The Silk Road is a legendary but very real 4,000-mile-plus-long trade route that connected Europe with China in a quest to not only buy silk but also shift plenty of other merchandise, such as spices and natural resources, along the way. Made up of many separate roads, including water routes across the Mediterranean from Venice or the Frankincense route from Oman, it used to take months and years to travel along the route. As a result, many cities and centers of learning sprang up along the way to help further the exchange, not only of goods but also knowledge.
I have been fascinated with the Silk Road ever since I read William Dalrymple’s In Xanadu: A Quest decades ago. But to travel along the many routes is not only extremely time-consuming but also a logistical nightmare due to conflicts, borders, difficulties obtaining visas, and a lack of connecting flights. So, instead, I bought a huge map and started to take shorter travels to some of the cities along the way, connecting the dots as I go.
I still have many places to see, some already booked, such as Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva in Uzbekistan later this year. Others are still in the planning stages, such as Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, Xi’an in China, and the constant dream about visiting Iran one day. So, watch out for part II of this story.
In the meantime, here are some fabulous cities I have discovered so far — all offering a Silk Road connection and many legendary sights to see.
1. Istanbul, Turkiye
Istanbul, or Constantinople as it was then, was the official endpoint of the Silk Road, but I started my quest from Europe, so to me, Istanbul is the gateway to Asia and the Silk Road. Old Constantinople was not only the connection to the Mediterranean and Black Sea but it was a rich center of learning and a bustling trade hub. To get a feeling for what it must have been like in the Silk Road days, head straight to the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar, which opened in the mid-1400s. This was admittedly toward the end of the heyday of the ancient Silk Road, but it still would have welcomed traders from far away.
Pro Tip: The Silk Road then moved inland through the modern-day capital of Ankara toward the Caspian Sea, with many exciting stops along the way. To really get a feeling for the importance of the Silk Road in Turkiye, book a 10-day tour to find out more and stop in caravanserais along the way. (Caravanserais were roadside inns along the Silk Road for passing traders and travelers.)
2. Yerevan, Armenia
The capital of Armenia, Yerevan is not only one of the oldest inhabited cities on Earth but also a city that offers both ancient history and modern art, culture, and tradition as well as a palatable joie de vivre with cafés and terraces on every street. The best place to start your visit is at the Cascade Complex, a set of stairs leading from the sculpture park below, up 572 steps to a view across the city. With the mountains of Great Ararat and Little Ararat on the horizon, the Ararat Valley is also a major route through the region. Note that within the Cafesjian Arts Centre on the left of the steps is a series of escalators that save your legs on the way up. (I just wish I had found them before I climbed to the top!) The city itself is great to relax in, walk and explore, but it is also a perfect base for day trips to the many monasteries and Silk Road caravanserais located within the countryside. Armenia is a relatively small country, very mountainous, with lakes and valleys, and so much history, all quite easily visited during organized and guided tours.
Pro Tip: You can get a driver to take you from Yerevan all the way to Tbilisi, the next stop below, taking in some sights along the way. It is around a 5-hour drive from capital to capital but very scenic.
3. Tbilisi, Georgia
Tbilisi may not be one of the better-known stops along the main route, but it was an often-used detour to rest weary travel bones in the city’s famous hot springs. The ancient baths along the springs have not changed at all since the Silk Road days. And to get a feeling for where travel-worn merchants would have stayed, head straight to the Tbilisi History Museum. It’s set in an old caravanserai where there were rooms for travelers, spaces and food for camels, and a market spot to trade at while you’re there. Today, the open space not only holds the history and a museum but also, down in the basement, a wine museum complete with a wine bar. And that might well have been another reason to stop off in Tbilisi; the Georgian wine is rather good.
Pro Tip: To keep in with the theme, don’t miss the State Silk Museum to learn more about the material that bore the trade route.
4. Baku, Azerbaijan
On the coast of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku offers a superbly preserved look at Silk Road sights as they were when traders stopped to trade spices and cashmere on the way from India. The first stop should be the walled city of Icherisheher, with the Maiden Tower, its mosque, bazaar, and the wonderful Palace of the Shirvanshahs. There are also still many caravanserais dotted throughout the modern city, such as the lovely space around the Zoroastrian Fire Temple.
Pro Tip: To see more of the Land of Fire, where you find burning hills, petroglyphs, and mud volcanoes (all of which must have fascinated the Silk Road travelers even in the old days), book a private tour to Sheki.
5. Almaty, Kazakhstan
The first thing that struck me when arriving in Almaty was the snow-capped mountains that loomed on the horizon. They must have offered a mighty challenge to ancient merchants. Traveling through these mountain ranges hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago on camel or horseback must have been daunting. But they came and stayed a while in the green valleys around Almaty, probably gorging themselves on the plentiful apples that originate here. Here, there were craftsmen who mended armor and riding gear, and apparently, the jewelry trade was very popular. Something nice to bring back home after years on the road, I guess.
Pro Tip: Kazakhstan is a vast country and Almaty only offers a tiny glimpse. So, why not search out more Silk Road sights on a 4-day tour?
6. Fatehpur Sikri, India
Fatehpur Sikri — the City of Victory in the State of Uttar Pradesh’s Agra District in northern India — is often simply visited because it is close (ish) to the Taj Mahal. When I first visited this abandoned city years ago, I had no idea that it had a Silk Road connection. So, when I was putting pins into my Silk Road map, I was utterly delighted that I had stopped there.
Built in 1571 as the capital of the Mughal Empire, Fatehpur Sikri soon became a trading post for passing Silk Road routes because of the Mughal emperor’s patronage of the arts, crafts, and the court’s love of luxury goods, including silk. Abandoned by its emperor Akbar in 1585, Fatehpur remained a trading hub and center of craftsmanship. It still had one of India’s largest mosques and was a center of learning and religion. The city remained an important stop along the northern routes, so much so that in 1803, the trading giant East India Company settled there until 1850.
Pro Tip: When you find yourself in northern India, you will undoubtedly visit the Taj Mahal. Combine your trip with a visit to Fatehpur Sikri to marvel at this great abandoned city.
7. Beijing, China
While in ancient times, Xi’an was the last — or first — stop along the Silk Road, when the failing trade along the routes was restarted under Mongol rule in the 14th and 15th centuries, the route was expanded through China to eventually have Beijing as its starting point, or terminus. But even before then, intrepid merchant Marco Polo visited Beijing, or as it was then called, Dadu, the Great Capital, in the late 1200s. Giving you an idea of quite how long the Silk Road has been in operation, Marco Polo would have been in Beijing more than 100 years before the Forbidden City was even designed. But what he would have seen is the Pagoda of the Tianning Temple, the Great Wall of China, and, of course, the Marco Polo Bridge, which dates to 1189.
Pro Tip: Read The Travels of Marco Polo, but do it with a huge pinch of salt, as he is known to have made things up as he went. He was also not necessarily a good writer, but just the thought that he wrote those diary entries around the turn of the 13th century, and many of the sights he describes are still there, is quite mind-blowing.