The Silk Road. An ancient route that has carried fine goods, culture and ideas between the East and West for more than 2000 years. Today, it's still possible to trace the footsteps of the most famous Silk Road traveller, trader and historical biographer, Marco Polo, making those distant dreams of camels, pyramids, spices and scents a reality. Are you ready to take on the most historic journey of your life?
Back in the 13th Century, Italian merchant Marco Polo was one of the most prolific travellers of his day; credited with introducing Europeans to China and Central Asia by means of the renowned route. The network of trade roads had existed long before his birth, but none of his contemporaries had yet followed it to its furthest Eastern reaches. Polo went where no Westerner had gone before, and his writings have since inspired countless curious minds.
The trading route that formed the basis of Polo's travels and rise to prominence are still in use today, so strong were the links it originally forged between Europe and China. The difference is they are no longer served by camels, but by roads, railways and shipping routes. This offers a wealth of possibilities for those wishing to take on the road in its entirety. Few can put aside the four years it took for Polo and his family to make their initial journey from Venice to Cathay, but you can drive, ride or fly as much or as little of the route as you want, taking pit stops at important milestones along the way.
The most popular way to experience the Silk Road today is by taking the Trans-Siberian Railway, an epic of a train route that starts in London and ends in Beijing. There are actually two routes: one designed for (relative) speed, and another that more accurately tracks the original silk route - see what The Man in Seat 61 has to say about the two journey options, here. Ticket prices vary enormously, so depending on the level of luxury and convenience you go for, this can be an affordable option for seeing the entire route.
For those on a tighter budget, flying to a specific area of interest may be the most affordable solution. For example, many travellers choose to pick up a bus from Urumqi to Kashgar within China; a route that offers spectacular views of the Taklamakan Desert. Or, if you're up for a road trip like no other you could plot out a driving route along the silk road. There is also a popular motorcycle route from Turkey to China, with convoy travel packages available for the adventurous biker.
Regardless of the distance you plan to cover, the months of May and October are said to be the best for travelling the Silk Road. Remember, you'll be passing through many different zones that face bitterly cold winters and scorching hot summers - and this has visa and language implications, too. Travellers taking on the entire route are advised to 'get by' with a minimum of three phrasebooks: Russian, Persian and Mandarin.
For those wishing to take the longer 'scenic' rail route, private touring trains are available for the rail journey of a lifetime - with a ticket often fetching more than £10,000. The price is put in perspective by the luxury of the cabins - and the fact that the trains pass through Moscow, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan before traversing the Gobi desert right through to Beijing, with the most spectacular and ever-changing scenery en route.
However you plan to travel along the Silk Road, one experience not to be missed is that of the Caravanserai - traditional wayfarers' inns that are dotted along the route. Polo would have stayed in establishments much like those youâll encounter today, with their walled courtyards, specially equipped camel stables, and sometimes elaborate baths.
The Silk Road is one of the oldest established routes on earth, and is the ultimate adventure for those who believe that getting there is more important than arriving. Don't miss out on this rare opportunity to travel as historic pioneers such as Marco Polo did, taking in spectacular, ever-changing scenery as you cross countries and cultural borders.
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Written by Abi Silvester, a London-based writer and editor with a passion for great food, fine wine, coffee and cats; always planning my next trip! Follow her on Twitter.