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Global Connections

Discover the secrets of the Silk Road -- before everyone else does

By Susannah Palk for CNN
  • The Silk Road is an ancient trading route linking East Asia to the Mediterranean
  • Not just a single highway, the route is a series of roads crisscrossing Eurasia
  • Rugged beauty and UNESCO World Heritage Sites are dotted along the journey
  • Travelers should be smart about where they go and exercise caution, experts say

Global Connections, a segment on CNN's Connect the World, takes different countries and asks you to find the connections between them. Recently we've been looking at China and Turkey, two countries linked by the Silk Road.

(CNN) -- One of the greatest trading routes of all time, the ancient Silk Road is again enticing travelers back to its path.

The 2,000-year-old network of routes that connected East Asia to the Mediterranean weaves its way across remote and enigmatic destinations which boast breathtaking beauty and historic gems.

There are some precarious spots along the way, but experts say that as long as travelers avoid these areas and exercise caution, the Silk Road is an appealing journey for those seeking the less-beaten track.

"Now is a fabulous time to be thinking about doing something like this," Tom Hall, travel editor of Lonely Planet, told CNN.

"In the past few years, the Trans-Siberian railway has become a very popular linear route and now people are starting to think about alternative ways to travel around."

The journey made famous by travelers like Marco Polo has a lot to offer intrepid travelers today, according to Paul Wilson, author of "The Silk Roads" travel guide.

Droves of tourists have been flocking to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Bukhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan, raising concerns about the over-development and restoration of those ancient cities.

In five years' time, these places are going to be far more popular than they are now. So go sooner rather than later.
--Tom Hall, travel editor of Lonely Planet

But the Silk Road still has that feeling of authenticity, Wilson said. "The route is developing and in some places very quickly, but you can still witness a life which hasn't changed in centuries," he said.

"The cultures you encounter are as varied as the routes you can take -- desert nomads, mountain shepherds -- Greeks, Romans, Persians, Mongols," Wilson, who has made the trek five times, including once by bike, said.

There are a multitude of experiences to be had -- from sleeping in a yurt with shepherds in Kyrgyzstan to lying on 16th century marbles as the Sultans did in Damascus's Turkish baths.

Many travelers are put off by the sheer length of the route and the endless options open for exploration. But, Wilson said, the key is to remember that you don't have to do it all at once.

Read about traveling the Silk Road in China

"More and more travelers are doing it step by step," he said. "You might want to start with something that's a bit more familiar, like Turkey, and maybe just do that and Syria. And if you like it, then branch into Central Asia, etc."

Both Hall and Wilson told CNN that travelers should avoid destinations that could be perilous. That means steering clear of conflict zones like Afghanistan and Iraq as well as border regions. Travelers should also monitor travel warnings issued by their governments.

The U.S. Department of State has issued travel warnings for Iran and Uzbekistan and the UK government advises against travel to parts of Iran, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Some areas along the journey, such as China's Xinjiang region, have experienced unrest recently.

Possibly the most important aspect of any trip along the Silk Road is advanced planning, Andy Hayes, managing editor of website Sharing Travel Experiences, said.

"You definitely have to have a plan," Hayes told CNN. "It's not a place where you can just backpack around and hope for the best."

He added: "Do everything in advance, especially all your visas. The regulations can change quite often, so make sure you do your homework and always check while you're on the move."

Travelers will have to do a bit of leg work to make a trip like this work, but their efforts will be rewarded, Lonely Planet's Hall said.

He said: "If you go now, you are getting the opportunity to take a peep at something of a secret world. In five years' time, these places are going to be far more popular than they are now. So go sooner rather than later."

Grace Wong contributed to this report.