Caravans have been travelling the Silk Road for over 2000 years, and Chinese silk was reaching Rome before the time of Christ.
Ideas also travelled 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 travellers today follow all or part of this ancient path by train, bus and private car. Some Wikitravel itineraries partly follow the Silk Road.
This is not an easy route or one for the novice traveller. Consult a travel medicine specialist about vaccinations and about medicine to take along. See also Tips for travel in developing countries.
Note that parts of this route may be difficult or impassable in winter, and various borders may sometimes be closed for political reasons. Check country listings for details.
Xi'an to Dunhuang
The main caravan route from China to the West
Around the Taklimakan Desert
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.)
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.
From here on, the Silk Road branches off again.
There were also
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 travelling this road should try to stay in them at least once.
The whole area is Muslim which implies at least:
Some of the people are still nomadic herdsmen, and even in the cities tribal loyalties may run strong, which implies at least:
That said, with a bit of common sense and goodwill and a lot of flexibility on the part of the traveller, the risks are moderate.
See individual country and city listings for more.