Monthly Archives: January 2016

The essential guide to backpacking

The section of the ancient Silk Road that runs through China is an epic journey through desert dunes to the end of the Great Wall, a length of pink mud that ends abruptly in the magnificent beige towers of the Jiayuguan Fort.

This is not a voyage that many travellers experience; it’s often and understandably overlooked in favour of more accessible and famous destinations in China.

But for adventurous travellers looking for something truly different, backpacking the Chinese Silk Road reaps glorious rewards: sand-sledding down a magical unmoving sand dune, a camel ride around an oasis, a trek up the end of the Great Wall and sipping wine under grape trellises are just a few of the possibilities. So don a sand-proof rucksack and check out our guide to backpacking the Silk Road through China.

 

The route

Historically, the Silk Road was not one but many routes that connected east and south Asia to Mediterranean Europe, so named because the largest commodity traded down the route was sought-after Chinese silk. The route traditionally started in Xi’an (then known as Chang’an), China and continued northwest through modern-day Gansuand Xinjiang provinces before reaching Central Asia.

Several historical splits in the road mean that you have options when deciding your route. By far, the most traversed portion of the route is from Xi’an to Lanzhou and Jiayuguan in Gansu. From here, you can choose to head northwest to Urumqi in Xinjiang, where fascinating Uigher culture, China’s wine country, and the soaring peaks of the Tian Shan mountains await.  Alternately, the southern route heads through the fiery desert of Gansu, with its huge dunes and ancient Buddhist caves, ending in the distinctly Central Asian city of Kashgar, renowned for its bustling Sunday livestock market. Adventurous travellers and those with extra time could potentially explore both routes by heading southward from Jiayuguan to Dunhuang in Gansu, then upwards to Urumqi and finally south again to end in Kashgar.

 

Don’t-miss sights

Zhangye Danxia National Geopark. This incredible desert landscape is striking for its orange, red and yellow hues of layered clay and sandstone, forming bizarre rainbow mountains. While you’re in Zhangye, also be sure to see the Giant Buddha Temple, which contains one of the largest wooden reclining Buddha statues in China.

Jiayuguan Fort. The ancient Great Wall ends in this towering mud fortress, which rises out of the desert like a mirage. Just a few kilometres northwest of Jiayuguan town, the fort boasts a few touristy activities like archery and camel rides, but the real reason to come is for the sweeping views from its ramparts.

Overhanging Great Wall. Named because it looks like a dragon hanging over a cliffside, this portion of the Great Wall is one of the most visually stunning: a mud maze that zigzags its way up a stark desert mountain. The wall is open for climbing and views from the top are incredible.