Wade Shepard, Bloomberg
Thanks to more than a trillion dollars of prospective investment — led by China — the Silk Road is rising again.
For travellers, this means a wealth of new destinations to explore — some sprung from deserts overnight and others that have for too long been left off tourist maps.
Here are a few locations to check out
For food lovers: Xi’an, China
The heart of the original Silk Road was inarguably the central Chinese city of Chang’an, or modern-day Xi’an. In the eighth century, it was the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the world — a beacon for traders from all corners of Asia. Now an international trade hub with 12 million residents, Xi’an is reclaiming its former glory as the eastern terminus of the Belt and Road — perhaps no surprise, considering it’s the hometown of President Xi Jinping.
How much time you’ll need: Three to five days
What to see and do: While most visitors know Xi’an for its iconic terracotta army, there is much more to the place. Start at Tang West Market which is said to have been the precise, historic start of the old Silk Road; today, it’s a shopping bonanza for faux antique daggers to jade-bejeweled brass pots. Make a pit stop at the Tang West Market Museum which has one of the world’s biggest displays of relics from all sides of the Silk Road. Then make your way to the city’s Muslim quarter.
Be adventurous and try foods you’ve never tasted before: spicy camel skewers, wholesome quarter-inch-wide biang biang noodles, and delicately sweet persimmon doughnuts. Want a glimpse of the city’s modern edge? Head to Chanba Ecological Zone, a landfill that’s been converted into a sparkling new urban area.
For architecture buffs: Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan’s ancient cities still stand remarkably intact — along with their ornate, mosaic-laden monuments. As a result, this country brims with a fascinating sense of history, layers of architectural and religious heritage, and a global mélange of cultural traditions forged over millennia.
There’s been an uptick in creatively designed accommodations tucked into old caravansaries — where ancient traders would work and sleep — in the old town of Samarkand and in the old walled city of Kiva. And the best newcomers have been exceptional.
How much time you’ll need: Seven to ten days
What to see and do: Though you’ll fly in via Tashkent, it’s best to connect straight through to Samarkand—a 2,500-year-old city 200 miles to the capital’s south. There, you can see where Genghis Khan sacked the city of Afrosiab in the 13th century, watch daily life unfold against a backdrop of mud-brick Uzbek houses in the medieval quarter, and visit such eye-popping sites as the 15th century Registan Mosque. Then it’s off to Bukhara, a city studded with glistening turquoise domes, ornate mosques, ancient forts, and layer upon layer of living history. It’s one of the region’s best-preserved medieval cities — with several significant monuments, such as the Indian-influenced, four-minaret Char Minar, in close proximity to one another. If you still have time left, Khiva is your last stop. It’s an incredible example of traditional Islamic urban design, and its 200-year-old inner fortress, the Itchan Kala, will send you traveling back through time.
For adventure seekers: Azerbaijan
Many Silk Road destinations claim to be “the place where the east meets the west,” but Azerbaijan has the best geographical claim to that title. Just as in antiquity, it remains a place where minds from all sorts of far-off lands converge — though these days they’re more likely drilling for oil or shopping at fashionable boutiques than trading wares. The capital, Baku, is somewhat like Dubai: It’s ripe with old world charm and modern-day glitz, but it’s the adventurous day trips waiting just outside the city that you might remember most.
How much time you’ll need: Three to five days
What to see and do: Baku’s architecture spells the capital’s history like an open book. The winding streets of the Islamic old city, a Unesco World Heritage Site, are packed elbow-to-elbow with matching stone buildings that date to the 12th century; some of the original caravansaries have now been converted into fine-dining spots.
The outer city, meanwhile, was built by imperial Russians with impressive Baroque, Gothic, and postmodern buildings lining massive, gridded boulevards. Downtown are skyscrapers pulled from a futuristic era.
Then get out of town. From the new port of Alat, 40 miles south, you can take a beautiful ferry ride across the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan or Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan. Who do you know that has ever done that? And make time to hit Gobustan National Park, an hour’s drive south from Baku; it has thousands of 5,000- to 20,000-year-old rock carvings, plus volcanic mud pools for therapeutic (and skin-softening) soaks.
For Europhiles: Northern Greece
History buffs who come to Greece think first of Zeus, Homer, and the Parthenon. But another claim to fame is that the country was the trailhead for one of the first iterations of the Silk Road, dating to Alexander the Great’s conquests in the 4th century BC. Glimmers of that legacy remain in the north, in such little-visited destinations as Vergina and Soufli. The new Belt and Road is emerging as an important narrative here, too, particularly in Piraeus, a bustling port city since ancient times. The port itself was purchased by the Chinese in 2016 and was subsequently built up to be one of Europe’s busiest marine hubs—more than quadrupling the port’s container traffic since 2010.
How much time you’ll need: A week
What to see and do: Vergina—which has been inhabited since the 3rd millennium BC—claims historic sites that are outstanding, even by Greek standards. It was the first capital of ancient Macedonia, lending it a fascinating acropolis, theatre and palace. East is Thessaloniki, a thriving urban centre that served as an ancient shipment hub for silk and spices. See how that pervades Thessaloniki’s contemporary culture on a stroll through Modiano, the city’s predominant foodie thoroughfare; sampling its souvlaki, gyros, cheese and meat-stuffed bougatsa pastries, feta-stuffed squid, and smoked eggplant will prove why this is considered the gourmet capital of Greece.
Culminate in the easternmost city of Soufli, Greece’s capital of viniculture and silk production. Three museums here are dedicated to the Silk Road, affirming the legacy of the trade routes that still live today. And when you’re done with that, you can see the silk trade springing back to life in this charming town, where modern workshops now supply Greece’s leading designers.