Registan Square in Samarkand, Uzbekistan (Getty)

How can I see the Silk Road?

They were founded when the Silk Road was at the peak of its power and prosperity, but these ancient cities have stood the test of time

Travelling to the ancient Silk Road cities is a tantalising prospect for anybody with an adventurous soul: this ancient trading route connected the east to the west from around 140BC through to the Middle Ages, only faltering with the decline of the Roman Empire.

Uzbekistan is home to three of the most spectacular Silk Road cities: Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand

As traders plied their wares along the Silk Road, a term coined by Ferdinand von Richthofen, new cities flourished: major centres of almost unimaginable wealth, where deals were made and goods exchanged en route. While Chinese silk was a starting point, everything from camels to coffee was traded along the way. Today, a handful of these ancient metropolises remain: spectacular reminders of the power and prosperity of the Silk Road trade routes.

Khiva, Uzbekistan (Getty)Khiva, Uzbekistan (Getty)

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Next departure: October 19th 2019

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Next departure: May 19th 2020

What are the best silk road cities?

1. Khiva, Uzbekistan

Khiva was one of three cities in Uzbekistan that were vital stop-off points along the Silk Road. The Ichon-Qala, its beautifully-preserved medieval walled town (which is also a Unesco World Heritage site) is home to dozens of restored monuments such as the ornate Tash-Hauli Palace, as well as the famously unfinished Kalta-Minor minaret.

2. Xi’an, China

Formerly known as Chang’an, this ancient imperial capital is one of the oldest cities in East Asia, discovered by Zhang Qiam during the Han dynasty. As the eastern departure point of the Silk Road, Xi’an was a crucial bridge between China, Europe and the Middle East, becoming a centre of international trade.

Xi’an’s historical monuments make it an absolute must-see. Not only does it hold the best-preserved ancient city wall in China, but Xi’an also boasts the Great Mosque, built during the Tang Dynasty, and the Terracotta Warriors – a Unesco World Heritage site that’s part of a vast tomb built for Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China.

3. Merv, Turkmenistan

Once a blossoming cultural capital, the Unesco World Heritage Site was once estimated to be the biggest city in the world – however, it was destroyed during the Mongol period and never truly recovered. Today, it lies in ruins.

This uninhabited site is actually made up of five cities built next to each other, due to the continually changing water course at the time. Nicknamed the ‘wandering city’, the Merv Archaeological Park covers an area of over 1,000 hectares dispersed across the arid plains north of Bayramaly.

4. Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Registan Square in Samarkand, Uzbekistan (Getty)Registan Square in Samarkand, Uzbekistan (Getty)

Once taken by Alexander the Great, Samarkand is now one of the oldest-inhabited cities in Central Asia and was added to the Unesco World Heritage list in 2001. While there’s much to see and do here, Samarkand is most famed for the Registan Square, which is comprised of three incredible madrassas (schools), and the Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

5. Almaty, Kazakhstan

The world’s largest landlocked country is home to one of Central Asia’s most historic cities. Almaty was among the leading trade and agricultural centres on the Silk Road from the 10th to 14th century, and even had its own official mint.

Surrounded by the majestic Trans-ili-Alatau mountains, Kazakhstan’s largest city is undoubtedly its most beautiful – and it transforms into a top destination for skiers during winter.

6. Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Nicknamed the ‘Las Vegas of the Karakum’, Ashgabat is one of the lesser-known Silk Road cities. Situated between the Karakum desert and the Kopet Dag mountain range, it is now home to gilded mosques, white marble palaces, and garish monuments – like the the 185m-tall Constitution Monument tower and the Monument of Neutrality, a huge three-legged arch.

7. Tehran, Iran

Golestan Palace in Tehran, Iran (Getty)Golestan Palace in Tehran, Iran (Getty)

Covering an area of 18,909 square kilometres in the middle east, the enormous Iranian capital was constructed on top of the former settlement of Rey (or Rayy), one of several Silk Road connections in Iran. Notable sites here include the Rey Bazaar and the ornate Golestan Palace.

8. Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Miri Arab Madrassah in Bukhara, Uzbekistan (Getty)Miri Arab Madrassah in Bukhara, Uzbekistan (Getty)

Known as the ‘Shining Pearl of the Silk Road’, Bukhara is a beautiful city that dates back around 2,500 years. Its significant past is evident through the 140 architectural monuments that have stood the test of time. These include the 10th-century Ismail Samani mausoleum, as well as the many mosques and madrassas based in the historic centre of Bukhara.

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