When the 19th-century German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen labelled this trans-Asian route the Silk Road, he was referring to a historical exchange of not just materials, but cultures. Today this vibrancy is still alive and waiting to be discovered in 4 cities along this ancient trail - Xi’an and Lanzhou in China; Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan.
Xi’an: Get inspired in the imperial city
Begin your journey at Xi’an or imperial Chang'an as it was called in ancient times. Xi’an was originally a walled city, and its massive inner-city walls still stand strong. What better way to get your bearings in this bustling city than with a view from the top? Make a beeline for the majestic South Gate (Yongning Gate) where you can rent a bicycle and stay till the sun sets to enjoy night views of the city.
For a change of scenery, take an easy half-hour drive out to the iconic 1.6-hectare Museum of the Terracotta Army. Brace yourself for that unforgettable first glimpse of more than 6,000 terracotta warriors in symbolic arrangement around the tomb of the first Qin emperor. It may well be the highlight of your trip. Look carefully, and you will find that no two are alike!
For more history lessons, head to the Shaanxi History Museum. Housing over 370,000 relics, it is one of the largest museums in China, featuring artefacts from the Zhou, Qin, Western Han, Sui and Tang dynasties – all of whom made this region their capital.
At the end of all this sightseeing, even the most passionate culture vulture needs to eat. Lucky for you, a gastronomic journey awaits in the Muslim Quarter. Before you dive into the local delicacies, visit the Great Mosque and note the graceful fusion of Chinese and Arabic architecture in this Ming dynasty legacy. Once you’re done exploring, sample the delicious jiaozi (dumplings) – that are both chicken shaped and contain chicken! – at the De Fa Chang restaurant. To unwind at the end of the day, lose yourself in the colourful old bazaar that sells everything from clothes to paintings, partaking in an activity that appeals to all generations.
Xiamen Airlines flies from Changi Airport to Xi’an six times every week.
Lanzhou: Go dawn to dusk in the golden city
One of Lanzhou’s biggest attractions, especially for foodies, is the way the Chinese Silk Road fare comes alive in this city. You’ll want to spend time at the famous Zhengning Road night market, walking the lively narrow lanes and sampling everything from goat’s head soup to hand-pulled beef noodles. With more than 100 stalls, this is a meat lover’s paradise as Hui, Han, and Uyghur stalls compete to surprise your restless taste buds.
Good thing you can walk it off the next morning by taking the stairs up the White Pagoda Mountain to the Buddhist temple and viewing the picturesque city. Later, admire the Yellow River from the Zhongshan Bridge, a Lanzhou landmark.
You also won’t want to miss the Gansu Provincial Museum, where you can view the wooden tablets used to relay messages and other fascinating Silk Road exhibits. Carry your passport to gain free admission.
China Eastern Airlines flies from Changi Airport to Lanzhou four times every week.
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Samarkand: Monument-hop in one of Central Asia’s oldest cities
You know that visiting a UNESCO world heritage city is going to be a monumental experience, pun intended. So take it slow and spend a day taking photographs in changing lights at one of the world’s most awe-inspiring plazas, the Registan. The medieval city’s commercial centre has some of the world’s oldest and most beautiful madrasas (Islamic religious schools). You can also browse silk carpets and trademark Samarkand ceramics here.
Then head northeast and walk towards the crumbling yet still magnificent Bibi-Khanym Mosque, reportedly the jewel of Timur’s empire. Admire the interior courtyard and its marble Quran stand.
To view some of the most vibrant tilework in the Muslim world, visit the stunning necropolis Shah-i-Zinda, an avenue of mausoleums of people both famous and unknown dating back to the 11th century as well as an important pilgrimage stop for Muslims.
The Uzbek cuisine will leave you wanting more. Binge on local menu items such as plov or pilaf (a rice dish usually cooked with meat, carrots and onions), manti (steamed meat dumplings) and shashlik (skewered and grilled chunks of meat). Don’t grudge the calories – these come from centuries-old Silk Road recipes, after all!
There are weekly flights on Uzbekistan Airways from Changi Airport to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. From there, high speed trains connect Samarkand to Tashkent.
Bukhara: Get medieval in a city museum
Return to the Middle Ages by wandering on foot through the most intact example of a medieval city in Central Asia today. Bukhara’s distinctive history as a centre of culture and learning comes alive in its many spectacular madrasas, museums and minarets. Need a break? Relax like a local in the ancient main square of Lyabi-Hauz amid mulberry trees.
Fortresses are always fun, so head over to see the magnificent Ark, a royal town-within-a-town that has several museums. Do check out what remains of the royal apartments, which house a museum covering Bukhara’s history from the Shaybanids to the Tsars. If you want the shivers, peek into the Zindon, the old jail behind the Ark that features a torture chamber and grisly cells.
The colourful legacy of the Silk Road is everywhere to be seen in the brisk trade that takes place even today in covered bazaars. If you’re planning to take home a souvenir in the form of a Bukhara door handle or jewellery in the local style, you’ll want to visit one of the oldest and largest trading domes in Bukhara, the 16th century Taqi-Zargaron Market.
There are weekly flights on Uzbekistan Airways from Changi Airport to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. From there, high speed trains connect Bukhara to Tashkent.
Bukhara’s distinctive history as a centre of culture and learning comes alive in its many spectacular madrasas, museums and minarets
Visiting these Silk Road cities means immersing yourself in culture, cuisine and relics that have developed over millennia. Book your tickets for a wonderful adventure now.