The Silk Road to China

April 2021 we set out on an adventure. With a 45 year old Volkswagen T2 can we would be driving the Silk Road to China. 

Why the Silk Road?

The Silk Road is an ancient trading route from Xi’an to Rome, or Venice. It’s named after one of the major products traded on this road: silk. But many more things travelled along this route. From spices to merchants and from religions to deceases. And history is repeating itself. As we speak China is working towards a new Silk Road. A roadwork that connects countries and makes China once again the trading power of the world. But it are the ancient stories of Marco Polo and histories that attracted me to drive the road.

The silk route

The Silk Road was an ancient trade route that linked the Western world with the Middle East and Asia. It was a major conduit for trade between the Roman Empire and China and later between medieval European kingdoms and China.

Originating at Xi’an (Sian), the 6,400-km road, actually a caravan tract, followed the Great Wall of China to the northwest, bypassed the Takla Makan Desert, climbed the Pamirs (mountains), crossed Afghanistan, and went on to the Levant; from there the merchandise was shipped across the Mediterranean Sea. 

Travelling an ancient road in an ancient car

In 2015 I stumbled upon a Volkswagen T2, the dream of every hippie, on the internet. It was meant to be. With an etvenis of my late grandfather I could buy the van and start fixing it. Yuri was also in for the adventure and five years later we started. The van couldn’t be any other van. It had to be this one and I can’t explain why. Maybe because my father had a T1 when he was younger? Maybe because these are just the best vans ever made? Maybe because the van is invented by a Dutch man? The reason doesn’t really matter, I knew I didn’t want to travel it by foot like Ibn Battuta, nor by horse like Marco Polo, neither by backpacking like most. I wanted to do it my way.

The advanture

We set our, had some hiccups, even a break coming back to the Netherlands. Some borders closed and opened again, some stayed closed. And after 10 months of travelling we find ourselves in Pakistan. A surprise altogether. The land, the people, the nature. And this is the last land we drive the Silk Road. The ancient route went from Xi’An to Kashgar and from Kashgar it took multiple routes. One was the norther route – our initial plan. The second was the southern route – which we find ourselves on at the moment.

From Kashgar the silk route went to Islamabad and from there found it’s way to Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and finally Rome. And we find ourselves on that road. Squeezed in between huge mountains a tiny road is found, jeep wide nowadays but in those times only donkeys and humans could walk here. The road is inaccessible nowadays, therefor the Pakistani government made the Karakoram Highway. From the highway we see glimpses of the past. History tucked away in the side of the mountains, only visible from afar. Oh the stories that are whispering along that road.

China

And there we go, following the winding road deeper and higher into the mountains. The river rushes next to us and has the same colour of the rocks around us. There is little vegetation here, all we can see are stones and rocks ready to cut a hole in the beautiful tarmac road. The new Silk Road or Karakoram Highway is a famous one. Tourists drive here to marvel at the Himalayan mountains. To see the white peaks in the distance and in the hope of seeing a snow leopard. However, most have to do with seeing Ibex, yak and marters. The three we’ve seen on the road here. 

And then after climbing about 2.000 meters we find ourselves at 4.700 meters above sea level and at the border with China. The end of the Silk Road for us. We would’ve loved to cross the border, move to Kashgar and from there to Xi’An. But, as said before it’s not only silk and spices that travelled the road. The pest and Black Death moved along it too. Not much has changed, as it is now Corona that killed. Corona crossed borders that are staying close to us, installing fear for more than two years already.

When travelling the Silk Road Corona seemed far away and very close by. We got to see the most touristy cities empty (Venice and Dubrovnik), we had to take tests and diversions as borders were closed, it made us change our route. And we’ve changed our route multiple times but this was the biggest change. No Turkmenistan, yes Pakistan. And even though we’re still a rad sad we didn’t get to see Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan with Alexine we are so so so happy and grateful we got to explore Pakistan.

Completing the Silk Road!

For now, we’ve reached China! We are here, at the border. The closest we will get to our final destination. The Silk Route is completed as far as Alexine can go. We can only continue on foot now. Backpacking our way to Xi’An. Should we?

Love, Milene & Yuri

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