Caravans have been traveling the Silk Road for over 2000 years, and Chinese silk was reaching Rome before the time of Christ.
Ideas also traveled this road. Both Islam and Buddhism reached China by this route and some Silk Road areas have important relics of those religions. Various ideas from the East also reached the Islamic countries and sometimes Europe.
Marco Polo followed this route, reaching China overland via Khotan and beginning his homeward journey with a ship on the Maritime Silk Road from Quanzhou to Iran.
Many travelers today follow all or part of this ancient path by train, bus and private car. Some Wikitravel itineraries partly follow the Silk Road.
The caravan route splits in two around the Taklimakan Desert. The northern route has much better infrastructure compared to the southern route and is therefore the recommended route. The southern route is also called the Jade Road. It was from this road that the famous Hotan Jade was imported into China. Two cross-desert Highways bisect the Taklimakan connecting the northern and southern rim of the desert; they can be used for those who want to get a taste of both routes. (More likely you've had enough of the dirt tracks of the Southern Route and just wanted to get back to civilization.)
The two routes rejoin at Kashgar in the far west of China.
After Kashgar, the main route goes across the Pamirs into Central Asia.
There are 2 border crossings between China and Kyrgyzstan, The Irkeshtam Pass (easier) and the Torugart Pass (harder).
Irkeshtam is the main caravan route while Torugart is more scenic.
Continue on to Turkmenistan, stop by Merv before crossing into Iran for the holy city of Mashhad. From Mashhad, Tehran is 1 night's train ride away.
From here on, the Silk Road branches off again.
The southern route crosses through Baghdad,Iraq into Damascus,Syria before eventually ending up in Alexandra,Egypt. (Given the currently situation in the Middle East, the route is not recommended)
The northern route involves crossing into Turkey to reach Istanbul. The fastest overland option is the aptly named "Trans-Asia Express" train between Tehran and Istanbul. Interesting stops in between are: Tabriz and Cappadocia.
The traditional inns of the area are called caravanserai. They are built around a walled courtyard and have stables for the horses and camels. Some still exist; anyone traveling this road should try to stay in them at least once.
The whole area is Muslim which implies at least:
a tremendous tradition of Muslim hospitality and wonderful treatment of visitors
some conservatism, especially in matters such as womens' clothing
risk of foreigners who do not understand Islam giving offense
complicated politics, mixed with religious issues
considerable hostility toward both Western and Russian influences
Some of the people are still nomadic herdsmen, and even in
the cities tribal loyalties may run strong, which implies at least:
tremendous hospitality again
suspicion of outsiders, even from neighboring tribes. Foreigners are sometimes exempt
many of them are heavily armed
That said, with a bit of common sense and goodwill and a lot of flexibility
on the part of the traveler, the risks are moderate.
See individual country and city listings for more.
This is a usable itinerary. It explains how to get there and touches on all the major points along the way. An adventurous person could use this article, but please plunge forward and help it grow!