The Wrap-up: 10 tips for cycling the silk road

The Wrap-up: 10 tips for cycling the silk road

It has been a month since I returned home, and daily-life has the best of me already. In this post I wish to reflect on my trip by drawing some conclusions on bike, gear, route, road conditions, weather, food, accommodation, safety, navigation, and telephone reception. 

 

The Bike

The Trek Multitrack 750 Trekking showed itself a great machine. Apart from a returning problem with headset play (I should have brought a headset key), I had little problems with this bike. The hand built wheels (Ryde Sputnik rim, Alpine iii spokes and Deore LX rim)  showed no signs of wear and stayed true. The Schwalbe Marathon Mondials (47-622) handled even the worst roads on the route, in the Wakhan Valley. Only in the unpaved downhills I wished for bigger tyres and more breaking power. I used an aluminium Racktime Top-it front carrier and was a bit worried about this piece of gear, but it survived the trip.

 

Gear

The gear with which I left home held up quite all right, over all that is. My tent (Eureka Moonshadow solo xp), sleeping bag (Cumulus Liteline 300) and cooker (MSR Whisperlite)  were important pieces of kit and performed brilliant. The wool Icebreaker shirts were great and even my cheap Lidl bikeshort made it to Bishkek. The Panasonic cc17 charger coupled with the 2500 mAh Eneloop batteries made sure my Garmin Etrex 20 always had enough juice (it ran for three days on two fully charged aa batteries).

On the downside, the really light and comfortable Thermarest Neoair Xtherm sleeping pad gave up on me after three weeks. It was replaced by Thermarest but I lost my trust in the product and used a plain old self-inflatable matrass for the remainder of my trip. The Care Plus water filter (made by Sawyer) wasn’t a solid performer either. Perhaps I squeezed to hard but the water bag broke down and the filter became impossible to use.

 

The route

To make it past the Pamir Highway before my time was up I had to take a rather direct route. Basically what I did was following the Danube river through Europe, the D100 through Turkey and then the direct road to Tehran. The plans was Turkmenistan, the most direct road to the Pamir Highway. But getting a visa for Turkmenistan proved problematic and I had to cycle back west to Azerbaijan instead. Potentially this could interfere with your Uzbekistan visa. In hindsight I should have taken another route.

I should have taken more time in Europe to allow for a more interesting route. Maybe by crossing the Alps, visit Venice and follow the Mediterranean coast to Greece, and maybe take a ferry from Greece to Turkey. In Turkey I should have visited the Cappadocia region. I have heard a lot of great stories of hospitality and natural beauty in Georgia. Cycling from Turkey to Georgia and into Azerbaijan, from where you could take the ferry across the Caspian sea would be an option you should investigate. This alternative has an added benefit of not having to worry about Iran and Turkmenistan visa.

 

Road conditions

If you stick to the main roads, I would not worry about road conditions too much. The further you go east, the more likely you are to cycle on well-paved highways, as there is just not so much traffic. I have had smooth tarmac in the Pamirs, with the occasional patches of horrible gravel. The Wakhan had bad roads, especially north-east of Langar (for two days I managed to do 25 km a day). The road from Jalalabad to Son Kul via Kazarman was beautiful but horrible. I managed with 47-622 Schwalbe Mondials, and I probably would have with the 40-622 version as well.

 

Weather

In order to avoid summer heat in the Turkmen and Uzbek dessert, I set off the 13th of March. I had two rainy days in Germany, Czech Republic and Austria were cold but weather wise fine. I entered Turkey the 18th of April and had two rainy days in the European part of Turkey. The weather has been great in Turkey, though the nights could be a bit chilly. I entered Iran the 10th of May. In Iran the temperatures rose but cycling was pretty comfortable still (because of visa problems I did not go east of Tehran). I did some bus touring to Kashan and Yazd, that was some hot stuff! The route to Azerbaijan via the Caspian was not too hot, a bit humid sometimes. I entered Azerbaijan the 14th of June. Not too hot. The first time I experienced real heat was in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. I entered Kazakhstan the 23th of June and took a train from Aqtau to Nukus, I cycled to Khiva and took a train again to Samarkand. From Samarkand I cycled to Dushanbe where I arrived the 6th of July. Those days were challenging due to the intense heat with temperatures up to 40 degrees Celsius. After Dushanbe i opted for the North route to Kalai Khum, because this would mean gaining elevations fast, resulting in lower temperatures. This worked well, though due to heavy rainfall behind me, the road got inaccessible for people leaving Dushanbe later then me. I guess this is a problem in every season. The weather got a bit more extreme on the 3000 meter high plateau after the Wakhan till Sari Tash in Kyrgyzstan. Wind could be quite strong, the sun as well. I did not experience rain or hail, but other cyclists did and said temperatures dropped quite fast when this happened. I arrived in Bishkek the 20th of August and had had good weather in Kyrgyzstan apart from some rain in Osh.

 

Food

Food and water along the route was pretty easy to come by. A bit more precautions should be made in Tajikistand and Kyrgyzstan. In Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, many shops are poorly stocked. Fresh vegetables and meat and bread cannot be bought, locals produce it themselves, or they trade among themselves. There are little shops almost in every village, but they sell only cookies, pasta, rice, candy, beer and wodka, onions if you are lucky. Bigger shops are in Dushanbe, Kalai’Khum, Khorog, Murghab (bazar), Osh, Jalalabad, Kazarman, Kochkor and Bishkek. Make sure to stock up on fresh food there. There are no shops between Langar (N37° 03.087′ E72° 40.562′) and Ali Chur, so bring some Snickers. Water was plenty on my trip, and often safe to drink, but it is always best to use a filter and chlorine drops anyways. I found a great way to get proteins on the road was cooking with red lentils and nuts. Sometimes a bit hard to find but they stay good in your hot bike bags. A great way to find out where you can buy food is using apps like maps.me and IOverlander.

 

Accommodation

In Europe, though it was still a bit cold, I camped a lot, motivated by the high prices of hotels. Bulgarian and Turkish hotels were cheap and good. In Iran, hotels are bit more expensive but many people want to host you via warmshowers.com. In Uzbekistan, using official hotels is compulsory for tourists, as you need registration slips for every night in the country, when you exit. I have heard cycle tourists can get away with having registration for every third night or so. I used two night trains (you can use the tickets as registration slips) and spend some nights in hostels in Khiva and Samarkand. There are many cheap hotels in the bigger towns. In Tajikistan, make sure not to camp near the border with Afghanistan. Wild camping in Central Asia is easy, there are plenty of beautiful places. If you are running out of food, need some more comfort, or if the weather turns, you could always opt for a homestay. There are plenty of these very basic b&b’s around.

 

Safety

Safety was never really much of an issue. All along the way, drivers kept plenty of distance, people didn’t bother me while camping, and nothing got stolen. The precautions I took were using a Lock Alarm Mini and a very tiny BBB Lock. I did not leave my bike alone for long periods and I seldom used the locks. In the big cities I left my bike in the hostel before exploring. The route through Tajikistan alongside the Afghan border was probably the most dangerous section of my trip. Taliban are active on the Afghan side but do not seem to bother tourists on the Tajik side of the river. If the Tajikistan government perceives an increased Taliban activity, it will likely shut down sections of the Pamir Highway and the Wakhan valley.

 

Navigation

In the first part of my trip I used the Garmin Etrex 20 a lot. Especially in Europe, there are so many streets to pick, gps navigation is vital. You could always use a phone of course. In Central Asia, I really profited from having a proper paper map. I used the Reise KnowHow Central Asia (1:1.700.000) This gave me a great overview of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and relevant bits of Kazakhstan and China. I found that such an overview is very important because you need to be able to adapt when certain border crossings close. 

 

Telephone reception

Mobile phone reception everywhere on the route was pretty good. In the countries where I stayed for an extended period of time I bought local sim cards. In Tajikistan, make sure to buy a Megafon sim card, for this company has best coverage in the Pamirs. Even with Megafon, reception was lost after Langar and was back the moment I hit the M41 highway again. In most villages along the M41 I had reception (Ali-Chur, Murghab, Karakul). In Kyrgyzstan, just across the border in Sari Tash, I bought a Beeline card which I got working in Osh. After Osh I had reception in Jalalabad, the top of Kaldamo Pass, Kazarman, Dodomol and Ak-Tal. There was no reception at the high lake of Son Kol, but in Sary Bulak, along the a365 east of Son Kul reception was back. 

12 thoughts on “The Wrap-up: 10 tips for cycling the silk road

  1. This is one of the toughest routes navigable by cycle I should imagine. Excellent article and great tips for anyone who would like to follow in your footsteps and travel the silk route by cycle. Is there anything I should know about the preparation for such a journey?

    1. Hi Stanton,
      And sorry for the late reply! I think preparing for this trip is rather straightforward. Focus on the basics: bike, shelter, food, health, visa, and communications. Everything else is white noise. Go with the best gear you can get (this is not always the most expensive!), make a plan concerning route-time-visa, get your vaccines, and start cycling. If anything goes wrong while underway you will find a solution. I found the whole trip easier than expected as there is always someone who speaks a bit of English, there is internet almost everywhere to get information on issues to tackle. The further east you go, the more resourceful people become. Hope this message reaches you in time.

  2. Hello Tim, great review of your journey along the silk route. My partner and I are cycling a shorter distance from Kazakhstan to Beijing. Would you be able to advise your process for getting a visa in China as a well as Mongolia please? As we are struggling to figure it all out! Thanks. Please feel free to email on jmgray21@gmail.com much appreciated!

  3. Hey Tim!

    I know this is a really difficult question, but how much do you think the trip could be done on, assuming camping is done as much as possible?
    Was absolutely inspired by your story, cheers!

    1. Hi Joseph, it is really hard to to say. There are costs you’ll always make, like visa and the retour ticket. I think in terms of food you’ll be alright with a 10 euro budget per day (apart from west Europe). And if you are wild camping, that really is all you need. I would definately recommend to make a emergency budget for bike and health problems. And staying in a hotel/hostel/homestay once a week is also a good idea (for washing cloths and stuff).
      Hope this answers your question,
      Tim

  4. Hi Tim,
    I am looking to do a similar trip from London to Beijing next Spring. I want to take about 3 months to get doen to Istanbul and the another 6-8 to get through the Iran, Georgia, The Stans, Mongolia, China etc. I wondered if you knew what it would be like leaving Istanbul around August/September and going over the winter towards China. I hear some of the passes and the Kyrgyz mountains and Pamir Highway may be tricky at this time. Is it possible? Hard? Stupid?
    Thanks!

    1. Hi Ross,
      Thanks for your message. By arriving in Istanbul in August you spend the summer in Europe, which is nice. The autumn in Turkey and Iran would, I guess, be great as well. But then you get to central Asia in winter, and it having a land climate this will be cold. This, combined with the high elevation in the Pamir would make crossing the Pamirs quite hard. But I have read stories of people crossing the Pamirs in winter. I found there were quite some homestays along the Pamir Highway where you could stay for cheap. So yeah, it is possible.
      Hope this helps,
      Tim

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