It ran for 4,000 miles through Eurasia, crisscrossing white-hot deserts, towering mountains and flatlands so desolate you could go weeks without seeing another human being, much less a hut, tent or yurt. It was called “the Silk Road,” and for 1,600 years it was the main trading route between East and West, linking Constantinople (now Istanbul) to Southern China.
Westbound caravans carried Asian silk, spices and ivory to the kings, archdukes, barons, counts, marquises and the religious nobility of Europe. Eastbound, the shipments carried European gold, silver and precious gems to the emperors, sub-emperors, kings, khans and other high mucky mucks of the Far East.
In 1453, after a long siege, a 21-year-old Islamic general raised the Ottoman flag over the eastern Roman empire's capital at Constantinople, in turn putting an end to the East-West trading business.
Fast-forward to today, and caravans are still dotting the Silk Road, but now they're mostly full of tourists making the trip on planes, trains and jeeps.
Among popular tours this year will be MIR Corporation's two 17-day expeditions tracing routes though the heart of the Silk Road, the first set for May 5-21 and the second Aug. 11-27. Called “The Central Asia Epic Overland Adventure,” the trip will start at Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan (edging the eastern border of China), and end up at Bukhara, a 5,000-year-old city in Uzbekistan (just west of Kyrgyzstan).
Along the way, the tour group will spend the night in a yurt camp near a 15th-century “caravanserai,” visit the workshops of silk and ceramics masters, watch ancient horse games, chow down in a traditional Uzbek home and mosey around eastern Uzbekistan's four-acre Palace of Khudayar Khan, said to have been built around 1870 by 16,000 slaves.
Among other highlights of the trip will be a drive over the Silk Road's 12,000-foot-high Torugart Pass through the Tien Shan Mountains separating the green mountain pastures of Kyrgyzstan from the red sand deserts of western China. Also on the itinerary will be stops at stone fortresses, markets, museums, parks and old-world town squares, including a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The trip starts at $5,595 per person, plus $90 for an air hop from Bukhara to the international airport at Tashkent (the capital of Uzbekistan) at the end of the journey. The tab doesn't include your flights from home to Manas International Airport at Bishkek, nor your return flights from Tashkent, but MIR staffers can help coordinate your flight itineraries.
More info: Based in Seattle, Wash., the MIR Corporation has specialized in tours across Europe and Asia since 1986. You'll find info on all of MIR's tours and instructions on how to get a free catalog on the company's website.