The Silk Road - Retracing Marco Polo's Journey
Day 1-2 Xi'an
We will gather in Xi'an, the ancient capital of China, which has witnessed the rise and fall of fourteen imperial dynasties over two millennia. Once the largest and most influential city in Asia, Xi'an was the gateway to the West and the starting point of the Silk Road. Here we will visit the Terracotta Army, an enormous collection of life-sized terracotta soldiers built by Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of unified China. We will also visit the Shaanxi History Museum, one of China's finest museums housing thousands of artifacts from the Silk Road era, as well as other exhibits spanning from prehistoric times to the Ming and Qing dynasties. In the evening of Day 2, we will fly to Lanzhou, the capital of gansu Province.
Day 3-4 Xiahe
From Lanzhou, we will take a five-hour drive to Xiahe, a Tibetan monastic town nestled in the hills along the Xia River. It is home to the famous Labrang Monastery, one of the six major Tibetan monasteries of the gelupka sect, and an important pilgrimage site in the region. At the monastery, we will spend the day listening to the monks' chanting and watch pilgrims circulate around the monastery spinning the prayer wheels - all 1,174 of them. We'll spend the second day out on the windswept grasslands, riding horses and visiting local Tibetan villages.
Day 5-6 Dunhuang
We will drive back to Lanzhou and take a flight to Dunhuang, a former terminal of the ancient Silk Road perched on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert. The sight of this lush green oasis is a stark contrast to the buttressing sand dunes of the Taklamakan, which in Turkic languages means 'those who enter do not come out'. Then we'll head to the Mogao Caves, which consist of 492 grottoes honeycombing a giant cliff face, each of them housing murals, buddhist paintings and statues. Artifacts discovered at Dunhuang span from the Northern and Western Wei to Northern Zhou and Tang dynasties, and include what is believed to be the oldest printed script in the world, dating back to 868 AD.
Day 7 Turpan (Tulufan)
We will take a night train to Turpan. Lying 154 meters (505 ft) below sea level, the Turpan basin not only sits in the second largest depression in the world, but it is one of the hottest places China. Despite its desert location, Turpan boasts fertile land producing cotton and grapes, thanks to the karez, an ancient irrigation system. We will also visit the bezeklik Caves, another set of buddhist cave temples carved out of a cliff face. On our way to the caves we will drive past the Flaming Mountains, which derives their name from their blazing red appearance and were made famous in the 16th century Chinese novel, Journey to the West.
Day 8 Urumqi
From Turpan we will take a 3-hour drive to Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Urumqi is a growing metropolis inhabited mainly by the Han Chinese, and serves as a transport hub for those crossing to Tibet, Pakistan and Central Asia. We will board a late-afternoon flight to Kashgar.
Day 9-10 Kashgar
Situated at the foot of the impressive Pamir mountains, Kashgar was once the key trading post bridging the East and the West. Largely inhabited by the Uighurs, this ancient city is dotted with Muslim architecture and still retains the exotic feel of the Silk Road era. We will visit Kashgar's lively markets, which attract thousands of people from the far corners of the region. They come here to sell, bargain and trade everything ranging from camels and donkeys to embroidered caps and ornate knives.
Day 11-12 Lake Karakuri
At the base of Muztagh Ata (7,545 m/24,754 ft), sits Lake Karakuri, a majestic glacial lake fed by century-old glaciers. Here we will spend the night in a yurt and ride camels to a Tajik village where we can drink tea with the local villagers or take a gentle hike up to the base of the mountain.
Day 13 Sust and Passu
We will leave Lake Karakuri to make our way to the Pakistani border via the Karakoram Highway, which runs across the Khunjerab Pass (4,734 m/15,532 ft), otherwise known as the 'Valley of blood'. Its somewhat gory nickname refers to bandits who once terrorized the terrain, but the actual scenery along the highway is extraordinarily beautiful, with an uninhibited view of snowy mountains and an expanse of grasslands dotted with yurts and grazing yaks. Once over the pass, we are in Pakistan, where we will continue our journey into the Hunza Valley, where people are said to live up to 125 years. After getting our passports stamped in Sust, we will travel down to the small mountain village of Passu.
Day 14 Passu to gulmit
We will trek along the towering Passu glacier and through a pasture for four hours, arriving at borit Lake in time for late lunch. Here we will see sacred rock carvings that date back to 200 AD, evidence that numerous Silk Road traders have passed this route into China. We will continue our journey to gulmit in the afternoon.
Day 15 Karimabad
Today we will reach Karimabad, the capital of Hunza, which occupies a spectacular location with a commanding view of the snow-capped Rakaposhi (7,788 m/25,551 ft) and the Ultar Peaks (7,388 m/24,239 ft). We will visit the historic forts of Altit and baltit followed by a walk along ancient water channels before returning to Karimabad in the evening.
Day 16 gilgit
We will depart Karimabad in the morning to head to gilgit, the capital of northern Pakistan and an ancient trading post. Its bustling bazaar was once a 'caravanserai' for many traders traveling along the Silk Road. We will visit the market before taking an early evening flight to Islamabad.
Day 17-18 Islamabad / Taxila
From the new capital, we will take a short drive to the ancient capital of Taxila, which flourished to its greatest heights between 1st and 5th centuries AD. It is also the city that Alexander the great invaded to assert his claim over the lost provinces of the Achawmenian Empire. Amongst the buddhist stupas and monasteries erected throughout the regions, there are rare specimens of stucco from the gandhara period. Its best examples are seen in the city of Sirkap in the outskirts of Taxila. In Islamabad, we will visit the Shakarparian garden and Shah Faisal Mosque, one of the largest mosques in the world.