A main reason for many travellers to visit China is to experience a culture and civilization older than time itself. Sadly, in an age with an emphasis on modernization, many amazing sites are being torn down then built new in the old style. Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, is a perfect example of this. Culturally different with its muslim Uighur population, Kashgar is like nothing else in China. Its old town is a maze of mud brick homes filled with amazing hospitality. But it's quickly disappearing, only to be replaced by a shiny new replica. The only advice is to get here before it's gone.
Long a fertile oasis centre and a real hotspot on the ancient Silk Road, the town of Turpan, in Xinjiang province, has a surprising number of excellent sites on offer. Everything from Grape Valleys to the Emin Minaret to Gaochang Ancient City to Buddha Caves and more... Turpan has a cavalcade of hits that are relatively unvisited. Although it could possibly be done as a day trip from the capital of Urumqi, overnighting is highly suggested. Any hotel can set up an easy day tour around the main sites, then the opportunity to freely wander the market in town is a great way to spend a day (or even two).
Yazd's old quarters are just one of those fine travel surprises, which you probably hardly have heard about (until now). It's among one of the oldest towns in the world and the beautiful old city is still inhabited. A maze of narrow passageways between the adobe houses will get you lost in no time. Most houses are topped of with a so called windcatcher or badger, that is an ancient air-con system. The city was a major stop on the ancient silk route and Marco Polo passed through at some time.
Aleppo is the iconic Middle Eastern bazaar city, with an amazing souq (market), an impressive citadel right in the middle, old Mercedes in the streets and friendly people. In its heydays, it was one of the most important trade centres on the Silk Route, but even today you can still shop-till-you-drop for local stuff like olive soap. Rise to the top of the tower in the citadel to get panoramic views of the town and visit a hammam (public bath) or some of the old traditional houses that are open for visitors. The new part of town attracts the young and rich, where they go double dating over tea and apple nargileh (water pipe) in a Starbuck's look-a-like café. A great city that you can keep exploring.
This set of marvellous ruins of an ancient city is the icon of Syria. The place started out as an oasis town in the desert, but became a mandatory stop on the flourishing silk route. The city grew rich and powerful and even managed to become a "free city" within the Roman Empire. Then queen Zenobia came to power and rebelled against Rome. She managed to beat up some Roman forces and invade the whole of Syria, Palestine and Egypt, before the glorious days were over and in 271 AD Palmyra was again under Roman control. Even today, it's easy to imagine how impressive the city must have been for visitors. In typical Syrian style, the site is informal with no entrance (except for the Temple of Bel), fences or explanations but it only adds to the magic of the place.
Istanbul is soaked in culture, history and glory. Previously known as Byzantium and later on Constantinople it has played an important role through out times. Posited right at the Bosphorus Strait, the entrance to the Black Sea, and sprawling over both the Asian and European continents it is a city that can take some time to get your bearings. The skyline of Sultanahmet (old town) is dominated by the giant domes and minarets of the mosques that have made Istanbul so iconic, while the vibrate neighborhood of Beyoğlu is heart of modern Istanbul packed with fine cafes, small restaurants and boutiques. Keep in mind that Istanbul is no hidden secret (and probably never has been). Tourists from around the world pour in by the busload, pressing prices up and ordinary Turks out. So to get the most out of any Istanbul visit, break out of the tourist bubble at Sultanahmet and go explore the less known areas.
The origins of Merv are prehistoric, possibly as far back as the 3rd millennium BC. Leaders came and went but Merv kept growing. There's even a claim to fame that it was the largest city in the world in the 12th century. Today, little remains. Essentially, there are several small walled cities that became amalgamated into one. The few ruins are rather scattered and a car is almost a necessity for a visit. For the few that actually make it to the areas, a visit is well worth it. Rarely does one have the opportunity to roam around a UNESCO world heritage site with quite literally nobody else around (it is Turkmenistan after all).
There is, perhaps, no better place to relive the fabled Silk Road than the old town of Bukhara. Although lacking in individual showpieces (like the Registan in Samarkand), Bukhara has maintained an authentic feel. Its interwinding streets and alleyways meander past ancient mosques and medressas. But it is the fact that the market is so alive that makes Bukhara special. While many of the items on sale are tourist oriented, the visitor can still see local merchants labouring away on hand-made crafts with skills passed down through generations. While the main thoroughfares might get a little busy, it is easy to escape down a back street and have the place to yourself.
The third jewel in the crown of Uzbekistan's ancient Silk Road cities is the town of Khiva. And while some might think "you've seen one, you've seen them all", this is not the case with Khiva. The walled up old Khiva, Ichon Qala, has been heavily restored - almost to the point of Disneyfication. This level of restoration might not appeal to all, but it's a glimpse into the former glory of the city. The old town within the city walls is a wonderful maze of mosques, medressas, art shops, hotels and cafes along with residential houses, adding daily life to the otherwise open-air museum. It's a place to explore at random and just visit as many "historical sights" as you please. Great views over Khiva, both the new and the old part, can be enjoyed by climbing either one of the minarets and/or the northern part of the mud wall, accessed at the northern gate.
There are few places on Earth that are so absolutely spectacular, yet somehow seemingly unknown. The Registan in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, is one of those places. A UNESCO world heritage site, the central square surrounded by magnificently ornate medressas (dating back as much as 500 years) is a true sight to behold. A pillar of Islamic learning throughout the centuries, Samarkand is a thing of legend in the Muslim world. Towering doors and vaulting ceilings lead the visitors eyes to heaven, while the masterfully tiled walls and floors help to keep your feet on the ground. Samarkand is a truly spiritual place.