods transport on the Yellow River.
The main reason for a trip to Lanzhou are undoubtedly the famous Buddhist Bingling Grottoes, which are located about 100km southwest of Lanzhou. On your journey along the Silk Road, Lanzhou is the ideal starting point for a detour to the Bingling Caves.
The construction work for the Bingling Grottos began in the 4th century and lasted over several dynasties. During this time 183 niches and caves with wonderful Buddhist stonemasonry from different epochs were created.
Journey to Xining – City on the Silk Road and melting pot of various Cultures and Religions
A trip to Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province in northwest China, is best made by high-speed train. From the city of Lanzhou, you can reach Xining in about 2 hours. Xining also has an airport with a limited number of flights from different cities in China. Xining is also a popular starting point for the train journey to Lhasa.
The city of Xining is located on the Huangshui River in the northwest west of China in a fertile high valley at 2300m above sea level. Xining is often referred to as the "Gateway to Tibet".
A trip to Xining should include a visit to the Tibetan Monastery Kumbum Champa Ling, about 40km away from Xining. Kumbum Champa Ling means something like "Monastery of the Hundred Thousand Pictures of Buddha Maitreya". In Chinese the monastery is also called Ta'er monastery.
The actual Kumbum monastery was built in 1583 by the third Dalai Lhama. The monastery was built at the place where, according to legend, the founder of the Gelup order Tsongkapa (1357-1419) was born.
Those who want to stay a little longer in Xining on the journey along the Silk Road can make a side trip to Qinghai Lake. The Qinghai Lake - also called Koko-Nor - is located in the west of Xining. The Qinghai Lake is a huge salt-lake at 3195m above sea level, which inspires by its size as well as by its contrasting colors.
Silk Road journey: Zhangye – Danxia Geopark und the biggest reclining Buddha in China
A trip to Zhangye in Gansu Province in northwestern China is a highlight of this journey along the Silk Road, both scenically and culturally.
The founding of Zhangye dates back to the Han Dynasty in the 2nd century when a military outpost was established here. Zhangye owes its importance as a trading post on the Silk Road primarily to its location: the city is located on the so-called Hexi Corridor. The Hexi Corridor was the only possible passage from China to the west between the massive Qilian Mountains in the south and the unforgiving desert landscape in the north.
In Zhangye it is worth visiting the "Big Buddha Temple", which houses the largest reclining Buddha in China.
The Mati Temple near Zhangye is one of the highlights of your journey along the Silk Road. Ma Ti literally means "horse hoof". The Horse Hoof Temple was built in the 5th century during the time of the 16 empires. Some of the caves are protected by wonderful wooden pavilions, some of which were built at dizzying heights on the rock face.
During your journey along the Silk Road you will also visit the Zhangye Danxia Geopark near Zhangye. Zhangye Danxia Geopark is located 30km west of the town of Zhangye and is known for its red sandstone rocks (Danxia). Especially for photographers the visit of the "Rainbow Mountains" near Zhangye is a very rewarding destination. The Zhangye Geopark has been under UNESCO protection since 2010.
Jiayuguan Fortress - Westernmost point of the Great Wall of China. The hanging Great Wall.
Jiayuguan on the Silk Road is considered the western end of the Great Wall.
In 1372 the very last fortress of the Great Wall of China was built here, about 5000km from Shanhaiguan, the easternmost point of the Great Wall. West of Jiayuguan began the "Wild West" of China.
The fortress of Jiayuguan lies in the middle of the Hexi Corridor at the pass of the same name, the only passage between the snow-capped peaks of the Qilian Mountains in the north and the barren Mazong Mountains in the south. This strategic location was ideal for monitoring the trade on the Silk Road.
You will visit the restored garrison, which is the westernmost point of the wall. You will also visit a special section of the Great Wall nearby called the Hanging Wall.
Dunhuang - Former Oasis Town between the Gobi Desert and the Taklamakan Desert in China
The ancient oasis town of Dunhuang was once an important trading town on the Silk Road and, because of that, early on Dunhuang developed into a melting pot of different cultures and religions.
Dunhuang is located between the Taklamakan Desert in the west and the Gobi Desert in the east, the second largest sand desert in the world. Dunghuang was the first city the camel caravans reached after crossing the Taklamakan desert and the sight of the once wonderful city must have been overwhelming after the hardships of the desert wasteland further west.
Dunhuang is known for its Mogao buddhist grottos. The Mogao Caves are among the largest and most outstanding archaeological sites in China.
Among other things, original ancient texts which had been brought from India to Dunhuang by the travelling monk Xuan Zang during the Tang period where discovered in one of the Grottoes. Hardly any other Buddhist site shaped early Chinese Buddhism like the Mogao Grottoes. Pilgrims, monks and scholars who were traveling on the Silk Road translated sutras or other sacred texts in Dunhuang, which then found their way to China. The Mogao Grottoes were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1987.
During an extended walking tour you will learn more about the secrets and stories of the different caves of Mogao Grottoes from a local guide.
Turfan - ruined city Jiaohe and Gaochang as well as the thousand Buddha Caves
Your journey along the Silk Road in China ends in the city of Turfan in the far northwest of China at the edge of the Turfan Valley. The lowest point of the Turfan Valley is 155m below sea level, which makes it the lowest point in Asia and the 3rd lowest point on earth.
Turfan lies in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, which has been predominantly Muslim since the 14th century. The area around Turfan became famous in particular because of the many archaeological finds, some of which can be admired today in various museums in Europe.
Already during the Han Dynasty, the Turfan Oasis was an extremely important stop on the northern Silk Road. Especially the ruined city of Gaochang developed into a melting pot of cultures, religions and arts between the 9th and 13th centuries. The desert-like region demanded a lot of creativity from the first settlers in order to ensure survival in this unforgiving environment. A good example of this inventive spirit is the "Karez", where they used a kilometer-long underground irrigation system to channel water from the surrounding mountains into the Turfan-Valley, thus ensuring a permanent water supply in the settlement areas.
A visit to the ruined cities of Jiaohe and Gaochang with the Astana burial ground and the "Thousand Buddha Caves" of Bezilik east of Turfan will give you an insight of the rich history and cultural treasures of this unique region of China.
Day 1: ARRIVAL IN XI'AN
Arrival at Xi'An and start of your journey along the Silk Road. Pick up at the airport.
The history of Xi'An can be traced back to the Bronze Age 3000 years ago. The heyday of Xi'An only began during the Han Dynasty (221-206 BC) when it became the first capital of the Empire of China under Emperor Qin Shi Huang. At that time the city was called "Chang An" which means "Long Peace". Furthermore, Xi’an has one of the longest, still well-preserved city walls from the Ming Dynasty.
In the afternoon take a stroll on the city wall. If you want, you can rent bicycles and explore the city wall by bicycle.
Overnight accommodation in Xi'An.
Day 2: XI’AN - TERRACOTTA ARMY AND BIG WILD GOOSE PAGODA
The actual cradle of China lies about 30km outside of X’ian and is guarded by the famous clay warriors of the "Terracotta Army".
Qin Shi Huang has won countless battles and thus lead the 7 kingdoms to the unification of China in 230 B.C. This was the birth of today's world power China.
On a walking tour through the different halls of Qin Shi Huang's tomb you get a good insight into the history of what we call today the Qin Dynasty. First parts of this "Terracotta Army" were only found in 1974.
On the way back to Xi'An you stop at the "Big Wild Goose Pagoda". The Big Wild Goose Pagoda was completed as a five-story wooden/brick construction at the beginning of the Tang Dynasty around 652 AD and was primarily used to store Buddhist sutras, religious figures and relics that reached Xi'An via the Silk Road. Here, the famous Chinese Monk Xuanzang translated the sutras from Sanskrit into Chinese.
Return to the hotel. In the evening you make a tour through the bustling Muslim quarter, where you can try numerous delicious local snacks.
Day 3: XI'AN - TRAIN JOURNEY TO LANZHOU - BINGLING GROTTOES
Transfer to the Xi’An train station. Travel by High speed train to Lanzhou in about 3 hours.
Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu Province in northern China on the banks of the Yellow River. Due to its strategic location at the southern end of the Hexi Corridor, the city of Lanzhou has always been an important link on the northern Silk Road and later an important trading post for goods transported on the Yellow River.
Pick up at the railway station. Continue your journey by car to the Bingling Grottoes. The Bingling (Translated meaning: 100'000 Buddhas) cave complex is located on the Yellow River and is one of the earliest Buddhist stone works in China.
The first cave was built in the year 420, until the 19th century nearly 200 caves of different shapes and sizes were carved into the sandstone rocks. Over the centuries, nearly 800 grottoes came into existence, some of which can still be admired in the original colors. Check-in at a hotel near the Binling Gorttoes. Overnight stay.
Day 4: LIUJIAXIA - LANZHOU - TRAVEL BY HIGH-SPEED TRAIN TO XINING - KUMBUM MONASTERY
In the morning drive to Lanzhou train station. Travel by high-speed train to Xining.
The tranquil city of Xining is located on the Huangshui River and is the capital of Qinghai Province in western China. Xining is located in a fertile high valley at 2300m above sea level and is often referred to as the "gateway to Tibet".
Pick up at the train station and drive to Kumbum Monastery. The walled temple complex Kumbum is situated in a valley and was built at the birthplace of Tsonkapa, the founder of the "yellow hat" school in Tibetan Buddhism.
Kumbum Monastery is the most important Tibetan monastery outside Tibet. Tour of the monastery. Afterwards return journey to Xining. Check-in at the hotel. Overnight stay in Xining.
Day 5: XINING - JOURNEY BY HIGH-SPEED TRAIN TO ZHANGYE - MATI TEMPLE
Transfer to Xining railway station and journey by high-speed train to Zhangye.
The town of Zhangye in Gansu Province was once an important stop on the Silk Road. Zhangye was founded in the 2nd century in the Han Dynasty under Emperor Wudi as a military outpost. The city lies in the middle of the so-called Hexi Corridor and was therefore a bustling stopover for the caravans on the Silk Road.
Drive to Mati Monastery.
The Buddhist cave temple Mati Si - or Mati Temple - is located about 65km south of Zhangye. Ma Ti literally means "horse hoof". The horse hoof temple was built in the 5th century during the time of the 16 empires. The Horse Hoof Monastery is part of a larger group of different cave complexes / monasteries scattered over dozens of kilometers in the northern foothills of the Qilian Mountains. The complex includes over 70 caves, with more than 500 statues and 200 square meters of mural paintings
Tour of the monastery and return to Zhangye for overnight stay.
Day 6: ZHANGYE WITH DANXIA GEOPARK - HIKING THE BADAIN JARAN DESERT
Drive to Zhangye Geopark.
Zhangye Geopark is located 30km west of Zhangye and is one of the most impressive Danxia sandstone formations in China. China Danxia is the name for red sandstone formations, which were formed by endogenous forces as well as by erosion. The Zhangye Geopark is famous for its fascinating, constantly changing play of colors in the morning and afternoon sun. Tour through the park.
Afterwards drive east to the impressive Badain Jaran Desert. The Badain Jaran Desert impresses with its huge "humming" sand dunes, whose valleys are often dotted with picturesque little lakes.
At the entrance of the desert you change into off-road vehicles for your journey to Shuang Lake. You enjoy the fantastic atmosphere of the desert in the late afternoon. Overnight in a very simple accommodation at a lake amidst the sand dunes in a middle-class hotel.
Day 7: HIKING BADAIN JARAN DESERT: TO THE BADAIN JARAN LAKE
The Badain Jaran desert is probably the most inaccessible and remote sandy area in China and is located at the border to Inner Mongolia. With 49'000km2 the Badain Jaran Desert is almost as big as Switzerland and Alsace together (or almost twice the size of the State of Maryland).
You start the day with a hike (about 4-5 hours) through the beautiful sand dunes. Afterwards you will go by jeep to Baidain Jaran Lake. If you want to climb the highest sand dune in the world, you can hike directly to Bilutu Peak. The efforts will be rewarded with a beautiful view of the surrounding desert landscape.
Drive to Lake Badain Jaran. You will have time to explore and enjoy the surroundings. Visit of the Badain Jaran Temple. Today a monk still lives in the Tibetan monastery founded in 1775.
Overnight stay in a very simple guesthouse in the middle of the desert.
Day 8: BADAIN JARAN DESERT - DRIVE TO ZHANGYE
In the morning there will be time to explore the surroundings of the Monastery on your own.
Afterwards spectacular desert trip through the dunes with the 4x4 Jeep to the "desert exit", where you change again into our vehicle. You leave Badain Jaran Desert and travel back to Zhangye city.
Drive to Zhangye and check in at the hotel. Time for free disposal.
Overnight stay in Zhangye.
Day 9: SILK ROAD: TRAVEL FROM ZHANGYE TO BINGGOU GEOPARK AND JIAYUGUAN
In the morning visit the Binggou-Danxia National Park, about 30km west of Zhangye.
Binggou means literally translated "Ice Valley". Take a walk through the park. While the Zhangye Geopark is famous for its bright colors, the Binggou part is better known for its striking rock formations.
Afterwards you continue your journey to Jiayuguan, the western end point of the world-famous Great Wall of China.
During the Ming Dynasty, the very last fortress of the Great Wall was built in Jiayuguan in 1372, about 5000km from Shanhaiguan, the eastern end of the Great Wall. You will visit the impressive Jiayuguan fortress.
Afterwards you will also visit the "Hanging Wall", a scenic section of the Great Wall of China.
Day 10: TRAVEL THE SILK ROAD FROM JIAYUGUAN FORTRESS TO THE DUNHUANG MOGAO CAVES
Continue your journey to Dunhuang Mogao Caves. The city Dunhuang is located at the edge of the Taklamakan desert, the second largest sand desert of the world, in the very northwest of the Gansu province.
Dunhuang was once an important trading town on the Silk Road and early on Dunhuang developed into an amalgam of different cultures and religions.
After arrival in Dunhuang, check-in at the hotel. Drive to the famous Buddhist Mogao Caves. Hardly any other Buddhist site shaped early Chinese Buddhism like the Mogao Caves. Pilgrims, monks and scholars who travelled on the Silk Road translated sutras or other sacred texts in Dunhuang, which then found their way to China. The Mogao Caves near Dunhuang are among the largest and most valuable archaeological discoveries in China and were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1987.
Return to Dunhuang. In the evening stroll over the night market Shazhou.
Day 11: TRAVEL FROM DUNHUANG TO TURPAN IN XINJIANG PROVINCE, CHINA
Drive from Dunhuang to Liuyuan railway station. Travel by high-speed train to Turpan.
Transfer to the hotel and check in. Afterwards visit of the Su Gong Mosque with the beautiful Emin Minaret, which was built in the late 18th century in the Uighur style, and has by now become the landmark of Turpan.
Afterwards visit of the ingenious irrigation system "Karez", where with a kilometer-long, underground irrigation system the melt water of the surrounding snow-capped mountains was led into the settlement areas around Turpan.
You conclude the day with a visit to the ruins of the ancient city of Jiaohe, which 2,000 years ago was an administrative center and a garrison town on the Silk Road. This Chinese outpost was destroyed by the Mongols in the late 13th century and subsequently abandoned. A visit to Jiaohe in the soft light of the evening sun is particularly delightful.
Overnight stay at Turpan in Xinjiang Province in China.
Day 12: TURPAN
Drive to the "Bezilik Grottoes" (Thousand Buddha Grottoes), which are located in the mountains around Turpan and came into existence during the Tang Dynasty.
Visit to the Tuyu Valley, considered one of the most mysterious and mystical places in China. The village of Maza is considered the oldest village and the Uyghur people cultivate the Muslim-Uyghur customs. You have the opportunity to visit a Uighur family and have lunch there.
Visit the ruined city of Gaochang, founded 2,000 years ago, where up to 30,000 people lived and which was fought over by the Mongols for 6 months in the 13th century and subsequently destroyed.
Drive to the Astana graves. From 273 to 778 this area was the burial place for the inhabitants of Gaochang. Both normal citizens and high officials were buried here. The complex covers 10 square kilometers and contains over 1,000 graves.
You stay overnight at Turpan.
Day 13: TURPAN BAZAAR - DEPARTURE FROM TURPAN
In the morning you have time for a tour of the Bazaar of Turpan. Afterwards transfer to the airport of Turpan. You can continue your journey by high-speed train to Urumqi or continue your journey by plane to your next destination.
"...we had a magnificent journey...everything went well, driver and guide were on time....we liked the hike in the desert very much......"
Philipp und Susann from Switzerland
"...the hike in the Badain Jaran Desert was a great experience..."
Veronika und Herber from Austria