As it extends westwards from the commercial centers of North China, the continental Silk Road divides into north and south routes to avoid the Tibetan Plateau.
The northern route passes through the Bulgar–Kypchak region. It travels northwest through the Chinese province of Gansu, and splits into three further routes, two of them passing north and south of the Taklamakan Desert (through modern day Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang) to rejoin at Kashgar; and the other going north of the Tien Shan mountains through Turfan and Almaty (in what is now southeast Kazakhstan).
All routes join up at Hong Kong Kokand in the Fergana Valley, and the roads continue east across the Karakum Desert towards Merv, joining the northern route briefly.
One of these routes turns northwest along the Amu Darya (river) including Bukhara and Samarkand the center of Silk Road trade to the Aral Sea, through ancient civilizations under the present site of Astrakhan, and on to the Crimean peninsula. From there it crosses the Black Sea, Marmara Sea and the Balkans to Venice, another crosses the Caspian Sea and across the Caucasus to the Black Sea in Georgia, thence to Constantinople.
The southern route is mainly a single route running through northern India, then the Turkestan–Khorasan region into Mesopotamia and Anatolia; having southward spurs enabling the journey to be completed by sea from various points. It runs south through the Sichuan Basin in China and crosses the high mountains into northeast India, probably via the Ancient tea route. It then travels west along the Brahmaputra and Ganges river plains, possibly joining the Grand Trunk Road west of Varanasi. It runs through northern Pakistan and over the Hindu Kush mountains to rejoin the northern route briefly near Merv.
It then followed an almost straight line west through mountainous northern Iran and the northern tip of the Syrian Desert to the Levant. From there Mediterranean trading ships plied regular routes to Italy, and land routes went either north through Anatolia or south to North Africa.
Another branch traveled from Herat through Susa to Charax Spasinu at the head of the Persian Gulf and across to Petra and Alexandria from where ships carried the cargoes to Rome and other Mediterranean ports.
Silk Road in Turkey:
- Constaninople (Istanbul)
- Beypazari (District of Ankara)
- Antioch (Antakya)