For centuries, traders have plied the so-called ‘Silk Road’, a long and hazardous adventure linking the markets of western Europe to the ancient Chinese capital of Xian. This tour re-traces part of that epic journey, travelling along the fabled Hexi Corridor, then out across the deserts of western China, with a detour to amazing Xiahe, a place of pilgrimage for Tibetan Lamaism.
Many spectacular sights are witnessed during this journey, including the awe-inspiring Forbidden City in Beijing, various sections of the Great Wall of China, the renowned Terracotta Warriors and the superb Buddhist painting at Dunhuang. The scenery is varied and even hostile in places, but always hauntingly beautiful. Most of all, this tour represents a cultural odyssey. From the heart of the Han Chinese homeland, you travel west, meeting numerous ethnic groups such as the Mongols and the Turkish-speaking Uighurs of Central Asia, en route to the remote oasis town of Kashgar.
Day 1 - Beijing
On arrival in Beijing you are transferred to your hotel. In the evening you meet your tour leader and the other group members for a pre-tour briefing. This is generally followed by an optional group dinner at a local restaurant - Peking Duck is often a popular choice.
Dong Fang Hotel or similar
Day 2-3 - Beijing - overnight train
Beijing offers endless opportunities for exploration. The enormous Forbidden City, built more than 500 years ago and off limits to commoners for almost all that time, is a truly amazing place. Its size might surprise you (it is huge!), but what makes it fascinating is that every square metre is interesting, ranging from intricately carved walkways to colourful, painted ceilings. The Temple of Heaven is a fine example of extraordinary workmanship. We also travel to Mutianyu, one of the best-preserved parts of the Great Wall. This section of the Great Wall used to serve as the northern barrier defending the capital and the imperial tombs. Being perched on this incredible engineering feat and surveying the spectacular surrounding countryside is an unforgettable experience. There is also ample free time in the itinerary, allowing you to make your own discoveries. Our hotel is located in the south of the city and a walk in any direction will unveil all sorts of wonderful surprises. There are good shopping opportunities at the various markets around the city, such as the centrally located Dashilan Market. In the evening, you have the chance to enjoy a performance of the unique Beijing Opera (optional). We leave Beijing on the overnight train, travelling in ‘soft-class’, four-berth compartments. The 14-hour trip is a great opportunity for our group to get to know each other.
Dong Fang Hotel or similar
Day 4-5 - Xian - overnight train
Xian is a wonderful place to explore. Food options are excellent here, ranging from delicious Muslim fare to great little dumplings in Chinese cafes. Widely regarded as the first capital of a united China in 221 BC, the city is rich in history. A half-day tour to the renowned Terracotta Warriors introduces us to these entombed statues, considered one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th Century. Over 6000 of them were individually sculpted from clay, each having a different costume, height, and even facial expression. They are standing in battle formation, facing east in order to protect the tomb of China's first emperor, the great Qin Shihuang. Peasants digging a well only discovered the underground vault, which was home to this army for two millennia, in 1974. Xian also has a wonderful Muslim Quarter. A free day can easily be spent wandering the narrow streets where we find quaint shops, lively markets, groups of white-bearded men in skull caps sipping tea in dingy cafes, and the Great Mosque, one of the most important in China. On the late afternoon of Day 5, we catch the overnight sleeper-class train to Lanzhou.
City Hotel or similar
Day 6-8 - Lanzhou - Xiahe - overnight train
After an early arrival (6:30 am) in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province, we transfer to a bus and travel to Bingling Temple to view some fascinating Buddhist caves. Our journey continues on to Xiahe, a major centre for Tibetan Lamaism. We spend two nights in this amazingly remote town set in a beautiful mountain valley, with the highlight being a visit to the impressive 18th century Labrang Monastery. There are many monks walking around the streets, some of who are on pilgrimage from Tibet. We travel back to Lanzhou by bus and board another overnight train bound for Jiayuguan.
Overseas Tibetan Hotel or similar
Day 9 - Jiayuguan
Upon entering the Hexi Corridor, we travel on a strip of desert surrounded by mountains on both sides. We arrive in the early afternoon at Jiayuguan (Jiayu Pass), the traditional last outpost on the edge of the ancient Han Chinese Empire, and visit Jiayuguan Fort, which marks the end of the Great Wall. The heavily industrialised modern town stands in stark contrast to the desert scenery. We also visit the Hanging Wall (another section of the Great Wall) and the Wei-jin Dynasty’s Number 6 Tomb.
Tiandong Hotel or similar
Day 10-11 - Dunhuang - overnight train
We journey across the desert landscape by bus to the oasis of Dunhuang, another important stop on the Silk Road. After a night in Dunhuang, we get up to experience the sunrise over desert sand dunes and see Crescent Lake. Nearby are the stunning Mogao Caves, which house some of the best Buddhist murals in the world. The first cave was carved out and painted in 366 AD, but they had been largely forgotten until a Taoist monk stumbled upon them in 1907. Currently there are more than 492 caves, most containing murals, and over 2,415 coloured statues, in an area covering more than 45,000 square metres. Central in every cave are the painted murals, featuring numerous personages such as the ‘Flying Apsaras’, the goddesses of fragrance and music often depicted dancing and playing a musical instrument. After Mogao, we catch a bus to Lieyuan and transfer to another overnight train.
Feitian Hotel or similar
Day 12 - Turpan
After arriving in Daheyan, we transfer by road for 50 minutes to the delightful oasis town of Turpan. The Turpan Depression is second only to the Dead Sea in Jordan as the lowest point on earth. The temperature soars here to an average of as much as 40°C during summer, hence its name ‘Fiery Land’. It is a small city, but the surrounding area is full of interesting places such as Gaocheng and Jiaohe - once great cities on the Silk Road. Once upon a time, Gaocheng was the capital of the Uyghur people and the ruins here are very impressive, with the temples, pagodas and courtyards still distinguishable even though they were abandoned over 700 years ago. The Atsana Graves nearby are where the dead from the ancient city were buried. Another famous Buddhist site found on the western side of the Flaming Mountains is the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves. Unfortunately most of the artworks were removed and taken to Germany (where they were subsequently destroyed in bombing during the Second World War), so the caves are just a sad reminder of their former glories and not really worth visiting now. At 44 metres high, the Emin Minaret is the tallest in China. It was built in 1777 to honour a local general, Emin Khoja.
Day 13 - Turpan - Urumqi
Turpan is well known for its seedless, white variety of grapes grown in the surrounding fields. To provide irrigation to this arid land, the local people have devised a unique subterranean waterway. The Karez Wells are fed from melted snow and conducted to the channels that wind their way beneath the city. The ancient city of Jiaohe is located 10 kilometres west of town and covers an extensive area. Dating from around 108 BC, this once-busy city was destroyed by Genghis Khan’s Mongol army in the 13th century. We the drive to Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region This is a multi-national province with many languages, customs and colourful ethnic traditions. It is also China’s gateway to central Asia, with air links to all the former Soviet states, and is widely regarded as ‘the city farthest from the ocean’.
Boertala Hotel or similar
Day 14 - Urumqi - Kashgar
From Urumqi we drive out to visit the Lake of Heaven (Tianchi), which resembles a little piece of Swiss alpine scenery with hills covered by fir trees and the area dotted with tiny Kazakh settlements. The local people live in tent-like structures made from animal skin, known as yurts. In winter the road becomes impassable due to snow. Returning to Urumqi, we visit the large and fascinating Xinjiang Autonomous region Museum, which houses an amazing collection of Silk Road artefacts and treasures including some incredibly well-preserved mummified bodies. In the evening we fly across the Taklimakan Desert to Kashgar, also known as Kashi, the ‘crown jewel’ of the Silk Road.
Chini Bagh Hotel or similar
Day 15 - Kashgar
Still an important trading centre, Kashgar is situated at an altitude of 1289 metres at the end of the spectacular Karakoram Highway. It first fell into Chinese hands nearly 1000 years ago when extensions to the Great Wall and explorations along the Silk Road opened the area to trade. When the Han Dynasty collapsed, an interregnum followed until the town was captured briefly for the Tang Dynasty before falling again, this time into Arab hands. The great Genghis Khan occupied the city in 1219 and Marco Polo was reputedly a visitor here in 1265. With the downfall of the Mongols, the town was incorporated into Timur’s empire before entering another period of instability, this time lasting 350 years. The colourful Sunday Market sees the town come alive as merchants from near and far bring in their wares. It is a photographer’s dream with the endless stream of fascinating faces and varied activities taking place. We also take a city tour that includes the Abakh Hoja Tomb, the Id Kah Mosque and the (fast-disappearing) old town.
Chini Bagh Hotel or similar
Day 16 - Kashgar
Our tour ends after breakfast. A transfer to the airport is not included; however, your tour leader will be on hand to advise you as to the options available.