Route - from England
to China by Bicycle
**March 2004: The route below is a little out of date
now. To keep track of my actual route, keep an eye on the
diary or mileage
log section for latest updates, and if you want updates
"as they happen", join the updates mailing list
(see top left of this screen).**
Starting from Exeter, Devon (UK) and aiming for Shanghai on the East China Sea, my route will probably include:
- Western Europe (France, Germany)
- Eastern Europe (Czech Republic and Slovakia)
- European Russia
- The Urals into Siberia
- Mongolia and the Gobi desert
- Northern China and across the Great Wall
- Central China and the Yangtze
- Along the Yangtze through Eastern China to Shanghai
Europe is wonderfully visa-free, so up to the Ukrainian border I'll be heading eastwards by whichever road catches my eye. The dotted line here may not be definitive. At some point I'll need to cross the Channel, obviously. Dover - Calais seems the likely choice.
*Yes, I know the UK and Slovakia have come out the same colour. I'm sure you can figure out which is which.
(See route dilemmas for thoughts on how the green dotted line might or might not vary from my actual rotue.)
UPDATE 2 Oct 2003 - I have added the blue line on the map above to show the approximate route of the crossing of Mongolia via the border at Tsagaanuur. It appears that this border has just been opened, which makes it my preferred route for the Mongolia / Gobi section of the journey.
Asian border crossings
I'm investigating a number of border-crossing options. Here are some of them.
A. Russia (Tashanta, Altay) to Mongolia.
B. Russia (Kyzyl, Tuva) to Mongolia.
C. Russia (Kyakhta, Buryatia) to Mongolia (Sühbaatar).
D. Russia (Zabaikalsk) to China (Manzhouli).
E. Russia (Blagoveshchensk) to China (Heihe) - river ferry crossing.
F. Russia (Khabarovsk) to China (Fuyuan)
G. Russia (Ussuriysk / Pogranichnyy) to China (Suifenhe)
H. Mongolia to China (Erenhot)
I. Kazakhstan (Dostyk) to China (Xinjiang)
See route dilemmas for thoughts on the pros and cons of each.
Waypoints and distances
See this page for a series of waypoints and crow-flies distances by one route
I haven't tied myself down to one particular route. Wind, weather, bureaucracy, road conditions and whim are all unpredictable factors that could upset the best-laid plans.
My first decision will be how to cross Europe. The most direct route would take me across northern Europe, but in early spring it will be tempting to head south quickly to find some warmth. That said, a southern route through France, Italy, the former Yugoslav countries, and Romania would bring the Alps and the Carpathians into play, and in early March there will still be snow on the higher passes. I will wait and see whether the winter has been mild.
Crossing the Ukraine should give me a good stretch across a single country, with no borders to worry about and, hopefully, by mid-April, not too much snow either.
Crossing Russia up to the Urals also looks like a pretty straight line, complicated only by the meanderings of the Kazakh border. In Soviet days roads were built to connect cities, without much concern for the "internal" borders of the Union. Now the former Soviet republics take their borders more seriously, so the road heading east which crosses into and out of Kazakhstan several times is looks like a recipe for visa trouble. All things considered I'll probably try to stay in Russian territory, north of the Kazakh border.
Further on, things get more complicated. At some stage I'll need to turn right and swing to the south, and there are a number of places along the way where I could do that.
The first is the Altay, south of Novosibirsk - near the extreme western end of Mongolia. This is an enticing option - the mountains of the Altay are supposed to be among the wildest in Russia; it would also leave me virtually the whole length of Mongolia to travel through. On the other hand, I may be tempted to spend longer in Russia where the roads are likely to be better and communication will certainly be easier (I speak some Russian, but no Mongolian). Crossing the border at this point is also, from what I have been able to gather, not always easy.
So, if the Altay is a no-go, my next option would be the Tuvan Republic, a little further east on the Siberian-Mongolian border. The attractions, and the complications, of this route are similar to those of the Altay route - and it is the last border crossing between Russian and Mongolia before Kyakhta, several hundred miles further east.
The Kyakhta crossing has its own attractions. It would entail a visit to Irkutsk, where I could catch up with old acquaintances, and a ride along the shores of Lake Baikal. The border crossing there is more reliably open, and is the easternmost crossing point into Mongolia that is open to foreigners, so far as I can establish.
Kyakhta would be the natural place to make my right-hand turn - but there are other possibilities. By that point I would be two-thirds of the way across Russia, and another long-standing dream, to cycle across Russia following the trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok, would be tantalisingly close to fulfilment. So, I could keep heading east through Siberia towards Chita, Khabarovsk, and Vladivostok at the end of the line.
Curiously, although the railway has stretched to Vladivostok for a century, the Russians still have not completed the trans-Siberian highway to carry road traffic all the way from their Pacific coast to their European borders. There still remain, from latest reports, several hundred miles of uncompleted road somewhere between Chita and Khabarovsk. Officially, this stretch is due for completion in 2004, so perhaps I will arrive there just in time to make the first trans-continental crossing on tarmac... Somehow I doubt it will be ready though.
From Chita there is a turn-off for the Chinese border at Manzhouli, along a route that would bypass Mongolia. The difficulty here is that there is no Chinese consulate until Khabarovsk, and I need to pick up a Chinese visa somewhere along the way.
This visa problem might also rule out the option of crossing the river from Blagoveschensk to Heihe - a shame because I would like to re-visit Heihe and its "famous" Jiahan Foreign Languages School, by whose headmaster I was virtually kidnapped in 1998 and strongly encouraged, shall we say, to spend a week teaching English. (Well, I managed to haggle him down to one week. His opening gambit was twelve months, but I thought that was asking a lot since I was only passing through.)
If I keep going through Russia, it will be tempting to keep going the last few hundred miles to Vladivostok, to complete the trans-Siberian route and ceremonially dip a wheel in the Pacific.
Summary: I'm keeping my options open at this stage, but one of the Mongolian routes looks most likely.
As for what route I'll take through China - that's a question for another day. I'll have plenty of time to ponder it.