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The Silk Road... less travelled

As Joanna Lumley’s recent ITV television series explored the cultural and historic riches found along the legendary Silk Road, travel writer for The Times and Central Asian food expert Caroline Eden savours the sights and flavours of this exotic region

Isfahan, Samarkand, Istanbul… The mere names of these ancient metropolises are capable of setting adventurous hearts racing and curious minds wandering. They are legendary Silk Road cities, and for centuries, along with many other towns and settlements between east Asia and the Mediterranean, they flourished with the arrival of great trade and the exchange of ideas, religion and philosophies. Merchants carrying everything from precious gems to sacks of mohair would travel, often in relay-fashion, over remote and often perilous mountain passes and through forgotten desert oases, to trade in dusty tea shops, sandy caravanserais and in boisterous market squares.  

Exchange moved in both directions. From the east came ginger, tea, herbs, jade and jewels, all highly portable, along with, most famously, silk. While from the west to China travelled cucumbers, coloured glass and wine. Joining the merchants were pilgrims, poets and missionaries, exporting and delivering their ideas and religious practices. Unlike the vast majority of traders, who were keen to keep their transactions private, many literate religious figures wrote of their journeys, keeping records that, much later, would provide invaluable material to researchers, archaeologists and historians.

Even today, long after trade winds changed direction and transport shifted from camel caravans to railways and seaways, the allure of the ‘Silk Road’ lives on. It must have been a most natural of subjects for Joanna Lumley’s four-part television series for ITV, after all, her diplomat grandfather is said to have travelled along sections of it. “I’m embarking on a 7000-mile journey following the route of the legendary Silk Road, that throughout history helped spread all manner of foods, inventions and cultures across Asia and most adventurous and exotic journey yet,” she said.

For the majority of the Silk Road’s long history – at its peak during the Byzantine Empire (395–1453) – its various tracks and roads, stretching like tentacles across China, Asia Minor and Europe, had no name. Then, in the mid-19th century, the German geologist Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the term Die Seidenstrasse (the Silk Road), and it stuck. Naturally, Lumley’s journey begins closest to home, in Venice, but soon enough we’re off to Istanbul, the fulcrum balancing Europe and Asia, and the start of an eastwards adventure.


Across the border in mountainous Georgia, Lumley suggests that Georgia’s landscape could give the Alps a run for its money, and marvels at the country’s dance traditions, food and landscape. “My grandmother said you can’t live on views alone, but there’s something about this place that restores the soul,” she said. Georgia offers a wealth of Silk Road-era culture and sights including holy Mtskheta, where Christianity was proclaimed the state religion in 337AD, and the exquisite frescoes at David Gareja monastery.

But there are modern cities to explore, too. Batumi, on the Black Sea, has been both a successful port and oil terminus, but today showcases an elaborate range of otherworldly architecture, including casinos, along with well-preserved Russian imperial buildings, Black Sea beaches and Caucasian mountain views. Like Turkey, this is a country that has always been ripe for trade, sitting squarely at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.


Modern-day ‘Silk Road’ travellers gravitate to Turkey to shop in its bazaars, to marvel at its magnificent trading domes, and to perhaps sleep in an old caravanserai, where merchants once paused and refreshed. Turkey has long played a major role in the history of the Silk Road, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Just like Istanbul today, the Ottoman capital of Constantinople had bazaars, restaurants, banks, mosques, schools and hammams, and thousands of potential trade partners. Today, the Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s largest markets, with 4,000 or so shops.

Further east, one of the oldest cities in Anatolia (‘Asian’ Turkey) is the Silk Road city of Kayseri, a deeply religious place and the gateway to Cappadocia with its otherworldly fairy chimneys. Here, 10th-century Seljuk monuments share space with classic Ottoman buildings in a city that sits squarely on many trade routes. To the north is one of Turkey’s major Silk Road routes, which ran from Trabzon in eastern Turkey, to Tbilisi in Georgia and onto Tehran and Isfahan. But really, almost everywhere you step in Turkey, you are likely to be following in the footsteps of a Silk Road trader.

The toast of travellers

Georgians love wine. At any large gathering there is a dedicated tamada (toastmaster) who, between courses, erupts with one poetic toast after another. These go out to fellow diners, the chef, ancestors, the newly born and the long departed. If it is a serious event – an anniversary or birthday – the tamada has an assistant, called an alaverdi, whose job it is to expound upon the toast. Georgian wines – such as Saperavi, a deep red wine made from Georgia’s native grape, the colour of baked cherry, and amber-hued Rkatsiteli – are excellent. At some wineries, wines are still fermented and aged in earthenware kvevri vessels.

Turkey has strict alcohol laws but also a long and proud winemaking tradition going back centuries. Many wines are worth trying, especially Kalecik Karası and Narince, both local varieties. I particularly like Kayra wines, rich in tannins and suitable for Turkish cuisine, and their rosé is also good. Uzbekistan’s wineries are few and in their infancy, but there are small wine-tasting centres popping up, including one in Bukhara (Caravansarai Nughai) that is popular with tourists. Before the Islamic revolution in 1979, when Iran’s new Islamic rulers banned alcohol, Shiraz had a great tradition of. Today, alcohol in Iran is prohibited for Muslim citizens by law.


Heading east, Iran, like Turkey, is a country that benefited not only from goods arriving by land, but sea trade, too, via the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. Yazd, in the centre of the country, has a strong Silk Road legacy with merchant houses converted into hotels and wind towers known as badgirs, while Shiraz, the city of poets, is home to Vakil Bazaar, built in 1760 and full of courtyards, bathhouses and shops selling copper, spices and antiques.

No one really knows when ancient Isfahan was first established as a city, but over the centuries it has developed a name for itself as a place to see resplendent Persian gardens and fabulous buildings such as Ali Qapu palace, from where the king once watched games of polo, and where the throne room still shines with frescoes. Lumley called the country a “highlight” of her trip and concluded, after meeting many hospitable Persians, a people known for their kindness and generosity, that “Everyone was fabulous”.


Another country famous for hospitality, rugs and fruit, is Uzbekistan. And, for many travelers, the key destination there is the fabled city of Samarkand. By the fifth century AD, Samarkand was already a centre for pottery and textiles, and when Islam arrived to wider Central Asia in the eighth century, with it came brilliant scholars. Creativity flourished in the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. Avicenna, father of modern medicine, and al-Farabi, once regarded as the greatest philosophical authority after Aristotle, both lived and worked in Central Asia. With the Silk Road, the population of Samarkand, in particular, swelled with merchants, traders and artisans as trading caravans converged. Many lost their lives – and their minds – travelling to Samarkand, which lay hidden behind a near impenetrable barricade of inhospitable mountains, steppes and desert.

Later still came Jews, then Russians and Caucasians, especially when the Trans- Caspian Railway linked it to the Russian empire in 1888. All the while, teachings, religious ideologies and culinary traditions stayed on from the Silk Road era. Marco Polo, who arrived in the 13th century, found Samarkand to be “very large and splendid”, while in the 15th century, Castilian envoy Don Ruy González de Clavijo noted that in Samarkand one could find “orchards…many palaces and pleasure grounds”. Its isolation and romance stoked the imagination of literary figures like Keats, Marlowe, Kipling and Oscar Wilde, who, despite never visiting, all wrote of the celebrated and intoxicating riches of Samarkand. “Every journey to Central Asia is a quest for Samarkand”, wrote 20th-century journalist and traveller Geoffrey Moorhouse. And this is as true as it ever was for travellers along the legendary Silk Road today.

Recommended C&K Silk Road tours:

Uzbekistan: The Golden Road to Samarkand (Expert-led group tour) • 10 Nights from £3,295

Join Islamic expert Diana Driscoll on an in-depth tour of the most magnificent cities of the ancient Silk Road including Samarkand, Khiva and the medieval city of Bukhara with its dazzling blue mosaic domes.