In the second century BC, imperial envoy Zhang Qian was sent on a mission to the West, beyond the outer limits of ancient China, to obtain some of the legendary Ferghana horses for Han emperor Wudi’s cavalry. On the equine front the mission was a failure, but Zhang Qian returned to Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) with stories of the riches he saw and this soon led to the development of trade between China and the alien world beyond its western frontier.
Myriad commodities – as well as religious beliefs and cultural attitudes – traversed the land from China, through Central Asia and Persia to the Mediterranean. The formidable Taklamakan Desert, an arid wasteland of shifting sand dunes, posed one of the biggest threats to travellers, who skirted its northern and southern edges, finding respite in the many thriving oasis towns.
The instability brought about by the fall of empires and by the establishment of sea routes saw the decline of these trading corridors and the region disappeared into obscurity until the end of the nineteenth century, when tales of lost cities filled with treasure drew foreign explorers into an international race of rediscovery.
Today, evocative ruins, chaotic markets and Buddhist cave paintings remain to be seen, while the museums are filled with the many artefacts and mummified remains unearthed along the route. Despite relentless modernisation cities such as Kashgar retain their ancient charm, while the enormity of these perilous journeys is conveyed by sight of the vast expanses of landscape that make up China’s last great wilderness.
London to Beijing. Fly at 4.30pm from London Heathrow to Beijing (British Airways, c. 10 hours).
Beijing. Arrive at Beijing Airport at c. 9.30am and drive to the hotel for lunch. The imposing National Museum in Tianamen Square has superb collections of early Chinese artefacts, Zhou bronzes and the whole range of porcelain from Song to Qing. Overnight Beijing.
Beijing to Xi’an. Fly at c. 10.30am from Beijing to Xi’an, arriving at 12.30pm. After a late lunch, there is a walk through the winding streets of the city’s Muslim Quarter. The Great Mosque, one of the largest in China, was originally built in AD 742 although the present fabric dates from the Qing Dynasty. First of three nights in Xi’an.
Xi’an. The Shaanxi History Museum explains the history and culture of the province, the heartland of ancient Chinese civilisation. There is a special visit to the museum’s collection of Tang-dynasty tomb murals. After lunch, visit the Beilin Museum, which houses a collection of stone stelae, engraved with classic texts and masterpieces of calligraphy, as well as a fine collection of Buddhist statues.
Xi’an. Full-day excursion east and north of the city. The tomb of the first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, is yet to be excavated but his legacy was secured in 1974 when farmers digging a well discovered his terracotta army of infantry, cavalry and civil servants. There may be 20,000 of them, over 1.5 metres tall; only a relatively small part of the site has been uncovered, but it is nevertheless one of the most spectacular archaeological finds of all time. The pottery warriors at the later tomb of the fourth Han emperor, Liu Qi, display striking attention to detail; some eunuch figures have been found here, providing the earliest known evidence of this phenomenon in China.
Xi’an to Dunhuang. Fly to Dunhuang at c. 1.30pm, arriving at c. 3.45pm and transfer to the hotel. Dunhuang is a small oasis town with low-rise buildings along wide avenues, flanked to one side by colossal sand dunes. First of two nights in Dunhuang.
Dunhuang. The Mogao Caves are a highlight of the Silk Road in China and one of the most important sites of early Chinese Buddhist cave paintings. Once a strategic stop-off point for pilgrims travelling to India, it developed in to a major Buddhist centre of art and learning. Despite the controversial carting off of paintings, sculptures and manuscripts by foreign archaeologists in the 19th century, there is still very fine artwork to be seen. The Western Caves, set by an attractive river valley, are fewer in number but also contain exquisite paintings.
Dunhuang to Turpan. The Dunhuang Museum houses important artefacts unearthed at the Mogao Caves, including rare Tibetan sutras. Travel by train at to Turpan (luggage is sent separately). First of two nights in Turpan.
Turpan. At Gaochang see the extensive ruins of an ancient walled trading city. On the north-east rim of the Taklamakan Desert in a gorge in the Flaming Mountains, lies the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves. The caves once formed part of a Buddhist monastery between 6th and 14th centuries. After lunch drive out to Jiaohe. The most visually rewarding of all the sites around Turpan, this ancient city is located on a high platform above two rivers. Among the ruins, the layout of the city is still clear: the residential district, the palace, the monastery complex.
Turpan to Kashgar. Transfer to Urumqi (a journey of approx. 3 hours) for a late afternoon flight to Kashgar, arriving at c. 6.15pm. First of three nights in Kashgar.
Kashgar. The former British Consulate was the home for 26 years of the most famous of British India’s representatives in Kashgar; Sir George Macartney and his wife hosted some of the most prominent Silk Road travellers, including Sir Aurel Stein and Albert von Le Coq. Nikolai Petrovsky’s former Russian Consulate is nearby. The dilapidated buildings belie their historic significance as erstwhile outposts for two rival powers in the Great Game. After lunch, visit the Id-kah Mosque. This is the largest mosque in Xinjiang and was founded in c. 1738, though the current structure dates back only as far as 1838, and suffered much damage during the Cultural Revolution.
Kashgar. Goods and livestock have been traded at Kashgar’s Sunday market for more than 2000 years. The scene today is still a riot of colour sounds and smells as animals, carts and vehicles traverse this vast site. Though the old city is gradually being razed by local authorities to make way for modern development, it retains much of its ancient charm.
Kashgar to Beijing. Fly at 10.15am from Kashgar to Beijing, via Urumqi, arriving at c. 4.30pm. Spend the night in a hotel near Beijing airport.
Beijing to London. Fly at 11.15am from Beijing to London, arriving at c. 3.15pm (c. 11 hours).
Price, 2016 – per person
Two sharing: £6,040 or £5,300 without international flights. Single occupancy: £6,760 or £6,020 without international flights.
Price, 2017 – per person
Two sharing: £6,340 or £5,700 without international flights. Single occupancy: £6,990 or £6,350 without international flights.
Air travel (World Traveller class) with British Airways: London to Beijing return (Boeing 777), Air China: Beijing to Xi’an and Dunhuang to Beijing (Boeing 737-800), China Southern: Xi’an to Kashgar and Kashgar to Urumqi (Boeing 737-800); rail travel from Turpan to Dunhuang (First Class); transport by air-conditioned coach; accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 10 lunches and 7 dinners with wine, beer or soft drinks, water, coffee, tea; all admission charges to museums; all tips for waiters, drivers and guides; the services of the lecturer, tour manager and local guides.
Visas are required for most foreign nationals, and not included in the tour price. We will advise participants on the process.
Waldorf Astoria, Beijing: recently-opened, 5-star luxury hotel in the city centre. Westin Hotel, Xi’an: modern, comfortable and well-run 4-star hotel, located in the south of the city. Silk Road Hotel, Dunhuang, a large hotel situated close to the Mingsha Sand Dunes, rated locally as 4-star. Huozhou Hotel, Turpan: centrally located hotel, rated locally as 4-star. Radisson Blu Hotel, Kashgar: large and brash but one of the most recently renovated hotels in the city, rated locally as 5-star. Hilton Beijing Capital Airport Hotel, a large international hotel. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
A good level of fitness is essential. Unless you enjoy entirely unimpaired mobility, cope with everyday walking and stair-climbing without difficulty and are reliably sure-footed, this tour is not for you. Uneven ground and irregular paving are standard. There are some long coach journeys during which facilities are limited and may be of poor quality. Average distance by coach per day: 50 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.fco.gov.uk.
Another MRT triumph, in that I was taken to see and learn about unforgettable marvels I didn’t know existed before the tour.
Our lecturer demonstrated encyclopaedic knowledge of everything, from the most erudite and arcane aspects of linguistics, archeology and the latest historical research, to aspects of present Chinese society and politic. He wore his learning lightly and married it with charisma, passion, charm and humour. Quite thrilling really.This is why I choose MRT over any other travel company.
The lecturer was hugely knowledgeable and very enthusiastic about his topic. He could also answer questions about modern China and was endlessly patient and lots of fun.