2wheels, the return: Edward Genochio's bike expedition across Asia to England

2wheels: The Return

Edward Genochio's bicycle expedition from China to England

September 2005 - November 2006

Sponsored by Decathlon China

 
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Mongolian Horseman Stole My Bicycle!

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- 'But Isn't There a Bus?' - details here.


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- Some snippets
- In Voyage Magazine
- In The Adventure Cycling Handbook


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- 2004-5 from England to China


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Krasnoyarskiy Kray, Siberia, Russia

Siberia

Tuva, Siberia, Russia

Horses, Mongolia

Baikal, Siberia, Russia

Hop off

Priyanik, half-eaten (by me), Kyakhta, Russian-Mongolian border. Shortly after this photograph was taken, the other half was eaten. Also by me.

Buryatia, Russia

Roadsign in Tuva, Russia

Tuva, Russia

The sky, I think

Tuva

 

Touring Notes: Russia, Mongolia, China & Racks

This material first appeared in The Adventure Cycling Handbook, available in bookshops or at www.trailblazer-guides.com, and is reproduced here in edited form by kind permission of the book's editor.

Russia
Mongolia
China
Racks

 

Touring China - some navigational notes

 

China offers a vast range of touring opportunities, from historic city-hopping in the east, to village-to-village explorations in the interior, to hard-core mountain and desert traverses in the west.

Get a map of China and draw a line running from Heihe (Heilongjiang province) on the Russian border in the north-east to Tengchong (Yunnan province) on the Burmese border in the south-west. The area to the south and east of that line comprises 43% of China's land area, but is home to 94% of the country's population. It is crowded, intensively cultivated, and relatively low-lying. To the north and west of the line, with 57% of the land area but only 6% of the population, China is virtually empty, with vast ranges of grassland, desert, high mountains and plateaux.

Your China touring experience will be very different depending on which side of that line you choose to ride. If you want to see villages and teeming cities, ride on good roads, and find decent accommodation every day, head east. Camping in the east is usually difficult because nearly all flat land is either under intensive cultivation, built on, or flooded. In any case it is hard to find a spot away from prying eyes. If you're more into adventure/expedition cycle touring, go west, but be prepared for unpaved roads, more extreme conditions and long stretches with zero facilities.

The road network in southern and eastern China is extensive and in most parts good. Things thin out considerably as you head towards the wilder west. China is divided roughly 50-50 between endless plains and plateaux (which can get dull to ride) and steep and rugged mountains, so start your route planning with a good topographical map. For detailed route planning and on-the-bike navigation, though, you'll want to get hold of a Chinese road atlas.

Incidentally, most roads in China have regular toll-booths, but as a cyclist you are exempt from paying and can slip round the side. Some river-crossings marked as bridges on the map are in fact served by ferries, on which you can take your bike for a couple of yuan.

Road atlas of China

The best single-volume coverage of the whole of China is the "Zhongguo Qiche Siji Dituce" (China Auto Drivers' Atlas). It comes in a tidy portable size, and individual pages can be teased out without too much difficulty so they'll fit in your handlebar bag map case. If you're handy with a needle and thread you can unpick the binding stitching and lift the pages out in six-sheet bundles, which you can then sew back together. That way you can keep the pages you need in your map case, while burying the rest of the atlas at the bottom of your panniers.

Unfortunately it's in Chinese characters only, but that's not a bad thing given that many signposts also only show characters, and, if you need to ask directions, most locals will be able to understand you if you point at the characters for the destination on your map.

The maps show virtually every road in the country, and are reasonably accurate - though take the hard-to-make-out distance indicators with a pinch of salt. It shows rivers but no relief other than the odd spot-height, so you'll probably want to use it in conjunction with your topographical map.

The atlas is sold in Xinhua bookshops across China (there's one in every town), and costs 32 yuan (4 US$). It comes in a burgundy plastic cover, with a small gold steering wheel on the front and the Chinese characters for "zhongguo qiche siji dituce". (Ask for "jong-gworr chee-churh surh-jee dee-too-tsurh".) It's updated annually.

 

Picking your Road in China

Roads in China are classified as follows:

  • Expressways (closed to bikes)
  • "G" roads (national roads)
  • "S" roads (provincial roads)
  • "X" roads (county roads)
  • Other unclassified roads.

G-roads can be divided as follows:

  • G1-series roads, which begin in Beijing.
    E.g. the G107 from Beijing to Guangzhou.
  • G2-series roads, which run north-south (except those beginning in Beijing). E.g. the G210 from Baotou in Inner Mongolia to Nanning in Guangxi.
  • G3-series roads, which run east-west (except those beginning in Beijing).
    E.g. the G320 which runs from Shanghai on the east coast to Ruili on the Burmese border.

Almost all G and S roads, as well as most X roads, have pretty reliable km-markers, on which the road number is also painted; unlike in some countries, they count in one direction only, so the kilometre-numbers are the same whichever direction you're headed. For G1-series roads, km 0 is always Beijing; for G2-series roads, km 0 is the north end; and for G3-series roads, km 0 is the east end.

G-roads are the great national trunk roads, the equivalents of routes nationals in France. If you're going long distance it's likely you'll need to use them for at least part of your route. Expressways are being built at frantic pace across the country, in many cases running semi-parallel to the old G-roads. While the expressways are closed to cycles, they draw off a lot of the long-haul traffic, making the G-roads more pleasant to ride.

G-roads are generally kept in good condition though in mountainous areas this can vary and in the rugged west don't expect them to be paved. Where there's no parallel expressway, G roads can be major trucking routes and not much fun to ride, especially near major cities in the east. Often, though, they have generous cycle lanes, which offer some protection from the heavy traffic, but in which you will compete for space with locals on bikes, tricycles, micro-tractors, and, increasingly, mopeds.

In the prosperous east, local authorities have more money so you'll find S and X roads of decent quality too.

Picking refuelling/overnighting stops from the China Road Atlas takes a bit of practice, because its basic symbol for a settlement, settlement map symbol, can represent anything from a hamlet with no amenities, to a large town with everything. If you want to be sure of finding services such as accommodation, a bus station, or a hospital, look for towns marked with this symbol: county town map symbol. They are county administrative centres and are guaranteed at least to have a range of basic services including accommodation.

Hotel accommodation in China

Outside the biggest cities, you can usually find basic accommodation for between US$2 - 3 per night (or less in the west), though sometimes it takes a bit of searching to find the cheap places. If your budget is tight, the key words are "lüguan" and "zhaodaisuo" - both meaning approximately "guesthouse" or "hostel". Otherwise people will tend to direct you towards more up-market hotels (called "binguan" in Chinese). For around US$10 per night, you'll usually find something fairly comfortable, and even in the cheapies you'll often have a TV in your room. Hotels and hostels of all sorts are usually open to friendly bargaining over room rates. Knocking 20-30% off is fairly routine, and discounts of 50% are not unheard of.

 

Dealing with Closed areas in China

In the early days of China tourism (this applied to all forms of travel, not just cycle touring), the whole country was "closed" with the exception of specially-declared "open" areas. Gradually more and more areas opened up, with the result that nowadays you feel the few areas that remain "unopened" are simply administrative oversights. There is no official list of "closed" areas; instead, each province (in theory) maintains a list of "open" areas, so you can discover which areas are closed only by a lengthy process of elimination. Trying to establish whether the particular road you want to take crosses a closed area can take days of cartographic investigation - even if you actually manage to lay hands both on the "open areas" list in question and on a map whose place-names tally with the those on the list.

You can try going to the police in the provincial capital - they should be able to supply the open areas list for their province, and, if you're not the 29th cyclist in as many days to have asked for the information, you might find a friendly police officer with patience enough to go through the list with you and mark all the open areas on your map. Some cyclists have tried this approach, but you can still come unstuck even if you try to do everything by the book. The "open areas" list you are shown may be out of date - sometimes areas are "un-opened" again without notice; or, the local police out in the sticks might not have been told that their area is "open", so they'll try to haul you in anyway.

Touring extensively through eastern and central China, from the northern border with Mongolia all the way to Hong Kong in the south, I decided the best approach was to assume everywhere was open and hope for the best. I ran into trouble only once, in Inner Mongolia, when the police stopped me on the road between the Mongolian border and the town of Jining. They told me I was in closed area, but let me continue on condition that I "go straight to Jining and don't stop anywhere". I know of other cyclists who have been fined by police in that area, so perhaps I got off lightly. If you know you're going through a closed area, you're best off sticking to the main road - you're less likely to run into trouble if you're clearly just "in transit".

Yunnan in the south-west was the first province in China to declare itself open in its entirety, so there at least you can tour without fear of straying into closed territory. Perhaps other provinces will follow suit eventually. In Tibet, regulations are generally much stricter; permits are needed for travel in most of the "autonomous region".

 

Biking to China from Hong Kong

Bringing your bike into China via an overland border is not always simple. Coming from Hong Kong, you are not allowed to ride into the restricted area just south of the border, so to get to "mainland" China, you will have to put your bike on the KCR train as far as the border crossing at Lo Wu. You then push your bike across the footbridge and through the immigration formalities. Once you're through, you're bang in the middle of downtown Shenzhen, and free to get riding. Going the other way, from China to Hong Kong, the same applies - once across the border, you'll have to take the KCR at least as far as the first stop (Sheung Shui). The excess baggage fee for taking a bike on the KCR is about US$6, or, bizarrely, half that if you take the front wheel off.

Incidentally, don't write off Hong Kong as part of your China tour. The northern two-thirds of the territory include some very fine biking routes on scenic roads. There are also some great designated cycle paths, including a well-signposted route along the seafront from Sha Tin to Tai Po. Lantau Island also offers some good day-ride routes, though Hong Kong might be a good place to ditch your panniers for a few days and let your touring bike be what it always wanted to be - a mountain bike. Contact the Hong Kong Mountain Bike Association (www.hkmba.org) for details. Contrary to popular belief, you can ride your bike in Tsimshatsui and on Hong Kong Island itself, so long as you're happy riding in busy urban traffic. And remember (especially if you've just arrived from right-side mainland China) that they drive on the left in Hong Kong. You can cross the harbour to Hong Kong Island with your bike by taking the Star Ferry from Tsimshatsui to Wanchai. The other Star Ferry routes don't take bikes.



Biking to China from Mongolia

If you're coming to China from Mongolia, the border-crossing story is a little complicated. The Mongolian authorities may, with a lot of persuasion, allow you to ride across their section of the 5km no-man's land between the two countries, but they would rather you put your bike in the back of one of the many vans and cars that shuttle across the border every day. Even if you do succeed in riding to the Chinese side, you will be thwarted in your attempt to ride "the whole way" from Mongolia to China by the Chinese border guards who will insist that you load your bike into a vehicle, at least for the 200 metres or so between the two gates of their customs compound.

Alternatively, it's easy enough to take your bike on the trains that run from Ulaan Baator to Erlian over the Chinese border.


Crossing Mongolia by Bike

If you're making the haul through Mongolia between Russia and China, the simplest route takes you from the northern border at Kyakhta (Russia)/Altanbulag (Mongolia) to Zamyyn Uud (Mongolia)/Erlian (a.k.a. Eren, Erlianhaote) (China). This route will take you through Ulaan Baator, the Mongolian capital. It is easy to pick up a Chinese visa from the embassy there.

Crossing into Mongolia from Russia at Kykhta/Altanbulag is straightforward; the border is open every day and you can ride across (assuming your visas are in order) with minimal hassle. There are other border crossings from Russia into Mongolia further west, but it is not clear whether foreigners are allowed to use them. Russian authorities in 2004 swore blind that the crossing from Tashanta (Altay Republic, Russia) to Tsagaanuur (in the far west of Mongolia) was not yet open to third-country nationals (i.e. non-Russian, non-Mongolian). However, I met some Polish cyclists in Mongolia who had crossed that border into Mongolia in July 2004 so some people are getting through. An attractive option due to open "in 2005 or 2006" is the crossing from Khandagayty in Tuva (Russia) to near Lake Uvs-Nuur in northwestern Mongolia. The crossing from Mondy (Russia) to Khankh (Mongolia) would connect up a fine route between Lake Baikal (Siberia) and Lake Hövsgöl (northern Mongolia), if it were ever to open.

For now, the simplest route into Mongolia from the north takes you on the road from Altanbulag to Ulaan Baator. This stretch of about 340 km is on high-quality paved road, and you can't get lost so long as you stay on the metalled surface. If you are planning side trips on other roads, you'll need to ask locally for directions because signposts are pretty rare.

Riding from Mongolia to China: the Gobi crossing

The road and rail crossing at Zamyn Uud/Erlian is the only one on the long Mongolian-Chinese border open to foreigners. A brand new road is being built across the Gobi desert to connect the border to the Mongolian capital Ulaan Baator. When I rode the route in the autumn of 2004, 140 km of road had been completed, leaving 550 roadless kilometres across the desert. There are tracks across the desert, sometimes of decent quality, but the trick is to work out which one heads for the border and which goes off to someone's ger behind the sand dune on the horizon. Sometimes the tracks become faint or disappear altogether for long stretches. Unfortunately, where the tracks are clear and well-used, they are usually badly washboarded (corrugated), so a bike with suspension would allow you to make the crossing in greater comfort and/or at greater speed. Be rigorous about tightening your bolts - especially rack bolts - when riding long distances on washboarded surfaces, since the constant vibrations encourage the bolts to work loose. I lost a rack half way across the Gobi as a result of failing to do this.

It would be unwise to attempt the crossing without a compass - at least until the road is completed. Much of the way you can ride within sight of the railway line, so you can use that as your guide. Maps show the "road" crossing back and forth across the railway, but in reality there are tracks on both sides and it is simply a matter of picking which track seems least bad. Invariably, the better track is on the other side of the railway. Storm channels running under the railway every few kilometres allow you to cross from one side of the tracks to the other when you feel the urge. Around 150 km of the route goes through real dry desert with virtually no vegetation at all. For the most part it is stony desert, some of it not bad for riding on, but there are long sandy stretches where pushing is required, and lots of hidden sandy patches which will stop your bike dead and send you flying over the handlebars - to a soft sandy landing.

If you stick close to the railway, you will find settlements of some sort every 50 km or so, so carrying huge quantities of water may not be necessary, though given the reasonably high probability of getting lost for a while, it would be wise to carry at least a couple of days' supply of water at all times. Plastic jerry cans can be bought at the "Black Market" in Ulaan Baator. The piped water in the Gobi towns is pretty foul - it certainly needs sterilising - but bottled water is also available.

Look out for half-buried lengths of barbed wire which seem to stretch across the Gobi and could put a nice hole in your tyre if you go over them. Keep an eye on the horizon too, for approaching sand storms. They are most common in the spring, but can strike at any time - one descended on me in mid-September that lasted all day. There's not a lot you can do to avoid them, but they can cut visibility to just a few metres and the airborne grit will shred your eyeballs in any case if you try to open your eyes. Your only defence is to lie low and wait for the worst to blow over. On the plus side, you'll find your bike is spotlessly clean the next day - all the accumulated dirt and grime is sand-blasted away.

At time of writing, the road heading north from Zamyn Uud extends only 100 metres beyond the edge of town, so if you're coming from China, you've either got to plunge straight into desert riding, or you can put your bike on the train as far as Choyr, to skip the toughest stretch of the Gobi.

Other than the road from Ulaan Baator north to the Russian border at Altanbulag, and the beginnings of the road south to the Chinese border, there's precious little tarmac in Mongolia. All maps show a generous network of roads covering the whole country, even distinguishing between "highways", primary and secondary roads, but 95% of these are unsealed tracks and paths, not all of them bikeable.


Racks

Some people ride with backpacks, some people ride with trailers, and some people ride with credit cards and forego the need to carry luggage altogether. But, for most cycle tourists, carrying luggage on a tour means using racks.

If you're touring reasonably lightweight - carrying less than 15 kg of luggage - you probably won't have major difficulty with your racks. But for long-distance or expedition touring, when you may be carrying anywhere up to 60 kg of luggage (including water), your racks are likely be your biggest headache. This is not only because they are likely to break at some point, but also because repairing a rack is not as simple as patching a puncture or replacing a spoke.

At the back

Strong tubular steel rear racks are available, expensively, from most bike shops in the UK. In general it is not actually the racks themselves that give trouble or fail, but the means of attaching the rack to your bicycle's frame. The most vulnerable points on rear racks are where they attach to the frame near the drop-outs at join of the chain-stay and seat-stay. The upper attachment points, underneath the saddle or at the top of the seat-stay, seem to be less of a problem.

Many bike frames have brazed-on lugs near the rear wheel drop-outs to take the rack bolts. Beware of these, as the soldered or welded join between the lug and the frame itself is often sub-standard, even on 'proper' touring bike frames. On my Dawes 'One Down' frame, the lugs on both sides broke off within 6,000 km, mostly on good roads. You can't weld them back on. In desperation, I had to drill holes through the seat-stays to make a new rack attachment points. Drilling 6mm holes through my bike felt and looked alarming, but I believe in fact this made for a much more secure rack attachment; next time I would drill the holes before I set off and not wait for the braze-ons to break off. Even better, pick a bike with rack-attachment holes already built into the frame rather than one that relies on brazed-on lugs.

Secondly, make sure you use good quality bolts to attach your racks. Ultimately, all the weight of your luggage is going through those bolts. The better-quality 'expedition' racks are usually supplied with good-quality bolts; take some spares and make sure they are up to scratch too. Bolts of the recessed-head type (those that take Allen keys rather than screwdrivers or spanners) are usually better quality, and their heads are less susceptible to rounding.

Some people like to use a bolt adhesive like LokTite to stop their rack bolts working free, but that doesn't replace regular bolt checks as part of your daily routine. Bolts can easily work loose, especially when riding on bumpy surfaces, and if you lose a rack bolt you can quickly cause irreparable damage to your rack as the remaining bolts have to bear the burden. It happened to me in the middle of the Gobi desert.

Steel racks may be a little heavier than aluminium, but they are more easily welded if repairs are necessary.

Up front: low-riders and front racks

You may be carrying more luggage than you can accommodate on the back, in which case you'll need some form of front luggage-carriers too. The choice is basically between 'low riders', which carry front panniers near the ground, centred on the hub of the front wheel, and front racks, which sit above the front wheel and allow you to carry panniers as well as, if necessary, other luggage such as extra water or a tent.

Many people prefer 'low-riders' because they are make the bike a little more stable, and perhaps also because they look tidier. You can in theory use low-riders on bikes with front suspension, which wouldn't be suitable for front racks. However, almost everyone has problems with low-riders - they seem particularly vulnerable to breaking. Perhaps we tend to load more weight into them than we should - they're always a tempting place to stow away an extra pound or two of "emergency" biscuits.

Frustratingly, many bikes are not well-designed to cope with low-riders. Different low-riders have different attachment systems, but most require two sets of attachment points, one at the end of the forks, near the drop-outs, and one half way up the forks. On many bike frames the second set is missing. If you are buying a touring bike "off the shelf" this shouldn't be a problem, but if you are assembling a bike yourself, don't assume that all forks, even forks designed for touring bikes, will be suitable for all low-riders.

Because of the problems I've had with low-riders, I now prefer to use a front rack. At first it feels strange having the weight high up on your front wheel, but you soon get used to it. A front rack attaches to the bottom of the forks near the drop-outs, and at the top of the forks by the crown. This arrangement seems to be much more durable than low-rider systems, perhaps because much of the weight is borne by the forks - which are obviously much stronger than the rack itself. A front rack won't work on a bike with front suspension, though.

Rack Repairs

If your rack breaks, you need to find a welder. In almost every part of the world, you'll find someone who can weld steel in pretty much any village (car repair workshops are your best bet, but try farmers too), but for aluminium welding you might not get lucky outside the larger towns or cities. For this reason, a steel rack makes sense (and it's also worth considering a steel bike frame too).

If you're away from habitation (invariably, you will be when your rack breaks), you can often bodge a repair that will get you to the next town, at least, if you carry a few plumber's clamps with you in your toolbag. You can use them to clamp one tube (the rack's) to another (your bike frame).



Touring Russia

Russia covers an immense territory, though much of it is devoid of roads and so pretty much off-limits to cycle tourists. The road network in European Russia (west of the Urals) is relatively well developed, leaving you plenty of choice for touring, but in Siberia (east of the Urals), roads are few and far between: if you're planning to ride to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast, there is basically just one east-west road, the trans-Siberian highway. In fact, even that is not complete: there are roadless chunks between Chita and Blagoveschensk, though enough cars make the trip for there to be dirt tracks connecting the paved sections. In theory the whole route should be paved within the next few years, but don't count on it.

Russian Road Maps

Decent road maps suitable for cycle touring are hard to come by outside Russia, but once you're in the country you should be able to pick up a comprehensive atlas. A good one to look out for is "Atlas Avtodorog Rossii" (Atlas of Russian Roads), jointly published by Astrel and AST. This covers the whole of Russia in 150 pages, but it's lightweight and easily portable, with the area around Moscow shown at 1: 500 000, the rest of European Russia at 1 : 1 000 000, and Siberia at 1 : 2 500 000. Since there are so few roads in Siberia anyway, that scale is adequate for all touring unless you plan to go into the back-country on hunters' trails, in which case you can often pick up detailed hiking maps locally.

In fact virtually all easily-available mapping of Russia is based on the same cartography, so whichever atlas you find, the mapping inside will probably be the same. If your tour is limited to a small part of Russia, smaller atlases are also available, containing the same mapping for a particular region.

In the atlas referred to above, and most other road maps you'll come across, "federal roads", which should in general be sealed and usually reasonable quality, are shown in red. Many red roads are designated "M"-roads (technically, motorways), for example the M53 from Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk, but there is no restriction on riding bikes on them.

All other roads shown on the map are of unpredictable quality, and occasionally don't exist at all. Roads shown in yellow with black edges should be sealed, but you can't always count on this, especially in Siberia. Sometimes "yellow" roads are very good though. Ask locally - people are usually pretty knowledgeable about which roads are sealed. Roads shown in green on the map are never sealed, though in dry weather they can be fine to ride, and they'll have very little traffic. If it has been raining, green roads are a write-off - just one tractor driving down them will turn them into impassable quagmires.

"Federal" roads (marked red on the map) are now quite well signposted, but this is not so on other roads, so trust your map, compass and judgement, or ask a local.

 

Roads & Routes in Russia

If you're heading east on a trans-Siberian route, you have a few choices as far as Omsk. Thereafter, there is only one road, though there are a few side-trips to the north and south that you could consider along the way. Many people enter the country in north, around St Petersburg, but this means that you have to get through or around Moscow before heading further east, so consider entering from further south, between Kursk and Rostov-and-Don - traffic in the south, away from Moscow and the main roads to Europe, is generally lighter.

If you're riding through European Russia, you'll cover a lot of very flat miles, so reaching the Urals will come as something of a relief. Don't expect towering peaks, though - the Urals are more rolling hills than serious mountains.

Many people assume that Siberia is a frozen wasteland, but in fact its southern half enjoys a warm, if short, summer, from late May to September, during which you're more likely to feel too hot than too cold. (In spite of this, Siberians, with their characteristic dark humour, enjoy saying that "In June summer hasn't quite started, but by July it's already over".) Once you've encountered Siberia's insect life, though, you may seriously want to consider riding in winter, when at least you're safe from the biting bugs. Between Chelyabinsk and Novosibirsk, in particular, you're basically riding through an uninterrupted swamp inhabited by a few unfortunate people and a vast number of extremely hungry mosquitoes and giant horseflies. Repellent (available locally) helps a bit against the mozzies, but the horseflies seem impervious. These guys are big, and when they bite it hurts (they've got teeth). There's not much you can do to escape - they'll be with you all day, and they have no difficulty keeping up with you as you ride. Take comfort from the fact that the worst of it lasts only about 2,000 km; once you're past Novosibirsk the swamp gives way to hillier terrain and the insects become fewer.

Heading east, you can break the monotony of the trans-Siberian route by branching off south of the highway. Good options include:

  • The M52 south from Novosibirsk. This will take you down to the Altay Republic, with some fine scenery and the possibility of a back-door route into western Mongolia via Tashanta. Check locally that the border crossing is open, because its status has been ambiguous in recent years. An alternative, adventurous option is to ride the track from Kosh-Agach north-west into Tuva, rejoining a decent road at Ak-Dovurak. Seek local advice about this route. You'll need to take food for several days, be prepared for fording some sizeable rivers, and carry good local maps and a compass.

  • Turn south at Achinsk (west of Krasnoyarsk) and head for Abakan. From there you can ride the "Sayan Loop" route through the Sayan mountains. Take the M54 south-east to Kyzyl in Tuva, then turn west to Ak-Dovurak. From there you can attempt the track crossing to Altay Republic (see the route above), or complete the loop by turning north back to towards Abakan, through more spectacular scenery on the border between Tuva and Khakasia. This loop route includes a few sections of unpaved road and a couple of serious passes. The loop route, Abakan-Abakan, covers around 1,200 km.

    If and when the border is opened, a variant would be to turn south half way between Kyzyl and Ak-Dovurak and head for the Mongolian border at Khandagayty. There is a Mongolian consulate in Kyzyl that will issue tourist visas.

  • From the south-western tip of Lake Baikal, the A164 heads west along a broad valley towards the Mongolian border at Mondy. It's a scenic route, with a couple of short side-spurs on the northern side of the valley which you can explore. One day they may open the border, creating a fantastic route linking Baikal and Lake Hovsgol in Mongolia, but at present that border is firmly shut so for the time being you have to re-trace your steps to get back to the main trans-Siberian highway.

 

Shops & provisions in Russia

You can ride a long way in Russia without going near a town, but even in Siberia you'll probably pass through or close by a village at least once a day. Almost all villages have a shop that will sell a few basic provisions, though the shop is not always easily recognised - it may be in someone's front room. Ask around for magazín and you'll quickly be pointed to the right house. In the morning, at least, you'll probably get bread (don't show up too early, the delivery may not have arrived, or too late, or they may have sold out), and there's always pasta in various guises (all called macaróni), rice, biscuits, and tins of fish and meat. You'll often find a few oranges, apples, or bananas, too.

For fresh local produce, you're better off asking at private houses. Most village people cultivate a vegetable plot and are usually more than happy to sell you whatever is in season. Potatoes are ubiquitous, and you'll also find cabbages, cucumbers, carrots and tomatoes. Eggs, and fresh-from-the-cow milk are available too, just ask around the village for molokó (milk) and yáiytsy (eggs). Meat can be harder to find, though shops will often sell a variety of salamis (kolbasá). Where there's reliable electricity, many shops will sell ice-creams (morózhenoye) which are cheap, tasty and morale-boosting. Various varieties of refreshing yoghurts are sometimes available too, along with cheese and chocolate-flavoured butter.

Every village will have a pump or well from which you can draw water. Generally it is OK to drink, though in some places it is rather salty. Locals will quickly tell you if the local water is contaminated. Finding the village pump-house or well is not always easy - they come in a variety of well-camouflaged guises. Ask around for the kolónka (water-pump) or kolódyets (well).

If you prefer someone else to do the cooking, you'll find regular truck-stop cafés along major routes (including the trans-Siberian highway) where you can eat hearty though repetitive fare for a few dollars. Expect to slurp your way through a lot of borsch, mashed potato and goulash if you eat that way. Off the main routes, you may struggle to find eateries, though it's worth asking in villages for the stolóvaya, or canteen. Set up to feed workers on the collective farms, many have now closed and not all will serve "outsiders", but it's worth asking, sometimes you'll get lucky and score a hearty meal for a bargain price.

Camping in Russia

Camping is possible virtually everywhere in Russia outside the big cities. You'll not find designated campsites except in very touristy areas like Lake Baikal, but there's plenty of space for your tent everywhere you go, and nobody will mind so long as you're not trampling their tomato plants.

If you're really out in the wilds of Siberia, you should be careful about bears - seek local advice - but locals on the trans-Siberian highway claim that bears don't wander near the main road anyway. In Ussuriya in the Russian far east, there is a theoretical risk from tigers, but you'd be very lucky to see one.

The real threats come from smaller creatures. Mosquitoes and horseflies will drive you to distraction but are not serious hazards; ticks, on the other hand, are, and they are widespread across much of Russia. They carry serious diseases including tick-borne encephalitis and Lyme disease, so make sure you are inoculated in advance, and take precautions against tick bites. Wear long trousers tucked into your socks when walking in the woods or in long grass; locals recommend wearing a hat as well. Check your clothing before getting into your tent. Show no mercy to any ticks that you find - they look like little spiders but have hard bodies and are very difficult to crush. Fancifully-painted signs by the roadside warn you of the tick danger and what the local species look like.

Other accommodation in Russia

On major trucking routes you will find motel-type accommodation for around US$10 per night - but they are not always at conveniently-spaced day-ride intervals. In most of Russia, you really do need to carry a tent or at least a bivi bag. If you chat to locals in towns and villages, you will often find yourself invited to stay the night, but you can't count on that every night.

Police, the "GAI", and bureaucracy

Russian drivers love to complain about the cops, who have a bad reputation for preying on motorists and shaking them down for trivial or fabricated offences. Still widely-known by their old Soviet-era acronym of GAI, the traffic police are now formally known as the DPS. Their regular checkpoints (often complete with machine-gun toting officers) can look intimidating, but in fact they rarely cause trouble for cyclists. They do sometimes flag you down, leaving you expecting the worst, but usually they're just curious and want to chat.

A headache for cycle tourists in Russia is the system of visa registration. In theory you are supposed to have your visa "registered", either at an official tourist hotel, or at an "OVIR" office (effectively a branch of the police - the police can always direct you there), within 72 hours of arrival. That is fine for tourists on package tours of Moscow, but causes problems for cyclists who may not even reach a town big enough to have a tourist hotel or OVIR office for several days after entering the country. The rules about visa registration are subject to local interpretation; this "flexibility" which can either work for you or against you. The safest and simplest option is to try to spend one night in a tourist hotel (you'll need to find a decent-sized town) as soon as feasibly possible after entering the country. Registering directly at OVIR is usually more of a hassle.

Beware of roads near borders - particularly the borders with former Soviet republics which until recently were pretty porous. There is a "restricted zone" stretching several miles "inland" from most Russian borders, though these are not always clearly marked (and certainly not in English). If you stray into such a zone, you run the risk of being picked up by the local border guards, and potentially subject to a fine. If you are legitimately planning to cross the border via a recognised route, you should have no trouble; problems arise on small local roads that run parallel to the border. I was arrested on one such road near the Kazakh border and held and interrogated for 24 hours. [see The Colonel's Trousers.]

Copyright © Edward Genochio 2005


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