The Southern Silk Road splits off from the northern route at Kashgar, skirting the southern rim of the Taklamakan and curving north at Charkhlik on the desert’s eastern edge before re-joining the northern route near Dunhuang in Gansu. In modern times this path has fallen into obscurity, with punishing distances, forlorn and dusty towns, and sparse transport connections. However, this is actually the older and historically more important of the two branches. The most famous Silk Road travellers used it, as well as Marco Polo, and, in the 1930s, the British journalist Peter Fleming. The ancient settlements along the way were desert oases, kept alive by streams flowing down from the snowy peaks of the Kunlun Shan, which border the southern edge of this route.
Following the southern Silk Road opens up the possibility 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 either back to Turpan, or on to Golmud in 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.