- This article is an itinerary.
The Silk Road, also know as the Silk Route, crosses Asia from China to Europe. It is not a single road, rather a collection of related historical trade routes. One poem calls it "The Golden Road to Samarkand" .
Caravans have been traveling the Silk Road for over 2000 years; Chinese silk was reaching Rome before the time of Christ.
Trade over parts of the route is far older; jade from what is now Xinjiang was reaching central China by around 1500 BCE and the Persian Royal Road connected the Mediterranean port of Sardis to the Persian Gulf ports in the 5th century BCE. Around 300 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered more-or-less everything between Greece and India, and much of Central Asia; his empire fell apart after his death, but trade continued. He founded what is now the city of Khujand in Tajikistan and took Samarkand; both cities later became centers of Silk Road trade.
Ideas also traveled this road. Both Islam and Buddhism reached China by this route and some Silk Road areas have important relics of those religions. Well-known examples include the Buddhist caves at Dunhuang and fine mosques in Kashgar and Quanzhou, but there are Buddhist temples and Moslem mosques all over China.
Other religions also spread this way; Nestorian Christianity (centered in Persia) sent missionaries as far as Korea and Xian has a stele commemorating their arrival there in the 7th century CE. There were Zoroastrians in Quanzhou by 1000 CE and nearby Jinjiang has the world's last surviving Manichean temple. The first Catholic missionaries reached China by sea in the 14th century, landing at Quanzhou.
Various ideas from the East — notably Chinese inventions such as gunpowder, window glass and use of coal as fuel — also reached the Islamic countries and then Europe via the Silk Road. Chess reached the West from Persia ("checkmate" is from shah mat, Persian for "king dies"), though it was likely invented in India.
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.
This is not an easy route or one for the novice traveler. 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.
Get in 
You could start a Silk Road journey from anywhere in Europe or China, but the obvious jumping-off spots are the two ends of the historic road — Chang'an, which is now called Xian, and Constantinople, now Istanbul.
Many travelers today follow all or part of this ancient path by train, bus and private car. Some Wikivoyage itineraries partly follow the Silk Road.
Overland routes 
There were multiple interlinked routes. The map shows the main route from Xi'an to Damascus in yellow with some extensions in green.
Xi'an to Dunhuang 
The main caravan route from China to the West
- started in the capital Chang An, what we know today as the great city of Xi'an
- headed west to Lanzhou and north along the Hexi Corridor to Dunhuang, near the end of the Great Wall of China
Around the desert 
The main route splits to go around the Taklimakan Desert
- Northern route: Dunhuang, Hami, Turfan, Korla, Kashgar
- Southern route: Dunhuang, Cherchen, Khotan, Yarkand, Kashgar (also called the jade route because Khotan is famous for jade)
The routes above run along the edge of the desert; there are several alternate routes that involve starting on one of the above, then cutting across the center of the desert (e.g. Cherchen to Korla) to finish on the other.
After Kashgar 
After Kashgar, the main route goes:
- northwest into Central Asia, over a pass to Kyrgyzstan
- on toward Tashkent, Samarkand and Bokhara
- southwest through Turkmenistan and into Iran, then known as Persia
- west to Tabriz, Baghdad and Damascus
- all over the Mediterranean region; green links on the map go to Constantinople and Cairo
There were also alternate routes — for example:
- crossing into Central Asia further North from Urumqi into Kazakhstan
- passing North of the Caspian Sea, instead of through Iran, to Astrakhan and on to Russia and the Caucasus
- reaching the Mediterranean in what is now Lebanon or Israel rather than via Istanbul
Southern branches 
Various related routes connected China to the Indian Subcontinent:
- South from Xinjiang into Pakistan and India via what is now the Karakoram Highway or via Ladakh
- South into Afghanistan and India from points further West on the road
- a "Tea and horse caravan" route  much further South, from Chengdu through Yunnan and parts of Tibet to Burma and Northern India
Maritime Silk Road 
By no means all trade went by the overland caravan trails; there was also a great deal of traffic by sea.
In China, the main ports for this were Guangzhou and Quanzhou, both in Southeast China. Marco Polo sailed home from Quanzhou and described it as the greatest port on Earth and fabulously wealthy. Further West, the great ports included Cochin and Calicut on the South Indian coast, Cambay further North in India, Muscat in Oman, Basra in Iraq and Aden in Yemen.
Some words in modern English come from the ports on this route from which certain fabrics first reached Europe, "satin" from Zaiton (the Arabic name for Quanzhou) and "calico" from Calicut.
Not all of the history is known and historians disagree on parts of it, but it is clear that this trade is quite old and quite wide-ranging. Trade across the Indian Ocean was well established by a few hundred BCE, and some writers suggest it began much earlier. Chinese traders were sailing to India via Indonesia by the early third century CE, and perhaps earlier.
The first Moslem missionaries reached China by sea in the 7th century, and several Chinese cities had mosques built during the Tang Dynasty, i.e. before 907. By around 1000 CE, Quanzhou had a substantial community of Arab and Persian residents, and the Great Mosque there (not the first) was built in 1009. Until the Emperor shut down all seaborne foreign trade in the 1420s, there was regular trade between China and ports as far West as Aden on both Chinese and other ships. When Vasco da Gama (en route to becoming the first European to reach India by sea) reached East Africa in 1498, he found Chinese trade goods such as blue and white pottery already well established in the market.
In general, Asians were doing extensive trade over these routes centuries before Europeans turned up. This made sense at the time; medieval Europe was insignificant on the world stage and the Americas not yet "discovered", while China, India, Southeast Asia and the Middle East produced most of the world's GDP.
Later, Europeans had huge influence in the region. One significant change was colonisation — Russia in Central Asia, Britain in India, Malaya and Hong Kong, Portugal in Goa and Macau, France in Indochina, the Dutch in Indonesia, and first the Spanish then later the Americans in the Philippines. There were also large changes in trade routes; some of the most important were huge imports of silver from Spanish Mexico to Spanish Manila and thence into East Asia, and the extensive three-cornered trade involving tea clippers mainly from China to Britain and opium mainly from British Bengal into China.
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 traveling this road should try to stay in them at least once.
Stay safe 
The whole area along the overland route is Muslim which implies at least:
- a tremendous tradition of Muslim hospitality and wonderful treatment of visitors
- some conservatism, especially in matters such as womens' clothing
- risk of foreigners who do not understand Islam giving offense
- complicated politics, mixed with religious issues
- considerable hostility toward both Western and Russian influences
Some of the people are still nomadic herdsmen, and even in the cities tribal loyalties may run strong, which implies at least:
- tremendous hospitality again
- suspicion of outsiders, even from neighboring tribes. Foreigners are sometimes exempt
- many of them are heavily armed
That said, with a bit of common sense and goodwill and a lot of flexibility on the part of the traveler, the risks are moderate.
See individual country and city listings for more.