The Silk Road is the greatest travel route of all time, spanning 8,000km across continents, weaving through deserts, mountains and grasslands and bringing traders from East to West and vice versa. The original overland odyssey has long lured travelers, from the likes of the world’s first professional traveler, Marco Polo, to modern-day Silk Road author, Colin Thubron. For centuries, caravans of over 1,000 camels trekked through Central Asia trading everything from gold to gunpowder.
But these days, traveling the Silk Road can seem daunting even for the most hardened traveler. It often involves crossing vast distances and challenging terrain like deserts, mountain passes and seas. As if the distance is not intimidating enough, almost all the countries in Central Asia require you to have visas, so crossing this many borders means you’ll be facing a mountain of red tape.
Planning is indeed key, especially so if you intend to travel for a few months across several borders. Based on what I learned on my recent Silk Road journey, I’ve compiled some tips and info below that will hopefully help you plan an amazing trip. However, as I only spent two months in Central Asia and it was my first time in the region, I don’t claim to be an expert in the field. This is not a detailed step-by-step guide, but rather a basic overview for those planning to traverse this overland odyssey. Good luck!
A Silk Road Travel Guide
You’ll be surprised to know that the Silk Road isn’t even one distinct highway, but rather a network of tributaries. Granted, trails that weave through vast deserts are now replaced by tarred highways and paved roads, and caravans are substituted by massive cargo trucks. The old world romance may be gone today, but in an era where untouched frontiers are rare, traveling the Silk Road still gives you the opportunity to take a peek into a relatively unknown region.
The route traditionally started in China’s Xi’an (then known as Chang’an) and continued northwest through the Xinjiang province, and eventually into Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Syria. Some tributaries extended as far as India and Rome. Other Silk Road stops – Iraq and Afghanistan – are sadly off-limits for now.
There are numerous options to traverse the Silk Road that vary in length and stops. I chose to travel from Kyrgyzstan to Turkey, taking two months to explore six countries. My first stop was Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, then I went westward to Kazakhstan and spent most of my time in Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve. I then headed into Uzbekistan and spent two weeks visiting the three main cities of Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva. Heading southwest, I crossed in Turkmenistan, camped by the Darvaza gas craters and marveled at the modern capital city of Ashgabat. From there, I continued south into Iran, taking three weeks to slowly make my way through Mashad, Tehran, Esfahan and up to Tabriz. Eastern Turkey was my final destination and I flew home from Cappadocia.
Highlights of the Silk Road
Using the word “epic” to describe this journey is clearly an understatement, as the Silk Road passes through so many magnificent sights across very distinctive cultures. It’s hard to pick the best, but here are some of my personal favorite parts of the journey:
Celebrating Kyrgyzstan’s Independence Day in Bishkek with horse races and carnivals.
Witnessing the impressive burning Darvaza gas craters in the middle of the Karakom Desert.
Being overwhelmed by the complete bizarreness of the sterile and empty city, Ashgabat in Turkmenistan.
Marveling at the turquoise tiled domes and ancient medressas (Islamic schools) of Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva in Uzbekistan. The trio offered some of the most impressive architecture I’ve seen in my travels. The ones that stood out were Shah-i-Zinda avenue of mausoleum in Samarkand and Konya Ark in Khiva.
Stumbling upon a Sunday animal market in Taraz, Kazakhstan, where hundreds of cattle and sheeps were on sale. What an experience!
Meeting friendly locals everywhere in Iran and getting invited to our guide’s home for a lovely dinner with his family in Tehran.
Minarets in the Registan, Samarkand
How to Go: Independently or with a Tour Operator?
To traverse this challenging route, I chose to travel on an overland expedition with Oasis Overland, a UK tour operator specializing in overland travel. I opted to travel with an overland tour operator, not only because it was easier logistically in terms of border crossings and getting around each country, but also because I wanted to experience the backcountry of the region. Bush camping in the farmlands, deserts and mountains gave me a chance to experience the rural life and culture of these countries — things that I would otherwise have missed if I had traveled independently and taken buses/trains from one city to the next.
As for options in Central Asia, there aren’t many companies that organize overland expeditions. Adventure tour operators that do this route include Oasis Overland, Dragoman and Odyssey Overland. I went with Oasis Overland because of recommendations from friends and also because it offered the longest trips at the most affordable prices. They seemed to be the most experienced in the overland travel business and the most reputed one as well.
Oasis Overland does several routes in Central Asia, ranging from the shortest – Ashgabat to Bishkek Silk Road Highlights trip (20 days) to the longest London to Beijing Trans-Asia route (17 weeks). I went on the Bishkek to Istanbul trip which took 78 days (although I joined part of the trip and it took 63 days). [Read my full review of the experience.]
Camping in the mountains of Kazakhstan with Oasis Overland
Take note that some countries on the Silk Road only allow travelers on guided tours to enter. Turkmenistan is one example. We had a Turkmen guide join us on our overlanding trip during our time in the country. In Iran, only certain nationalities (namely British, American and Canadians) need to join guided tours. Don’t let this deter you from going though — if you dislike joining tour groups, opt for an individual tour and do your research to find the best guide in town. Turkmenistan and Iran were my favorite countries on this trip.
As for independent travelers, we met many people along the way who were either backpacking and staying in hostels (but usually traveling only in one or two countries) or driving their campervans all the way from Europe. I was really surprised by the amount of people who had their own campervans and had driven from Germany, France and Switzerland. Getting a vehicle across borders can be a pricey and complicated process (except in Iran where it’s free!), but that doesn’t seem to deter them. If you’d rather travel independently, it is difficult but definitely possible.
With my travel mates in our Iranian guide’s home
Challenges and Safety
The Silk Road passes through a volatile part of the world. There are pockets of the region that may be unstable and unsafe to visit during certain times, so always keep an eye of the news and your country’s foreign advisory to keep abreast of the latest happenings. In general, I felt very safe throughout the trip especially so in Iran, considered to be unsafe by many. (Read more about how traveling in Iran is really like).
Before we started our journey, things seemed to be fine and peaceful in the region, but along the way, riots and protests broke out in the Kurdish region of Turkey (a big part of southeastern Turkey) and all of a sudden, we were in an unsafe region. Thankfully, Oasis Overland did some investigations, spoke to the Foreign Office and decided to change our route. The Silk Road offers a variety of routes, so you should always be able to steer yourself away from potential trouble.
No specific vaccinations are officially required for travel along the Silk Road but check with your doctor before travelling. Bring a proper first-aid kit with basic medication for headaches, diarrhea, stomach bug and infections. Always be prepared as you might always encounter problems finding a simple pharmacy on the way.
Darvaza burning gas crater
Visas: Central Asia’s Red Tape
Ever since the Soviet days, Central Asia has been tucked behind the Iron Curtain, hidden amidst layers of bureaucracy and red tape. Almost every country in this region requires visas for entry (except Kyrgyzstan) and it can be a tedious and expensive process. The ever-changing rules for visa applications in Central Asian nations makes it worse and deters even the most seasoned traveler.
In general, it is recommended that you start applying for your visas at least two months before your trip (you can usually apply up to three months in advance), depending on the number of countries you intend to visit. Keep in mind that visa applications are a major cost for any traveler in Central Asia, so start saving! Also, if you end up not having enough time to apply for all your visas at home, don’t fret, you can still do that the road. In fact, it is easier and faster to apply for visas on the road. However, you’ll need to have a flexible travel schedule and plan enough time at each capital city to get your visas.
To save some time and pain, I used the services of The Visa Machine to help me do all the legwork. They charge an administration fee for each visa they help you to apply for, but considering all the time they saved me, it’s pretty worthwhile. Read here to learn more about Central Asian visas.
Wonderful and friendly vendors in markets all over Central Asia
When to Go
Most of the Silk Road passes through deserts and mountains, so expect extreme weather — scorching summers and deadly winters. Spring and autumn (May and September) are the best seasons to visit, as temperatures are milder and conditions not as harsh. Most tours do Silk Road trips only during this period, although some of them (such as Dragoman) have regular departures from March all the way to December.
From October to March, some of the mountain passes such as Torugart Pass may be closed. Ramadan is a religious holiday largely celebrated in Central Asia by way of fasting, so be aware of that when visiting.
Camping in the desert
Accommodation: Camping, Guest Houses or Hotels?
In general, Central Asia is great for budget travelers as it’s cheap and there are lots of hostels and eateries to choose from. Budget hotels usually range from $20 to $40 per night for a double room, which luxury hotels can go for as high as $200 to $300 a night. Uzbekistan in particular has a more developed tourism infrastructure than the other countries in the region, and you can easily find good quality guesthouses as cheap as $15 a night with proper facilities and good location. Note that some hotels in Iran do not allow unmarried couples or couples of mixed nationalities to share a room.
Community-based tourism is rather popular and easily available in Kyrgyzstan. It’s great way to stay with locals, get to know their culture, and travel on the cheap. You can arrange homestays with families, bike tours with a local guide, horse treks with nomads or yurt experiences. A great resource is CBT Kyrgyzstan where you can contact the CBT office in each region directly.
Campsites are not common along the Silk Road; during our trip, we usually bush camped out in the fields, deserts and even vineyards. We only stayed at three campsites on our entire trip, and the only one worth recommending is Ruslan Camp in Kazakhstan’s Aksu Zhabagaly Nature Reserve. If you’re traveling independently, think twice before you bring a tent with you unless you’re planning to bush camp the entire way.
Couchsurfing is an excellent way to save on accommodation and meet locals at the same time, and there’s a large CS community in Central Asia. A reader mentioned that it’s easy to find people to host you in Iran — he sent out one CS request and got invitations from loads of other people from around the country. For unmarried couples or couples of mixed nationalities, staying in hotels together can be tricky so couchsurfing is definitely a great option.
A traditional, family-run guesthouse in Khiva
Money situation is not as easy as I’d expected. You can use your Visa card in most banks and ATMs, but few places in Central Asia accept Mastercard. The best country to get cash is Kyrgyzstan, where you can withdraw in both Kyrgyz soms and US dollars.
In Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, there are black markets with competitive rates which make exchanging currencies more worthwhile than withdrawing cash. Take note that in Iran, foreign credit or debit cards are not accepted in the banks or ATMs. You will need to bring cash (in USD) with you to exchange when in the country. I have the habit of withdrawing money in the destination, but this time round I brought substantial USD to exchange there.
Some Extra Tips:
Many countries on the Silk Road will only issue visas for entry on specific dates (eg Iran and Turkmenistan) so it is best to visit them earlier on in your itinerary or stick closely to your plan.
Many of the Silk Road countries are Muslim – both sexes should dress modestly; in Iran, women will need to wear a headscarf in public.
Read up on local etiquette. For instance, in many Silk Road countries you will be expected to remove your shoes before entering a house.