How To Travel The New Silk Road
The Silk Road is rising again and you can go out and watch it happen.
New trade hubs are sprouting up from barren Central Asian deserts, shiny new financial centers are being built on reclaimed land in South Asia, and massive industrial zones are conspicuously appearing in Middle Eastern nations known solely for oil production. As emerging markets from Western China to Eastern Europe link up along a series of new economic corridors big changes are happening that could potentially alter the geo-political map of the 21st century. The Silk Road is rising again — and this time you can go out and watch it happen for yourself.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a concept for a network of land and sea transport corridors extending through roughly 65 countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe that offically got its start in 2013. Sometimes dubbed the New Silk Road in and of itself, the BRI actually interconnects and has synergy with other similar initiatives, such as Japan and India’s Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, India’s North-South Transport Corridor, Kazakhstan’s Nurly Zhol program, and the EU’s Europe-Asia Connectivity Plan, resulting in a movement towards Eurasian integration that very much resembles our romanticized notions of the ancient Silk Road.
Why travel the New Silk Road?
“Looking at a map and never going to these places means that they stay mysterious, exotic, and even irrelevant,” explained Peter Frankopan, a professor of Global History at Oxford and author of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. “Meeting people and listening them talk about if, how and why their lives are changing (for good and bad) is enormously instructive and is a vital part of being able to give texture to thoughts about how ‘China’ or ‘Central Asia’ or elsewhere are on the move at the moment.”
“I was drawn to the synthesis of the Central Asian region,” began Charles Stevens, a 20-something university student from the U.K. who has already logged bicycle and Jeep expeditions down the New Silk Road. “Stationed at the geographic center of Eurasia it has seen peoples, religions, ideas, wars, disease, and commerce flow across its networks for millennia. I had read much about its history but I wanted to experience it for myself in the most authentic way possible.”
Not long ago Central Asia was a difficult region to travel in — visas were challenging to obtain, the transport infrastructure was outdated and dilapidated, and the soft institutions of the newly formed post-Soviet states often left travelers with experiences that were far from ideal. But now all of this is rapidly improving. A new grid of roads, rail lines, airports have covered the region, liberalized immigration policies have made getting visas for many countries easy and cheap, better institutions and a rising economic situation has made the countries safer, and improved relations between countries has made the region more peaceful than it has been for a very long time.
“Travel in the modern world is a joy compared to how long, difficult and expensive it was in the past. It’s not always plain sailing; but we are lucky to live in this day and age – trust me!,” Frankopan added.
At the same time, the traveler can still easily glimpse signs of the old cultures and traditions that fuel our romanticized visions of the Silk Road and all which that entails. The camels and nomads are still out there, but only now they are grazing through the desert next to some of the most high-tech and sophisticated highways, railways, and trade hubs in the world.
Where to go
If you’re looking to plan a trip along the New Silk Road there are multiple routes to choose from. You can travel between China and Europe via Russia along the Trans-Siberian corridor; you can go from Kunming, in the west of China, through Southeast Asia to Indonesia; you can port hop from the east coast of China to Greece or Italy along the Maritime Silk Road; or you can take a path across Eurasia that very much traces some of the routes of the ancient Silk Road. It is the later corridor that I personally found the most interesting after four years of traveling throughout this emerging network, and is the one that I most recommend to travelers looking to observe the confluence of the ancient and modern Silk Roads and, perhaps, watch history in the making.
The Silk Road of legend got its start in Xi’an, the central Chinese city known during at that time as Chang’an. Fueled by an international trade network that extended through Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, Chang’an rose to become one of the most cosmopolitan and largest cities in the world. By AD 750, as the Silk Road was rising to a crescendo, over a million people lived within its walls.
It is no coincidence that Xi’an is now being positioned as the starting point of the Belt and Road. New international trade hubs, markets, and administrative centers are being built here which emulate those of the city’s history in the modern context. The fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping, the BRI’s architect and driving force, grew up here probably also has something to do with this.
While most visitors now go to Xi’an to see the Terracotta army, there is much more to the place — especially for those looking to see how the old Silk Road intersects with the new.
How much time you’ll need: Three to five days
What to see and do:
Built on the site of the famed West Market of Chang’an — an epicenter of trade which is said to have been the precise start of the Silk Road — Xian’s Tang West Market carries on the city’s role as an international crossroads of people and commerce. Go to Silk Road Shopping Street to find food, souvenirs, faux antiques, and entertainment from the countries of the old Silk Road.
While there, be sure to visit the Tang West Market Museum, which covers nine acres and has on display more than 20,000 bronzes, terracotta figures, ceramics, gold and silver ornaments, radiant silks, and other relics from all sides of the Silk Road.
If that doesn’t satiate your appetite for history then head over to the Shaanxi History Museum, where you will find yet more Silk Road artifacts, including a thousand-year-old gilt bronze silkworm.
However, it is in Xi’an’s Muslim quarter that you’re most likely to lose yourself in daydreams of ancient Silk Road traders and colorful, spice-scented souqs. Take a walk down the quarter’s narrow alleyways which are packed with traditional Hui Muslim shops and street food. Be sure to try the lamb skewers, biang biang noodles, and persimmon doughnuts.
As for explorations of the New Silk Road, the Xi’an International Trade and Logistics Park was built to position the city as a trading hub that will directly connects with cities throughout Europe.
Also be sure to check out the Chanba Ecological Zone, which is a purpose-built new area designed to be an administrative center of the Belt and Road. Built from scratch on the ruins of what was once a massive landfill, hardly a decade ago this was one of the most polluted parts of Xi’an, but today it has been transformed into a national wetland park that contains 133 hectares of wetlands and nearly 2,000 hectares of woodlands. A 600,000 square meter consulate zone was created here with the hopes of attracting the consulates of countries along the New Silk Road to improve travel and person-to-person connections between the nations of this initiative. Besides walking around here dreaming of the cosmopolitan scenes that are to come, common activities include boating, bird watching, and hiking.
Khorgos, Kazakhstan / Horgos, China
“Five years ago there was nothing here,” said Karl Gheysen, the then-CEO of Kazakhstan’s Khorgos Gateway dry port as he pointed to the giant yellow gantry cranes and the rail yard full of trains and containers bound for Europe. Satellite imagery proves Gheysen right: up until recently there really was nothing in Horgos but empty desert and mountains.
Situated on the Eurasian steppes, one tick from the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility — the farthest point on earth from an ocean, straddling the China / Kazakhstan border few places are as remote as Khorgos. While its history stretches back to the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618), when it was a vibrant hub along the Silk Road, the city was swallowed by the sands of time as the trade routes it depended on faded into history. Today, China and Kazakhstan are investing billions of dollars to bring the place back to life as the new heart of the Silk Road Economic Belt, and are busy at work building new trade centers, logistics hubs, commercial zones, and residential areas.
How much time you’ll need: Three to five days.
What to see and do:
Figuring out the lay of the land here can be a little challenging. There is a Chinese side that is fully on Chinese territory, a Kazakh side that is fully on Kazakh territory, and then there is a giant bi-national duty free shopping zone between the two. What is most confusing that all of the above often go by the same name: Khorgos (or Horgos).
On the Chinese side, the new city of Horgos is rising fast. Being built from scratch to become a preeminent trading hub of the Silk Road Economic Belt, Horgos has twice the surface area of New York City allotted for it to grow into. Although construction only began in 2014, the $3.25 billion city is already sprouting towering high-rises, new boulevards lined with shops, and high-tech manufacturing zones which are serving as a catalyst of commerce not seen here since the days of the ancient Silk Road. Within twenty years 200,000 people are expected to live here.
On the Kazakhstan side of border is the new city of Nurkent and the Khorgos Eastern Gate special economic zone. While not having the bankroll that China’s Horgos does, Nurkent still dreams of becoming a metropolis for 100,000 people. As of now, it is currently little more than a factory town. However, as the 5,740 hectare Khorgos Eastern Gate special economic zone, which contains the epic Khorgos Gateway dry port — one of the biggest attractions of the entire New Silk Road — grows so to will the need for modern housing and commercial activities, which Nurkent is destined to provide.
Straddling the border between the China and Kazakhstan is a place known as the International Center for Boundary Cooperation (ICBC). This is a one of a kind, massive bi-national duty free shopping zone. Administered jointly by China and Kazakhstan it is an extraterritorial complex of shopping malls, restaurants, and tourist attractions that has its own immigration and legal regimes. Travelers from nearly every country in the world can enter and stay for 30 days visa free. The only caveat is that there is not yet an international airport, so you need to enter overland via either China or Kazakhstan and require the proper visa to do so.
While the ICBC truly is a New Silk Road market where traders from all over the region go to exchange goods and ideas, the reality tends to usurp the romance. Most of what is sold here is pragmatic household goods, car parts, and cheap clothing that small-time traders buy tax-free in bulk to resell in other cities throughout Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and China. While we like to think of ancient Silk Road markets as colorful hubs of cultural exchange and excitement, the ICBC is probably a little closer to what they actually were.
Dordoi Bazaar, Kyrgyzstan
Like Chatuchak in Bangkok, Yengi and Mal Bazaar in Kashgar, and Tehran's Grand Bazaar, Dordoi is one of the great markets of Asia — albeit it’s one that you’ve probably never heard of. Stretching for more than a kilometer on the northern edge of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Dordoi has emerged as one of the primary entrepots for Chinese goods entering Central Asia and has become the central hub for a network of markets spanning the region. Traders come in droves from Kazakhstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, and even farther afield locales to buy up cheap goods that they can redistribute elsewhere for a profit. The Dordoi market is one of the main economic drivers of Kyrgyzstan, and according to the World Bank roughly 55,000 people work there, bringing in upwards of $3 billion of revenue per year — which is a significant chunk of the country’s GDP.
How many days: One day.
What to see:
Unless you have a particular hankering for cheap Chinese goods, the biggest draw of Dordoi is likely the architecture of the bazaar itself and the various cultures who meet up within it.
Most of the Dordoi market isn’t a permanent structure, but a conglomeration of tens of thousands of shipping containers stacked on top of each other like some kind of impromptu, ephemeral fortress. Each “shop” is made up of a double-staked shipping container — the one on the ground is where goods are sold, the one on the top is for storage — that is placed side by side other container shops which bend and twist with the contours of the market lanes like a catacomb of Corten steel.
Like many other Asian markets, Dordoi is divided into sections based on product type and also by product origin. Clothing is in one part, shoes in another, furniture has its own zone, as does electronics. There are sections for cheap Chinese junk, cheap Turkish junk, and cheap Korean junk. The cheap Korean junk is especially prized.
Many of the customers at Dordoi are not locals merely looking to pick up a few goods for personal use, but are full-fledged traders who often travel for many days across multiple countries to get there. Russians and Kazakhs, Turks, Afghans, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Chinese are there in force, creating a kaleidoscope of faces that could represent nearly the entirety of the New Silk Road.
Dordoi is the real deal, and is more akin to the bazaars of the original Silk Road than any made-for-tourists Chinese anachronism. The vendors here are not performing for tourists, and the place can come of as a being a little rough. The gravel lanes between the shops are potholed and fill up with puddles when it rains and tough looking men lift tattooed fists in your direction when you point your camera in theirs. This is the real Silk Road: a place where people from elsewhere come to exchange goods and, by extension, ideas, language, and culture.
It is common along the New Silk Road for CEO’s, port directors, and government officials to proudly proclaim that you are standing at “the place where the east meets the west” when you visit their projects. However, Baku has more of a solid claim to this distinction than perhaps anywhere else. The city itself sits at the geographic midpoint between East Asia and Western Europe and has always served as a meeting point for people from all sides of Eurasia. This centralized position is being double-downed on as Baku attempts to become the “hub of hubs” on the New Silk Road.
The architecture and urban layout of Baku tells the story of the city perfectly. The old city dates to the 12th century was built in the traditional Islamic style — matching stone buildings piled on top of each other, winding streets, and alleyways galore — and an outer city that was built as Russians and other Europeans moved in, which has a straight street grid made up of massive boulevards that are lined with impressive Baroque, Gothic, and, later on, Soviet and postmodern architecture.
In the days of the ancient Silk Road, Baku was full of caravansaries — all-inclusive resorts for ancient traders — and markets, where travelers from every corner of Eurasia would meet and do business. This historic distinction is being revived today, as the city positions itself at the intersection of multiple new economic corridors. The Central Corridor of the Belt and Road, which spans east-west and links China and Europe while bypassing Russia, as well as the North-South Transport Corridor, which goes north-south from the west coast of India to Russia, both cross through Baku.
How much time you’ll need: Three to five days
What to see and do:
Visiting Baku’s Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a must for anyone looking to discover the city’s Silk Road legacy. Authentic caravansaries still stand today; some of which have been converted into fine dining establishments. Be sure to also visit the Palace of the Shirvan Shahs and the Maiden's Tower.
When outside of the Old City, take a walk down Baku’s revitalized waterfront. The extended boardwalk hugs the Caspian Sea and provides an ample amount of lookout points and places to just sit and relax while watching the city stroll by. In this context, even the oil slicks that cover the water and oil rigs in the distance hardly detract from the view, oddly driving home the fact that you are standing in the birthplace of the world’s oil industry.
When looking for the New Silk Road in Baku, look no further than the new port and free industrial zone that’s being built in Aylat, 65 kilometers to the south of Baku. It is estimated that Azerbaijan only has around 30 years of oil left, and the country placed an all or nothing bet on diversifying its economy via its budding transportation and manufacturing sectors, and Aylat is the biggest wager of this gamble. Modeled off of Dubai, the new port is set to revitalize Caspian Sea trade as well as be a multimodal hub for sea, rail, and road-based cargo. Surrounding the port is a free industrial zone which has its own administrative and financial regimes that can offer investors and manufacturers preferential land and tax policies. The Belt and Road’s Central Corridor, the EU’s Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA), the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars rail line, and the North-South Transport Corridor all use Aylat as a hub as Azerbaijan attempts to reestablish itself as a central hub in the heart of Eurasia.
For a change of pace, if you’re into … let’s say, interesting alternative health remedies with historic overtones, then the oil baths of Naftalan in western Azerbaijan would be the place to visit. Basically, you go there an soak up to your neck in 102°F mottled brown crude oil. Seriously. While the experience of a Naftalan bath is kind of like a cross between a floating in a sensory deprivation tank and being caught in a tar pit, it is, apparently, good for you. The people of Azerbaijan claim that immersing the body in this type of crude oil can cure an entire array of ailments, from heart disease to STDs to eczema and psoriasis to rheumatism. Apparently, Marco Polo knew about this, claiming that, “This oil is not good to eat; but it is good for burning and as a salve for men and camels affected with itch or scab.”
Naftalan crude oil is a little different than the stuff that’s refined for use in automobiles. It’s 50% naphthalene, the main ingredient of mothballs and has the strong telltale scent of such. For now, we’ll ignore the fact that Naphthalene is also a potential carcinogen, and just dreamily soak in a Silk Road fantasy hoping that it makes that itch go away.
While investigating the New Silk Road in Baku be sure to ride the ferry that goes across the Caspian Sea to Aktau in Kazakhstan or Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan. This is the same ferry that China-Europe trains along the Central Corridor of the Belt and Road are shuttled upon, and while it is mostly used for industrial purposes, passengers are permitted to ride along. The price is relatively cheap and the experience isn’t something that any tourist agency can give you. However, be sure leave yourself a little flexibility in your schedule if taking this voyage, as the ferries don’t really follow a set timeline.
“We were moored off Baku for a further two nights due to stormy seas before finally getting underway across the Caspian to Aktau,” Stevens recollected.
Athens / Piraeus, Greece
For travelers looking to absorb the legacy of the Silk Road of old as well as the geo-economic theater of the new, Greece is one of the best stops the you can make. With the 4th century B.C. expeditions of Alexander the Great, Greece was one of the primary nations to open up and facilitate Europe-Asia trade. Today, Greece is looking to China’s Belt and Road initiative and other drivers of Eurasian integration to help lift it out of its financial crisis and reestablish the country to its rightful historic position as an important gateway between east and west.
How much time you’ll need: Three to five days
What to see and do:
Historic sites showing Greece’s ties to the ancient Silk Road are all over Athens, but of particular interest should be Vergina in northern Greece and the tomb of Philip II, Alexander's father.
As for the New Silk Road, there is one primary attraction.
“No doubt, one should visit Piraeus, one of the BRI flagship projects in Europe,” recommended Plamen Tonchev of the Institute of International Economic Relations in Athens. “Since 2016, COSCO has taken over the management of this strategically important seaport and Piraeus has been rapidly growing.”
Piraeus is the busiest passenger port in Europe, and, with the boost that incurred from the Chinese takeover, its cargo volume is now in Europe’s top ten. Piraeus is also one of the few success stories of the Belt and Road initiative so far. This multinational mega-project was supposed to share prosperity between China and the other countries of Eurasia, but has all too often has only left trails of debt, political debacles, and all out scandal. While Greeks are generally underwhelmed by how Chinese investment has benefited their country, Piraeus is a sign that Sino-European partnerships can work, and is a model that will more than likely be replicated in years to come.
“I think that what happens in China, Central and South Asia and further along the Silk Roads to the west will shape our futures,” Peter Frankopan explained. “These are regions bursting with natural resources but with people: two thirds of the world’s population live east of Istanbul. That means how and what they eat, where they get their energy from, how climate change affects them will have global consequences… This is where the action is in the world at the moment – and I think that is something that does not just make it a reality for us, but important to try to follow and understand it.”