The Silk Road: Preparing for the ultimate cycling challenge
The Silk Road, from Beijing to Istanbul, is a popular destination – or dream – for cyclists. This article offers a guide to cycling this amazing route.
What is the Silk Road?
The Silk Road once stood as one of the most important trade networks in the world, connecting the East to the West. As well as facilitating trade, most notably of silk, the route contributed to cultural and political exchange, promoting the development of the Asian and European civilisations.
Spanning from Beijing to Istanbul, the Silk Road takes in China, Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey.
Cycling the Silk Road
The Silk Road is 12,975km in its entirety and takes most cyclists around four to five months to complete.
It is acclaimed as one of the world’s longest, hardest, hottest and coldest cycling challenges.
The rewards for cycling the Silk Road are the natural beauty and unique architecture. It truly is a once in a lifetime experience.
If you plan on completing the Silk Road cycling route, make sure you’re fully prepared in order to make the most of the trip.
Before you set off on the Silk Road
This is not a short trip, so get your affairs in order at home before jetting off. There’s a lot of advice on the internet about this, such as this comprehensive checklist for moving or travelling abroad.
Consider your finances. It will be a disaster if you run out of cash or are unable to access your bank account.
Let your bank know that you’ll be travelling so no red flags come up on their system when you withdraw cash.
Make sure you have a healthy savings balance to tide you over and make an agreement with a loved one to wire you money in case of emergencies.
Accommodation – at home and on the Silk Road
You might decide to rent out your own home while you are away, to give you an income as your cycle.
If you own your own property, ask a trusted family member or friend to regularly check in on your house to make sure everything is in order. Think about moving prized possessions into storage for safe-keeping.
You need to decide where you will stay when cycling the Silk Road. Many people go for a mix of hotels, guest houses hostels and their own tent or bivvy bag depending on where they are and what they can find.
Training for the Silk Road
This is not a trek for the faint-hearted (or unfit!). For the weeks and months leading up to your departure, amp up your training regime.
On average, you’ll spend four to 12 hours on your bike. You’ll often travel 100km a day. Make sure you can withstand this.
It’s also advised that you do a first aid course and obviously you will want to learn how to carry out basic bike repairs so you’re prepared for emergency situations.
Finally, try to grasp the basic of the languages of the countries you’ll be galavanting through. This will be handy when you’re in search of food in the evening.
You must ensure that you have all the necessary vaccines before departing. Use the Travel Health Pro website to find out which vaccines are recommended for each country.
For this trip, you will need to have vaccines against measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria, hepatitis A and B, rabies, typhoid, tick-borne encephalitis (TBE), yellow fever and Japanese encephalitis.
hat is a long list so you need to plan ahead.
Visiting so many countries means you need to be aware of the varying documentation demands. Research each country, looking for the most up-to-date information. Regulations can change frequently, so don’t rely on old blogs from previous travellers.
You’ll need a valid passport. It needs to be in date for your entire journey with some leeway of around a month after your estimated finish date in case you hit any bumps in the road.
Some countries ask for vaccination cards before allowing you entry, so ensure you have certification that you have received relevant vaccinations.
On the blogs of previous Silk Road riders, there are stories of difficulties when it comes to having the appropriate visas. Don’t fall prey to the same issue.
As it stands currently, you won’t need a visa for Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan, as long as you aren’t there for more than 30 days. But you will need a visa for most countries en route. It’s best to contact the relevant embassy directly to get one. Try to do this in advance of your trip, rather than leaving it until you’re on the road.
Some visa officials ask for evidence of hotel bookings before approving your tourist status. Make sure you have records to support your statements otherwise it’ll slow your journey down.
Although you’ll be away for an extended period of time, it’s important to pack lightly and efficiently. You will need to carry your kit on your bike in panniers or bike packs.
You’ll need to be prepared for extreme hot and cold weather conditions and occasions where you’ll have no access to electricity or standard infrastructure. Research your chosen route to see what obstacles you may face.
Here is a basic list of things you will need:
Clothing: Cycling shoes, Cycling jerseys, Cycling shorts, Long-sleeved tops, Zip-off shorts, Fleece, Waterproof jacket, Underwear, Hat, Sunglasses, Buff and trainers or sandals.
Equipment: Bike, Helmet, First aid kit, Personal hygiene items, Free-standing tent or bivvy bag, 4-season sleeping bag and liner, Sleeping mat, Portable stove, Water bottle(s), Odometer/Garmin type gadget, headtorch, bike lights, spare batteries, CTC plastic bag for air travel.
Miscellaneous: Dehydrated meal pouches, Snacks,mobile phone, books downloaded on to mobile phone, list of emergency contacts, Credit/debit card and cash
A group of Imperial College London students completed the Silk Road cycle route and have compiled an incredibly informative resource to help you prepare for the trip.
Travel routes for the Silk Road
The Silk Road route is flexible. Some complete the route in its entirety, while others undertake certain sections.
The entire route takes around 155 days with rest and travel days included.
If you wish, you could do the 1,340 km Great Wall stretch, beginning in Beijing and ending at Ulan Bator in Mongolia. The landscape varies tremendously, starting with Chinese countryside and moving into the Gobi desert.
The Persian Silk Road is a favourite, taking around 21 days. Starting in Tabriz in northwestern Iran and finishing in Rabat-i-Sharif, the route is 1,620 km.
This southern branch of the Silk Road is surrounded by gorgeous Persian architecture and allows you to trace the path of Italian explorer, Marco Polo, one of the first to make an account of travels through Asia.
The Pamir Highway is regarded as one of the world’s most scenic mountain highways. It’s positioned along the northern side of the Silk Road. Taking 14 days to travel from Dushanbe to Sary Tash and Irkeshtam, the route is shorter at 475 km.
Whether you decide to do the entire route or a section, it will be an unforgettable experience.
Travelling by bike allows you to experience the nature and culture of the countries up-close, something not so easily afforded by sticking to main tourist attractions on organised trips.
Prepare well and you’ll be able to fully immerse yourself in a world you may never encounter again.
About the author
Based in London, Laura Fields is a recent escapee from the topsy-turvy world of magazine journalism. Now an online writer, she specialises in exploring the best of home, travel and lifestyle.