Dragoman's Guide for Travellers on the Silk Route

Being one of the world’s most ancient and historically important trade routes, the Silk Route connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean.  The route is not a single path but rather a network of tributaries spanning over 7,000km.

Once used by traders transporting goods varying from gold to melons, military goods to, of course, silk and the term “Silk Road” was coined in the 19th century by Ferdinand von Richthofen, a German explorer.

The route traverses arguably some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet; covering vast plains and desserts making this a truly venturesome land.  So it is no surprise that it is here, that overlanding and adventure travel was born and is at the heart of overlanding for Dragoman.

Click here to find out more about Dragoman's trips along the Silk Road.  

What to expect travelling on the Silk Route with Dragoman

Travelling the Silk Route should be seen as just that; travelling; not merely a holiday. It holds endless gems overflowing with myths and bedded on rich and varied lands. There is little means of luxury en-route, when not in the cities, with toilet facilities not always being of the highest standards and the travelling conditions can be demanding at times.  However, this is more than outweighed by the magnificent scenery and engrossing cultures. As you overland you will have the opportunity to see first-hand, semi-nomadic farming lifestyles including hunting using eagles in contrast to the oil-rich contemporary cities that hinge the route.

When to visit the Silk Route

As the Silk Route covers various counties and climates, the question as to when to travel, can seem complicated. The best times of year to go are late spring and early autumn. Xinjiang and Uzbekistan are the hottest parts of the Silk Road and mountainous areas tend to be cooler.

If you’re heading to western China, don’t go in January; it’s freezing.  However, August and September are glorious with warm days and enticing ripe fruits everywhere so this would be the time to visit if you wish to enjoy the long summer climate.

Central Asia is perfect for sightseeing anytime from March to June as the weather is mild and sunny with little rain, however, avoid high summer as the temperatures are incredibly high and the markets become very busy, making an uncomfortable mix for sightseeing.

  • January

In Central Asia in January the temperatures can be as low as -30 degrees and as a result we would not recommend visiting at this time of year as it can be unbearably bitter.

  • February

Is cold, but not unbearable and is a superb time to visit if you re looking a frost covered landscape with crisp blue skies, but be sure to wrap up warm.

  • March, April, May

Spring makes for a beautiful time to visit the Silk Route, the temperatures are around 15-20 degrees, plants are blossoming, and grasslands are rich.

  • June 

Is a warm, dry month, making it a perfect time to visit cities along the Silk Road, although, be warned, this time of the year can be busy along the Silk Route.

  • July, August 

These two months are extremely hot with temperatures reaching 40 degrees in the desert areas of the Silk Road.  The air is dry, the sand becomes hot to the touch and there is not much cover for shade.

  • September, October

This is when autumn is in full swing, with luscious ripened fruits such as grapes and dates.

  • November

During this month the weather is less predictable; it is quite cold and can rain often without warning.  This cooler weather means that the crowds lessen.

  • December

Temperatures during this winter month are incredibly low, reaching -30 degrees and are not fun for visitors.

What to pack for the Silk Route

As temperatures can vary from day to night by around 12 degrees, it is important to pack clothing accordingly.  Shorts and t-shirts are perfect during the summer days, although we would advise packing jeans for the mountainous areas where the weather can be cooler, and a jacket and extra layers just in case the weather changes.  In the winter months pack a waterproof coat, lots of layers, plus a hat, scarf and gloves will all be welcomed.  A comfortable pair of shoes is a must, something that you can wear for long periods of time, sports shoes or walking boots (for winter) are advisable.  A hat, sunglasses, sun cream and lip balm are all advisable for sun and wind protection.  A scarf is great to act as protection against sand when the wind picks up.  A backpack is always useful when travelling the Silk Route, it is worth considering the amount it will need to hold, whether it is sand resistant, how many compartments it has, and how heavy it is.  You may also want to consider packing a camera, a map (possibly detailing your route and planned contact details), medicine (see our medicine section further in the article) and it is always advisable to ensure you have a bottle of water with you too.

Languages along the Silk Route

There are more than twenty ethnic groups to be encountered along the Silk Route some of which (for example Uigur, Tibetan and Mongolian) speak their own language and have their own writing.  The official Chinese language is Mandarin and this is being adopted by some of the nationalities that have their own language.

Food and drink on the Silk Route

This is an exciting topic on the Silk Route as the variations of Chinese available is endless and there will be restaurants that specialise in Sichuan, Cantonese and Beijing and Shanghai to name but a few.  Each area you visit is likely to have their own specialities.  Head to the ‘ye shi’ (night markets) and ‘xiao chi’ (small restaurants) to taste the local snacks.  It might be advisable to make a quick sanitary assessment based on visual appearance before choosing where to dine.  Once you have selected where you want to eat, if you struggle with reading menus, it may be possible to order by pointing at other dishes coming out of the kitchen or, better still you may have the opportunity to visit the kitchen and select the core ingredients first hand (remember that pork is forbidden in Islamic food).  There are local drinks that must be tried on your travels, look out for ‘kumiss’, frozen yogurt and tea with milk.  In northwest China people often drink tea with their meals but cola, beer and fruit juice are normally also available in most restaurants.

What Visas are needed to visit the Silk Route

Although the visas for central Asia can be complicated with a bit of planning and preparation it should be trouble free.  The following advice is to act merely as a guide, visa requirements often change, so please be sure to check before travelling. So where should we start?  Let’s start with the most simple: no visa is required for Kyrgyzstan for visits of up to 60 days and UK passport holders can go to Kazakhstan without a visa for 15 days.  Beyond that China, Mongolia and Tajikistan and all require visas, Azerbaijan requires an E visa and Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and China all require a letter of invitation.  This letter needs to be certified by the State Migration Service of Turkmenistan, from a private individual or company to support your application (tour firms from the UK are able to provide this).  Once again, please remember that visa requirements are ever changing and it is advisable to check before your specific trip.

Accommodation on the Silk Route

Like the Silk Route itself, the accommodation along the route varies greatly from city environments bringing luxury to the rural villages that provide cultural snippets with charming guesthouses.

There are high standard hotels in all the cities but these can also be rather expensive, a cheaper alternative would be to stay in a ‘zhaodaisuo’ (guesthouse).  These tend to have more simple facilities but prove most popular with those travelling the Silk Route.  In some of the more rural villages the choice of faculties can be rather limited to basic lodgings but these can provide a better taste of the local culture and enhance one’s trip.

Medicines to take on the Silk Road

There are various medicines that might be required on a Silk Route journey, depending on your route and the climate in which you visit, but here are some suggestions; however we would also suggest you consult your doctor prior to travelling.  Anti-mosquito spray, cream or lotion is always a welcome item to have with you. During the summer months, it is essential to be armed with anti-sunstroke medicines.  It would be recommended to pack treatments for colds, diarrhoea, nausea and fever.  Anyone with a sensitivity to dry weather conditions would be recommended to pack nasal ointment and throat-moistening pills.  Please note - do not take any medicines containing tramadol, codeine, temazepam, morphine or opiates to Central Asia. These are illegal in most of Central Asia and you will be at risk of arrest if you have any.  A helpful tip; that you may not be aware of if this is your first visit to the Silk Route would be do not drink tea after directly after eating lots of fruits.

Transport on the Silk Route

The Silk Route is continuously becoming more accessible as the infrastructure improves and this is aided by tourism developments.  There are three main forms of transport long the Silk Route; by air, rail or road.

Air transport on the Silk Route

There are two international airports on the Silk Route, one in Xi’an and one in Urumqi and these two airports offer flights to all the major Chinese cities.  Flying is probably the most luxurious way to travel the Silk Route, but it is also the most expensive. Albeit the most expensive form of travel, air travel is the most luxurious and comfortable way to travel to the main cities along the Silk Road.

Rail transport on the Silk Road

Rail travel tends to be the most popular form of transport on the Silk Route.  This is due to two main factors, convenience (trains cover a good expanse of the Silk Route) and relatively inexpensive.  It is advisable to pack enough food and drink for your train journey as these often sell out.  And items such as loo paper, towels, and toothbrushes should be packed, as these are not for sale on the trains. 

Road transport on the Silk Route

Buses are the cheapest form of public transport on the Silk Route, however these are a slower option than rail.  An alternative way to use the roads would be to travel in cars, mini buses or trucks which are offered by travel companies and some hotels.

Etiquette when visiting locals on the Silk Route

Should you be lucky enough to be invited to visit family homes during your Silk Route journey it is important to be aware that different nationalities have different cultures, living styles and indeed, taboos.  The best starting point would be to do some research about the culture and religion before you make your journey and if you are not sure, follow your host’s example.  A good indication of respect to your host would be to be dressed neatly in clean clothes.  Short trousers, waistcoat and hats should be avoided.  It is considered impolite to refuse food when a host offers, however if you are not able to accept their offer ensure to provide a reasonable explanation.  The ritual, should a host toast you, is to receive the cup, thank the hosts and then you can drink and let others help you.

Advice when visiting temples on the Silk Route

The Silk Route is home to many temples and these are often a tourist attraction, but there are some important points to be aware of to ensure your temple visit runs smoothly.  Be aware that some temples are not open to the public and there can be gender restrictions, so it is worth checking before visiting.  Obviously religious artefacts should not be touched or defaced and visitors should be silent and respectful during religious ceremonies.  When addressing a monk use ‘shi’ or ‘fashi’ and for the governing monk ‘zhanglao’, ‘fangzhang’ or ‘chanshi’, these are honourable terms.  It is considered sacrilegious to attempt to handshake, embrace or touch the head of the monk.  There are topics of conversation that should be avoided in the temples, these include killing, marriage and eating meat. 

Overlanding the Silk Route with Dragoman

Overlanding is the perfect way to explore the Silk Route.  By removing the limitations of public transport and creating a safe base for your journey, the purpose-built trucks will take you on adventure like no other.  Overlanding is guaranteed to take you to all the iconic highlights along the route but it will also transport you off the beaten track allowing you to discover the local gems away from the tourist buzz, giving you the opportunity to experience the authentic Silk Route. Dragoman have been operating overlanding since the early 1980s, so take advantage of our first-hand, in-depth knowledge.

To give you a snap shot of what you could experience with us: one day you may visit the spectacular Blue Mosque, Istanbul, or walk one of the holiest sites of Chinese Buddhism, a stunning mountainous area known as Wutai Shan the next you may get to put your bargaining skills to the test at the Black Market, a huge market in Ulaanbaataar.

Dragoman offers a plethora of trips along the Silk Route ranging from 9 days to 127 days so why not give us a call +441728 861133 and see how we can help you navigate the best journey for you through the Silk Route.