Thanks to more than a trillion dollars of prospective investment-led by China’s $800 billion Belt and Road Initiative linking countries stretching between East Asia and Europe-the Silk Road is rising again. The series of once-legendary pathways connecting cities, from Kashgar to Paro to Constantinople, which originated at the dawn of the common era and collapsed with the fall of the Mongol empire in the early 16th century, is now being reborn as a network of highways, railways, and airports linking 65 countries. Add improved safety and easier-to-access visas, and the bazaar-filled cities of Central Asia are more accessible than ever.
For travelers, 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. Uzbekistan is reporting a 40 percent year-on-year rise in tourism; Baku, Azerbaijan, has also awakened from its post-Soviet slumber to rank among the fastest-growing tourism destinations in Europe and Central Asia.
The growth had been simmering for years; now it’s boiling hot.
According to Jonny Bealby, founder of luxury travel outfit Wild Frontiers, the region is also emerging in response to “people looking further and further afield to see places that are more authentic, less spoiled, and less on the beaten track.”
His company is just one of several tour operators-including Ker & Downey, Abercrombie & Kent, and Remote Lands-helping travelers realize a suddenly buzzy fantasy of traveling the Silk Road. But completing that journey end-to-end can take anywhere from six weeks to three months. Here, a few locations to prioritise if your vacation days aren’t quite that plentiful.
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: 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 still stand and have 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. If all those contrasts leave you exhausted and feeling you’re gone through several wormholes, chill along the revitalised waterfront district, which provides ample lookouts where you can sit and relax.
Then get out of town. From the new port of Alta, 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.
Where to stay: Fairmont, JW Marriott, and Four Seasons all have solid options in town.
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 B.C. 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 B.C.-claims historic sites that are outstanding, even by Greek standards. It was the first capital of ancient Macedonia, lending it a fascinating acropolis, theater, and palace. East is Thessaloniki, a thriving urban center 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.
Where to stay: In Vergina, the rustic but lovely Ktima Kalaitzi has its own winery. In Thessaloniki, stay in the grand (if slightly dated) Electra Palace Thessaloniki or right by the sea at the hyper-modern Makedonia Palace.
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