Highlights Along The Silk Road In China, Journey Of A Lifetime - My Family Travels

Trek the Silk Road in China 4,000 miles from the Kingdom of Xi’an west across the Gobi Desert. Pause at the oases of Dunhuang, Turpan and Kashgar. Ride carefully across the Stans to the courts of India, Persia and Europe. Congratulations! You have traced the historic Chinese Silk Road, one of travel’s most storied journeys.

It is a place where the civilizations of China, India, Greece and Islam met. The Silk Road is where six religions and countless ethnic tribes worked together, learned from each other and prospered.

We went to explore what was, in all regards, the original information superhighway.

Accomplish this journey of a lifetime with Silk Road China Tours, whose carefully crafted itinerary and expert guides brought a fascinating story to life.

Dunhuang, Heart of the Chinese Silk Road

Camel caravan of thousands at Echoing Sands National Geopark, Dunhuang, China
Traders from all over the world joined camel caravans along the Silk Road, hoping to find their fortune in China.

Begin the adventure in China, the country where most of the historic Silk Road oases remain. Travelers are often surprised by the Silk Route’s highlights. The first surprise — one that makes this a bucket list trip — is the staggering level of artistry at religious shrines. Mogao Grottoes’ images of musicians on ancient string instruments, delicate angels, the terror of raging sandstorms is remarkably well preserved.

Today’s real life images are equally surprising. Watch lambs being carried home from age-old market on mopeds. Do a tasting at Asia’s largest wine cellar, outside Jiayuguan. Whiz past miles of greenhouses sprouting from the desert on futuristic highspeed trains.

Today, as it has been for thousands of years, Dunhuang is at the heart of the Silk Road in China. This lively, touristy Western China town has a population of just 200,000. Yet, it attracts two million visitors annually between April and October. Modern Silk Road travelers range from caravans of domestic Chinese on family vacations to trekkers camping in yurts, from privately guided tours for Asian art lovers to wannabe’ adventurers like us.

If you will only get to one town on this route, Dunhuang is it.

Before Christ there was the Silk Road in China

bookstore at Dunhuang City Museum, Dunhuang China
If you think about how much is “made in China” you can imagine how many souvenirs there are in the Dunhuang Museum bookstore.

Two centuries before Christ during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.), traders coming from India, Persia or parts of Europe aimed for the oasis of Dunhuang. It was, even then, a major trading post and supply center. From here, merchants could obtain visas to continue on the well-trodden Silk Road caravan routes into China. Caravans would have to go around the notorious Taklamakan Desert, whose name means “go in and you won’t come out” in Turki.  Whether traders took the Northern or Southern routes to reach Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) to pick up silk, it was a journey of several months.

Reflecting the Silk Road spirit, for two millennia Dunhuang welcomed all travelers, whether pilgrims spreading a new faith like Buddhism, gold-diggers or alleged explorers such as Marco Polo.

Itinerary of Silk Road in China Highlights Worth Seeing Today

The many levels of Mogao Grottoes outside Dunhuang
You can see the hundreds of sculpted caves at Mogao Grottoes are approached from several stories of wooden steps.

We prepared for our journey along the Silk Route by studying Peter Hopkirk’s “Foreign Devils on the Silk Road,” a great read about the European archeologists who pillaged – or rescued depending on your viewpoint — the Silk Road’s most important art and religious works in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Hopkirk’s thorough history, however fictionalized, helpfed frame our itinerary to include at least one overnight in each of the major oases beyond Xi’an: Zhangye, Jiayuguan, Dunhuang, Urumqi, Turpan and Kashgar.

Silk Road China Tours then supplemented our requests with their own must-see stops. En route, their wonderful guides (Amy, Antony and Abdul) helped us sample all the street food and restaurants we could try; answered our endless questions; made additional stops at our whim, wherever and whenever. Although we’d made our way around eastern China independently on another visit with this first-time to China family itinerary, the imperial treatment we received from our escorted Silk Road adventure made the trip so much better.

The Charms of Dunhuang

Hotel rules seen in Dunhuang Hotel.
A grumpy Apsara figure explains rules to guests entering the first class Dunhuang Hotel.

From the dramatic intersection of the arid Gobi Desert and the verdant oasis, to the sweeping dunes of golden sand, greater Dunhuang has a stunning landscape. The city itself is like many “modernized” Chinese cities with stark highrises and broad boulevards. Shops range from pharmacies to supermarkets to knockoffs of designer clothes. Dried fruits grown with state-of-the-art irrigation systems are widely sold and delicious.

The bustling Night Market is, however, more inviting to the Western eye than most– and flourishing. Barbecue cafes selling traditional Uighur lamb skewers, naan bread and beer towers vie with souvenir vendors, antiquities dealers and salesmen of rocks sculpted from the colorful dunes nearby.

Maybe it’s best to be wowed by the real thing before you get to the Dunhuang Museum. However, this wonderful local museum in the city of Dunhuang has something found nowhere else. They have a replica Mogao Grotto where you can actually take pictures. Here’s your chance to to study the artwork and take selfies in full light. Look at how the caves were made. Feel the straw and clay elements used for the statuary. The hands-on experience helps visitors appreciate the beauty to come.

As cosmopolitan as Dunhuang is, it’s not easy for foreigners to get around. Considering the requirement that all Chinese nationals study English at school, we were surprised how few people could speak it at all.  So as well traveled as our family is, we were happy to have a guide on hand.

The Stunning Caves at Mogao Grottoes, Highlight of China’s Silk Road

montage of exterior and interior views of mogao grottoes, dunhuang
Since you’re not allowed to take photos inside the caves at Mogao Grottoes, you’ll have to see the beautiful artwork, architecture and engineering skill for yourself. Photos c. Elizabeth Woo Li.

It’s no wonder that Dunhuang’s Mogao Grottoes was an essential stop along the Silk Road. Merchants offered thanks and alms after crossing the forbidding Taklamakan Desert with their wares. Those bringing silk from the capital at Chang’an (present day Xi’an) prayed for safe passage to West Asia and Europe.

Touring the inside of hand-cut caves painted more than one thousand years ago may sound dull, but when your guide turns a flashlight on the brilliant artwork, everyone in your privileged group will gasp.

The artwork at Mogao Grottoes and other Buddhist caves is extraordinarily vivid and sophisticated, with each cave depicting pilgrims in different fashions, jewelry and trendy hairdos befitting their era. Distinct facial features are typical of their ancestors’ homeland. Some were decorated by monks for study and prayer; others funded by patrons who wanted to earn merit during this life.

Many caves, Buddhist paintings and sculptures illustrate the Sutras (teachings of the Buddha) and feature delicate apsaras (angels) and expressive Boddhisatvas (disciples.)  

More than 1,500 manuscripts found in what’s known as the Library Cave, removed by explorer Sir Aurel Stein to the British Library in London more than a century ago, have taught scholars much about the ancient world.

Experiencing the Thousand Buddhas (Mogao) Grottoes

Inside one of the caves at Mogao Grottoes
Inside one of the most recently painted caves at Mogao Grottoes, temporarily illuminated by outside sunlight.

Hundreds of caves were cut into the cliffs lining the Danghe River as it flows from Qilian Mountains glacier. These are called the Thousand Buddhas Grottoes in Chinese. Eventually, they were buried and well preserved by sand. Although many have been lost to time, flooding and vandalism, the 492 decorated shrines which remain comprise the largest collection of Buddhist art in the world. This site is incredibly fragile and the caves are strictly protected. Only 25 caves are open to the public; the selection of six publicly shown by guides changes daily.

The UNESCO World Heritage site of Mogao Grottoes is more than a highlight of the Silk Road. It’s a multiplex featuring exciting stories of war and conquest. Guides point out tales of love, devotion and spiritual faith. Court intrigue is illustrated at banquets full of music, dance and the latest silk fashions.

Studying History Through the Mogao Grottoes Silk Road Images

Begin your orientation to the Grottoes at the elegant Dunhuang Academy Museum. At our visit, the Pritzker Art Collaborative had assisted in the assembly of stunning art and priceless artifacts from the Tubo Kingdom. It was another ancient kingdom that adopted different cultures from the Silk Road.

Stop to watch the two terrific films, one a Hollywood-worthy drama recreating life on the Silk Road and in Dunhuang over the centuries. The other is an entertaining documentary about the art found in the public caves which, seen in closeup, is a great introduction to appreciating the real thing.

In June, 2023, the immersive “Ancient Sound of Dunhuang” show opened in a recreation cave near the actual site. Inspired by the imagery, scripture and carvings from the 735 Mogao caves, a so-called cave No.736 is the venue for an interactive sound, light and music experience packed with high tech tricks. The Shang Yuan Market at this same location offers Dunhuang related products. Let us know what you think.

China Silk Road is Alive at Yilin

tourists taking pictures of Rainbow Mountain's colors
Rainbow Mountain’s colors appear in the soft light of dusk.

Yilin Grottoes is another cave complex like Mogao that’s outside a small village about 90 minutes’ drive away.

Of interest here are caves decorated with more folksy, primitive clay and painted artwork than the ones funded by noble families at Mogao. Imagine this as ancient China’s heartland, not a temple complex frequented by emperors. The small town setting and pretty riverfront location make Yilin a very worthwhile excursion for art lovers.

You go for superb Buddhist and Chinese cave paintings and sculpture. Yet Dunhuang has lots of fun tourism activities to enhance those “Lawrence of Arabia” moments. Spend as much time exploring as you can. Meeting Chinese tourists in the city eager for their children to practice English is fun, too.

Silk Road Oasis, Giant Dunes, Sand Boarding at Echoing Sands

Camel caravan at Echoing Sands National Geopark, Dunhuang, China
There’s nothing like crossing the sand dunes on a camel to bring the historic Silk Road journey to life. Do it at Echoing Sands National Geopark outside Dunhuang.

Don’t leave Dunhuang without riding camels at Echoing Sands National Geopark. Picture thousands of visitors on summer days. That’s why there are 1,500 two-humped Bactrian camels licensed to transport visitors up the towering sand dunes.

From almost any angle, the remarkable vista of camel caravans evokes the historic Silk Road. It’s worth the hour wait’s because being part of that human chain – even for 45 minutes — is thrilling. It’s surprisingly comfortable and children 6 and older can ride in front of parents.

After the minimal entry fee, purchase attractions such as flying in a tethered hot air balloon, renting ATVs to go dune bashing, wearing period costumes or sand boarding. Other sections of the park are earmarked for hiking up yourself and sliding down on small saucers. Listen closely. You’ll hear the sand squeaking in harmony as several people slide down. This sound phenomenon gave Echoing Sands park its name.

Traders first came upon the miraculous natural spring that forms the quarter moon-shaped Crescent Spring Lake on their way to the Dunhuang oasis. You’ll find this small picturesque lake near the entrance to Echoing Sands. While it’s always framed by a pristine dune and a pagoda on the shore, in order to capture that Instagram-famous reflection in the water, it’s best seen lit by the sunrise, sunset or on a full moon after the crowds have departed.

Xi’an was China’s Silk Capital

Local baker uses clay oven to make naang and lamb cakes in Gaochang.
This local baker uses a clay oven to make naang and lamb cakes for all the cafes and shops in Gaochang.

Have you fallen in love with the Silk Road? Most itineraries start from the East, in the trade center of Xi’an. This fascinating city is best known for the Tomb of Emperor Qin Shihuangdi (221-206 B.C.) More than 8,000 unique terracotta warriors are buried with him.  

During the time of the Han Emperor Wudi, emissaries were sent from the capital (known then as Chang’an) to explore India and begin trading. Chang’an/Xi’an was the source of prized silk – thus the “Silk Road” — and the arrival of crops like alfalfa, pomegranates, grapes and even horses from India and Europe was immediately transformative. In fact, China’s wine industry, seemingly recent to us, dates to this era.

Several sights in Xi’an such as the Big and Little Goose Pagodas, Ming walls and Drum and Bell Tower attest to the city’s grandeur.

The infusion of cultures that arrived with Silk Road traders is most easily seen at the comprehensive Shaanxi Provincial Museum. Sophisticated galleries highlight local arts and culture over millennia. Follow the display to see how new influences from afar sparked changes in architecture and religion. Silk Route trade goods impacted what the Chinese were using in their everyday lives. Creativity exploded when more formal Greek, Persian and Roman styles were overlaid onto flowing Indian patterns and traditional Chinese scenes.

It’s time to begin your Silk Road journey.

Jiayuguan and The Great Wall Along The China Silk Road

Mongol encampment at Jiayuguan Pass, China
At our visit, there was a re-enactment of a Mongol camp in the courtyard of Jiayuguan Pass, the westernmost fort on the Great Wall.

The Silk Road’s commercial, cultural and strategic role was very important to China. That’s why successive emperors ordered the UNESCO-designated Great Wall extended westward from Xi’an to protect it. Wealth was everywhere along the route between the 2nd and 17th centuries A.D.

Jiayuguan Pass is the famous westernmost end of the Great Wall. This structure alone brings many visitors to this bustling small city of the same name, a plane flight west from Xi’an.

Pass several beacons (soldiers’ watchtowers) along the region’s highways until the remarkably intact fortress of Jiayuguan Pass. Don’t miss the chance to rub its superb Ming Dynasty-era stonework, ca. 1372. Climb the battlements and study the sophisticated defenses. A huge amount of human capital built it in the harsh Gobi Desert. Kids love this place. If you and your family are tired of climbing old stones, a helicopter stands by for flightseeing tours.

A lesser known highlight in this desert are the Wei-Jin Tombs, a collection of brick underground tombs built during the Wei and Jin dynasties. Scholars believe there are up to 1,400 tombs under these barren fields outside Jiayuguan, although only a few are open to visitors. Imagine walking down a perfectly spaced brick staircase more than 1,800 years old into a series of vaulted chambers. There’s a bit of a weird echo.

Look closely at the sculpted stucco trim and brightly painted tiles depicting flowers, animals and vivid images of daily life. The Wei Jin picture book isn’t high religious art. Explain to kids that it’s about life in ancient China and is very accessible to all ages.

Zhangye’s Dafo Is The Giant Buddha on the Silk Road in China

Zhangye is a much smaller, quieter Silk Road oasis with a laidback vibe on display at the city’s Dafo or Great Buddha Temple. This somber, carved wood temple houses a famous reclining Buddha. In the darkened temple, you can just make out that Buddha’s meditative eyes are shaded by half-lowered lids. A hushed grace fills the room.

Then you realize he’s positively huge! Buddha is lying on his side, at 113 feet in length with 24-feet-wide shoulders, and it is said that eight people can stand on his ear. Another legend says Kublai Khan, the emperor whose grandfather Genghis Khan established the vast Mongolian empire, was born in the temple.

Dafo has been a holy place since 1098 and the cache of Buddhist sutras, or scriptures, found hidden in the sculpture’s belly is said to be one of the most important finds of antiquity.

New Standing Buddha at Mati Si Grottoes
In addition to the rock cut temples full of sculpture from antiquity, worshippers are still adding Buddha figures to shrines at Mati Si Grottoes.

Not to minimize the impact of Mati Si Grottoes, where nearly 18 miles of sheer rock hillside are freckled by clusters of painted wooden shrines clinging like spider webs. They hide caves, some dating back 1,600 years, full of Tibetan Buddhist art. You’ll have to climb up to seven stories of sandstone ladders – that’s rigorous — and cross rickety wood walkways to see for yourself.

The oldest original Buddhist wall paintings and statues are on the highest level . These were influenced by the local Tibetan and Uighur tribes, here called the Yugu, can be seen. Mati Si, or Horse Hoof Monastery, was inspired by the tale of a flying horse whose hoofprint is embedded in stone.

Zhangye’s other famous attraction is Danxia Landform, popularly known as Rainbow Mountain, an Insta-worthy ecopark made up of beautiful hills composed of red, white, pink and gold sand that swirls through every vista. The crowds are unreal.

Sunset is the best time to visit; board a guided tour bus to four stations, stick to the protective boardwalks and shoot away. s

Highspeed Trains, Amazing Part Of The New China

Jiuquan highspeed railway station, China
The highspeed train station at Jiuquan, western China.

The road west from Dunhuang west is so harrowing that locals call it Massage Highway. Spend three kidney-rattling hours crossing the Taklamakan single file between freight-laden trucks. Better than camels? Not sure. We reached the highspeed train station at tiny Liuyuan Nan intact.

The recently built western China highspeed train system is known as the New Eurasian Land Bridge. It rivals the Japanese shinkansen and is so much more efficient than a camel caravan. Every train you take requires an airport-level security routine. Show passport and train tickets to police at the entry. Be checked against the countrywide facial recognition security database. Put luggage through the scanners, wait until the track is posted, line up to have your tickets scanned again…

Three hours later we were in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang UAR.

Nights in Urumqi on China’s Modern Silk Road

The Steamed Noodle Master team in Urumqi
Chef Lu Zhao Hui, in black, welcomes us to Steamed Noodle Master, his startup ramen delivery shop in Urumqi.

The province’s traditional ethnic makeup has been deliberately upended through immigration from the eastern cities. Now, 70% of the local population, once Uighur and Muslim, is Han Chinese of varying faiths. Urumqi is a colorless new style Chinese city. Sadly, private homes have been leveled to make way for hundreds of high-rises which locals may prefer. Despite its lack of charm, a snow-capped peak in the distance calls out.

The next day we make an excursion there, to Tian Shan or Heavenly Mountain, the region’s primary water source. Thousands of Chinese are there to admire Heavenly Lake, join a guided cruise, ride e-bikes along the shore (having a WeChat or Alipay app is essential for most purchases) and take selfies in traditional Kazakh costumes.

We see right away they look little like the blond, blue-eyed Kazakh tribes who graze sheep and goats here.

The Four Firsts of Turpan

Zixuan Winery claims to have the largest wine cellar in all of Asia.
Zixuan Winery claims to have the largest wine cellar in all of Asia.

We have less than 50 minutes to look out the highspeed train window and understand how Silk Road traders passed 21 grueling days trekking between the oases of Urumqi and Turpan.

Turpan is known for Four Firsts: as China’s hottest city, driest city, lowest city (507 feet below sea level) and… drumroll please… China’s sweetest city, for its massive table grapes known as Mare’s Nipples and its robust wine industry. It is all true.

Turpan exudes a weirdly authentic charm. Just stroll the heavily guarded, funky Night Market sheltering a few Uighur food stands. Or try the Chinese massage parlor in our hotel (yes, a Chinese massage is another highlight of a Silk Road tour.) Stay a few nights and enjoy it.

Touring Jiao He, Silk Route’s Ancient Yarkhoto

Tourists at the ancient kingdom of Yarkhoto
With our guide Antony at the ancient kingdom of Yarkhoto in the Yarnaz Valley of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

We toured Jiaohe City, the ancient Yarkhoto, in the 115-degree morning heat and were as startled by its sophistication and beauty as the many who had passed through this famous ancient kingdom along the Silk Road.

Built on a tall island hilltop surrounded by flowing rivers with very steep banks, Yarkhoto was the naturally fortified capital of the prosperous Jushi Kingdom from 108 B.C. to 450 A.D. Contrary to expectation, Yarkhoto’s residents expanded over the centuries by digging down into their islet, making the worn sandstone paths we walked the oldest real estate there. To explore the intact two- and three-story buildings, we had to descend a hand cut stone staircase to see an ancient town hall open out before us.

Xinjiang Boasts China’s Silk Road Sights

Karez well system is a tourist attraction in Turpan
The underground irrigation system known as the karez wells — obviously a popular tourist attraction — still brings water from Tian Shan to irrigate the fields around Turpan.

Turpan is home to another engineering marvel, covered irrigation tunnels. Karez is the name of a remarkable system of underground water tunnels dug to transport water from Heavenly Mountain to the fields.

Another natural geopark that probably shouldn’t be toured in the summer high season was the burning sand of Flaming Mountain. Like the multi-hued reds and golds of Rainbow Mountain, the rolling hills were dazzling and blinding in the harsh sunlight.

Nearby, however, were the ruins of Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves.  Another magnificent monastery cut into a cliff was pillaged by German archeologists around the turn of the 20th century. What a wakeup call to see cave after cave ravaged by Western scholars. In their zeal to fill museums, they left behind destroyed sculptures, scarred murals and faceless Buddhas .

While the culturati toured these almost forgotten caves, the boys took off on ATVs to do some dune bashing, claiming their dusty excursion another highlight of the trip.

Kashgar, Thriving Then

Our Silk Road journey ended in Kashgar, the oasis so far west in China that it is closer to Istanbul than to Beijing. The Muslim festival of Eid-al-Adha celebrated by the local Uighur people had begun.

There were unconfirmed reports in the news (since confirmed) about the harsh government efforts to silence Muslim “rebels.” No one would discuss it.

We wanted to see the legendary Kashgar Sunday animal market. For centuries, silk traders bartered weary camels for fresh ones and purchased sheep and goats to walk with them. Save for a few Halal butchers and an elderly man carrying a bleating sheep home on his moped, it was empty.

We went to the central market where the region’s famous Hami melons lay in piles; unsold, uneaten. The Id Kah Mosque in the city center is one of the oldest in China. On one of the holiest days in the calendar, no one appeared. We learned the central government’s policy of forced cultural assimilation had terrified Kashgar’s residents. Violence decimated the ranks of the religious and devastated the local culture.

Kashgar, Now Forgotten

Old Town of Kashgar on Muslim holiday
Families dressing up to celebrate a Muslim holiday in the old town of Kashgar.

Kashgar was the filming location for “Kite Runner.” That look is gone today. We strolled the old city, a maze of mud-brick houses which the Chinese government began rebuilding in 2009. They’ve restored some facades and widened ancient lanes. We were told the government added reinforced concrete, indoor plumbing and electricity for the original Uighur residents who’ve returned.

Efforts are made to maintain it as a tourist attraction. Traditional dances and music are staged a few times a day by costumed Uighur for the many Han Chinese who visit. It made us very uncomfortable.

The most evocative Silk Road sight was the original British Consulate. Many books describe it as the home of Consul-General George Macartney who warmly welcomed explorers from every Silk Road expedition between 1890-1918. The boarded-up Victorian consulate now sleeps quietly on a back lane behind the Luxemon Qinibagh Hotel. Out front, a dusty elm tree bears a plaque dated 1888.

China Silk Road Spirit is so Relevant Today

Chinese influencers posing in front of Heavenly Lake and Tian Shan.
Chinese influencers posing in front of the heavenly views of Heavenly Lake and, in the misty distance, Tian Shan.

Our August visit coincided with a global conference. The theme was “Dunhuang:  Representing an Inclusive, Cooperative and Mutually Beneficial Cultural Development in the World.” Several academic and government leaders asked, “Have we forgotten the value of intercultural communication, open commerce and sharing of ideas that were crucial to the Silk Road’s success over thousands of years?”

Basically, they summed up what our family experienced as travelers along this length of the Chinese Silk Road.

Gao Anming, VP of the China International Publishing Corp. spoke about the Silk Road’s historic role. He called it a major civilizing force in the ancient world. He referred to this mutually beneficial cooperation as the “Silk Road Spirit.”

Dr. Elizabeth Woo Li of the Sinological Development Charitable Foundation (SDCF) spoke. SDCF supports foreign scholars in learning firsthand about Chinese cultures and philosophy. She called Dunhuang an extraordinary and sacred site that thrived on harmonious coexistence.

Today’s Silk Road travelers can still feel the harmony. Indian traders, Muslim merchants, Buddhist pilgrims, Mongol raiders, Persian artists and Greek and Roman soldiers united in efforts to seek their fortunes in the easternmost regions of their world.

That Silk Road Spirit makes it a compelling journey still.

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