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Travelling The Silk  Road

For many, the term “The Silk Road” evokes the image of a myth-laden landscape on whose path many legendary figures have trodden: from Marco Polo to Kublai Khan, its terrain has seen the migration of goods and ideas across the centuries. Why did it end and what does it look like today? Read on for our modern-day guide to the Silk Road!

Despite its name, the Silk Road encompassed a network of passages that can be divided into Northern, Southern and South-western routes. The extensive nature of this system meant that the Silk Road passed through a large amount of culturally varied countries, including Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran - eventually ending in modern-day Turkey, which stood as the western limit of its path. The network was used regularly from 130 BCE, when China opened its doors to the West, to 1453 AD when the Ottoman Empire boycotted trade with the West, thereby ending the use of these bustling routes. Eventually, geopolitical changes, the rise of shipping and the spread of the plague saw the demise of these legendary routes.
Flickr | Eugene KasperskyWhilst officially a trade route network, it was not only material goods that journeyed along the lavish landscapes but also culture, ideas and language. As merchants handed over commercial goods, they passed on formative civilisational elements such as philosophy and religion, too. Cities and civilizations along the Silk Road prospered and perished with time, witnessing bustling bazaars and cacophonous crowds but also war, disease and famine. It was via the Silk Road that both Islam and Buddhism reached China but also allowed the Black Death to travel Westwards and claim millions of lives.

Even today, travelling the Silk Road allows for an incredibly varied, multicultural experience. In fact, part of the Silk Road still exists today, albeit in a much more modern form, namely as a paved highway between Pakistan and the Uygur region of Xinjiang, China, and with a much less romantic name - the M14. The merchant carts of the past have received something of a technological upgrade and many former Silk Road cities are now accessible by train or car. Such methods of transport allow the traveller to experience a true smorgasbord of landscapes, ranging from the dazzling deserts of Mongolia, the sweeping steppes of Kyrgyzstan and the majestic mountains of Tajikistan, to the glistening waters of the Black Sea.

Flickr | fdecomiteMarkets, mosques and mosaics await those who travel through the cities of Uzbekistan, with some Soviet-era towns scattered across the landscape - providing an interesting architectural contrast. The Samarkand-to-Tashkent high-speed railway connects two of the most frequently visited cities. The Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan, with its mesmerising craters and plunging canyons, makes for a dramatic landscape, while the ancient cities of Merv and Konye-Urgench are drenched in history and culture.

Keen horseback-riders can explore the resplendent valleys of rural Kyrgyzstan and, if you’re lucky, engage with some of the nomadic families that take to the steppes during summer time. The Pann and Famir mountain ranges of Tajikistan offer breath taking hiking arenas with rewarding views onto the surrounding landscape. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan offers pockets of unique biodiversity, including the Aksu-Zhabagyly nature reserve, which houses an impressive range of animals and plants, including golden eagles and argali sheep.

Flickr | GothPhilIn 2014, the Chang’an-Tianshan corridor of the Silk Road, a 5000 km long passage that stretches from Chang’an to the Zhetysu region of Central Asia, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This route offers a chance to see a different side of China and its non-Han population, such as the cultures of the Uighurs and Kazakhs - from the bazaars of Kashgar to Buddhist cave temples, the route traces the cultural and religious interchange that took place along these passages.

The South Caucasus region provides some lesser-explored Silk Road destinations, including Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. The area’s Black Sea shores offer a stunning alternative for beach-goers, whilst its hilltops are home to monasteries steeped in history and architectural splendour. Much like its Central Asian neighbours, these countries have a captivating history that stretches from far before their Silk Road days to their more recent Soviet era past. This dichotomy is captured in the contrast between architecture and landscape, making for not only a stunning but also interesting journey.

The vastness of the Silk Road network makes traveling the terrain in its entirety quite a challenge - but an interesting and rewarding one, no doubt. Each part of the Silk Road is steeped in its own unique culture and landscape. While they are all separate entities today, they remain united by a common history.

By Laura Hallensleben - Online Journalism Intern

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