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The ultimate Silk Road adventure
It takes a special tour to do justice to the great Silk Road, the ancient trading route that straddled continents, cultures and empires - and this epic 35-day itinerary does just that.
The ancient Silk Road was the economic backbone of the world, where everything from coffee and cloves to camels and concubines were traded - but it was also where ideas about art, politics and religion were exchanged, creating some of the most fascinating settlements on earth.
As you travel in the expert hands of our recommended travel partner Wild Frontiers, you will cover thousands of miles from China to Iran, encountering countless cultural treasures. See the Terracotta Warriors, the ancient Uzbek cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, the fascinating lost metropolis of Merv, old caravanserais, desert oases, extraordinary mosques and much more.
To download a PDF of this tour click here
The lost city of Merv
- All accommodation
- All transport as outlined in the itinerary
- 34 breakfasts, 34 lunches, 28 dinners
- All entrance fees, sightseeing, excursions and activities as per the full itinerary
- Full services of a Wild Frontiers tour leader, local guides and driver
- Small group size, with a maximum of 18
To download a PDF of this tour click here
Day1Tour starts in BeijingBeijing, China
Our epic trip starts late morning today in the Chinese capital. After an introductory briefing and some time to get settled, we plan to have a gentle introduction to some of the many cultural wonders that the Land of the Dragon holds, starting with the 15th-century UNESCO World Heritage Temple of Heaven. This evening we'll venture out for our first group dinner.
Day2Discover BeijingBeijing, China
This morning we'll head for Tiananmen Square, one of the world's largest public spaces and home to the Mao Zedong Mausoleum. From here we'll enter the Forbidden City, which for nearly seven centuries was the residence of Ming and Qing Dynasty emperors.
By way of contrast, this afternoon we'll take a cycle rickshaw tour to explore some of Beijing's remaining hutongs, the narrow back lanes lined with authentic courtyard houses where we can glimpse what remains of traditional domestic life.
Day3The Great WallMutianyu - Great Wall of China, China
Today we make for the imposing Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, 90km north of Beijing and away from the crowds at the Badaling section of the wall. The Great Wall, begun in the 3rd century, is truly one of the wonders of the world and we'll have plenty of time here to marvel at this iconic sight and to walk along its impressive ramparts.
After our visit we'll return to Beijing to take an evening flight to Xi'an, the true start of the Silk Road.
Day4Explore Xi'anXian, China
In this ancient city we'll have the whole morning to visit the Big Wild Goose Pagoda as well as the old town, where we will be able to see the massive city walls which at 14km in length enclose the historic centre.
We'll wander through the narrow streets of the Muslim Quarter and visit the Great Mosque, one of the oldest, largest and best-preserved Islamic mosques in China. The afternoon is free to explore this wonderful city at leisure.
Day5The Terracotta WarriorsXian, China
A highlight of any visit to Xi'an is a visit to see the Terracotta Warriors - one of the greatest archaeological finds of the last century. Amazingly nothing was known of the existence of the life-size soldiers of the Terracotta Army until a peasant digging a well in 1974 stumbled upon them.
The underground battle formations of life-sized pottery warriors, archers, horses and chariots have been left in situ in three large excavated pits and we'll visit them all. Later in the day we'll return to Xi'an.
Day6Xi'an to JiayuguanJiayuguan, China
A morning flight takes us to Jiayuguan, a strategically sited town in Gansu province that once guarded the western extremity of the Great Wall. Here we'll visit the Overhanging Wall, located just a short distance to the northwest of the city's famous fort. Located at the foot of the Black Mountains, this section of wall forms part of the defensive ramparts that once protected China's western border.
A mix of partially restored fragments and original wall, today it provides an excellent venue for a walk, offering some stunning views out across the barren emptiness of the surrounding countryside. Jiayuguan Fort is one of the quintessential images of western China and was built in 1372 to guard the pass between the snow-capped Qilian Shan and Hei Shan peaks.
This afternoon we'll also visit this splendid construction, considered the last outpost of the Chinese Empire since the days of the Han Dynasty, when the Great Wall reached as far as the Yumen Pass, about 90km northwest of Dunhuang.
Day7Jiayuguan to DunhuangDunhuang Apt, China
This morning we'll visit the Wei-Jin tombs that date back to 220-420 AD. Inside the tombs we can see some of the original wall paintings depicting various social activities such as fishing, farming, hunting and drinking, including a very controversial depiction of ancient Chinese using knives and forks.
We'll then continue to Dunhuang where we'll head out to a wonderfully iconic spot - the singing sand dunes of Crescent Moon Lake. Here we can climb to the top of the enormous sand dunes for amazing views of the crystal clear spring hidden amongst the sands and enjoy the stunning views of the sunset in the desert.
Day8Dunhuang to TurpanTurpan, China
Dunhuang was once a very important staging point, the last stop for the camel caravans before the gruelling journey through the desert. It was from here that the Silk Road divided into its northern and southern routes.
Dunhuang's fame, however, is largely due to the Mogao Grottoes, which are one of the world's richest treasure troves of Buddhist manuscripts, wall paintings and statues known as the Thousand Buddha Caves.
The honeycomb of caves runs along the cliff face and contains some 2,415 coloured clay sculptures and more than 45,000 square metres of mural paintings. The colours have remained lively due to the extremely dry climate and about 25-40 caves are open to the public at any one time.
Later we'll transfer to nearby Liuyuan for our bullet train journey all the way out of Gansu Province into Xinjiang, once known as Chinese Turkestan.
Day9Turpan to UrumqiUrumqi, China
Turpan is one of the lowest places on earth, where rain rarely falls and summers can be scorching hot. It was once an important staging post on the Silk Road and its large oasis produces the best grapes in China.
During our time here we'll visit the fascinating ghost city of Jiaohe, the ancient capital of the Jushi people, a city founded in the 2nd century BC but abandoned in 14th century AD following its destruction by the Mongols. It stands on an isolated plateau and has a haunting silhouette and atmosphere.
We'll also see the 18th century Emin Minaret built in Afghani style. This afternoon a 3-hour drive takes us on to Urumqi, Xinjiang's bustling capital, where we'll spend the night.
Day10Urumqi to KashgarKashgar, China
We will have time this morning to explore some of the sights of Urumqi, particularly the Xinjiang Autonomous Region Museum displaying a variety of art, crafts and relics from twelve minorities, before taking a flight over the imposing Taklamakan Desert to Kashgar.
This Uighur town was one of the most strategically important destinations on the Silk Road, lying as it does at the junction of major routes over the mountains towards India, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Depending on our arrival time today, there may be time this afternoon for an orientation tour around the old city.
There will be ample time for personal exploration in this Silk Road city which sits today, as it has done for centuries, at a major crossroads of trade routes. We will see the (controversial) statue of Chairman Mao in the city centre as well as visiting the green-tiled Aba Khoja tomb in the quiet suburbs. After a traditional Uighur lunch we will have a break before heading into the old town. We will end the day by having tea on the second floor balcony of one of the old chaikhanas, watching the street market below us. The evening will be free, allowing you to choose where to dine at your own expense.
Day12Kashgar – TashkentKashgar, China
Today we will have the chance to experience the famous Yakshambe Bazaar - the Sunday Market - where we'll be able to meet Uighur, Kyrgyz and Kazakh traders at the famous animal market. Here we will spend time watching the locals trade everything from woodwork and ironware to sheep, donkeys, cattle, horses and camels before progressing onto the covered bazaar, believed to be the biggest in Central Asia. After a free afternoon we'll take an evening flight via Urumqi to Central Asia's largest city, Tashkent.
We'll have the whole day to explore some of Uzbekistan's capital, taking in the Khast Imam Complex which houses a 7th century Koran, as well as Chorsu Bazaar and Independence Square.
Day14Tashkent - SamarkandSamarkand, Uzbekistan
A fast train this morning takes us to Samarkand, one of the finest cities of the Silk Road and undoubtedly a tour highlight. Once we have checked in to our hotel we will take our first look at this amazing city, with a visit to the majestic Gur-Amir Mausoleum and of course the iconic Registan.
We'll enjoy a full day wandering through this incredible city taking in such sights as the Bibi Khanym mosque, the Shakhi Zinda 'street of the dead' and we'll have the chance to return to the Registan for sunset.
Day16Samarkand - BukharaBukhara, Uzbekistan
After breakfast we'll drive along the "Royal Road" to Bukhara. We aim to arrive early afternoon and check in to our guesthouse close to the famous Labi Hauz plaza and pool. This afternoon there will be free time to explore the streets and alleyways of this atmospheric ancient town before meeting up for dinner.
This morning we visit the famous Arc - or town citadel - in front of which the British officers Connelly and Stoddard lost their heads in what was one of the most infamous events of the Great Game. We'll also visit the Kolan Minaret - or Tower of Death, from which Amir Nasirulla Khan threw his enemies - as well as the rest of the beautiful old town. The rest of the day is free to explore Bukhara at your leisure, with opportunities to wander through the bazaar and maybe do a little souvenir shopping, before having a free evening to explore this delightful town at your own pace.
Day18Bukhara – MaryMary, Turkmenistan
An early start today takes us to the Uzbek border where we then enter the rarely visited country of Turkmenistan. After customs formalities followed by the thrill of crossing the great Oxus - Amudarya River - we will have lunch in Turkmenabat before continuing on to Mary, our base for the next two nights.
After breakfast this morning, we will drive out to the UNECSO listed site of Merv. Lying along the southern edge of the Karakum Desert, on the banks of the Murgab River, Merv is the site of one of the greatest cities to ever grace the trading routes of Central Asia. The ancient city of Merv lies spread across 100 square kilometres of desert, today a ghostly echo of its former glory, but once one of the greatest cities in the world. Its importance as a UNESCO World Heritage site reflects its once powerful status and at its peak the city was a cultural beacon for Christians and Zoroastrians, Buddhists and Muslims. The city rose to prominence under the Sassanians and the Seljuk Turks, and during the 11th and 12th centuries it rivalled even Baghdad in importance, being known as Marv-i-shah-jahan (Merv, Queen of the World). Its end though was swift and bloody, and came by way of an unstoppable storm from the east, when in 1221, the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan descended onto the desert plains, sweeping everything in their path. The city however refused to pay tribute and in an act of savagery that was extreme even by Mongol standards, the entire city of nearly one million people was put to the sword. This afternoon we'll pay a visit to the excellent Mary Museum which exhibits many of the artefacts which have been excavated from Merv.
Day20Mary – AshgabatAshgabat, Turkmenistan
After breakfast we'll fly to Ashgabat, a wonderfully bizarre city of fountains and lavish white marble buildings, visiting the Carpet Museum, which exhibits the world's largest carpet, as well as visiting some other city sights.
Today we will further explore Ashgabat and its surrounds, travelling out to Nissa, the 3rd Century BC capital of the Parthians, and visit the famous site of Geo Tepe where the Turkmens made their last stand against the Russians. We'll also visit a nearby stud farm to see some of the beautiful pure-bred Akhel Teke, or 'heavenly' horses. Finally ending a busy day with a visit to the largest mosque in Central Asia and the mausoleum of their first President "Turkmenbashy". Dinner will be at a stunning rooftop restaurant back in the city.
Day22Ashgabat – MashhadMashad, Iran
This morning we will leave Turkmenistan behind us as we drive to the Iranian border and go through immigration formalities. En route to Mashhad we will visit the Robat-e-Sharaf, one of the oldest and most ornate caravanserais in the region. Considered by many to be a true masterpiece of Seljuk design, the building dates from around 1120AD, when merchant caravans laden with riches from the east regularly plied these busy trade routes. From here we continue on to the holy city of Mashhad (the Place of Martyrdom). It was here that the Imam Reza, a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed and the 8th Shi'i Imam, was killed on the orders of the caliph in 817AD. Heir to the Abbasid caliphate, his shrine went on to become a major pilgrimage site in the 16th century and today remains one of the Shi'i faith's most sacred cities.
Day23Mashhad - TehranTehran, Iran
After breakfast this morning we pay a visit to the impressive Imam Reza shrine, whose golden domes and towering minarets present one of the most remarkable monuments anywhere in the Muslim world. Set within the confines of a walled enclosure in the heart of the city, the site is filled with a wonderful array of mosques, courtyards and madrassahs and, whilst the shrine itself is off-limits to non-Muslims, the complex presents a fascinating place to explore. Following our visit we then take a short flight to the Iranian capital of Tehran.
Tehran is one of the largest cities in Western Asia and currently home to about one-fifth of the country's population. The Iranian capital since 1795, it is a rich blend of cultural traditions that span the country's diverse heritage. Today we will take in some of the city's most interesting sights including the sumptuous Golestan Palace, the oldest of Tehran's historic monuments. A World Heritage Site, this stunning complex of palaces and manicured gardens encompasses more than two centuries of Qajar rule. Time-permitting we may also pay a visit to the nearby bazaar.
Day25Tehran - AbyanehAbyaneh ,
This morning we drive south into Iran's mountainous and desert interior. Continuing on to Abyaneh to spend the night, this is considered to be one of the most fascinating villages in the country and has some magnificent views of the surrounding red mountains. Abyaneh is one of the last surviving Zoroastrian villages located in a valley in the Karkas Mountains. The ancient village is a muddle of narrow and sloped lanes, and crumbling mud-brick houses with lattice windows and fragile wooden balconies that cling to the slope.
Day26Abyaneh – YazdYazd, Iran
Travelling via the small town of Na'in, where we can visit one of the oldest mosques in Iran, we plan to visit nearby Mohamediyh where the locals still employ traditional methods to weave using camel hair. After lunch we'll continue our drive through the desert, aiming to arrive in Yazd in time to watch an eerie sunset from the Towers of Silence, the unique Zoroastrian burial towers.
Our first port of call is the Bagh-e-Doulat Abad Gardens, which were once a residence of the former ruler Karim Khan Zand. They consist of small pavilions set in peaceful gardens and the tallest Badgir (wind tower) in town. Then we'll move on to visit the magnificent Jameh (Friday) Mosque and the informative Water Museum. We then have time to wander the winding old city streets and bazaar. In the evening we will try and visit a Zurkhaneh (House of Strength), which mixes Sufism, nationalism, music and sport into this ancient spectacular.
Day28Yazd - Pasargadae - ShirazShiraz, Iran
Today we head south-west, stopping at Pasargadae with its six-tiered tomb of Cyrus the Great, founder of the great Persian Empire. Later we'll continue to Shiraz, the old capital whose name today is synonymous with poetry and learning, and which is one of the country's most relaxed cities.
A morning walking tour includes a visit to the imposing Arg-e Karim Khan fortress, with its 14-metre high circular towers which dominate the city centre. There will also be time to explore the bazaar and some of Shiraz's famous gardens and teahouses before soaking up the atmosphere at the tomb of the great Persian poet Hafez. Here we plan to meet with a local expert who will tell us why this C14th poet is so loved by Iranians today.
Today, in the company of an expert local guide, we have the whole day to enjoy what must surely be a highlight of Iran if not of the entire Middle East: Darius the Great's fabulous Persepolis. We will also visit the magnificent Achaemenid tombs at Nagsh e Rostam, cut high in cliffs above the ground, facing respectfully towards Persepolis. After ample time exploring the site we will make our way back to Shiraz where there'll be time to discover this beautiful city at your leisure.
Day31Shiraz - IsfahanIsfahan, Iran
We depart for the old Persian capital of Isfahan today. Once known as "half the world" this is a truly fascinating city and it will be our base for the next three nights. Upon arrival we will check into our hotel, relax and take a leisurely walk to orientate ourselves with this most memorable of cities.
Our sightseeing today will include visits to the Chehel Sotun Palace and Museum, and the magnificent Nasqh Jahan Square. Here we will explore some of the world's most beautiful mosques, the Imam (Shah) Mosque and the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. We will also visit the six-storey Ali Qapu Palace, built in the 16th century to serve as a gateway to the royal palaces that are situated in the parklands beyond.
Day33The Jameh MosqueIsfahan, Iran
We have another day to explore this fascinating city, including visits to the Jameh Mosque. There'll be plenty of time to explore and shop in the famous bazaar, or just to chill out and people watch. We also plan to see a demonstration of how Iran's renowned miniatures are made. This evening for a change of scenery we plan to head to Julfa, the Armenian Quarter of Isfahan. This is a great place to interact with locals as well as enabling us to see the illuminated bridges over the Zayandeh River at night.
Day34Isfahan – Kashan - TehranTehran, Iran
We depart Isfahan this morning, stopping in Kashan for lunch and time to visit the Royal Gardens of Fin. We will also have a chance to visit one of the restored merchant houses for which Kashan is famed, before continuing back to Tehran. Our final night will be spent at an airport hotel, conveniently located for our flights tomorrow.
Day35Tour ends in TehranTehran, Iran
The tour ends this morning.