Cycle the ancient route of the legendary silk trade across the entire continent of Asia; from Shanghai to Istanbul; the longest, hardest, highest, hottest, coldest bicycle expedition on the planet. Bike over 12,000 kilometres, through seven countries; a journey that in the past took merchants, soldiers and adventurers many uncomfortable months — if they made it at all! As a Silk Route Rider, you will camp below sea level in the stunning deserts of China’s Xinjiang province and cycle to the top of the world, climbing to over 4,500 m through the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan. You will stay in ancient caravanserais and shop in markets that have thrived for two thousand years.
Our 12,160 kilometer self-powered caravan begins at Shanghai, China, the bustling center of China’s economic rise, and follows the classic Silk Route across mysterious lands, fiery deserts, and forbidding mountains. 18 weeks later we arrive in faraway Istanbul, the majestic capitol of Byzantium, the Roman Empire, the Ottomans and now the Republic of Turkey.
Starting at the shores of the East China Sea in Shanghai we’ll follow the Silk Route westwards, making this now a truly Trans-continental Tour. Also included are visits to two renowned destinations off the beaten track – enigmatic Iran where we will marvel at that country’s Persian past and the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan where we will climb to over 4600 meters and cycle across the “Roof of the World.”
As a Silk Route participant, you will ride to the mystical Central Asian cities of Samarqand, Bukhara, and Merv, and camp below sea level in the stunning deserts of China’s Xinjiang province. There are points where quietness pervades, and where the original travelers 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.
Shanghai encapsulates the rise of modern China. In the 19th century this city was a booming center of trade between east and west and its allure to foreigners lasted till the 1930s. “The Bund” was the famous epicenter of international commerce in Shanghai. Shut down after the communists took over, luckily the architecture of the neighborhood remains for us to explore. Precious Jade was traded in Shanghai and revered by Buddhists, and you may just find yourself leaving the city with a keepsake.
With the years of an isolated China having faded quickly Shanghai has once again become a thriving commercial center. In 2010 Shanghai hosted the World Expo and the PuDong Skyline makes most of the world’s metropolises pale in comparison.
As we head west from Shanghai on our trans-Asia journey, a plateau of endless towns intermingled with small agricultural plots will give us insight into the lives of the 1.3 billion Chinese. Our first rest day will be in Nanjing, one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China. The centre of the Chinese Republic during the early 20th century this city is sadly known for civilian atrocities that were suffered during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s.
Continuing west we’ll encounter our first serious climbs on the approach to Xi’an. Another ancient capital of China, Xi’an is renowned for the Terracotta warriors. Having the chance to see this army in person is an amazing opportunity and affords the imagination an endless resource to picture a long distant time. Significantly for our journey, Xi’an was the traditional starting point of Silk Traders heading west along the ancient Silk Road.
The tour will now face the trials and tribulations of the Hexi corridor, a narrow passage stretching for about 1000km. Sandwiched in between the snow-covered Qilian Mountains to the south and the Beishan mountainous area and Alashan Plateau semi desert to the north are a series of fertile oases, sparkling jewels surrounded by the vast, bleak expanse of Gobi desert. This area is known for its winds, gusts that will test the mettle of every rider.
From Xi’an, we spin alongside green terraced hills towards the city of Lanzhou. These days are challenging, with steep climbs and descents set in the beautiful central Chinese provinces of Gangsu and Shaanxi.
Among the highlights are the 34.5 meter long reclining Buddha at Zhangye, and the Jia Yu pass and fort, known as “The Greatest Pass under Heaven,” which formed the western end of the Great Wall during the Ming dynasty.
Dunhuang, located at the western end of the Hexi Corridor, was considered one of the brightest pearls of the ancient Silk Road, and is now famous for the stunning Mogao caves and the picturesque dunes which encircle the city and pull us into the western desert.
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region occupies fully 1/6th of Chinese territory and is home to 13 ethnic nationalities, including the predominantly Moslem Uyghurs. It is a vast area of stunning contrasts, from Turpan, the lowest point in China, to the Tian Shan or Heavenly Mountains. Departing Dunhaung we mount our bikes and head out along the edge of the Takla Makan desert, which in Uyghur means “enter and never return!”
Along this highway we will visit the Bezseklik Thousand Buddha caves near Turpan, the red sandstone hills of the Flaming Mountains, the Kizil caves northwest of Kucha, and a myriad of spectacular sand mountain landscapes. Here, in the heartland of the Silk Road, the volatile mix of eastern and western cultures has left some superb relics; cities, caves, temples and tombs.
Today the harsh environment of the Takla Makan continues to exude the mysteries that swallowed many caravans in the past. Fortunately our bikes will enable us to escape a similar fate and our fears subside as we approach our rest day in the fabled oasis and isolated market town of Kashgar, where traders from across Asia used to converge.
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.