Exploring the ancient Chinese Silk Road

By Yvonne Michie Horn
This article appears on page 6 of the February 2020 issue.
Binglingsi Shiku, aka Thousand Buddha Caves, with sandstone peaks rising above the Liujiaxia Reservoir.

Shortly before my scheduled departure on ElderTreks’ September 2019 “Chinese Silk Road — The Great Silk Road Adventure” tour, a detailed itinerary arrived. A read-through took my breath away, as I mentally traveled along the Chinese portion of the ancient trade route that connected the East with the West.

Visits to mosques; pagodas; museums; lost cities unearthed from centuries of sand; ancient tombs; statuary-populated caves, and geological wonders ranging from desert dunes stretching past the horizon to mountains with peaks hitting the sky at nearly 25,000 feet — how could we fit it all in?

An overview

Appropriately, we would begin our 23-day tour in Xi’an, China’s imperial capital for more than 1,000 years and the starting point of the ancient Silk Road.

From there, the itinerary called out for nimble, experienced travelers willing to pack lightly and be on the move, with nightly stays in hub Silk Road cities that in the days of camel caravans would have taken weeks, perhaps months, to travel between.

Once all the tour participants had arrived in Xi’an, we gathered for a welcome dinner. The nine of us sat around the table, four from the United States — equally divided between the east and west coasts — and the remaining five from Toronto, where ElderTreks (800/741-7956, eldertreks.com), dedicated to small-group exotic adventures for travelers aged 50-plus, headquarters its company.

We met Nitin Dhami, the tour guide who would be with us throughout our adventure. Nitin, who calls home a village in India’s Himalayas, has served in 20 different countries as an ElderTreks guide. At trip’s end, we, along with Nitin, learned that Wanderlust, a premier UK travel magazine, had named Nitin as one of 2019’s three best tour guides in the world.

Pilgrims spinning prayer wheels at Labrang Monastery.

In addition to Nitin, at key spots along the way we’d pick up local guides, four in all, to travel with us as we made our way through three Silk Road provinces: Shaanxi, Gansu and Xinjiang.

Our Xi’an hotel, Grand Dynasty Culture Hotel, was ideally located inside the Old City’s remarkably preserved medieval walls. We walked a section atop its moat-protected perimeter for bird’s-eye views of the city below.

Descending, we explored the Old City’s narrow streets, especially delighting in the Muslim quarter’s colorful sights and delectable food aromas reminiscent of those that have been present in Xi’an from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) on.

Ah, the food throughout the trip! For most lunches and dinners, we gathered in restaurants around a circular table centered with a glass lazy Susan. On our arrival, Nitin would disappear to confer with a person in charge. With that, dish after dish would arrive, 10 or 11, freshly prepared and reflecting local ingredients. Delicious!

Breakfasts were extravagant hotel buffets, often with no Western choices, offering an opportunity to observe what the Chinese guests were assembling and follow suit.

Memorable visits

High on every traveler’s list of China “musts” is Bingmayong, the Terracotta Warriors, located a short drive out of Xi’an.

Nothing prepares for the magnitude of the army Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a united China, ordered built in 246 BC to ensure the carrying forth of his autocratic rule into the afterlife. We viewed ranks of more than 8,000 life-size warriors exhibiting astonishing individuality, along with 130 chariots and 600 horses. Archaeologists, with two of them at work on the day of our visit, continue to piece together more.

Back in the city, the Shaanxi History Museum presents Chinese history through some 370,000 items on exhibit. A section devoted to the Silk Road featured Qin Shi Huang’s afterworld chariot, crafted in bronze, brought from the Bingmayong site for display. In a nearby case, I was charmed to see realistic waterfowl, also in bronze, indicating that the emperor was intent on taking more than warriors with him into a life beyond.

Leaving chariots and horses to centuries long gone, our travel was by commodious coach, ensuring each a wide-window view; by train, both high-speed and sleeper (the sleeper not for an overnight but for long-trip comfort), and one short hop by air.

The modern landscape

It was both a fascinating and disturbing time to visit China. While we would not be anywhere near Hong Kong, the former British colony was exploding with violent protestations over Beijing’s tightening grip.

Also hitting the news were troubling goings-on in the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, through which we would be traveling for more than half our trip. Of concern were reports of the government’s crackdown on the indigenous ethnic Uighur population.

A scenic stop along the Karakoram Highway, the highest paved international border crossing in the world.

Added to that was China’s fast-moving Belt and Road Initiative. Announced in 2013 by President Xi Jinping and dubbed the 21st-century Silk Road, this new network of trade routes bridging Asia and Europe is making its way through harsh desert, ancient cities and spectacular mountains on virtually the same route that flourished through the first millennium AD, reached its prime in the Tang Dynasty and was revived in the 13th century under the Mongols — our ElderTreks route.

We traveled 4-lane highways, often with no other vehicle in sight, with yet another highway underway nearby. We passed stands of sterile, 34-story apartment blocks, some on the city outskirts and others in the middle of nowhere, all unoccupied.

“Where are the people?” we asked. “Who will be living here?” “What will they be doing?” Questions unanswered by our local guides, one referring to them as “ghost cities.”

Also seen from our coach windows were miles of desert turned into lush agricultural land, stands of wind turbines and large solar-panel “farms.”

My understanding came to be, simplistically put, that the initiative involves a willingness to put domestic “Silk Road” infrastructure projects in place while forging ahead on a massive trillion-dollar globalization scheme designed to extend land and maritime trade routes throughout much of the world.

This infrastructure also included impressive tourism sites, such as the Singing Sand Dunes. The first view of the dunes was from the rooftop restaurant of the Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel (one of our trip’s most luxurious stays). In the early-morning light, I took the peaks of sand against the brightening sky to be an exquisite backdrop painting!

The reality of this exceptional stretch of natural beauty is that it had been turned into a Disneyland-like experience. Strings of camels stood by to take visitors on “caravans” through the sand. Climbers followed a trail to a high viewpoint, with an opportunity for a fast return on a bamboo toboggan. One could paraglide over the peaks, as some members of our group did, or opt for a helicopter ride.

Boardwalks tied areas together — gardened oases, a spring-fed lake, an enormous pavilion with themed rooms to explore…. Loudspeakers along the way, disguised as rocks, enhanced the visitor experience with piped-in music.


Tightening security accompanied us as we traveled northwest into the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. At frequent highway checkpoints, we turned over our passports (and occasionally ourselves) for the official “OK” to continue on.

Security agents at train stations were so demanding of identity checks and baggage scrutiny that even with arrival several hours before departure, we found ourselves running to catch the train. Passports, along with security gates and handbag scanning, were required for entry to museums and attractions. Hotels, too, had security gates at their entrances, and as we traveled deeper into Xinjiang, so did restaurants.

In Kashgar, I became aware of surveillance cameras as we joined residents lined up at security gates to pass through one area of the city into another.

Though disturbing in its assault on personal privacy and freedom, this scrutiny was yet another memorable aspect of our Silk Road adventure, an adventure already astoundingly rich in its diversity.

Trip highlights

To illustrate that diversity, following is a cherry-picked list of eight highlights from our jam-packed Silk Road itinerary.

We crossed Liujiaxia Reservoir on the Yellow River by speedboat, passing the spectacular, eroded sandstone peaks that hem in Binglingsi Shiku (Thousand Buddha Caves), close to 200 small caves that contain sculptures dating from 317. Placement of these statues by wealthy Silk Road patrons passing through what was then a major trading and religious center continued for over 1,000 years. Thanks to having no road access and with low water levels making arrival by boat impossible a good part of the year, the caves have remained remarkably intact.

Yvonne Horn meets her Bactrian camel for an overnight trek into the Taklamakan Desert.

On the outskirts of Xiahe in Gansu province, we crossed over the Sangchu River for a morning visit to the 1709-established Labrang Monastery, the most important Tibetan monastery outside that Autonomous Region. At its peak, Labrang held 4,000 crimson-robed monks; today, there are less than half that number.

We joined early-morning pilgrims dressed in their bulky Tibetan-style best who’d gathered to eat bowls of creamy yak yogurt before embarking on a walk through the longest corridor of prayer wheels in the world. Persimmon red and gold calligraphy spun dizzily in a blur of symbols as we joined the kora (circumambulation) parade amongst hexagonal wheels in motion and whispered mantras.

In a vast expanse of desert outside the city of Jiayuguan, archaeological excavations identified some 1,400 3rd- to 5th-century tombs of the Wei and Jin dynasties. And one, number 6, is open to the public.

We entered via a brick archway to descend into a series of small rooms connected by corridors paved with flower-patterned tiles. Exquisite small paintings covered the walls, documenting the noble’s carefree life and that of the hardworking servants. Dancing, banquets, cooking, farming, picking mulberries… and on it went, an art-gallery peek into the ancient feudal era’s everyday world.

More noteworthy sites

Were it not for a system of karez (“wells” in Uighur), the area around Turpan, a parched depression receiving less than an inch of rainfall yearly, would not be one of China’s most important and lush agricultural areas.

Channels, each some 15 miles long, and wells, 100 feet deep, stretching over 3,000 miles were built 2,000 years ago to carry snowmelt from the nearby mountains. At the Turpan Karez Museum, pictures and models detailed this engineering feat. Most memorable was descending via an underground tunnel to stroll through a glass walkway over an actual portion of the system.

West of the Xinjiang city of Turpan, Jiaohe (meaning “where two rivers meet”) lays claim to being the world’s largest, oldest and best-preserved earthen city.

Built on a plateau above a confluence of rivers, Jiaohe flourished under the Tang Dynasty, with a population of more than 7,000, but, following a series of invasions, in the early 14th century it was left to be covered by sand. In the 1950s, archaeologists found it amazingly intact.

We walked the city’s one-mile length, south gate to north, on boardwalks following ancient avenues to the sun-baked-soil ruins of temples, pagodas, administrative buildings, dwellings, a Buddhist complex and stupas surrounded by tombs.

A large buddha overlooks the river at Binglingsi Shiku.

As the camel assigned to me for our Taklamakan Desert trek lurched to its feet with me seated between its two humps, the meaning of Takla Makan jumped to mind: “Go in and you will never come out.” Silk Road caravans considered Taklamakan’s 620-mile-long, 250-mile-wide expanse to be a perilous obstacle. Even today, one should not take lightly its ever-shifting sands.

At our campsite, a hot meal was readied, little red tents were outfitted with mattresses, and sleeping bags were set up. Night brought an impossibly starry sky followed by a near-full moon soaring above the endless dunes.

In the morning light, Nitin called for a circle gathering of “laughing yoga.” With whooping laughs and arms raised high, we greeted Taklamakan’s sun.

At Kashgar’s Sunday Livestock Market, dust hung thick in the air from stamping hoofs — a small price to pay for the heaping doses of local color we encountered there.

Every Sunday, farmers and herders trek to Kashgar from nearby villages to sell, buy or trade their sheep, yaks, horses, cows, donkeys and camels. Animals are inspected. Then, following boisterous haggling, stacks of money and animals are exchanged. So it has been in Kashgar for over 2,000 years.

The Karakoram Highway is the world’s highest paved international road and one of the most beautiful to travel. Following the Ghez River, we passed through the weird formations of the Kum Tagh (Sand Mountains); stopped off at Lake Karakul, renowned for its clarity and reflections of the surrounding snowcapped peaks; passed Kyrgyz nomadic herders tending their yaks, and saw golden meadows where caravanserais once offered respite to Silk Road caravans — a stunning, day-long road trip from Kashgar to the Khunjerab Pass.

The details

Two “Great Silk Road Adventure” tours are offered for 2020, with guaranteed departures on May 3 and Sept. 2. The 23-land-day trip is priced at $6,495 per person, double, including three meals a day, all attraction entry fees, gratuities for local tour guides and coach drivers, train travel and one domestic flight from Kashgar to Ürümqi at the trip’s end before the group’s international flights home. A gratuity to the ElderTreks tour leader is at each participant’s discretion.

Yvonne Michie Horn was a guest of ElderTreks for the land portion of this trip.