The Silk Road isn’t just one road; it’s actually a network of trade routes on land and water that connected Europe with various parts of Asia and even Africa.
We cycled one of the most common Silk Road routes – through Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – but we didn’t cover all of it.
That’s why we were very happy when Shanny, a leader for the Tour d’Afrique Silk Route bicycle tour, offered to fill in a few details on some of the parts we missed. Here are Shanny’s tips:
This is a country that has gone through a rough couple of years. With the brief and powerful assault by Russia in 2008, and weakening relations with the West, it is struggling to get a foothold. But travel to Georgia is still a very feasible and safe undertaking. Visas for some nationalities can be a bit time consuming to obtain, but it’s well worth the effort.
If you don’t mind some rough, gravely cycling the route between Tbilisi and the Turkish border at Posof is a gem, and much preferred, I’ve heard, to the border with Turkey at Batumi. Going via beautiful Lake Paravani avoids all the busy roads (and bad drivers) on the main paved routes. And if cycling towards Tbilisi, you will enjoy a fantastic panoramic view as you cycle in from the west and then drop 20 km of downhill into the country’s capital that awaits you in the valley below.
Tbilisi is a fantastic city, with interesting regional and international cuisine, an excellent selection of wines (who knew, Georgian wine was so good!), and great outdoor spaces. It’s definitely worth a day’s stop before pushing on to Azerbaijan.
An oil-rich nation, Azerbaijan’s capital is less attractive than its Georgian neighbour. But explore some of the countries historical attractions.
In Sheki, the caravanserai is a must-do Silk Route experience. Though camping is great, the caravanserai is a great way to spend a night and imagine that your caravan of horses and carts has just arrived for an overnight stop before pressing further, deeper into the unknown with your goods from the west to be sold further east along the Silk Route. It is like stepping back in time – to when the trade routes between the west and east were booming and these caravanserai’s were a traveller’s haven.
Like an ancient truck stop, these dwellings offered a roof over the heads and place to park the horses of tired traders. From the open-air courtyard inside, you can scan the squared perimeter with its arched entrances to each stall where weery travellers could park their horses, and enjoy a night’s sleep in the rooms above them. So book this ahead and park your bike and lay your head down where so many adventurers from the past have done before you.
China – Xinjiang Province
The Uighurs of Xinjiang province are Turkic people who occupy the most remote place on earth. Its capital, Urumqi, is the farthest from any sea of any city in the world. And there is something about this fact that makes it truly fascinating and makes me appreciate just how treacherous and risky the Silk Route was for traders so long ago.
A great portion of Xinjiang is covered by the Taklamakan Desert (one translation has it to mean “Those who enter, will never leave”). Silk Route traders would skirt its edges – stopping in Xinjiang towns of Kashgar, Kuqa, Turpan and others.
Kashgar’s market is another remnant of those adventurous times. The ancient market still buzzes with activity to this day. You will still find silk, carpets, hats, crafts, fresh fruits, and vegetables, but those sit alongside mass produced goods brought in from eastern China and elsewhere. So if the Silk Route is on your wish list, it might be good to see Kashgar soon before it changes forever.
Then, not far from Xinjiang province, and eastward from Dunhuang you get the pleasure of cycling and camping next to the Great Wall of China. Though nothing like the grand architecture of the wall further east – with its castle-like features cutting a difficult line up and over mountains – this westward end of the wall runs along the flat desert floor, and is much more crumbled and decaying. It is no less impressive when you consider how many thousands of kilometres further cycling it takes to reach the strong line of stone that runs through Eastern China and it’s most famous segments of the Great Wall north of Beijing.
Need more information? Check out these other articles about travelling the Silk Road:
- Travellers’ guide to Xinjiang in National Geographic
- Guardian article on Kashgar’s market
- Guardian travel writer reports from Azerbaijan
- Globe and Mail series “Spending a summer in ‘the other Georgia’”
- Bike touring blog post from Azerbaijan
Shanny Hill has been bike touring since he was a teenager, and now has a dream job working for Tour d’Afrique; a company that runs cycling expeditions in many locations around the world, including a 4-month expedition along the Silk Route, from Shanghai to Istanbul.