Overland from Milan to Beijing: The Silk Road & The Trans Mongolian Railway
We left on July 31, 2019 from Milan Lampugnano with plans to travel the Silk Road to Beijing and then back to Milan by Trans Mongolian Railway, all using only overland public transports, no planes. On December 21, 2019 we arrived by train at Milan Rogoredo, we had made it! The emotion we felt was one of pure joy and satisfaction, of quickened heartbeats, of tears and smiles as we stepped off the train and saw our families after so many days of travel. This trip does not include Iran, a wonderful country that we explored with a dedicated trip in 2018 (click here for more information).
We traveled through the Balkans fairly quickly traveling, mostly by overnight buses, stopping in Zagreb, Sarajevo, Belgrade (just one afternoon) and Sofia. On an overnight train, we then arrived at Istanbul and spent about ten days in Turkey visiting Cappadocia and then crossing the country on the Dogu Ekspresi (the Eastern Express), which took us in 24 hours from Ankara to Kars. From Kars we entered Georgia by crossing the mountainous border of Türgözü and spent fifteen days in Georgia among mountain villages, old Soviet sanatoriums and cities such as Tbilisi, the capital. Also overland, we entered Azerbaijan, where we visited the small town of Shaki, and the bizarre Azeri capital, Baku. From there we took a cargo boat to Turkmenistan.
The Caspian Sea crossing was fascinating and uneventful, but also very long. We spent only five days in Turkmenistan, due the limited time of the transit visa. Despite being quite inaccessible country, the people of Turkmenistan are deeply hospitable and kind. In the country we visited Darvaza, or Hell’s Gate (a giant crater of gas burning in the desert), the capital Ashgabat, and the border city Turkmenabat. The latter borders one of the key countries for the Silk Road: Uzbekistan. We initially arrived at Bukhara and then from there we went to Khiva and then further up to Nukus and Moynaq to see what’s left of the Aral Sea. And from the north of Uzbekistan we then returned to the south, to perhaps the most famous city of our trip: Samarkand. From this legendary city, we a shared taxi to cross the border, enter Tajikistan and arrive in the capital Dushanbe. From there we set off on the Pamir Highway, which passes through wonderfully unique places and takes you to see Afghanistan as well as some of the most remote areas of Tajikistan. Finally, this road took us to Osh, Kyrgyzstan. From Osh we had a grueling drive to Bishkek. Usually you would take the plane to travel between the two cities, not the shared taxi, but we couldn’t, we had to stick to the plan. And so it was for the return trip, from Bishkek to Osh with stops in Toktogul and Arkit, two places immersed in the nature of this incredible country.
We retraced our steps in order to enter China through the Irkeshtam pass and arrive in Kashgar, in Xinjiang, another symbolic place of the Silk Road. From Kashgar we went up to Kuqa and finally Urumqi. We then changed region and entered Gansu, with its Buddhas in Dunhuang, its rainbow mountains in Zhangye and its Tibetan monasteries in Xiahe. From there, out of the remote mountains, we went into the city to Lanzhou and then Xi’an, famous for the Terracotta Army and symbolic place of arrival of the Silk Road. Although for us the conclusion of this part of the trip was Beijing and, with it, the thrill of walking on the Great Wall of China. Traveling in China was easy, we took a train to each destination.
However, we missed the road, so we went to the Mongolian border with an overnight bus and then from Zamyn Uud to Ulaanbaatar, the capital. From there to Milan we took only trains, without any difficulty, it is a journey accessible to everyone. In Mongolia we rested for a couple of weeks and then we left for Russia, doing the Trans Mongol Route “in reverse”, as I like to say, with a stop in Siberia, in Irkutsk, and another in Yekaterinburg. We then went up north to St. Petersburg and, finally, to Moscow where the last train was waiting for us: the direct Moscow-Nice train that stops in Milan Rogoredo every Saturday at 12:10.