XIAN, China-Centuries ago, the Silk Road was a profitable international trading route connecting Europe to Asia-a connected series of overland tracks plied by long camel trains carrying silk, spices and tea west and glassware, dates and frankincense to China. The trips could take months, even years; caravans could be beset by robbers and bad weather.
By the 1400s, merchant sailing ships had started to render the route obsolete.
Now, the Silk Road has more value to tour operators, who trade on its mythic lure. Visitors who prefer just a sample of Silk Road sensations can do so with a program that focuses on key cities like Kashgar, Samarkand, Bukhara and Kiva. But those who want the complete experience are best to book an overland journey by specialized vehicle-preferably one like the hardy and comfortable Land Rovers used by Asia Adventures and Study Tours (AAST) of Toronto. This is as much a driving adventure as a tour, with each of the three or four passengers per vehicle having a turn at the wheel.
It takes 60 days for AAST to cover the route, which runs roughly 14,000 kilometres from Xian, in China, at the eastern end of the Silk Road to Istanbul, in Turkey, in the west. The journey traces the original Silk Road through challenging deserts and rugged mountains, along highways, secondary roads and even trails.
Few of the Silk Road cities, save Xian and Istanbul, have well developed tourism infrastructures, so hotel accommodations tend be basic, but clean and friendly, with hearty meals served in-house. Four-or-five-star services may be hard to come by, but the sacrifice is worth it.
There is, for instance, the solitary city of Khiva in the Kizil Kum Desert. Life still hums inside its massive, 10th-century walls, the twists and turns of its narrow streets leading visitors to mosques and markets.
Or the legendary Samarkand, once known as the Garden of the Universe, in present-day Uzbekistan. Samarkand was a major centre of Silk Road business in the days of camel-train commerce 800-plus years ago, and it retains elements from those days of glory.
Among them is the Registan, a spectacular structure dedicated to Islamic education. Visitors can stroll through its three madrassahs (Islamic schools) and marvel at the millions of bright tiles that colour the building's exterior. They can even climb to the top of one of the minarets. It is a narrow and steep ascent, but the view rewards the effort.
The city was also once renowned as a centre of learning, when scientific knowledge trumped religion for a short period of time. In the early 1400s, Samarkand was ruled by Ulugh Beg, grandson of central Asia's conquerer, Timur (known to the West as Tamerlane). He built an observatory to track the stars and he postulated heretical suggestions, such as the idea that the earth circles the sun. The observatory was ultimately destroyed by religious fanatics in 1449, but its foundations and tracking mechanism still remain to be seen by visitors to Samarkand.
For more information on the Asia Adventures and Study Tours annual Drive the Silk Road trip, visit www.aast-journeys.com.
Ted Davis is a member of the Meridian Writers' Group.