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 !!
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.
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.
Trying to get a beer in Inderbor on the Oral River, beers becoming very scarce, just needed a bit more work.
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.
We crossed the Oral river in the evening and seriously thought about swimming from Europe to Asia.
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.
I remember our first taste of Uzbekistan food in a remote Russian area. The fire pit bread was amazing.
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.
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 face
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.
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!
I remember the northern bloke we met, who greeted us with “that fxxxing wind”.
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.
I remember some bare foot school kids clapping us as we climb up one pass, and then an urchin throws a stone at Linny!
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 morning
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.
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.
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!
In the west of China we were like celebrities, people taking photos and getting all excited to see us.
Probably the best nights sleep of the whole tour night was had by all. More to do with how much work we had put in rather than plushness of the hotel. Functional would be more descriptive.
With a quick look at the route a collective decision was made to stick to the route for which we diligently and carefully prepared before we left.
It was possibly not the best decesion we made as we went through ploughed fields and had to strip off all the baggage on the bikes to get them over railway lines; not the easiest of tasks.
Then we hit the urban sprawl on the Essex side of the Thames and cycled through little used cycle tracks then on to the banks of the Thames. It was pretty disappointing really as the cycle path was in a bad state of repair with steep steps and locked gates which meant manhandling the bikes again.
We got past Tilbury Fort and then finally got to the Tilbury ferry pontoon. After a bit of lunch waiting for the ferry we got a cheery welcome aboard but had some difficulty getting all the bikes on. It was all sorted and within 10 minutes we were back in Kent; it may be the Kentish-Men side but the Men-of-Kent are on our way.
From Gravesend we followed the old Medway – Thames canal (never knew it was there!). However it made for a nice ride straight to Strood. We all regrouped to go through the Medway tunnel. It’s not great riding but it does cut out the stop/start riding going through the Medway towns.
We were quickly through the tunnel and on way out of the busy towns, mindful that now it’s the Man-of-Kent side. Two rivers to cross now. We stopped for a beer at the Happy Mariner in Lower Tydall and then set off again through the apple orchards of rural Kent.
Mark had a little issue with his bottle holder and then we pushed on skirting Sittingbourne as much as possible. Then it was on to Faversham as we kept off the A2 until the Brindley corner. From here we quick spurted around and down the hill to Boughto and then on to Canterbury looking good as we all kept in a peleton around the ring road. Then up to Bridge for a final pint and a debrief.
Everyone felt good if not a bit tired. We had a few little niggles but nothing us ‘Athletes’ can’t handle. Then we left going on our separate ways home to various corners of East Kent.
Another tour finished. It was somewhat different from other tours but nevertheless it was excellent riding and ‘guys, a pleasure and privilege to ride with you’.
Until next time, your calm collective tour captain, Dale
Great night at the Dambusters last night, with Steve, Greg & Cathal, all of had a bit of a sore head this morning. After a big bowl of porridge and a few mugs of coffee we set off just after 8.
Had some lovely country lanes, then a cycle track along the river Witham really good track and made excellent time with next to no-one around. Once again the track was a disused railway lines and fully paved an absolute joy to ride on. We at stopped a pub on the river just outside Boston for light refreshments or hair of the dog.
Went through the centre of Boston then headed on south on the country lanes towards King’s Lynn, with just a small section on the busy A17. We skirted around King’s Lynn and headed towards Downham Market, a small market town in Norfolk and had dinner in the Whalebone before cycling off into the sunset to find a wild camping place.
We duly found place on route for tomorrow in a field adjacent to a railway line, no need to worry about keeping us up as we were all knackered. Lights out and ‘good night’.
We had an early start out of the Governor’s Hotel in Cheadle as breakfast was not until 8:30 which is no good for early start athletes. So off we went.
It was no good getting out of urban sprawl of Manchester but it was well worth it in the end.
What a tremendous route the Trans-Pennine-Trail (TPT) is, an absolute pleasure to ride. It’s pretty tough but nothing us trekkers can’t handle. The down-hills through the woods were very challenging for me, but the lads loved them. Honestly I can’t say how much we all enjoyed it. The looks we got from the mountain-bikers was a picture. “Bloody mad” they said, and were probably right.
We carried on through the mining villages around Barnsley thinking of the Sutcliffes from the village as they are from this area.
Then we stopped for lunch at the Scarborough Arms in Tickhill. We all regrouped and had a bite to eat. From there we then set off for the Dambuster’s pub and Plewies. It was great roads heading for Gainsborough which was the place of a classic crash for me on the Durness to Dover ride all those year’s ago [Ed: it was 2012!]. They even made me re-enact the accident!
These were great country roads and we hardly met a car for the 15 mile final run in. It was brilliant as we all grouped together to meet the legend Steve Plews a true gentleman and probably the best publican in the world.
What a welcome at the Dambusters. Cathal & Greg had travelled up from Sunshine Corner to meet us & the all the locals were amazing and great people.
Over and out from the Dambusters Inn. Great company having a little beer now.
We had a great night with the North Wales Clan and really enjoyed the stay. A massive thumbs up from the Team and also happy birthday Doreen have a lovely day you deserve it after looking after us. Irene, Keith and I loved the hot tub and full English breakfast you prepared for our early start. [Ed: nudge nudge say no more].
After starting the ride with our farewells we headed towards Mold and passed Warren House (We Doreen & Alan used to live) so we had little photo outside the main entrance. Once again happy memories of family parties and weddings.
Then we stopped for breakfast at Mcdonalds in Mold, and also had a look at booking some accommodation as we are meeting Dave’s mate Ian later for dinner and few beers.
But a bit of a problem as we can find no accommodation in Buxton. We were forced to do a bit of rerouting to Cheadle on the outskirts of Manchester. So on we went. At first it was not to good as the roads were busy with many intersections. Soon however we found some old railway tracks. Happy days, within the hour we were whizzing past Chester and back in England.
From there we kept on the tracks and canal tow paths most of the way but it was still not good enough to stop big Dave having a little tumble at a junction. He fell off with his shoes clipped in like a stranded turtle!
We stopped in a nice pub just outside Warrington for lunch and then carried on adjacent to the Manchester Ship Canal then on to another smaller canal. A great route. Then it was just the last few miles up to Cheadle and the hotel.
Mark booked the best hotel in Aberystwyth – well it was nowhere near the best or even in the top 100. However a good breakfast put it up a few places.
Off we go with the our new recruits Connor and Mark. They both set off up the big hill out of town at a fast pace accompanied by Bingo. Dave, Stubbsy & I stayed on the steady pace. Fair play as it was pretty steep and not my ideal start but I soon got into the swing of it.
It was steady climbing all the time as we passed King Arthur’s Labyrinth at Corris and a Gin Distillery. It’s a weird combination but it took the mind of climbing thinking what King Arthur got up to drinking gin
Up we climbed to Bala Lake at Lyn Tegid where Keith, Mark and Connor stopped at a lake side tourist cafe. It was really busy and cramped so the rest of us went into Bala (The Old Bull Inn) unfortunately they did not serve food so we had a drink and got some sandwiches from the Co-op next door and tried to dry off a little.
It was raining even harder now so with rain jackets and gloves on we went, with the quip “I am glad we came in the summer”. As normal we always start the session off with a big climb and it was no different today. The road was busy getting out off Bala with loads of tourist traffic; most of them looking at us as if we were mad I think they may be right! Bingo was setting a really good pace as we started to eat up the miles and before long we entered the small town Ruthin where we turned off the A494 on to the small country lanes. So much nicer to ride on.
Soon Bodfari was on the signposts and with the rain easing up slightly we pulled into the Kinnell Arms to regroup which was only about 2 miles from Doreen and Alan’s place. I gave Doreen a call said we were in the Kinnell Arms regrouping and drying off, obviously she knew better, after an hour Alan joined us with a wry smile.
Alan guided us down to their place and it was really good seeing Doreen. Angela was also there making us all very welcome as they always do when we venture up to see them. The lads got showered and cleaned up as best they could. Keith & I popped over the road to see Auntie Irene, once again she was so glad to see us, very humbling, unfortunately Irene was not up to joining the rest of us over the road, but offered both of us a bed for the night. We both jumped at it, far better than camping!
We then rejoined the rest, with Cousins Jeremy and Karen with their partners and children joining us it making it a lovely evening. We had a with a curry and later an array of flapjacks and Welsh cakes with Alan making sure all the lads drinks were topped up. All we had to do was all get together for the customarily family photograph, which was duly organised.
I would like to thank Doreen and Alan for their amazing hospitality. It was a real pleasure seeing you both and lovely to catch up with Irene too. We managed to squeeze in a few extra cakes into our bags.
Catching up with all the cousins and families made for a wonderful evening.
We had lovely nights sleep in a 5 star wild camp. A bn to Aberystwytheautiful place. Breakfast consisted of coffee and any chocolate that Stubbsy had not eaten last night.
We then hit the road just after 7 with two things in mind one to get a breakfast and the other was to fix Dave’s rear wheel spoke. We found a bike shop in Brecon but it did not open until 9 so we had an impressive breakfast at Morrisons. When it did open the bike shop did not have a spoke for Daves wheel!
So we pressed on to Builth Wells and found a cracking bike shop called Cycle-Tec: they were great and gave us really good service.
With the rain getting a bit heavier we went on the A44. It was not too bad though a few trucks got quite close and we even had a car brush Stubbsy’s elbow. With the rain getting heavier and the climbs getting a bit steeper we pushed on with big Dave pulling at the front eating up the miles.
Then the shout went up ‘can we stop for something to eat’. So we stopped at a pub in Llangurig for a pint and baguette. It was still raining when we came out but with a hint of sunshine coming through. It also made us smile as we had only 34 miles to go.
We got back onto the A44 with Dave pushing from the front again climbing and going through some wonderful scenery with red kites swirling above us. Great times. There must have been 30 Red Kites in the air.
We stopped at a viewing station about 10 miles from Aberystwyth with the text going mad as Connor and Mark were organizing meeting us. [Ed: they were at Dovey Junction trying to catch a train, but these were cancelled and they eventually got the replacement bus to Aberystwyth]. Fair play they booked us into hotel whilst they had a bit of trouble on the trains. Bless them. No troubles for us.
Later we also phoned Auntie Doreen and made arrangements to meet them tomorrow. It was great that Uncle Alan got the priorities right and checked about going out and thought correctly that we would not want to stay up late. We go to bed at 10 when cycling! Well most of the time.
We arrived in Aberystwyth and I got my real ale order in for the special one and cider for the rest. Connor and Mark made the rendezvous and all of us joined up for a beer and food and discussed the next few days riding.