The Silk Road

We’ve compiled the best of the best in The Silk Road - browse our top choices for the top things to see or do during your stay.

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  • 1. Ancient City of Jiaohe

    On a plateau at the confluence of two rivers, these impressive ruins lie in the Yarnaz Valley west of Turpan. The city, established as a garrison during the Han Dynasty, was built on the natural fortification of cliffs rising 100 feet above the rivers. Jiaohe was governed from the 2nd to the 7th century by the kingdom of Gaochang, and occupied later by Tibetans. Despite destruction in the 14th century by Mongol hordes, large fragments of actual streets and buildings remain, including a Buddhist monastery and Buddhist statues, a row of bleached pagodas, a 29-foot observation tower, and government offices. Guards and cameras will make sure you stay on the designated boardwalk. As at the Ruins of Gaochang, there's almost no shade, so arrive early with an umbrella and plenty of water in tow.

    8 km (5 miles) west of Turpan, Turpan, Xinjiang Uygur Zizhiqu, 838000, China

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Y70, Dawn–dusk
  • 2. Bird Island

    Bird Island is the main draw at Qinghai Hu, China's largest inland saltwater lake. The name Bird Island is a misnomer: it was an island until the lake receded, connecting it to the shore. The electric-blue lake is surrounded by rolling hills covered with yellow rapeseed flowers. Tibetan shepherds graze their flocks here as wild yaks roam nearby. Beyond the hills are snowcapped mountains. An estimated nearly 100,000 birds breed at Bird Island, including egrets, speckle-headed geese, and black-neck cranes; sadly, the numbers have been much depleted because of the country's efforts to suppress the spread of avian flu. There are two viewing sites: spend as little time as possible at Egg Island in favor of the much better Common Cormorant Island, where you can see birds flying at eye-level from the top of a cliff. The best months to see birds are May and June. To get to Bird Island, either contact a tour agency or catch a tourist bus from Xining Railway Station for Y35 each way. If you opt for a tour, make sure that you're not headed to the much closer tourist trap known as Qinghai Hu 151.

    350 km (215 miles) northwest of Xining, Xining, Qinghai Sheng, 810150, China

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Mid-Apr.–mid-Aug. Y100; mid-Aug.–mid-Apr. Y60; Y15 for eco-sightseeing bus, 7:10 am– 6 pm
  • 3. Forest of Stone Steles Museum

    Head here for a glimpse into what the ancient Chinese deemed important enough to set in stone. As the name suggests, there is no shortage of historical steles, or inscribed stone tablets, with content ranging from descriptions of administrative projects and old maps to artistic renditions of landscape, portraiture, and calligraphy. The garden complex and former Confucian temple house one of the world's first dictionaries and a number of Tang Dynasty classics as well as the epitaphs of nobility. One tablet, known as the Nestorian Stele, dates from AD 781 and records the interaction between the Chinese emperor and a traveling Nestorian priest. After presenting the empire with translated Nestorian Christian texts, the priest was allowed to open a church in Xi'an. Non-Chinese speakers may feel frustrated that they can't read all the tablets, as only a few translations are available, but the complex is well worth the visit for history, anthropology, and culture buffs.

    15 Sanxue Jie at end of Wenhua Jie, Xian, Shaanxi, 710001, China

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Mar.–Nov. Y75; Dec.–Feb. Y50, Mar.–Nov., daily 8–6:45; Dec.–Feb., daily 8:15–5:15
  • 4. Gansu Provincial Museum

    The most famous item in this excellent museum's collection is the elegant bronze "Flying Horse," considered a masterpiece of ancient Chinese art that you'll find replicated all across China. Other notable objects include a silver plate documenting contact between China and Rome more than 2,200 years ago, and wooden tablets used to send messages along the Silk Road. Not all exhibits have information in English. Admission is free but you'll need your passport.

    3 Xijin Xi Lu, Lanzhou, Gansu Sheng, 730050, China

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Free, Closed Mon., Tues.–Sun. 9–5
  • 5. Heavenly Lake

    After a three-hour ride from Ürümqi you'll reach what is quite possibly the prettiest lake in China, surrounded by snow-sprinkled mountains. The water is crystal clear with a sapphire tint. In summer, white flowers dot the hillsides. Unfortunately, tourism is leaving its ugly footprint. The lake's northern shore is crowded with tour groups posing for snapshots with Mount Bogda in the background. To better appreciate the lake's natural beauty, arrive before the hordes, or stay until after the last bus has departed. Kazakh families still set up traditional felt tents along the shores of Heavenly Lake from early May to late October, bringing their horses, sheep, and cashmere goats. The Kazakh people have a long history as horse breeders and are known to be skilled riders. From Ürümqi, day-tour buses to Heavenly Lake leave at 9 am from a small street beside the north gate of People's Park (Heilongjiang Lu near Gongyuan Bei Ji). Expect to pay Y25 each way plus the Y215 entrance fee to the lake. You'll have from about noon to 6 pm to explore the lake, arriving back in the city at 8 pm. Tickets—usually available up until the bus leaves—can be purchased near the buses.

    Ürümqi, Xinjiang Uygur Zizhiqu, China

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Y215, including mandatory shuttle from tourist center to lake
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  • 6. Huashan

    A few hours east of Xi'an lies one of China's five sacred mountains, a traditional watercolor come to life. The 7,218-foot mountain has stunning scenery, Taoist temples, pines reminiscent of a Dr. Seuss creation, and sheer granite walls that rise shockingly out of the surrounding plains. The five peaks of Huashan reminded ancient visitors of flower petals, hence the name; translated it means "Flower Mountain." Climbing the mountain is not a trip for the fainthearted: unless you're an Olympic athlete, hiking the main trail to the highest South Peak will take a good seven to nine hours, some of it along narrow passes on sheer cliffs. Thankfully, there are cable-car rides to the North and West Peak that bring you most of the way up the trail. Thrill-seekers can walk the plank path, a narrow wooden ledge built around a cliffside thousands of meters above ground level, dubbed the most dangerous trail in the world.From Xi'an you can take a D train (Y35) or G train (Y55) to Huashan North Station or take one of the coaches that leave hourly every morning from the parking lot in front of the Jiefang Hotel, across from the train station. Tours can be arranged, but it's better to go on your own to have more time on the mountain. On a rainy day, bring a raincoat or buy one there, don't bring an umbrella. Gusts of wind can come out of nowhere, and you could be yanked off balance while hiking the narrow trails. The danger is so real that locals go so far as to call them death umbrellas.

    Xian, Shaanxi, China

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Mar.–Nov., Y180; Dec.–Feb., Y100, Mar.–Nov., 7–7; Dec.–Feb., 9–5
  • 7. Karakorum Highway

    The Karakorum Highway (KKH), a spectacular road winding across some of the most dramatic and inhospitable terrain on Earth, traces one of the major ancient silk routes, from Kashgar south for 2,100 km (1,300 miles) through three great mountain ranges over the Khunjerab Pass (the highest border crossing in the world) into Pakistan. The journey can be hair-raising in part because of rock- and mudslides and in part because of daredevil driving. Modern highways have taken away most of the risk---and some of the fun---of taking this incredible journey. At an altitude of 3,600 meters (11,800 feet), Karakul Lake is surrounded by mountains covered in beautiful glaciers and dominated by the 7,800-meter (25,600-foot) peak of Muztagata, the "Father of the Ice Mountains." Tourism has ebbed and flowed around the lake but restrictions over the past couple years on overnight visitors has taken its toll on the local tourism economy. It's possible and recommended to eat a meal in one of the lakeside yurts but without an expensive permit from officials in Kashgar, you'll need to continue on to Tashkorgan or return to Kashgar. Toilet facilities in this area are some of the worst in China, but the area's beauty makes it worthwhile. Tour the lake via camel, horse, or motorbike, or just walk around, which will take about three hours. Bring warm clothing even in the summer, as it can be downright chilly: during our visit in July, we were applying sunscreen in the morning and battling sleet in the afternoon. Any travel agent can arrange tours to Karakul Lake, but most people make the breathtaking journey by public bus on their way to Tashkorgan. Along the way you'll be stopped by at least four different police checkpoints, so have your passport handy. Buses headed for Tashkurgan, two hours south of the lake, leave Kashgar's International Bus Station every morning at 9:30 Beijing Time (the bus station operates on Xinjiang time, off by two hours). You'll have to pay the full price of Y51 for your ticket even though you're not traveling the full distance. Buses reach the lake in about four hours. To catch the bus back, wait by the side of the highway and flag it down—the bus returning to Kashgar from Tashkurgan passes the lake between 11 am and 1 pm. A seat should only cost Y40, but enterprising drivers may demand Y50. Either way, the bus is much cheaper than private tours, which will set you back about Y600 per day.

    Kashgar, Xinjiang Uygur Zizhiqu, China
  • 8. Kumbum Monastery

    The magnificent Kumbum Monastery lies 25 km (15 miles) southwest of Xining. One of the six great monasteries of the Tibetan Buddhist sect known as Yellow Hat—and reputedly the birthplace of the sect's founder, Tsong Khapa—construction began in 1560. A great reformer who lived in the early 1400s, Tsong Khapa formulated a new doctrine that stressed a return to monastic discipline, strict celibacy, and moral and philosophical thought over magic and mysticism. Tsong's followers have controlled Tibetan politics since the 17th century. Still a magnet for Tibetan pilgrims and, more recently, waves of tourists, Kumbum boasts a dozen prayer halls, an exhibition hall, and monks' quarters (look out for the yak butter sculptures), each one a beautiful demonstration of Tibetan architectural style. No photos are allowed. Public buses (Y6) to Huangzhong depart frequently from Zifang Jie Bus Station. Get off at the last stop and walk 2 km (1 mile) uphill, or take the shuttles (Y2) to the monastery's gates. Taxis from Xining will run you around Y35.

    Huangzhong, Qinghai Sheng, 810005, China

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Y80, Open daily: winter, 8:30–5:30 pm; summer, 7:30–6:30 pm
  • 9. Labrang Monastery

    In the remote town of Xiahe, the monastery is a little piece of Tibet along the Gansu-Qinghai border. A world away from Lanzhou, Xiahe has experienced a dizzying rise in the number of travelers over the past decade. Despite the encroaching modernity, Xiahe is still a wonderful place, attracting large numbers of pilgrims who come to study and to spin the 1,147 prayer wheels of the monastery daily, swathed in their distinctive costume of heavy woolen robes tied with brightly colored sashes.The Labrang Monastery is the largest Tibetan lamasery outside Tibet. Founded in 1710, it once had as many as 4,000 monks, a number much depleted due in large part to the Cultural Revolution, when monks were forced to return home and temples were destroyed. Though the monastery reopened in 1980, the government's continued policy of restricted enrollment has kept the number of monks down to about 1,500. There are guided tours daily at 10:15 am and 3:15 pm.There are two ways to reach Xiahe: by public bus or by private tour. Buses for Xiahe leave from Lanzhou's South Station (汽车南站, Qìchē nán zhàn) in the morning (6:30 and 7:30) and afternoon (2 and 3) and take about four hours. Make sure to purchase tickets in advance, as some departures require travel insurance. Have two photocopies of your visa and passport information on hand in case they are required. As of this writing, the monastery is open to tourists. However, it has been closed in the recent past due to political uprisings, so as you plan your trip, keep tabs on the news.

    2 km (1 mile) west of long-distance bus station, Xiahe, Gansu Sheng, 747100, China

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Y40, Daily sunrise–sunset
  • 10. Mogao Grottoes

    The magnificent Buddhist grottoes, considered by some to be the most famous in China, lie southeast of Dunhuang. At least 40 of the 700 caves—dating from the Northern Wei Dynasty in the 4th century AD to the Five Dynasties in the 10th century AD—are open to the public. Which caves are open on a given day depends on the whim of local authorities, but you shouldn't worry too much about missing something. Everything here is stunning. You'll almost certainly visit the giant seated Buddhas in caves 96 and 130, the Tang Dynasty sleeping Buddha in cave 148, and the famous "library" in caves 16 and 17, where 45,000 religious and political documents were uncovered at the turn of the 20th century. A flashlight is a useful item for your visit. Note that photographs are not allowed. This is one site where you should hire an English-speaking guide. At a cost of Y20, your understanding of the different imagery used in each cave will increase immeasurably. Tours in English take place about three times a day in high season, so you may have to wait to join one. After the tour, you'll have time to wander around and revisit any unlocked caves. A fine museum contains reproductions of eight caves not usually visited on the public tour. A smaller museum near the Library Cave details the removal of artifacts by foreign plunderers. If you have a deep interest in the cave art, you may be able to pay extra to visit other caves that are sealed off to the general public. Ask at the ticket office. To get here, take a taxi (Y60–Y80 round-trip) or take the half-hour bus ride that departs from Xinjian Lu, near the corner with Minshan Lu. The bus runs from 8:30 am to 7 pm, and tickets cost Y8 each way. The CITS branch at the Feitan Hotel offers a daily bus service, leaving Dunhuang at 8 am and returning at noon. A round-trip costs Y20.

    25 km (17 miles) southeast of Dunhuang, Dunhuang, Gansu Sheng, 736200, China

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: May–Oct., Y180 with guided tour; Nov.–Apr., Y100 with guide, Daily 8:30–6 (tickets sold until 3:30 pm)
  • 11. Shaanxi History Museum

    Although museums in China are often underwhelming, this is a notable exception. The works in this imposing two-story structure, built in 1991, range from crude Paleolithic stone tools to gorgeously sculpted ceramics from the Tang Dynasty. Get close to several terra-cotta warriors on display, taken from the tombs outside town. The exhibits, which have English descriptions, leave no doubt that China once had the world's most advanced culture. The museum is free; a limited number of tickets are handed out in the morning and the afternoon. Arrive early, and bring your ID. To avoid crowds, start at the top floor and work your way down. English audio guides are available, and some local companies provide excellent guides who can tell you backstories about the artifacts and the people and places they belonged to.

    91 Xiaozhai Dong Lu, Xian, Shaanxi, 710061, China

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Free (excluding special exhibitions), Tues.–Sun.; Mar. 16–Nov. 14, 8:30–6; Nov. 15–Mar. 15, 9–5:30
  • 12. Small Goose Pagoda

    Once part of the 7th-century Jianfu Temple, this 13-tier pagoda was built by Empress Wu Zetian in 707 to honor her predecessor, Emperor Gao Zong. Much less imposing than the Big Goose Pagoda, the smaller pagoda housed Buddhist texts brought back from India by the pilgrim Yiqing in the 8th century. A tremendous earthquake in 1555 lopped off the top two stories of what was originally a 15-story structure; climbing to the top lets you examine the damage. The Xian Museum (free admission, ID required) is part of the same complex, and shows how the ancient capital changed over the centuries. On the grounds there is also a giant bell visitors can ring for good luck—for a price. The whole park offers good people-watching opportunities, and is very peaceful compared to other Xi'an attractions, making it a good place to take a break.

    72 Youyi Xi Lu, Xian, Shaanxi, 710068, China

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Y30 to climb pagoda, Daily 9–5
  • 13. Terracotta Warriors Museum

    Discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well, this UNESCO World Heritage site includes more than 7,000 terra-cotta soldiers standing guard over the tomb of Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of a unified China. The warriors, more than 1,000 of which have been painstakingly pieced together, come in various forms: archers, infantry, charioteers, and cavalry. Relics are still being unearthed, and some are being left underground until archaeologists find a way to preserve the painted surface, which as of now disintegrates when it comes in contact with outside air. In 2010, 114 extra warriors were discovered in Pit One. Incredibly, each of the life-size statues is unique, including different mustaches, beards, hairstyles, and even wrinkles. An exhibition hall displays artifacts unearthed from distant sections of the tomb, including two magnificently crafted miniature bronze chariots. Allow yourself at least three hours if you want to study the warriors in detail. The site is 30 km (19 miles) east of Xi'an in the town of Lintong.

    Lintong, Shaanxi, 710600, China

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Mar.–Nov., Y150; Dec.–Feb., Y120, Mar.–Nov., daily 8:30–5:30; Dec.–Feb., daily 8:30–5
  • 14. The Ruins of Gaochang

    These fascinating city ruins lie in a valley south of the Flaming Mountains. Legend has it that a group of soldiers stopped here in the 1st century BC on their way to Afghanistan, found that water was plentiful, and decided to stay. By the 7th century the city was the capital of the kingdom of Gaochang, which ruled more than 21 other towns, and by the 9th century the Uyghurs had moved into the area from Mongolia, establishing the kingdom of Kharakhoja. In the 14th century Mongols destroyed the kingdom, leaving only the ruins seen today. Only the city walls and a partially preserved monastery surrounded by muted, almost unrecognizable crumbling buildings remain, an eerie and haunting excursion into the pages of history. Over the years, archaeologists have uncovered buried ancient texts written in Uyghur, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan, a testament to the changing demographic of the city throughout its history. Entering the city from the south, you'll want to visit the temple complex in the southwest corner of the city. Because of the sheer size of the ruins, any further exploration requires renting an electric cart or bicycle. There is little shade, so go early and bring an umbrella.

    30 km (19 miles) east of Turpan, Turpan, Xinjiang Uygur Zizhiqu, 838000, China

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Y70, Dawn–dusk
  • 15. Thousand Buddha Temple and Grottoes

    One of the best day trips is the Thousand Buddha Temple and Grottoes, about 80 km (50 miles) from Lanzhou. More commonly known by its Chinese name Bingling Si, it's filled with Buddhist paintings and statuary, including an impressive 89-foot-tall Buddha carved into a cliff face. The canyon that holds the Thousand Buddha Temple runs along one side of the Yellow River. The journey through a gorge lined by water-sculpted rocks is spectacular. When the canyon is dry you can travel 2½ km (1½ miles) on foot or by four-wheel-drive vehicle to see the small community of Tibetan lamas at the Upper Temple of Bingling. However, it's much easier to book a tour. Gansu Western Travel Service offers a popular day trip that includes all transportation, insurance, and entrance fee (Y1,300 for a one-person tour; Y340 if you join a group tour of 14 people).

    Lanzhou, Gansu Sheng, China

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Y50, July–Nov., daily 8–5
  • 16. Tomb of Abakh Hoja

    About 5 km (3 miles) northeast of the city lies one of the most sacred sites in Xinjiang. The sea-green tiled hall that houses the tomb—actually about two dozen tombs—is part of a massive complex of sacred Islamic structures built around 1640. Uyghurs named the tomb and surrounding complex after Abakh Hoja, an Islamic missionary believed to be a descendant of Mohammed, who ruled Kashgar and outlying regions in the 17th century. Excavations of the glazed-brick tombs indicate that the first occupant was Abakh Hoja's father, who is buried here along with Abakh Hoja and many of their descendants. The Han, who prefer to emphasize the site's historical connection to their dynastic empire, call it the Tomb of the Fragrant Concubine. When the grandniece of Abakh Hoja was chosen as concubine by the Qing ruler Qianlong in Beijing, Uyghur legend holds that she committed suicide rather than submit to the emperor. In the Han story, she dutifully went to Beijing and spent 30 years in the emperor's palace, then asked to be buried in her homeland. Either way, her alleged tomb was excavated in the 1980s and found to be empty. The tomb is a bit difficult to navigate via bus, so take a taxi.

    Aizirete Lu, Kashgar, Xinjiang Uygur Zizhiqu, 844000, China
    No phone

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Y30, Daily 8–5
  • 17. Xinjiang Autonomous Region Museum

    Don't miss the perfectly preserved mummies at this superb museum, located 4 km (2½ miles) northwest of the city center. The mummies—including the 4,000-year-old Beauty of Loulan—were excavated from tombs in various parts of Xinjiang. In addition, the museum has a well-executed exhibition on the region's ethnic minorities. If you are lucky, one of the museum's English-speaking guides will accompany you. There's no extra charge, and it's well worth asking.

    585 Xibei Lu, Ürümqi, Xinjiang Uygur Zizhiqu, 830000, China

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Free, Closed Mon., Tues.–Sun. 10–6
  • 18. Banpo Matriarchal Clan Village

    About 5 km (3 miles) east of the city are the remains of a 6,000-year-old Yangshao village, including living quarters, a pottery-making center, and a graveyard. The residents of this matriarchal community of 200 to 300 people survived mainly by fishing, hunting, and gathering, although there is ample evidence of attempts at animal domestication and organized agriculture. The small museum contains stone farming and hunting implements, domestic objects, and pottery inscribed with ancient Chinese characters. The archaeological site has captions in English. Unless you're interested in documenting one of China's great tourist oddities, avoid the awful model village that sits in a state of semi-disrepair toward the rear of the property.

    155 Banpo Lu, Xian, Shaanxi, 710038, China

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Mar.–Nov. Y65; Dec.–Feb. Y45, Daily: Mar.–Nov. 8–5:30, Dec.–Feb. 8–4
  • 19. Bell Tower

    Xi'an's most recognizable structure, the Bell Tower was built in the late 14th century in what was then the center of the city. It's still good as a reference point—the tower marks the point where Xi Dajie (West Main Street) becomes Dong Dajie (East Main Street) and Bei Dajie (North Main Street) becomes Nan Dajie (South Main Street). To reach the tower, which stands isolated in the middle of a traffic circle, use any of the eight entrances to the underground passageway. Once inside the building, you'll see Ming Dynasty bells on display. Concerts are given six times daily (9:10, 10:30, 11:30, 2:30, 3:30, and 4:30). For Y5 you can make your own music by ringing a copy of the large iron bell that gives the tower its name. Don't miss the panoramic views of the city from the third-floor balcony.

    Junction of Dong Dajie, Xi Dajie, Bei Dajie, and Nan Dajie, Xian, Shaanxi, 710000, China
    No phone

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: From Y35, Daily 8:30–6
  • 20. Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves

    In a breathtaking valley inside the Flaming Mountains is this ancient temple complex, built between the 5th and 7th century by slaves whose entire lives went into the construction. Many of the fine examples of Buddhist sculpture and wall frescoes were destroyed after Islam came to the region in the 13th century. Other sculptures and frescoes, including several whole murals of Buddhist monks, were removed by 20th-century archaeologists like German Albert von Le Coq, who shipped his finds back to Berlin. Although they remain a feat of early engineering, the caves are in atrocious condition. Go just to see the site itself and the surrounding valley, which is magnificent. The views of the scorched, lunar landscape leading up to the site, which clings to one flank of a steep, scenic valley, make the trip worth the effort. Avoid the nearby Buddha Cave constructed in 1980 by a local artist; it isn't worth an additional Y20.

    35 km (22 miles) northeast of Turpan, Turpan, Xinjiang Uygur Zizhiqu, 838000, China

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Y40, Dawn–dusk

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