Our 12,280 kilometre self-powered caravan begins in Bejing, China, the political and cultural centre of China and follows the northern Silk Route across mysterious lands, fiery deserts, and forbidding mountains. Almost 20 weeks later we arrive in faraway Istanbul, the majestic capitol of Byzantium, the Roman Empire, the Ottomans and now the Republic of Turkey.
Starting in Beijing’s historic centre, we’ll follow the Silk Route northwest before dropping back south in Central Asia. Included are visits to four destinations definitely off the beaten track – enigmatic Iran where we will marvel at that country’s Persian past, the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan where we will climb to over 4600 meters and cycle across the “Roof of the World”, mysterious Kazakhstan where we will pedal through the immense steppes, the site of Soviet nuclear tests and successful space landings, and distant Mongolia, where riders will cycle along ancient trading routes through the vast steppes and meet the country’s friendly nomadic people, experiencing their age old traditions.
As a Silk Route participant, you will ride to the mystical Central Asian cities of Samarqand, Bukhara, and Merv, and camp amongst the stunning meadows, rivers and peaks of Kyrgyzstan. There are points where quietness pervades, and where the original travellers of the Silk Route seem to be just beyond the next hill, beckoning you further along this arduous trek. Time and time again, you will be amazed at the layers of history emerging from the sand, shake your head at all that has been lost and take heart from all that is being preserved and created.
Each group of Silk Route riders are enriched by an intricate knowledge of ancient lands crossed, the inspiration that comes from sharing a grand adventure with new friends and fellow nomads, and the inner peace that comes with meeting a life-changing challenge head on. Whether you are lured by the chance to stay in timeless caravanserais and shop in bazaars that have thrived for thousands of years, or have dreamt of traveling “the Golden Road,” we look forward to having you join us on this unforgettable journey.
The Silk Route journey begins in Beijing, China’s political and cultural capital, not to mention the 3rd largest city in the world. With a rich history stretching back over 3,000 years, you will enjoy exploring its fascinating museums and historic buildings before your epic ride begins. In fact, Beijing contains 7 UNESCO World Heritage sites so it’s best to arrive early if you plan to do some exploring.
Once the cycling begins, the riders will head northwest out of the metropolis and will soon encounter another of the world’s wonders, the Great Wall of China. Designed to keep the Mongol hordes at bay, it now serves as a marker for our entry into the Mongolian homeland as we follow one of the ancient Silk Road trading routes to Ulan Bator.
The landscape now gradually changes as the Chinese countryside transforms into the renown Gobi desert, home to many famous Silk Road cities. Once we pedal into Mongolia proper this harsh environment, where temperatures can change up to 35C in 24 hours, will test the riders’ resolve but may also reward them with some spectacular vistas and perhaps even views of gazelles, wild asses and bactrian camels.
A rest day in the Mongolian city of Sainshand will allow the cyclists to head out in the Gobi to explore such sights as the reconstructed monastery of Khamaryn Khiid or the spiritual temple of Bayanzurkh Uul. Four more days of cycling through the Gobi desert brings the riders to historic Ulan Bator and the end of the Great Wall section of the Silk Route.
For cyclists looking for a route off the beaten track, this section definitely checks off all the boxes. Leaving Ulan Bator and its urban comforts, the riders will now head west and will quickly find themselves off the pavement and into the northern wilds of the country.
This is the Mongolia many people imagine; vast rolling steppes, coated in green, dotted with traditional yurts surrounded by nomadic livestock and back-dropped by snow-capped mountains. The cycling will be tough but immensely rewarding. Nights will be spent tenting under the immense open skies and days churning through the gorgeous countryside.
A rest day in the friendly town of Moron offers riders a chance to visit Uushigiin Uver, a bronze age site containing some amazing carved deer stones (mysterious ancient markers) or to stock up on supplies before heading out into even more isolated areas of the country.
Silk Route cyclists now enter Western Mongolia, a region isolated for many centuries from the traditional Mongol heartland as well as the world at large. Six challenging riding days along salt lakes and through stunning valleys bring the cyclists to the small town of Ulaangom where they will treasure a day to rest their bodies before the last stretch of this amazing section.
A couple day’s riding brings the expedition to the Russian border. Once across, the Western Siberian landscape initially looks like the moon but before long the riders will enter the Chuysky Trakt. This paved highway is almost completely unknown but will provide the Silk Route cyclists with a unique experience. Lonely Planet describes it as “Frothy rivers, harrowing passes, craggy cliffs, rolling steppe, austere desert landscapes and – the coup de grace – the mighty 4000m mountains of the Chuya range”
This exciting section comes to an end in Gorno-Altaysk, the capital of the Russian Altai Republic.
This section takes the riders through some little-visited regions of the world. From the capital of the Russian Altai Republic, the Silk Route cyclists will pedal north towards the friendly city of Biysk before veering off southwest towards the Kazakhstan border.
The route there will take the riders through a variety of small, traditional Siberian villages where they will experience the inhabitants’ legendary hospitality, as well as exchanging some intoxicating toasts with the villagers to celebrate their passage.
The cyclists will now enter the isolated nation of Kazakhstan. Although it is the 9th largest country in the world, few people know much about it other than it being the main location for Soviet nuclear tests and the headquarters of their space programme. Riders will soon discover that there is so much more to this ethnically diverse country.
A rest day in the historic town of Semey will allow riders to explore its collection of Tsarist architecture, the Dostoevsky Museum (he was exiled here) and learn about how the town was the effected by the 456 Soviet nuclear tests conducted from 1949 – 89 at the nearby Semipalatinsk Test Site.
From Semey, the Silk Route heads south through the sparsely populated, windswept landscape of Eastern Kazakhstan before washing up in Usharal where the cyclists can enjoy a trip to beautiful Lake Alakol. The cyclists now spin towards Almaty, a cosmopolitan city beautifully set in the foothills of the spectacular Tian Shin Mountains, and the end to this intriguing section. Along the way they will have the opportunity to look for the elusive Kazak petroglyphs and enjoy a warm swim in Lake Kapchagai, a popular resort destination for the locals.
This gorgeous section begins in one of Central Asia’s most chic cities, Almaty. The cyclists will pedal east through the arid landscape before climbing up into the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains. Camping for the night near the Charyn Canyon, some riders may be tempted to test their rafting skills on the fast flowing river but they would be advised to rest up for the upcoming climbs.
The riders now enter Kyrgyzstan and head west along the southern shores of Lake Issyk-Kul, the 2nd largest alpine lake in the world and flanked by 2 mountain ranges that run its entire length. Riders will enjoy a rest day here, soaking up the incredible view and dinning on fish freshly caught in the lake. Or they may explore surreal Skazka (Fairy Tale) Canyon that’ll make you think you are in Utah.
Following yet another fragment of the ancient Silk Road, the riders will now challenge themselves with an epic 6 day ride through rural Kyrgyzstan – rough roads, winding rivers, endless hills, tiny villages, nomadic herders with their yurt camps, sparkling lakes – all set against the stunning back-drop of lush green meadows and snow-capped mountains that give this section its name.
Even the 2.5 days we had previously spent in this stunning country were highlights for past Silk Route riders. Don’t be surprised if you are invited more than once to a yurt to share the traditional fermented mare’s milk.
Finally, the cyclists will pull into Osh, the country’s oldest city, home to one of Central Asia’s busiest and most interesting markets of the ethnic Uzbeks and the end to this beautiful and challenging section.
The next 3 weeks is possibly the most thrilling bicycle tour section ever attempted.
From Kashgar, we head towards the Irkeshtam Pass and Kyrgyzstan, the most accessible of the former Soviet Asian Republics, known for its responsible tourism and hospitable nomadic peoples. After the border formalities we arrive at the junction town of Sary-Tash. At first one senses this new frontier will mark a profound shift in cultures, but in reality Central Asian and Turkic peoples share much of their heritage with the Uyghurs of Western China.
Then it’s into Tajikistan, a remote country described by Lonely Planet as “a patchwork of self-contained valleys and regional contrasts, forged together by Soviet nation-building and shared pride in a Persian cultural heritage that is claimed as the oldest and most influential in the Silk Road region.”
Here we will embark on our own “Great Game,” as the first cycling expedition organized by “foreign devils” to navigate the fabled Pamir Highway, which was off-limits to travelers until recently. Known locally as Bam-i-Dunya (Roof of the World), the Pamirs lie at the heart of the Hindu Kush, Tien Shan and Karakorum ranges, reaching skywards to 7495 meters. Afghanistan beckons to the south, China and Kyrgyzstan to the northeast. Here we face magnificent desolation, and a grueling test of physical and mental strength.
Nomadic herders, warm nights in Yurts, the indescribable beauty of Kara-Kul Lake, and the literally breath taking 4,665 meter Ak-Baital Pass are some of the highlights of this route. Amidst such stunning scenery, travelers should be on the lookout for the giant Marco Polo sheep and the elusive snow leopard, while guarding themselves against altitude sickness.
After crossing our 4th pass of more than 4000 meters, we will reach Khorog, a stones throw from Afghanistan, and the site of our second rest day in this stretch after Kara-kul. From there it’s on to the Tajik capital of Dushanbe; transformed from a small village into a city by the Bolsheviks, it will grant us a day to explore its busy markets, and to experience a bit of luxury after the trials of the Pamirs.
Leaving Dushanbe we pedal alongside the Turkistan Range and the Zeravshan river, over passes, and through a vertical world of towering peaks to Penjikent and then onto our next country, Uzbekistan.
From the Uzbekistan border it’s a day’s ride through the Uzbek countryside to legendary Samarqand, where our eyes will feast on the minarets and domes of Uzbekistan’s most glorious city, as written about by James Elroy Flecker in The Golden Journey to Samarqand. From one magical place we cycle towards another; Central Asia’s holiest city of Bukkhara. Here you will explore buildings with histories spanning thousands of years and sights seemingly drawn from the medieval tales of flying carpets and 1001 Nights.
Departing Bukkhara, we ride south towards the ancient city of Merv, once one of the most important centres of the Islamic world and today a World Heritage site. In the nearby modern city of Mary, we will recuperate from the heat of the Turkmen desert and visit the restored mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, ruler of the Seljuk Empire. Turning west we continue through this unusual and spiritual land, inhabited by people of proud traditions, magnificent Ahal Tekke horses and vast natural beauty. Before long, we will reach Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan and a spectacle that must be seen to believed.
Please note that this section begins in Tajikistan, but we cross the border into Uzbekistan on the first riding day. To avoid arranging a Tajik visa in advance, you may wish to consider starting 6 days later in Samarqand, Uzbekistan. Please contact our office and they can help you make the necessary arrangements.
Until his recent death the oil-rich country of Turkmenistan was best known for the bizarre personality cult of its President for Life Saparmurat Miyazov (called “Turkmenbashi,” or “leader of the Turkmen”). Ashgabat is a city being transformed into a fantasy of white marble palaces, modern apartment blocks and large fountain complexes. From here we turn south and tackle the high hills of the Turkmen Steppes, whose quiet roads lead to the Iranian border.
Today the wonders of Persian history are veiled by Iran’s Islamic Republic and its difficult relations with the western world. At the border crossing the Ayatollah’s photo stares down and intimidates the faithless. As we dare to remove the veil and enter a world less traveled, we are rewarded by the hospitality of the Iranian people, the natural beauty of their country and the richness of its history.
After a day of rest in the town of Bojnurd, where we will enjoy rich Iranian cuisine, we pedal towards the provinces of Golestan and North Khorasan. The abundant flora in Golestan National Park will provide a pleasant contrast to the desert’s uniformity. These stretches of land were ravaged by the Mongols and then by Tamerlane during the 13th and 14th centuries, leaving little trace of their former glory. Far from the Persian Dynasties of the south, their peoples are eclectic, and not often visited by foreigners; the beauty is in the contrast of skins, the sound of tongues, and the rituals of faith.
Days of “flying on your 2 wheeled carpet” will also orient you into Tarof, the Iranian art of civility. You may find yourself asking a proprietor the price of a Cola, only be told that it is worthless. A long discussion ensues, with the eventual outcome being the purchase is made, but not before you become greatly acquainted with your new friend.
The metropolis of Tehran marks the end of this magical section and the chance to further explore the cultures of ancient and modern day Iran.
Please note that this section begins in Turkmenistan, but we cross the border into Iran on the first day. To avoid arranging a Turkmenistan visa in advance, you may wish to consider starting a few days later in Iran. Please contact our office and they can help you make the necessary arrangements.
Set at the foot of the Alborz Mountains, Tehran is home to 14 million people and Iran’s political and social melting pot. Here one can see all the components and contradictions of Iranian society, from traditional chadors to modern fashion, from the National Jewels Museum to miles of unsightly concrete block buildings. While Tehran’s size and bustle, markets and youthfulness can be an assault on the senses, a relaxing glass of tea is never far away.
Western Iran has been at the centre of many of civilization’s earliest empires, with its fortunes shifting between trading glories and military decimation. Spinning over mountains and past dense forest, our route takes us to Tabriz, once an oasis, now a sprawling city renowned for its Blue Mosque, whose early history is enshrouded in mystery as the possible site of the biblical Garden of Eden.
From Tabriz we’ll quickly come to the Turkish border. Our first day in Turkey will be by the Ishak Pasha Palace, an 18th century Ottoman castle built into the side of a mountain, a wonderful place to enjoy a cold beer after the “dryness” of Iran. Afterwards green hills open up into plains where Kurdish shepherds tend their herds. As Mount Ararat, reputedly the resting place of Noah’s Ark, sits high in the sky, life appears to have changed little since biblical times.
The final section of our trans-Asian odyssey takes us across the Anatolian plateau to the Bosphorus in Istanbul. Geopolitically Istanbul has been a crossroads between Europe and Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and a center of empires since Roman times. Formerly known as Byzantium and Constantinople, for many centuries it was also a terminus and a starting point for the great overland Silk Road. It is with this knowledge we will cycle towards the western edge of the Asian continent while enjoying the natural diversity and beauty of Turkey.
Eastern Anatolia is the crossroads of the Armenian, Kurdish, Caucasian, Russian, and Turkish cultures. There, nature and civilizations have shifted through time, with palaces, castles, mosques, and churches dotting the rugged countryside. From the historical city of Kars, where Turkey’s troubled past can be witnessed by a trip to Ani, the nearby ruins of a great Armenian city during the Middle Ages, we will follow a set of quiet roads along a deep valley in the Kackar Mountains to one of the most relaxed towns on the route, Yusefelli, then onwards to the ancient city of Amasya. Set on a secluded section of the Yesilirmak River, Amasya boasts stunning Ottoman period houses, and grandiose Pontic era tombs carved into Mountain walls.
Our final days will be spent cycling along secondary roads in rural Turkey and across the undulating Anatolian plateau, stopping in beautiful Sanfranbolu for a rest day. As Istanbul and the minarets of Saint Sophia and the Blue Mosque draw near, a feeling of accomplishment and amazement at reaching this stunning city on the Bosphorus will be the reward to those who have covered the distance of Asia and the Silk Road by bicycle.