A Bivvy, a Phone and a Drone: Cycling Home from China (Video)
In 2019, Josh Reid went on a 15,000-kilometer, 19-country bikepacking trip from China to his home in the UK, capturing footage along the way to create a 30-minute video that documents his incredible solo ride across Asia and Europe. Watch it here, along with a story that provides a closer look at his trip…
Words and photos by Josh Reid (@joshreids)
Thinking back to a time before the COVID-19 pandemic—when you could strap bags to a bicycle and ride to the other side of the map—seems like a different world. I feel fortunate to have timed my ride from China to the UK before the 2020 lockdown.
At the end of July 2019, I began my four-month journey, setting off from Giant’s Kunshan City factory, just west of Shanghai. The 15,000-kilometre journey would take me through 19 countries. The video below captures my ride.
I was riding a Giant Revolt Advanced 2 loaded with Arkel panniers on the fork, an Arkel Seatpacker at the rear, and a hand-repurposed North Face bag zip-tied to the handlebars, which held the winter gear I wouldn’t need until the end of the trip for the colder months in Europe.
I would cycle as far as I could each day and set up camp by the side of the road as it got dark, sleeping in a bivvy bag. No tent. Using a Robens inflatable mat and sleeping bag, I was only cold at one point while camping in the no man’s land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Camping was not always possible. For example, Chinese police sometimes forced me to stay in a hotel, and, in Uzbekistan, you technically need to be registered in a hotel for every third day you are in the country. A cheap hotel or hostel every now and again was necessary to shower, charge electronics and wash clothes.
Many people also hosted me along the way. This was the biggest lesson I learned on my ride: trust strangers and accept their kindness. People are generally much friendlier than you ever imagine, even when there are language barriers. I was helped by so many kind people throughout my journey, offering me food and shelter. I stayed in several mosques and many homes.
To navigate, I used an application on my phone called maps.me, which provided offline maps using OpenStreeMap data. I would download a map a few days in advance of crossing a border into a new country, planning my route on the go. My journey was malleable. I knew the direction I was heading in but would detour to take in certain places I wanted to visit.
In China, I cycled from Shanghai to Xi’an, where I took a day to visit the Terracotta Warriors, the place I saw the most Western tourists in my entire time in China.
From Xi’an onwards, I was cycling along the ancient Silk Road. But unlike most cycle tourists, I rode east to west. The route derives its name from the transport of silk and other goods from Asia and the Middle East to the West. No longer a caravan track, the Silk Road is a wide asphalt highway in western China that cuts through the Gobi Desert.
I had another day off exploring the Great Wall of China on the outskirts of Jiayuguan City, the western end of the Ming Dynasty Wall. This area of the wall differs from the picture you have in your mind of the Beijing side of the wall. The wall on this side is a tan color, blending in with the surrounding desert.
Whilst riding through the Gobi, I would have to ride multiple days before entering another town. The police in Xinjiang don’t like you venturing away from the main highways, so I would load up with more supplies and camp under the highway to avoid detection and keep out of the wind. After the high surveillance in Xinjiang, I was relieved to cross into Kazakhstan with a handshake and a smile from the Kazakh military.
It took me a day to ride to Almaty from the border, where I had cleaned off in the most opulent public baths in Central Asia, getting beaten with oak leaves and skinny dipping with fat naked men swan diving into the pool next to me. Posted signs said no swimming trunks allowed.
When riding in the UK, it’s normal to wave or nod to riders going in the opposite direction. When cycle touring in exotic locations, especially when you’ve been riding alone for days with little interaction, instead of a wave, you stop and have a conversation. These conversations often gave me valuable intelligence into the route I should take. For instance, I detoured to ride the Pamir Highway rather than a faster route through the desert of Kazakhstan. This spectacular route is known as “the roof of the world” and climbs to 4,655 metres above sea level before running parallel to the border with Afghanistan for 400 kilometres, skirting Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
In a Tajik village, I asked a passerby where I could sleep. He called over to friends who said their grandparents would look after me. They did and also fed me without asking for any payment. This hospitality—so welcome and touching—was the norm throughout Central Asia.
I bought a small drone from the DJI shop in Shanghai but hadn’t considered it’d be hot property in some countries. Before entering Uzbekistan, I read that those caught importing a drone could be landed with a three-year jail term. I split the machine as best I could and distributed the telltale parts around my few bags, hoping not to be fully searched. I needn’t have worried as I sailed through customs—bicycle travellers are clearly thought to be of no threat.
With an Iranian visa hard to come by, I crossed the Caspian Sea on a freight ship. There’s no regular ferry, but if you camp in the port of Aqtau in Kazakhstan, you can eventually hop on a freighter heading in the right direction.
Back on the bike in Azerbaijan, I was fuelled by pomegranates and sugary tea, reaching Georgia in a day or two. The first signs of autumn warned me that winter was approaching and that I had better get a wriggle on—I had neither the camping kit nor the clothes to survive cold weather for long.
The fastest and easiest way across Turkey was by hugging the Black Sea coast all the way to Istanbul. After taking the ferry across the Bosphorus, Asia was finally behind me.
From Budapest, I followed the signed Eurovelo cycleway route along the Danube, keeping the Austrian Alps to my left. I cycled fast through Luxembourg and Germany, benefiting from bike paths once again. In the Netherlands, I stopped off at Giant’s European HQ and was rewarded with another right royal feed.
With winter closing in, I rode for a few wet hours from Amsterdam to the port of Ijmuiden, where I boarded the DFDS ferry to Newcastle and home, some four months after leaving Shanghai. I was very lucky—I had had no punctures and very little rain during the entire ride.
My next adventures are likely to be closer to home with the global pandemic reducing travel, and I’m currently busy working as an apprentice civil engineer. But, when I can, I escape for microadventures and after-work campouts. I’m also training for the Transcontinental Race, an ultra-distance bike race across Europe. It was cancelled last year, so fingers crossed it goes ahead in 2021. Or 2022. Sometime this decade, anyway.
About Josh Reid
With bike mad parents, Josh Reid basically grew up on the bike. His first proper bicycle tour was a trip to Luxembourg with his dad when he was 7. The bike has enabled him to get to some pretty amazing places, both close to home and around the world. You can find him on Instagram @joshreids and on his YouTube channel.
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