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The Oriental Caravan

The Silk Road Caravan - Detailed Dossier  

General profile – This comprehensive tour takes in the mountains and cultures of the Karakorums, desert life around the Taklamakan desert and also some of the more important towns in China. There is a fair amount of travelling involved but also plenty of scope for short walks and individual exploration.

Itinerary – (22 nights, 23 days starts Islamabad Sunday 29 July, ends Beijing Monday 20 Aug.)

Day 1. Setting off from the Mall, we leave the dust and disorder of Rawalpindi behind us as we begin our journey along a section of the old imperial Grand Trunk road – a road that once used to link Calcutta with Kabul. After crossing the low Margalla Pass we turn off the main road and enter the broad Taxila Valley. The tranquillity of the area today belies its colourful past when, as Gandhara, it was home to the greatest flourishing of Buddhist art and philosophy that the world had ever known. It was here that Xuan Zang (Tripitaka of Monkey fame!) and Fa Xian arrived after their epic pilgrimages from China in search of Buddhist scriptures. Here also that Alexander arrived bringing with him the secrets of Greek sculpture that were to transform the world of Asian art. Today there are scant remains of the thriving monasteries that once dotted the landscape, but Taxila museum provides a fascinating glimpse into this long abandoned world.

From Taxila we join the Karakorum Highway and begin our slow ascent into the forested foothills that will eventually lead us to the crown of the Karakorums, the Khunjerab Pass. After lunch in Abbotabad we continue via the ‘Ashokan Rocks’ of Mansehra to Besham. Our hotel is set amidst towering hills on the banks of the mighty Indus River – a world away. (Besham)

Day 2. A day of dramatic scenic intensity as we head deeper into this mountain world with it’s mosaic of tribal cultures that have, in many cases, changed little in centuries. Along the road we see reminders of the geological cataclysm that originally lead to the formation of the Himalayas when the Indian sub-continent collided with Eurasia. In the fine petroglyphs of Shatila we can also see evidence of the prehistoric travellers and intrepid early Buddhist pilgrims that preceded us. There are more petroglyphs in the Sunni Muslim stronghold of Chilas where we break our journey for lunch. The desolate beauty of the landscape increases as we continue to Gilgit and en route we receive our first views of Nanga Parbat (8126m), the ‘Fairy Citadel’, considered to be one of the most difficult mountains to climb in the world. Leaving the Indus behind us, we carry on to Gilgit, backdrop for many of the machinations that made up the ‘Great Game’ between imperial Britain and Russia. (Gilgit)

Day 3. A free morning to explore this bustling, atmospheric market town. The bazaar is a great place to wander around and to buy, among other things, cloth and silk and also ‘Shalwar Qamiz’ the Pakistani national dress. It might also be possible to drive out to see the Kargah Buddha, carved on a rockface and then take the two to three hour walk back to town along the old irrigation channels. There are also a couple of polo pitches in Gilgit and we may be lucky enough to see a game in progress. For students of the Great Game there is the ‘British Cemetery’ and also a still active library that used to be the home of the first British Political Agents. In the afternoon a short but spectacular drive takes us towards the Hunza Valley. En route we see more geological evidence of the collision between the Indian subcontinent and Eurasia and are also rewarded with great views of Mt Rakaposhi (7790m). We also pass monuments to the roadworkers whose Herculean efforts lead to the construction of the KKH in the first place. Across the river, clinging precariously to the cliff face, we can see the remains of the original jeep track built with great difficulty by the British as part of their campaign against the Mirs of Hunza. As we emerge into the broad sweep of the Hunza Valley we can easily see why this area is seen as a source for the legends of Shangri La. (Karimabad)

Day 4. Today we will visit the two forts of Altit and Baltit. From their prominent positions overlooking the valley these forts were ideal for taxing or plundering the trade caravans that passed below and lead to great wealth for the Mirs who were their occupants. In 1891 Baltit Fort was also the scene of a short siege by the British Army who finally overran it’s fastness forcing it’s defenders to flee through secret passages in its base. The fort has recently been restored and is now deemed a World Heritage site. There will also be time for individual exploration here and there are plenty of opportunities for short walks in the area. (Karimabad)

Day 5. A short drive today brings us to the large village of Gulmit, effective capital of Gojal or Upper Hunza. The people here, famed for their hospitality, are Persian speaking Wakhi who claim descent from Tajiki nomads in Afghanistan. Like their neighbours in Lower Hunza they are followers of the Aga Khan, leader of the Ismaili branch of Islam. Situated on the edge of the old Polo ground, Gulmit is home to a small but interesting museum. There are also opportunities for short walks in the area – in particular on a hill behind the town the ruins of Andra Fort afford good views both up and down the valley. (Gulmit)

Day 6. Driving north to the border the scenery grows ever starker and we pass by glaciers whose snouts push against the road itself. From the border post at Sust we enter the Khunjerab National Park and begin our ascent of the Khunjerab pass. We should be able to see examples of the shaggy wild yaks that graze the pastures here and also the many marmot who live on the hillsides. The craggy mountains around us are also said to be home to Marco Polo sheep, brown bears and snow leopards. At 4730m the Pass is considered to be the highest metalled border crossing in the world. As we begin our descent to the Chinese border post at Tashkorgan the scenery changes abruptly as we emerge into the gentler more rolling landscape of the Pamirs. We pass by the entrance to the Wakhan corridor that leads to Afghanistan before arriving at the Tajik town of Tashkorgan, a somewhat windswept place but with its own intrinsic, frontier atmosphere. The views over the grasslands are lovely at sunset and it’s also possible to visit the remains of the fort mentioned by the pilgrim Xuan Zang on his Journey to the West. (Tashkorgan)

Day 7.  Leaving Tashkorgan the road skirts the Tajikistan border and passes through some magnificent mountain scenery. From the grassy shores of Kara Kul Lake it is possible to look out across deep blue waters to the beautiful slopes of Mustagh Ata (7546m), Father of Ice Mountains, and also see the peaks and glaciers of its giant neighbour Mt. Kongur (7719m).  With the thundering glacial waters of the Ghez River for company we pass through some dramatic, multi-coloured gorges and the occasional Uighur village as we continue our descent toward Kashgar. (Kashgar)

Day 8.  Kashgar is justifiably famous for its Sunday Bazaar. On this day tens of thousands of Uighurs, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Khirgiz and others from all over Central Asia gather by the banks of the Tuman River to do business. As well as areas selling hats, rugs and decorated knives there’s also an interesting animal market with a particularly lively horse testing section. In the streets behind the Id Kah mosque its possible to get a strong feel for the traditional Uighur culture of this oasis town. The remaining buildings of the British and Russian consulates also provide a reminder of times when the town’s strategic position was valued by more than one nation. (Kashgar)

Day 9. There is more time to look around Kashgar before we take an evening flight over the Takla Makan Desert to Urumqi. We spend the night here in Xinjiang’s principle city before continuing the short distance to Turfan in the morning. (Urumqi)

Day 10. Famous throughout China for its grapes and wine Turfan is another lively oasis town.. There are some good places to sit and relax beneath the towns many grape trellises and there are worse ways to spend an evening than in the presence of a bottle of wine, a Hami melon and a group of plaintive Uighur musicians. (Turfan)

Day 11. Situated in a depression some 80m below sea level Turfan has had a long history evidenced by its ancient cities of Gaochang and Jiaohe and also in the plundered caves of Beziklik. We have a day of sightseeing to explore this historic town. (Turfan)

Days 12 and 13.  A journey by rail is one of China’s great travel experiences and after more time to explore Turfan we board the overnight train to Liuyan. On arrival at Liuyan we continue by road through desert scenery to Dunhuang. (Overnight train and Dunhuang)

Day 14. The Mogao Caves of Dunhuang are one of China’s greatest treasures and contain the remains of Buddhist artwork spanning over a thousand years. These caves were once home to Buddhist scholars and artists and were visited by generations of travellers on the Silk Road who would commission works to give thanks for safe passage through the desert. We spend the morning exploring some of those caves still open to the public. Elsewhere in Dunhuang there are the huge Min Sha sand dunes and also the mysterious Crescent Moon Lake. In the evening the lively night market makes an atmospheric venue for dinner. (Dunhuang)

Days 15 and 16. We begin our two-day drive along the Hexi Corridor to Lanzhou. En route we get our first glimpses of the Great Wall, which, for some of the way, runs parallel to the road. At Jiayuguan we see the huge fort that has traditionally marked the western end of the Wall. In its commanding position at the head of the Jiayuguan Pass the fort was able to control all traffic entering or leaving China proper and was considered the last outpost of Chinese civilization before travellers would encounter the forbidding desert wilderness beyond. Further south we spend the night in the unassuming town of Zhangye. Marco Polo lingered here for a year on his travels and would have been impressed by the town’s chief attraction, the huge Sleeping Buddha at Dafosi. At 34m long this is the largest example of a Sleeping Buddha in China and is housed amidst attractive temple grounds. We eventually emerge from wind eroded loess scenery typical of Gansu province and arrive in Lanzhou, a large frontier city stretched out along the banks of the Yellow River. (Zhangye and Lanzhou)

Day 17. A full day excursion takes us out to the well-preserved Binglingsi Buddhist Caves. Although the caves themselves are spectacular enough it is the beautiful journey down the mountain lined Yellow River that make this trip particularly worthwhile. At one point the boat makes its way down a dramatic gorge while all around fishermen and farmers go about their daily life. The caves themselves were mercifully spared the attentions of both western archaeologists and rampaging Red Guards and provide an interesting contrast with those at Dunhuang. (Lanzhou)

Day 18. This morning we drive out to Lanzhou’s airport and take the flight to Xian. Formerly known as Changan, Xian was once the most important city in the empire and traditionally marked the starting point, or end, of a journey along the Silk Road. It was here in the Great and Little Goose Pagodas that Xuan Zang stored the scriptures brought back from his journey to Gandhara.  In the town’s formidable city walls and also in its Drum and Bell Towers there are many reminders of the city’s imperial past, as well as a longer history to be seen in the prehistoric site of Banpo. (Xian)

Day 19. The highlight of a trip to Xian is a visit to the awe inspiring Terracotta Warriors. This army of statues was created to protect the Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di in the afterlife and was accidentally rediscovered by peasants during the 1970’s. Each statue was individually modelled on an actual existing soldier and their details provide a fascinating insight into the culture of the day. The Emperor Qin was the first to unify the warring states and it is from his name that we derive the modern word for China. Beneath a nearby hill his tomb lies unexcavated, surrounded, it is said, by rivers of mercury. (Xian)

Day 20. Today we fly north to China’s dynamic heart, Beijing.  Here over the centuries some of China’s great historical dramas have been played out and there is still a strong feel today that this is the capital of a country in the ascendant. At the city’s heart lies the huge Tiananmen Square, and leading off from the square through the Gate of Heavenly Peace lies the vast complex of the Forbidden City. Looking out over the square it was here that Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic in 1949 and also here that he reviewed fanatical Red Guards during the 1960s. The square remains today the focal point of the Chinese world. (Beijing)

Day 21. We make a full day excursion to Mutianyu one of the less touristy sections of the Great Wall. In the evening there should be time to experience some of China’s burgeoning nightlife. (Beijing)

Day 22. A free day in Beijing for further individual sightseeing or shopping. There are some great shops in town and also many interesting historical monuments. Worth a visit to the northwest are the lake and temple buildings of the Summer Palace while closer to the centre is the Tibetan style monastery of Yonghegong. Students of architecture might also like to visit the impressive Temple of Heaven in the south of the city – it was here in days gone by that the Emperor would come to pray for the success of the nation’s harvest.

 Day 23. Tour ends

This dossier, and the itinerary it describes, have been carefully compiled and are provided in good faith. As with any such journey to a remote destination unusual and unexpected conditions can at any time occur and such kinds of holidays can be subject to unforeseen changes; to fully enjoy such kind of travel it is on occasion necessary for participants to be prepared to adopt a certain amount of flexibility. Copyright © The Oriental Caravan PJC 04/01

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             Revised and last updated: November 20th 2013. Links