It was the main route of trade and cultural interaction in China and beyond for over 1,500 years, and you can still follow it today to unlock many of China’s best-kept secrets
Travelling along the Silk Road today is a little different to what it once was. Gone are the days of plodding up and over sand dunes with a camel by your side lugging precious goods. When covering the ancient route now, tourists have two modes of transportation to choose from: plane or car. While you’ll be saving time travelling by air, you’ll be sacrificing the tourist stops between each city that you can only access on four wheels. Plus, the road trip through the Gobi Desert is epic. So why not turn up the volume, wind down the windows and take in the surroundings?
The most common route to take is from east to west, with the eastern departure point being Xi’an, in Shaanxi province. An ancient imperial capital, Xi’an is a hub of diverse ethnic identities and religious beliefs. The list of sites to tick off the “must-see” list is a long one, and we’ve covered them all in detail on pages 20-23, but to quickly summarise, you’re looking to cover the City Wall, Wild Goose Pagoda, Bell and Drum Towers and, last but not least, the Museum of Terracotta Warriors and Horses. We suggest spending two to three days in Xi’an before jumping behind the wheel and heading to the city of Tianshui.
Your first stop of many in Gansu province, Shaanxi’s western neighbour, is Tianshui. The city is believed to have been the hometown of Fuxi, one of ancient China’s three wise kings, making a visit to Fuxi Temple essential. Constructed in 1490, during the Ming dynasty, the temple was built to please Fuxi in hopes that the prayers of the locals for happiness and safety would be granted. The interiors are filled with temples, towers and intricate archways. At the entrance is a cypress tree that is over 1,000 years old.
Some 45km from Tianshui City, Maiji Mountain rises an abrupt 142 metres from the surrounding landscape. It’s here you’ll reach your next stop, Maijishan Grottoes. The people named the mountain Maiji because it resembles a stack of wheat straw. On the mountain’s sheer south-western cliff-side, people of the past laboured for centuries carving niches and caves. Inside the 194 caves are clay Buddhist statues whose heights vary from 20cm to 15 metres, and which date back to AD 348- 417. Considering how old the sculptures are, it’s notable that it wasn’t until 1952 that a team of Chinese archaeologists from Beijing properly explored the site.
Continuing west, the landscape becomes desolate. Driving through kilometres of seemingly endless barren desert, you’ll eventually be rewarded with the mesmerising landforms at Zhangye. The Zhangye Danxia National Geological Park is famed for its colourful 100-metretall rock formations. Depending on the hour of the day, the rocks can radiate any colour from orange to yellow and purple. They almost look to have been painted. So how did the rocks become so colourful? They’re the result of deposits of sandstone and other minerals that occurred over 24 million years ago. Wind, rain and time have sculpted the extraordinary shapes – including towers, pillars and ravines – with varying colours, patterns and sizes.
Travelling further into the Gansu province to Jiayuguan, you’ll come to meet one of China’s most iconic tourist attractions: the Great Wall. Unlike the stone Great Wall you’ve come to know from photos, however, this section of the Wall – known as the Overhanging Great Wall – is made primarily of clay, and is believed to have been first constructed in 1539. It’s an energetic hike up to excellent views of the desert and snow-capped peaks in the distance. What also sets this section apart from other parts of the Great Wall is that it ends in Jiayuguan Fort, a towering mud fortress that time hasn’t tarnished. The fort boasts a few touristy activities like archery and camel rides, but the real reason to come is for the sweeping views from its ramparts.
When you’ve exhausted your legs climbing the Great Wall, it’s best to give your pins some well-deserved rest and head to Mogao Caves in Dunhuang. The only part of your body you’ll be straining here is your neck. Of the 492 caves, only 20 “open” caves are rotated regularly on tours (you’ll cover around 10), always including the two big Buddhas, 24.5 metres and 26 metres tall. The Mogao Caves are considered one of the most important collections of Buddhist art in the world. At its peak, the site housed 18 monasteries, more than 1,400 monks and nuns, and countless artists, translators and calligraphers.