From Dover to Shanghai by Bicycle – a photo essay
An 8,200-mile, 111 day trip across 11 countries, these images capture towns, villages, landscapes and people along the route
by Dale, Keith and LInford House
We set off on our fabulous journey from Dover to Shanghai in the summer days of 2019. Looking back from its second anniversary it’s a trip that would be difficult to do now (in the Covid circumstances). Our aim was simple, to get to Shanghai in time to catch a ship across the Yellow Sea to Japan, and in turn to be in time to witness the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
We would naturally experience the transitions between cultures and learn more about what connects us along the way. But all that was ahead of us and mostly we would concentrate on the immediate concerns of the practicalities of getting it done. Everything else would be an exciting and unknown bonus.
Our first major stop was Kraków. The three of us: Dale, Keith and Linford, together with Carl & Cathal (who have cycled our previous annual 1000 mile challenges) rode from Dover to Kraków accompanied by the support van (driven by Roger). It was unfortunate that our mate Dave couldn’t ride with us this time as he’d recently had a bad crash. He was with us in spirit (and as an inflatable companion!).
Our ride across France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany and into Poland followed our normal procedure of riding about 100 miles per day as we had done on our previous 1000 mile summer cycling tours.
Kraków has famous buildings in the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles including the Wawel Cathedral, Royal Castle, St. Mary’s Basicilica and the Saints Peter and Paul Church as well as the medieval market square: Rynek Główny. We spent some time at the Juvenia Rugby Club and visited Schindler’s Factory in the old ghetto.
After a few days rest with wives and girlfriends the three of us then rode on to Shanghai without the van – this would take about a 100 days of cycling.
I was the driver and the most memorable part for me was the strength and determination of these guys especially after a crash on the awful road surface just as we got into Poland. Dale hit a lump in the road and crashed then Carl not having time to avoid him ran over Dale. We patched them up as best we could. Carl’s bike was damaged and had to be rode as a fixie, but they finished the day (an extremely long one if memory serves me correctly of 120+ miles ) in good spirits. Aylesham through and through !!Roger
Section 1: Ukraine and getting into Russia
From Kraków we had a couple more days until we crossed into Ukraine. We’d been apprehensive about this but it was achieved by hopping a lift on the back of a truck and this got us through in about an hour. Now, as you probably now, Ukraine is a big country and it took us about 12 days to get across. As you may also know Ukraine and Russia are having some border issues and whilst we knew about this before we started we thought we’d be fine just ambling along to Donetsk and slipping over the border to Rostov on the Black Sea. However after a weeks cycling to Dnipro we had an exhausting day finding out the hard way that this wasn’t going to happen: we cycled a 100 miles there and back again!
The ongoing Donbas War between the pro-Russian Donetsk Peoples Republic and Ukraine meant we could not go that way. We were turned back at several checkpoints after numerous arguments and eventually met the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe). Their advice was clear.
do not wander off the road (landmines), do not use roadside toilets (booby-trapped) and do not take photographs. Be very careful!Julian of the OSCE
We had seen the empty villages and towns, the walls raked with bullet holes and the scars left by a countryside abandoned by most of the population. We’d seen the roads empty of traffic except for armoured vehicles. We retraced our steps back to Dnipro and to make a bad day worse Dale got a nasty bee sting to his eye which swelled up to make him look monstrous.
the day we tried to cycle through Donetsk. Doing 100 miles and ending in the same town, Then on the way back Dale got the bee sting. And the hotel was a shit hole. Just felt like it was the beginning of a whole load of shit coming our way.Linford
Of course not all Ukraine was like this. Before Dnipro we’d had some fun trying to fix the bikes when various parts of the panniers broke and also more fun later getting Dale some medication for his swollen eye. And naturally we did get across the Ukraine/Russia border by detouring north.
Section 2: Crossing the Desert: Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan
It took about a month to cross the Stans: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. We’ll come to the story about why Tajikistan never happened later. Of course we now realised we were in Asia and we had crossed over from Europe: this quickly became apparent with the geography, the long flat roads, the desert and the heat. But things also changed in more subtle ways.
We came into the city Oral, the first place we stayed in Kazakhstan. The people were all really nice and welcoming and thats when I was told that the river Oral which flows south is the dividing line. Something I hadn’t actually thought about before (when Europe becomes Asia). We followed the river south crossing it back and forth a few times. This was also the start of when hotels became few and far between.Linford
Trying to get a beer in Inderbor on the Oral River, beers becoming very scarce, just needed a bit more work.Dale
And then it was only a few days after that we saw our first camel. And that’s when I realized how far we had come and how things were changing.Linford
We crossed the Oral river in the evening and seriously thought about swimming from Europe to Asia.Keith
Once when it was really hot some ice cold Red Bull was handed out of cars to us across the desert. Both Keith and I hate Red Bull but it went down a treat then. Another time a car stopped and gave me a cold beer in the desert. They then chucked the empties away which we obviously picked them up. One of my biggest concerns how much litter is on the Silk Road, we need to highlight this like David Attenborough does the oceans.Dale
I remember our first taste of Uzbekistan food in a remote Russian area. The fire pit bread was amazing.Dale
We had some fabulous homestays during this section of riding. Most of which which just happened by accident. We’ll never forget being invited to a local school to talk to the trainee teachers or sitting on carpets with a local family.
Everyone was so friendly and hospitable. A few times stand out for me though. the first real time was in a small village in Kazakhstan. We had been searching all afternoon for a hotel and had no luck so decided to bite the bullet and finally get the tents out. So we went to a little shop to stock up on supplies (beers) and whilst we were there I got talking to a guy (using mainly sign language) and he ended up taking us back to what I think was his parents house, where they welcomed us with open arms and before long the whole family had arrived and we ate dinner, played the guitar type instrument and let us stay in their kitchen in the out house. It was a really great evening. In the morning we tried to give the old man some money for his hospitality but he wouldn’t take a penny, and then he got in his car and lead us out of the village to wave us off.Linford
We had some very long days in the saddle going through the deserts in these countries. The heat got unbearable and rose to 50c. And there would be no shade for miles and miles. That was bad and exhausting but sometimes it was made worse by relentless headwinds. That makes a hard day even worse.
I remember a really long period through the Stans where the wind and sun was relentless. It got so hot and exhausting. I remember drinking like 10 litres of water a day and not even needing a wee as we would just be sweating it out. Then we had some relief in the mountains but before long we were in China and the desert there was even worse, as the wind seemed to be always in our faceLinford
We had so many road-side encounters. In Kazakhstan we were pulled over by the police several times just for them to take a photo with us. Then the countless road-side melon sellers in Uzbekistan which were a blessing in the heat.Linford
The original diary entries for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Section 3: The Pass into China: Kyrgyzstan
This part only took three days but it was very dramatic geographically. Originally we were to have cut a corner and ride a day ot two through Tajikistan but when we arrived at the border it turned out that one of us had the dates wrong on the Visa. They wouldn’t budge on that or issue an update or a replacement so in the end we had to abandon that route and take a loop north to avoid Tajikistan altogether.
This route also included some dramatic climbs and over a huge pass of over 2000m between Angren and Kokand but the famous Taldyk Pass on the Pamir Highway was something else as it took us up to 3615m. It was spectacular. Later on in central China we would go over a pass that was even higher at 3817m (where we stayed at a lakeside and had the Yak rides). But that was more of a plateau than dramatic mountains.
We met a few fellow travellers along the way. Gavin stands out as we spent a bit of time with him. A really nice bloke with more Uzbekistan currency than we had. Few others to note the two girls we met coming the other way with bottles of cream soda instead of water. The same mistake we made in the local shops. Also the lad from Shrewsbury swearing and cursing at the wind, that was funny. He was on a Thorn touring bike and riding home from Tasmamia. Also we met Ben from Staple, a village next to ours back in Kent, what a small world it is sometimes!Dale
I remember the northern bloke we met, who greeted us with “that fxxxing wind”.Keith
I would say bumping into the guy (Ben) who lived in Staple (only a few miles from home) was the weirdest encounter with another traveller. We had met another English guy (Ted) beforehand that had cycled with him, and we were told he had gone ahead on a train but was heading in the same direction. So I followed him on insta. And a few weeks later as I was descending a mountain in Kyrgyzstan (our last day before entering China) he was coming up the other way, so I slammed on my brakes and had to turn back for a chat, and I got a picture with him.Linford
I remember some bare foot school kids clapping us as we climb up one pass, and then an urchin throws a stone at Linny!Dale
The original diary entries for Kyrgyzstan.
Section 4: Xinjiang: pursuit & chase
This was all about dodging the police and being moved along by the police. It was all cat and mouse. But more like Inpector Clousseau. If you don’t know about the politics of this region and the way the Uyghur people are being treated then you should probably find out. The police in the region are very careful about what gets observed. Many cities have no hotels for visitors or tourists. In view of this we were moved along a fair few number of times. Sometimes we were ushered out of town and sometime physically driven to the next town. ‘Nothing to see here’ was the approach.
Nevertheless we still met many locals and these were always friendly and welcoming.
I remember we got up really early one day to beat the sun but we had a huge head-wind instead. Which turned out to be worse. We were only traveling about 6mph for the whole morningLinford
In Yarkant, a very small town in Western China, some students brought us breakfast, including pickled egg things (dead chicken instead of the yolk, which was gross). The students were really chatty until the police came in and then an eery silence fell. We ended up being escorted out of town again.Dale and Keith
Some really friendly things happened to us: some road workers shared their lunch with us in China – it made a pot noddle taste great. Another time we got mint ice lollies at a Chinese check point.Dale
The original diary entries for West China.
Best and worst time with the police was probably the time we camped out behind a garage in the middle of nowhere. I’d only just gone to sleep when a few trucks arrived shining lights and shouting in Chinese. It was pretty scary as we didn’t know who or what they wanted. There must of been 4/5 trucks and about 15 policeman stood there shining torches in our face. Then we waited half hour for a translator before finally packing up and being put into the back of a van. We were then taken to the nearest city. Which was about a days ride away (in the right direction thankfully). We were taken to a hotel where we unloaded everything only to be told we couldn’t stay there. So they took us to another hotel and we finally got into a room at about 5 in the morning. It was a terrible night, and we were all exhausted but the shower and comfy bed made it all worthwhile.Linford
Section 5: Rural China
This was all about the last 1000km with Rylan who flew in to meet us. The contrasts here were between the obvious technial developments in the cities and the infrastructure between cities compared with the still rural feel of much of the countryside. We saw both the old and traditional and the ultra-modern especially as we got closer to the huge conurbation of Shanghai. The ride was fun even when we lost each other or lost the main roads and had to ride on dirt. The people we met on the roadsides and at the hotels were as friendly as ever (not counting whoever it was that stole our charity bear – that was mean).
Memories of meeting Rylan being in the wrong airport terminal. We had no ability to contact each other with no phones. That was tricky. Then on our first day on the road together we had a rural meal at a roadside cafe-shed with mice running around the floor. Then Linny, Keith and I demolished the food with chopsticks but Rylan only had a fraction as he couldn’t use the sticks! At another place he ordered what the locals had and he ended up with a bowl of fish-head soup, he was not pleased. Welcome to China!Dale
In the west of China we were like celebrities, people taking photos and getting all excited to see us.Linford
The original diary entries for Central China, East China and Shanghai.
All done: Keith, Linford and Dale. Congratulations on an amazing ride.Rylan