Originally, the Southern Silk Road split off from the northern route at Kashgar, skirted the southern rim of the Taklamakan before crossing to Charkhlik on the desert’s eastern edge, then rejoined the northern route near Dunhuang in Gansu province. In modern times this path has fallen into obscurity, with distances huge and punishing, towns dusty and forlorn, and transport connections sparse. Of the two branches, however, this is actually the older and historically more important. The most famous Silk Road travellers used it, including the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims Fa Xian and Xuanzang, as well as Marco Polo, and, in the 1930s, the British journalist and adventurer Peter Fleming. The ancient settlements along the way were oases in the desert, kept alive by streams flowing down from the snowy peaks of the Kunlun Shan, which constitute the outer rim of the Tibetan plateau to the south.
Following the remains of this southern route opens up the prospect of travelling overland from Kashgar to Turpan one way, and returning another, thus circumnavigating the entire Taklamakan Desert. The road from Kashgar runs for 1400km to the town of Charkhlik, from where it’s still a fair way back to Turpan, or a hellish mountain journey to Qinghai. The ancient city of Khotan is the pick of places to get off the bus and explore; it’s also linked to Korla via the splendid 522km-long Tarim Desert Expressway, one of the longest desert roads in the world.