Travelling the Silk Road with Audley North Asia & Russia specialist, Katie

In the yurt camp at Lake Song Kol, Kyrgyzstan

Katie In the yurt camp at Lake Song Kol, Kyrgyzstan

Katie, one of Audley’s North Asia & Russia specialists shares her first-hand experience of fulfilling a childhood dream when she recently travelled along the Silk Road from Western China into Kyrgyzstan.

“Traffic was at a standstill in the middle of the city. I craned my neck out of the car to see what was causing the delay  – and whipped it back in immediately as a donkey and cart cantered by, dangerously close to my ear. Then the hold-up became apparent: a flock of troublesome sheep were ambling casually through the cars, grazing unconcernedly in the bushes lining the road while their owner waved his arms desperately, shouting to try and herd his unruly charges back onto the pavement.

Mingsha singing sand dunes, Dunhuang

Mingsha singing sand dunes, Dunhuang

I was on the Silk Road, travelling overland along this ancient trading route through the desert and mountains of Western China before passing over the Tian Shan range into Kyrgyzstan. A week and a half earlier we had landed in Beijing then flown straight on to the desert oasis town of Dunhuang, to begin a journey, which for me, was the fulfilment of a childhood dream.

It did not disappoint. Thus far we had stayed in Dunhuang, known for its well-preserved Buddhist frescoes and vast sand dunes. We’d headed out into the desert to marvel at the mysterious geological formations of Yadan (where, incidentally, scenes from the film ‘Hero’ were shot) and taken the overnight train to hot and dusty Turpan. Turpan’s night market, set under grape arbours and instilled with wisps of smoke from the various barbeque stalls, gave us our first true flavour of the Silk Route. A night market is a sociable place, where people of all ages gather as temperatures cool to sit and talk, eat and play games; where stall owners vie for custom despite selling the same food as their neighbours; and above all – where the smells of mutton and spice infuse the air: a distinctive aroma which I will forever associate with the Silk Road. 

Donkey taxi in the ancient city of Gaochang

Donkey taxi in the ancient city of Gaochang

In Turpan, we were spoilt by the number of fascinating places to visit – the ancient ruined Buddhist city of Jiaohe, faintly eerie with its ‘babies’ graveyard’; the strange almost Martian landscape of the deep red Flaming Mountains; more Buddhist caves and ancient murals at Bezeklik; preserved mummies in the Tombs of Astana. We raced on donkey taxis through the streets of another ancient city, Gaochang, and wandered through a small and beautiful village located in one of the few fertile valleys in the area.

Since then, we’d progressed nearly 1,000km; onwards over the Tian Shan mountains to Urumqi and then south into the desert once more towards Kuche – where we were stuck behind some sheep.

There is no denying that travelling along the Silk Road can be hard. Distances are vast beyond comprehension, so driving days can be long; the journey we were to take to leave Kuche involved travelling for ten hours through the inhospitable Taklamakan Desert. The hotels we stayed in, while clean and comfortable, were nothing to write home about. And everywhere we went, we were stared at quite openly without any pretence of subtlety. But I wasn’t visiting the region for a luxury holiday, nor was I expecting high levels of comfort. I went to experience a different culture, to see some of the most spectacular and diverse landscapes the world has to offer, and to witness the remnants of an ancient civilisation.

Sunday animal market, Kashgar

Sunday animal market, Kashgar

The sheep shuffled away and we moved on, leaving Kuche behind us as we set off into the haze of the desert. Another two days’ driving brought us to Kashgar, the ‘final frontier’ at the far western reach of China, a veritable mixing pot of ethnic minorities, nationalities and languages. With the towering, snow-peaked Karakorum and Tian Shan mountains to the west and the enormous Taklamakan Desert to the east, Kashgar has to be one of the most interesting cities and surrounds to explore. We submerged ourselves in the endless, sprawling bazaars that  line the city’s dusty, unpaved Old Town, and visited the famously chaotic animal market on Sunday; we rode the Karakorum Highway, traversing between ferocious peaks to reach picturesque Lake Karakul, surrounded by giants such as Mount Muztagata whose distinctively sloping ridge stretches to over 7500m; we sampled mutton shashlyk kebabs and freshly-baked Uighur naan, and watched old men haggle over the price of yaks.

Finally, exhausted and dazed through sheer diversity of experience; we left China.

Leaving Kashgar early in the morning we ascended to the Torugart Pass, high in the Tian Shan mountains, and crossed into Kyrgyzstan in a blizzard. We froze as we stepped over the border, but as we departed into the Kyrgyz stepper our driver pulled over, produced a large thermos flask of tea and proceeded to supplement it with local cognac, which certainly helped against the cold.

Horses wandering freely at Lake Song Kol

Horses wandering freely at Lake Song Kol

Kyrgyzstan is, above anything else, staggeringly beautiful. The country is almost entirely mountainous, which makes the vast majority of areas remote or inaccessible. We travelled in a 4×4 vehicle, which was necessary on the bumpy roads that twist and turn up and over mountain passes in every direction. At night we stayed in yurt camps; large, felt-lined entities replete with wood stoves and piles of blankets over the beds. The valley and caravanserai of Tash Rabat was our first stop, where our camp sat next to a stream and was watched over by soaring eagles and craggy outcrops whose heights cried out to be explored. The following day we progressed north and east through ever more striking landscape towards Song Kol, a vast lake with a panoramic snow-peaked vista. Horses and cows wander freely in Kyrgyzstan; there are no fields or fences to keep them in – instead, farmers accompany their livestock on horseback, watching over from afar.

The shores of Lake Song Kol were no exception – my final memory of this unforgettable trip was of when I awoke in the morning, emerging sleepily into the morning chill, I was greeted by the extraordinary sight of cows dotted amidst the yurts, highlighted by the superb sunrise, which tinted the mountainous backdrop rosy pink.”

To book a tailor-made trip to North Asia & Russia, call one of our specialists on 01993 838 200 or contact us online.