With epic scenery and a history to match, Central Asia’s vast ancient trading trail has re-captured travellers interest – as its placement on our Reader Travel Awards prove. Here are the best ways to take in its treasures.
1 LOSE YOURSELF IN BUKHARA’S OLD TOWN
The historic city of Bukhara boasts Central Asia’s most intact and interesting old town, and it’s a great place to randomly explore. The dense network of back streets hides a scattering of madrassas (religious schools), Sufi shrines, traditional courtyard-style guesthouses and even a synagogue (home to Bukhara’s once thriving Jewish community). After a day of sightseeing, relax over a pot of tea at the poolside Lyab-i-Hauz architectural ensemble or book a soak and a scrub at the 14th-century Bozori-Kord bathhouse
NEED TO KNOW: Bukhara is worth a couple of days, to visit the ark (fort) of the former emir, the graceful 10th-century Samani Mausoleum and the 46m-high Kalon minaret that impressed even Genghis Khan.
ALSO TRY: Kashgar, Xinjiang – Kashgar’s old town has faced modernisation drives in recent years, but what remains is still fascinating.
2 OVERNIGHT IN A CONVERTED MADRASSAH
The medieval walled town of Khiva is one of the best preserved on the Silk Road. In a full day you can explore the khan’s former palace, the jail and the former slave market, before watching the sun set over the desert from the top of the Islam Khoja minaret and retiring to Central Asia’s most atmospheric accommodation. The Hotel Orient Star is housed in the 19th-century Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah (religious school), with rooms converted from the original student cells.
NEED TO KNOW: To get to Khiva, take an overnight train or flight to nearby Urgench, or take a shared taxi from Bukhara across the Karakum desert.
ALSO TRY: Zein-o-Din Caravanserai, Iran – This renovated 16th-century caravanserai, built on the orders of Shah Abbas, oers atmospheric rooms about an hour outside Yazd.
3 RIDE THE SILK ROAD BY RAIL
Almaty (Kazakhstan) to Urumqi (China)
Travelling the Silk Road by train is an admirably romantic notion, if you have plenty of time. There are multiple route options to choose from, notably across Russia and the Kazakh steppe and on into the stony deserts of western China. Bunk down with Silk Road traders and watch the epic scenery clank slowly by.
NEED TO KNOW: The twice-weekly international train from Almaty in Kazakhstan to Urumqi in China crosses from ex-Soviet Central Asia into what was Chinese Turkestan, with another option to start in the Kazakh capital Astana.
ALSO TRY: Urumqi to Jiayuguan, China – Fringing the Gobi Desert on the Chinese Silk Road, this line drops you at the westernmost point of the Great Wall of China.
4 EXPLORE AN AUTHENTIC CARAVANSERAI
Tash Rabat, Kyrgyzstan
Hidden in a velvety side valley o the main overland route from Bishkek to Kashgar, Tash Rabat is a small but atmospheric caravanserai (inn) that was once a resting place for caravans bracing themselves for the tough crossing of the rugged Tian Shan mountains. You can explore the various rooms and stables here and take a horse ride up to the surrounding viewpoint, before overnighting at a nearby Kyrgyz yurt stay.
NEED TO KNOW: Most people visit Tash Rabat en route to the remote Torugart Pass, the most adventurous border crossing between Central Asia and China.
ALSO TRY: Rabat-i Sharaf Caravanserai, Iran – This well-preserved rabat (Persian for caravanserai) sits near the Turkmenistan border, not far from remote Serakhs, and is a fine excursion from Mashhad.
5 FOLLOW IN MARCO POLO’S FOOTSTEPS
Kuhistani (Gorno)Badakhshan region, Tajikistan
At the borders of Tajikistan, Afghanistan and China, in one of the remotest corners of high Asia, is the Wakhan Valley, a thin finger of land created during the 19th-century Great Game to serve as a bu‰er between the rival Russian and British empires. Marco Polo followed a branch of the Silk Road through the beautiful valley and plenty of Silk Road relics remain, including several dramatic forts.
NEED TO KNOW: The easiest way to visit is to hire a Jeep and driver from Khorog in Tajikistan’s Kuhistani Badakhshan region and overnight at Ishkashim in one of the village’s traditional Pamiristyle houses. You will need to arrange a Kuhistani (Gorno)-Badakhshan region permit in advance.
ALSO TRY: The Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan – Hardcore adventurers can sign up for treks on the Afghan side of the Wakhan mountains.
6 SHOP FOR PERSIAN CARPETS
Tabriz, western Iran
Bazaars don’t come much better than Tabriz: domed halls, vaulted gateways, two dozen caravanserai (inns) and entire sections devoted to spices, jewellery, hats and, yes, carpets. Learn about Azeri, Turkmen and Persian designs, before taking a break at one of the many teahouses.
NEED TO KNOW: To get Iranian visa authorisation, British citizens need to organise a guide for their itinerary, meaning most sign up for a group tour.
ALSO TRY: Kochkor, Kyrgyzstan – learn about Kyrgyz shyrdak (felt carpet) production, then shop for the finished product at village co-operatives.
7 VISIT A CONQUEROR’S TOMB
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