The Silk Road crosses the Gobi Desert at Dunhuang, China.
The Silk Road
Travelling from the UK to China along the Silk Road is a big undertaking that requires some planning, but is an incredibly rewarding journey that will take you through “strange” lands and age old historic sites of Central Asia. You will cross deserts, inland-seas, steppe and mountains as you follow in the footsteps of Marco Polo and Alexander the Great.
It’s possible to make the trip in a little over two weeks, but to really get the most out of the places you will pass through, a month would be ideal.
The Silk Road did not consist of one set path and has been more accurately described as the Silk Routes, as there were many variations. The routes did however start in what is now Xi’an and then moved East to Luoyang (where I live).
The silk road route I recommend is as follows, but this is just a guideline and you can adjust it accordingly depending on what you want to see:
London – Paris – Munich – Budapest – Bucharest – Istanbul – Tbilisi – Baku – Turkmenbashi – Ashgabat – Urgench – Samarkand – Tashkent – Shymkent – Almaty – Urumqi – Xi’an – Luoyang – Beijing
What Visas are needed for the Silk Road
The first thing to take care of is applying for the Visas in plenty of time. If you are planning on going via Turkmenistan, then arrange this Visa first, as if you are unlucky and have your application rejected (approximately 50% of all applications are rejected) then you can make alternative plans and travel instead from Baku in Azerbaijan direct to Kazakhstan.
The Azeri E-VISA is valid for 90 days from the time you apply. The maximum length of stay in Azerbaijan is 30 days. Visa fee $23
You can apply for the Azeri E-Visa on the official website. Be sure to print your E-Visa before you set off as it will be stamped in and out.
As of November 2018 the Chinese embassy requires bio-metric data (fingerprints) before they will issue a VISA.
The most common type of Visa for tourists is the L Visa which is valid for 30 days. To apply, you must complete an online application form and attend in person at one of the Chinese consulates in London, Manchester, Edinburgh or Belfast to give your fingerprints.
To start the application process, visit the Visa for China website where you can submit the form and book an appointment slot (between 9am and 3pm Monday to Friday). You will only need to attend the embassy once as they can return your Visa and documents by post.
Visa fee for the regular service is £85 and £104 for the express service.
For more information see the official website for the Chinese Embassy in Great Britain.
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People holding American, Australian, British, Canadian and EU passports can enter Georgia Visa free for up to one year. For other passport holders, please see the information on the official Georgian E-Visa portal.
People holding American, British, Canadian and EU passports can enter Kazakhstan Visa free for up to 30 days. For other passport holders, please see the information on the Visit Kazakhstan Website.
You can enter Turkey with an E-Visa. The VISA is valid for 180 days from the time you apply. The maximum length of stay in Turkey is 90 days. Visa fee $20 USD
You can apply for the Turkish E-Visa on the official website. Be sure to print out a copy of your E-Visa before you set off as it will be stamped in and out of the country.
To apply for a Turkmenistan tourist VISA you must first get a letter of invitation (can be provided by tour companies), or you can apply for a transit Visa at the embassy.
For more information on the Turkmenistan VISA process, see my post about Ashgabat.
Money & The Silk Road
Use a money belt and make sure your backpack has a lock. I’ve travelled parts of this route many times and never had any problems on trains or buses, but that’s not to say you won’t fall victim to pickpockets or opportunist thieves.
It’s worth having a mixture of Euros and Dollars as well as local currencies. In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan ATMs are non-existent outside of the capital, and even then they might not be working.
Scams: watch out for shoe shiners in Istanbul who will drop something and when you return it they will give you a ‘free’ shoe shine and then demand money. In China, watch out for friendly people in Beijing offering to take you to drink tea. When the bill comes it can be hundreds of dollars.
Health on the Silk Road
No vaccines are mandatory for any of the countries on the route, but as you’ll be ‘off the beaten track’ for a considerable time, it would be prudent to take the rabies jabs and ensure your tetanus is up to date. If you plan on hiking during spring and summer then a vaccine against Tick-borne encephalitis is also a good bet.
Certain over-the-counter medications may be illegal in Uzbekistan and you can get into a lot of trouble for trying to bring prohibited items into the country. You can fin more information in the health section of the British Foreign Office website.
Turkmenistan is 90% desert so it’s important to have plenty of sunblock.
Ensure you have adequate Travel Insurance for your trip. You can get a free quote with our partners at World Nomads by clicking here.
What to pack for the Silk Road
You will be travelling across a very varied landscape, which will include scorching desert and cool mountainous terrain, so you need to pack for all eventualities. The key is to have plenty of layers. The weather will differ depending on what time of year you travel, so do some research first and pack accordingly.
Route for travelling the Silk Road
Part 1: London – Paris – Munich – Budapest – Bucharest – Istanbul
To reach Istanbul from London will take 3 to 4 days. There is a multitude of ways to reach Istanbul and you can adjust the journey to take in any countries you may want to visit on route. Below is one of the fastest routes.
First, take the Eurostar to Paris (2hrs16min, fares from €60).
Next, take the TGV from Paris to Munich (5hrs30mins, fares from €70).
From Munich, take the train to Budapest (7hrs, fares from €50).
From Budapest, take the train to Bucharest (17hrs, fares from €40)
The last leg is Bucharest to Istanbul (19hrs, fares from €40)
Part 2 – Turkey and the Caucasus: Istanbul – Tbilisi – Baku
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There is no direct train between Istanbul and Tbilisi in Georgia, so you must first take a train to the capital, Ankara, and then change for the train to Erzurum. From Erzurum you must then take a bus to the border at Batumi, and then make your way to Tbilisi from the border.
However, a simpler way is to take the bus all the way from Istanbul to Tbilisi with Metro Turizm. The journey takes 30 hours and costs 150TL (€25).
Taking the bus simplifies this process. It’s a long journey, but the scenery is quite pleasant as you follow the coast of the Black Sea for most of the route.
From Tblisi there is an overnight train to Baku in Azerbaijan, (13hrs, fares from 50 GEL/€16). This is where things start to get interesting as you need to cross the Caspian Sea.
Part 3 – Crossing the Caspian Sea
There are two options for crossing the Caspian.
Option 1 – Baku (Azerbaijan) to Aktau (Kazakhstan)
The first and simplest option is to go direct to Aktau in Kazakhstan, and if you were unable to obtain a VISA for Turkmenistan then this is your only option.
Contact the port at Baku for information on sailings. The crossing takes about 20 hours and there are usually 2 or 3 sailings per week, though delays are common. A ticket costs $110 and can only be paid in cash (USD or Manat) on the day of departure.
Baku Port: +994 55 555 1757, +994 50 420 09 05 or +994 55 26653 54. Ask to speak to Vika (Victoria) as she speaks a little English.
Aktau (Kazakhstan) to Almaty (Kazakhstan)
To say Aktau is a little out of the way would be something of an understatement. To the East is the Caspian Sea and all other directions lead into the vast Kyzil Kum Desert for thousands of miles.
There are a couple of options; first is to take a train to Shalkar and then on to Tashkent in Uzbekistan where you can spend a few days exploring the ancient cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. The Second option is from Shalkar take the train to Shymkent and change for Almaty. Total journey time is around 3 days.
Visit the Kazakh Railways website for more information and booking tickets. Although there is an English translation, all stations are in Cyrillic (ACTAHA = Astana, АЛМАТЫ = Almaty, ШЫМКЕНТ= Shymkent etc).
The website has a Live Chat facility and you might get lucky and be able to talk to an English Speaking advisor.
Option 2 – Baku (Azerbaijan) to Turkmenbashi (Turkmenistan)
The Baku to Turkmenbashi route is serviced by two twin cargo vessels; the Bagtyyar and the Berkarar. A ticket for a seat in the lounge cost $50 and a bunk in a cabin is $90. Payment is cash only (USD or Manat) and tickets can only be bought on the day of departure. The seats are perfectly comfortable and you’ll likely not have much company apart from the odd truck driver or wayward traveller.
The first thing you need to do is to contact the port at Baku (+994 55 555 1757, +994 50 420 09 05 or +994 55 26653 54) and ask for Vika who speaks English. She will confirm when the next sailing is and advise you when to come to the port. You can read my full report of how we got our tickets and more information about the crossing in my How to Cross the Caspian Sea article.
When I booked my tour through Owadan Tourism, I made sure that we could be picked up in Turkmenbashi and dropped off at the border with Uzbekistan at the end of our 4 day tour. While in Turkmenistan you should be sure to include a trip to the Darvaza gas crater, or Door to Hell, as it is also known.
There is a border crossing into Uzbekistan at Dashoguz and the crossing is straightforward.
Important note on entering Uzbekistan: many medicines that are perfectly legal elsewhere are prohibited in Uzbekistan. See health section for more information. The authorities will go through your baggage and first aid kit scrutinizing every item. Another point to remember is that ATMs are few and far between, and may not have money, so ensure you have cash (US Dollars are best, but Euros will be ok too).
Once you have crossed into Uzbekistan you will need to take a taxi to the town of Urgench 50km away. We paid $40 for this. Once in Urgench, you can take the train to the capital, Tashkent, however I would recommend a stop off in ancient Samarkand or Bukhara first.
Urgench to Tashkent is approximately 12 hours and cost 400,000 ($50)
Part 4 – Central Asia: Tashkent, Border, Shymkent, Almaty
The quickest way to get from Tashkent to the border with Kazakhstan is by taxi (I paid 30,000/€3) and then walk across. This was one of the busier border crossings I’ve made and took over an hour. On the other side I took a shared taxi for 1000 tenge (about €3) to Shymkent. Journey time was an hour.
There are daily trains between Shymkent and Almaty, but make sure you adjust the time difference between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, as it would be very silly to miss your train (yes, I was silly and missed my train).
Journey time is between 10 and 15 hours and fares range from 3,500 tenge (€10) for a slow train to 10,000 tenge (€25) for a fast train.
Part 5: Almaty to Urumqi
I would recommend at least a couple of days to check out the beautiful city of Almaty, tucked in beneath the mountains that are ever present wherever you go in the city. If time is not tight, then you can also take a side trip to wild Kyrgyzstan (read how to get from Almaty to Bishkek). The journey time between Almaty and Bishkek is around 4 hours.
There is a weekly train that goes to Urumqi in China, but it takes longer than the bus (changing the bogies etc) and is a lot more expensive. The bus takes around 12 hours and has beds. The roads are bumpy, but the mountain and steppe scenery is incredible.
For train tickets go to the small international booth inside Almaty 1 Station. For the bus, you can buy tickets at the main Sayran bus station to the west of the city centre. A bus ticket costs 16,500 tenge ( €40) and there is at least one bus per day (there were two departures when I did the trip in 2018).
Part 6: Urumqi to Beijing
Congratulations, you’ve made it to China and almost the end of the silk road! Urumqi is not a place I am fond of, but it is a necessary stop before heading East to Xi’an, Beijing or Shanghai. Why not consider a stop in the Gobi Desert at Dunhuang as you make your way East? Allow a lot of time to get a train ticket and enter the station as security here in China’s troubled Xinjiang province is excessive.
You can take a train all the way to Beijing (30 hours) but if you want to stop on the way, you could make Xi’an (28 hours) your first stop to see the Terracotta Warriors, and if you really want to finish at the true end of the Silk Road, then Luoyang (29 hours).
There are two daily trains from Urumqi to Beijing. The first one departs at 14:13 and arrives in Beijing the next day at 20:22 (30hrs9mins).
|Hard Seat ¥317 /€42||Hard Sleeper ¥575 /€75||Soft Sleeper ¥887 /€117|
The second Beijing train departs at 19:10 and arrives in Beijing two days later at 09:49 (38hrs39mins).
|Hard Seat ¥335 /€44||Hard Sleeper ¥606 /€80||Soft Sleeper ¥937 /€123|
There are six daily trains from Urumqi to Luoyang between 18:56 and 23:16. The shortest travel time is 29hrs 49mins with fares from ¥300 (seat) to ¥900 (soft sleeper).
There are 13 daily trains from Urumqi to Xi’an between 17:53 and 23:33. The shortest travel time is 24hrs 50mins with fares from ¥268 (seat) to ¥750 (soft sleeper).
If you would like to further break up the journey, then you can of course do so with stops in Dunhuang (Gobi Desert), Xining or Lanzhou.
To book tickets and check times and prices, go to the trip.com website or download their useful app (this is how I buy all my train tickets in China).
Returning from China
trip.com offer flights to Europe for very reasonable prices. Check the website for fares.
If you’d like to do this journey in reverse, then simply read this article upside-down!
Further reading: Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road; William Dalrymple, In Xanadu; Lonely Planet Central Asia; Marco Polo’s Silk Road.