Beijing Bicycles: Cycling the Silk Road

Added over 8 years ago

By Paul Wilson


With China's relentless pursuit of 'the car', bicycles are becoming a rarer and rarer sight, at least in the main cities of its eastern seaboard. However, that shouldn't put off those keen to keep their carbon footprint low whilst following our route.

The advantages of riding a bicycle are enormous, even if the distances are equally extreme. I've found it's one of the finest ways of escaping the crowds, particularly in China where foreign visitors are not allowed their own motorized vehicle or motorbike.                      

If you don't fancy lugging your bike the whole way (or cycling the whole way for that matter!), why not hire/buy a bike en route and cycle one or two sections of your journey? The most exciting stretches have to be the Karakorm Highway between Kashgar (China) and Gilgit (northern Pakistan), and the Pamir Highway around Tajikistan.

Most roads are in good-enough condition to take bikes but you need to plan carefully to find the least hilly route. Many cyclists are forced to camp at least some of the time, with long distances between accommodation. Water can be another major headache as the route is so hot and you are so exposed. There are bike/repair shops in most big towns but local shapes and sizes tend to be incompatible with most foreign bikes - even bikes from other countries along the Silk Road. I'd recommend taking at least one spare chain, a cassette, four spare inner tubes, two spare tyres and extensive repair equipment - plus front and back panniers for all your gear.

Film buffs should look out for Beijing Bicycle, one of the better films to have come out of China in recent Years.

Practicalities: You should have no problem bringing your bike into any Silk Road country, as, unlike cars and motorbikes, bicycles don't need separate paperwork or clearance (it's a good idea to take out a comprehensive insurance policy, however, both for bike and rider). Visas can be tiresome as you often need more time than countries will give you to complete your journey in full (most cyclists are forced onto buses or trains at some stage); sometimes as a cyclist if you apply in your own country and explain the situation you might be given longer than a standard tourist visa (but don't count on this). You will also need detailed maps (much more detailed than the ones in my book - but this is no longer the impediment it once was).

To go it alone, try the Internet for the latest blogs from fellow Silk Road cyclists, as these are far more useful than the information provided by local cycle groups, which, if they exist at all, have different agendas. Crazy Guy On A Bike is probably the best website to start with, as all sorts of 'bicycle tourists' publish their journals here. Cycling Nomads is similar.  Cycling the Silk Road is also good, or look for Tim Cope's Off the Rails. Trailblazer's Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook provides essential practical information.

For group-riding, contact the organizers of 'Istanbul To Beijing', the annual cycle 'race' across Asia. It's aimed at amateurs rather than professionals An alternative to the bicycle...and completes the 11,000km or so from Istanbul to Beijing in 110 days - you can cycle the whole route or just one section. If you just want to cycle in China try Bike China Adventures an American-run organization, or Cycle China. deserves a special mention as this Japanese guy (Daiske) has been on the road for ten years and is currently on his third circumnavigation. He promised us he is stopping this time round but you never know, so look out for him!

If you just want to do one or two sections I'd recommend traveling from Beijing to Kashgar by train and buying a bike there; a number of stores sell standard new Chinese-made mountain bikes for around US$300. You can then cycle the KKH down to Gilgit over ten days or so, with just a basic repair kit. In Gilgit you can sell your bike to one of the tour companies for almost as much as you bought it for, and then carry on along the Silk Road through Pakistan and Iran. You'll need to travel light so your stuff can fit into panniers or be strapped onto a rear rack, but you can always post home what you don't need in Kashgar.

NB Tandem riders beware! Technically, bikes in China are permitted to carry only one person to prevent accidents. A Western couple on a tandem were turned back at the Chinese border by an over-zealous official bent on upholding the letter of the law. 

Tags: Bicycle Trips, Central Asia, The Silk Road, Travel, Travel Blog


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