(Last updated on: 15/10/2021)
Are you planning a Silk Road China itinerary? Well I can guarantee you are going to have an amazing trip! We were lucky enough to be able to travel along the Silk Road in China this past summer and we had an action-packed Silk Road China itinerary! Living in China definitely has its benefits sometimes!
Travelling along the Silk Road in China is a very unique and special experience. Whilst the Silk Road in China can be very busy (especially during peak times), it is filled almost entirely with Chinese domestic tourists. This means that this is one of the few parts of the world that is relatively unexplored by Western tourists…. and it is no surprise why- very few people speak English and there is little information about how or where to travel along the Silk Road in China online. And THAT is why I have put together this guide for you! So if you are interested in travelling the Silk Road China, read on…
What is the Silk Road?
The Silk Road is a route across China which has existed since ancient times. Now it provides a great basis for travelling across the country. You can experiences hundreds of sensations as you travel the route and follow this 2-week Silk Road itinerary!
A brief history of the Silk Road
The Silk Road was an ancient trade route. It was actually a network of trade routes, connected with each other and connecting the East and the West. It meant these regions could trade, but it also meant that cultural, political and religious interactions were easier too. The Silk Road gets its name from the (very lucrative) trade in silk that was carried out along it, from around 207 BCE at the beginning of the Han dynasty. Around 114 BCE, the Han dynasty expanded the Central Asian sections of the Silk Road trade routes. The Chinese obviously took great interest in ensuring the safety of the products they were trading, and even extended the Great Wall of China so as to protect the trade route.
Why travel the Silk Road in China?
If you travel the Silk Road in China you will have your eyes opened to the history of this brilliant country. There is so much to see and learn, and so many once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to take. From UNESCO sites to frontier towns to ancient caves, no two days along the Silk Road are the same. It is an amazing way to make memories and see so much of China. One thing is for sure – it’s very different to a beach holiday or your average European city break!
You should travel the Silk Road if you have an interest in history and culture, if you want to learn about the ancient trade route and the doors it opened globally, and if you want to experience something different from a standard holiday…
Tips for travelling along the Silk Road China
Travelling in China, especially if you don’t speak Chinese can be a daunting experience! But fear not, it can be done and it can be enjoyable! Here are a few of my top tips to make your Silk Road China trip as enjoyable as possible:
- Be picky with accommodation- many hotels turn foreigners away in China and others have less than satisfactory hygiene standards- I have given recommendations for each destination below.
- Book a tour- if you don’t have a Chinese drivers license you will need to book a private driver or a tour. I recommend avoiding group tours as this takes away your flexibility. Tours like this one from Viator are usually pretty good.
- Pack snacks- Western food (apart from Pizza hut and KFC) isn’t easy to come by.
- Make sure you have a working phone- you will need to scan codes to enter tourist attractions and order food etc
- Avoid peak times at all costs- as I explained in my post about my trip to Chengdu, travelling in China during peak times can be unbearable. Avoid Golden Week (first week of October) and Chinese New Year (Jan-Feb) at all costs!
- Go early. Overtourism is a big problem in China. Aim to visit tourist attractions first thing in the morning or risk long waiting times and severe crowds.
Silk Road China itinerary
Below you’ll find an itinerary along the Silk Road in China. It starts in Xian and ends in Dunhuang. You’ll get to see so much on this route, which you can do in 2 weeks! We did this route using a hire car, but if you don’t have a Chinese driving license don’t worry, you can hire a driver or book a personalised tour for a reasonable price.
You can get to Xian from Beijing via the bullet train, or there is an airport so you can fly into Xian directly. Xian was China’s imperial center for 200 years, and there is plenty to see and do here.
Explore the stunning Muslim quarter, visit the Great Mosque, discover the many lively street stalls and try some delicious dumplings. Hire a bike or just walk along the city walls, and be sure to check out the views from the top of the Bell and Drum towers. See the Temple of the Eight Immortals, and visit the Little Wild Goose Pagoda. Soak up the start of this gorgeous Silk Road experience!
You can also discover the nearby countryside and see one of the most incredible scenes in the world: the breathtaking Terracotta Warriors. This is, of course, one of the main things Xian is famous for and something you can’t miss while in the area.
Where to stay in Xian: We stayed in the Sheraton Xian for 3 nights, where we booked an executive room (which gives you free food and drink (including happy hour!) in the executive lounge. The hotel was in a great location and it was great value for money. Other hotels that you may wish to consider include the Grand Park Xi’an to the Sofitel Legend People’s Grand Hotel Xi’an.
The next stop on this Silk Road itinerary is Tianshui. You can get a train Xian to Tianshui in just under 2 hours, with a 15 minute taxi ride from Tianshui South Station to the center of town.
Again, there is plenty to do here! Visit the beautiful Maijishan Grottoes, carved into the mountain, and experience the jaw-dropping scenery of the surrounding Maiji Mountain Scenic Area. With temples like the Yuquan Temple and the Fuxi Temple as well as the Immortal Cliff (perfect for hiking) and even hot springs, you won’t run out of things to do in Tianshui. Be sure to get some noodles while you’re here, because they do them so well!
Tianshui was a major trading hub along the Silk Road. It is also not far from the Zhonglou Mountains, home to five grottoes: the Water Curtain Cave, Thousand Buddha Cave, Lashao Temple, Xiansheng Pond, and Sanqing Cave. These were a Silk Road pilgrimage site, and are worth visiting if you get the chance.
Where to stay in Tianshui: There is not a huge amount of choice here as there are not many hotels. Your best bet is to book a stay at the Holiday Inn or the Atour Hotel, which both cater for foreigners. We stayed here for two nights.
Chaka Salt Lake
You’ll need to hire a car or book a driver for the next leg of this journey. It is actually worth hiring a car to travel the whole of this Silk Road itinerary, as it means you can go entirely at your own pace and you aren’t waiting around for trains or buses! The car journey from Tianshui to Chaka is 8 hours and 20 minutes. We decided to break up this journey by staying in Xining.
Located in Ulan County, Haixi Prefecture, Qinghai, this is an oval-shaped lake whose name, Chaka, means ‘salt lake’ in Tibetan. The views are 100% worth the long drive (and of course, you’ll get to see plenty of brilliant scenery as you travel too). Rent some rubber boots and walk straight into the lake, or take the little sightseeing bus around it. Whatever you do, don’t forget your camera as the photo opportunities here are incredible. It almost looks like a mirror, and there just seems to be endless sky ahead of you too. It really is one of the most breathtaking parts of the entire Silk Road!
TIP: visit the lake at sunset or sunrise to see the very best views.
Where to stay at Chakka Salt Lake: Due to its remote location, there really aren’t many accommodation options near the lake itself. Most people will choose to stay in Xining instead and visit the lake as part of a day trip. The Sofitel and Marriott are good options.
There are parks and temples aplenty here, and Zhangye is home to China’s biggest reclining Buddha! This is located at the Dafo Temple. From the National Wetland Park to the Biandukou Ecology Leisure Tourism Area, there is a lot of natural beauty to see.
None are more fascinating, however, than the awe-inspiring landscapes of Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park. Here, it looks as though millions of tins of coloured paint have been spilled and splashed across the mountains.
Zhangye Danxia Landform is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, formed over 24 million-100 million years ago. It was once a lake fed by rivers, and this brought up many layers of sand and mineral deposits. When the lake dried up, all of the mineral elements oxidised – giving the space its wonderful colour palette. The lake was then eroded into mountainous shapes and unusual formations, which you can see today on this Silk Road itinerary. It is absolutely ginormous, and a photographer’s dream no matter what time of day it is…
The penultimate stop of this Silk Road itinerary is Jiayuguan. This is only a 2.5 hour drive, so you will hopefully feel rested when you arrive compared to the two previous (much longer) journeys! A great way to do it, though, is to get up early in Zhangye and drive to the Danxia Geological park before the sun comes up. Sunrise here is an experience like no other! Then, head to Jiayuguan.
Jiayuguan was always the last outpost at the edge of the ancient Han Empire. This meant it was the last Chinese-controlled stop for travellers and traders before they continued into the uncertain and often dangerous deserts beyond here. Now, there are various historical sites to see such as the Jiayuguan Fort, a restored fort that still feels as though it has just been destroyed. Stare out into the desert and picture the Silk Road as it was when it was used solely for trade… Visit the Jiayuguan Pass, too – a remote section of the Great Wall, built during the Ming Dynasty and towards the western end of the wall.
See the Wei-Jin Tombs and the Rouyuan Tower; admire the Guanghua Pavillion and venture out to the breathtaking Qiyi Plateau Glacier. See the first strategic post, too, and generally soak up a lot of Silk Road and Chinese history here.
Where to stay in Jiayuguan: The Ibis Jiayuguan Railway Station Hotel has great reviews, so this is worth a stay while in the area. We stayed here for two nights.
The last stop on this amazing Silk Road itinerary is Dunhuang. It is around a 5 hour drive away, and there is a lot to see here. If you plan to arrive of an evening, you can explore the beer gardens (unique for China) just off the night market in town. Then, in the morning, drive out to Crescent Lake. The sunrise here is nothing short of spectacular! Crescent Lake is only 6km away from the city, too, so not far at all.
The lake is also surrounded by the amazing Singing Sand Dunes, so be sure to check them out. When the wind blows, it sounds like they’re singing – hence the name. You can also visit the beautiful Mogao Caves, home to some of the most stunning Buddhist murals in the world. The first cave was carved out and then painted back in 366 AD, after a Buddhist monk travelling the Silk Road had a vision of a thousand Buddha faces appearing on the cliff. The caves were basically forgotten until a Taoist monk rediscovered them in 1907. There are more than 492 caves, mostly containing murals, manuscripts, and almost 2,500 coloured statues.
Where to stay in Dunhuang: There are plenty of hotels here, including The Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel and the Fu Hua International Hotel, Dunhuang, both of which I would recommend. We stayed here for three nights.
Silk Road Itinerary China
So that’s our two week Silk Road itinerary. Many people choose to carry on West, finishing their tour in Kashgar, but we decided against this due to vast travelling distances and political unrest in the area. We had an amazing time travelling this route this summer…. and I am sure that you will too! If you have any questions about our Silk Road itinerary or about travelling in this part of China, let me know in the comments below!