What is it like to solo backpack 6000km along the Chinese Silk Road?

In August 2018, I took a solo Train-Journey along the legendary Silk Road of China. History is full of such long highways, but frankly none of them come close to the Silk Road — Which is a combination of many trade routes, that once connected East China to Europe, where even Marco Polo travelled for 15 years of his life.

Overview :

The Silk Road is one of the greatest travel routes of all time, spanning over 10,000km from Xi’an in China to Istanbul in Turkey, across more than 10 countries & 20 ethnic groups.

Most of the Silk Road is located in China, and I started my train from Shanghai and went upto the western border near the Pakistan — Each city that I stopped at, was less developed than the previous one — And it felt like going back in a time-machine to see how people lived decades or centuries earlier.

Here are the top things that you should see and experience along this journey:

Xi’an

Xi’an is where the traditional silk road began, and for the first millennium, it was THE CENTRE of Chinese civilisation.

The hamburgers, locally known as “Rou jia mo” have been around for more than a thousand years. A stall owner, whose family has been making RouJiaMo for generations, told me :

“The Hamburgers were invented here in China, and I think the Americans just copied it from us.”

Every evening at a park near the Big Goose Pagoda, more than a hundred local women gather to do the guǎngchǎng wǔ i.e. the square dancing. I joined them for a dance, they were extremely welcoming to a foreigner and taught me a few steps, which looked something like this :

Backpacker Tip : Skip the Terracotta warriors, and instead head for a hike to HuaShan Mountains.

Jiayuguan & Dunhuang

This section of the Silk Road is through the dunes of Gobi Desert and the end of Great Wall (which starts 2000km away in Beijing).

Somewhere along this journey, I got into a cab with a Chinese stranger, he didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Chinese. But then he played the song “Tunak Tunak Tun”, and I sang along — And Bollywood connected us.

Turpan & Urumqi

Turpan & Urumqi are known for its Uighur culture, and most locals here have a Central Asian ethnicity.

I passed through villages, where families survived for less than 80$ a month, yet opened their homes to a complete stranger like me, who neither understood their culture, nor spoke their language — Because Kindness and Love are two universal languages that can connect any human beings no matter where they come from.

From Urumqi, I began another long train journey to Kashgar, where the Chinese kids in the berths were trying to practice their English with me, their families offering me home-made food, they were cracking jokes and translating it in English for their foreigner friend — Because train journeys are all about enjoying these simple pleasures of life, and I took occasional glances outside the window to see the world that we left behind; not knowing when I’ll return to this country again.

Backpacker Tip : None of the hostels in Urumqi accept foreigners, because it requires a special permit. Either choose an AirBnB in Urumqi, or stay in the Central-Asian themed Dap Youth Hostel in Turpan.

Kashgar

The historic town of Kashgar has existed for more than 2000 years & was the heart of the Silk Road and is still one of the best preserved Islamic cities of Central Asia.

What to do in Kashgar?

  • Kashgar’s livestock bazaar is one of the largest and liveliest livestock markets in Asia.
  • Kashgar’s Sunday Bazaar : Thousand years ago, it was one of Asia’s largest bazaars.
    Most of the traders here, have minimal education and are poor at maths, so they sell everything in packs of 5 Yuan for easy accounting, and all of them shout “besh kuai” indicating “Buy it for 5 yuan”.
  • Walk around the Old Town, which is a mix of Islam and China.
    The movie Kite Runner was shot in the streets of Kashgar, because Kabul wasn’t a safe for film shooting in the year 2005, and the local culture of Kashgar being closer to Pashtuns than Han Chinese, made it a perfect filming set.
    The markets of Old Town have a particular characteristic : There are no women traders around, and almost all the men wear a Doppa, which is an Uzbek type hat.

Backpacker Tips for Kashgar :
Stay in
Pamir Youth Hostel. And try out the local cold noodles and the Uyghur bread. Also buy some Dry fruits, they’re extremely cheap here.

Tashkurgan

I did a roadtrip from Kashgar to Tashkurgan, along the Karakoram Highway which is the highest paved international road in the world. Tashkurgan is 1–2 hours away from Khunjerab Pass, where China ends and Pakistan begins.

Backpacker Tips for Tashkurgan :

  1. Tourists need a special permit to travel to Tashkurgan. Get that from the official tourist centre in Kashgar.
  2. Xinjiang is a highly sensitive region, where there are a lot of police check posts who’ll ask for your passport/visa. They have the right to deny access to anyone to this border town.
  3. Tashkurgan has one hostel i.e. K2 Youth Hostel where practically every foreign backpacker stays.
  4. Because all of China officially follows a single time-zone, sunset happens in Tashkurgan at 10pm. But Xinjiang follows it’s own local (unofficial) time, which is 2 hours behind Beijing standard time.

The best way to experience any region’s culture is by attending their weddings. I managed to crash into a Tajik pre-wedding celebration and they let me join them for a dance around the bonfire, because happiness can be celebrated with strangers too. The ceremony looked something like this :

After days of travelling in off-beaten tracks & rugged terrains, I made it to the last spot - At the grasslands near the Pamir Mountains, around some local families who lived in a yurtz without any electricity - It was such a contrast from 6000km away in Shanghai, where I started 2 weeks earlier. And then I started to make my way back —To return home after such a long train journey, which is probably among the greatest Train Journeys on the earth.

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Atleast once in your life, take a cross-country train trip to a place outside your comfort zone that you’ve never been to before. It’ll teach you more about the country and it’s people than any tour-guide would ever do. And by the time you come back home, you’ll never be the same person again.

PS : My cellphone crashed after I returned to India, and I lost all photos (read:500 plus pics) that I took during this trip. I did managed to recover a few; but largely this Medium Blog now remains the only memory that I’ll ever have about my Silk Road trip.

Before you go : If you liked this blogpost, then all you need to do is Share & Clap.

Read about my hike across the world’s most dangerous mountain trail here !

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