The Silk Road, China

Monday, 5 February 2007


A number of people have asked this, but I think the route speaks for itself...

This trip is an extraordinary opportunity. Somehow I appear to have temporarily extracted myself from my job without terminally damaging my career (I hope), allowing me to put on hold my life in London and embark on the kind of travel that isn't possible while in full time work.

Why the Silk Road? My decision was the product of a collision of factors. Most recently and significantly, I must credit James (Carty), a friend of mine who recently decided to walk from London to Jerusalem (see I joined him for the last hundred miles into Jerusalem and it reminded me of a kind of travelling I haven't done for some time. He also made me realise that the kind of adventure travel my father did in his youth, including driving across the Sahara, was still possible.

Of course times have changed; my reaction to to my father's advice to "take some morphine with you... just in case" is a case in point. But some of the places I will pass through on the Silk Road have only recently been opened to all but the most seasoned travellers. Other parts are changing so rapidly that they will be unrecognisable in as little as ten years. So it's a fascinating time to go.

So it is then, that a thirst for adventure, a fascinating (if brief) introduction to the Middle East last year and a lifelong passion for the mountains made The Silk Road the obvious candidate for what I expect to be one of the most exciting six months of my life.

In addition, I'm unbelievable lucky that Chris - a friend and fully signed up member of the increasingly ambitious (mostly financially, it seems) annual ski trips - is up for the Middle East and Central Asia. He's been out in Whistler since January and I'll be heading out there to join in the vital 'preparation' for the Silk Road!


Sunday, 4 February 2007

The route

There is no single "Silk Road" - instead a network of trade routes which allowed the Silk caravans to make their west to Europe from China and the copper, tin, gold and furs that were exchanged and made their way back in the opposite direction.

No merchant travelled the full 9,000 miles from the the Mediterranean to Beijing; the distance was spanned with multiple trades. So to travel the entire length of it is not to follow the caravans. It is to explore the some of the driest plains and the the highest mountains on earth. It is also, apprently, to join "one of the few clubs to count as members Alexander, Ghengis Khan and Marco Polo!"

Despite the absence of a clearly defined single route, once you have decided you must see the great cities of the Silk Road (Samarkand, Bukhara) and that you must not see the hotspots of Iraq and Afghanistan, a route begins to emerge.

We will begin in Syria. From Damascus we will head north into Turkey and south east into Iran, past the Caspian Sea to Tehran. Here the roads fork - with one option to bear north east through central Asia and the other head south of Afghanistan into Pakistan. We will take in some of Iran before taking the former.

Next are the Stans: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, up into the awesome Pamir mountains of Tajikstan (a slight detour from the trail through Tashkent) and up into Kyrgistan. Here we will attempt to cross into China via the notoriously unpredictable Torugart Pass.

At this point, no altitude junkie in his right mind could pass up the opportunity to head south past K2 and over the Karakorum Highway into Pakistan. This is still "legit" Silk Road though; apparently you can see the camel trail chipped out of the cliffs as you descend from the Kunjerab pass.

Sadly, I will then bid farewell to Chris and return back over the Karakorum highway into mighty China. My sister Helen will join me here, and I look forward to contrasting the vast and empty expanses of the Taklakaman desert in Xinjiang province to the every increasing population density as I head east and ultimately into Xian. Here the pollution is such that the snow is black winter.

Then to Tibet, a place which intrigued me when I was in Nepal nearly ten years ago. Here I hope to meet up with Tom and Debs and spend 2-3 weeks, perhaps heading to Everest base camp.

Then down from the Tibetan plateau and east towards the sprawling expanse of Beijing, by which time I expect the Silk Roads of Central Asia to feel like a distant memory.