Practical information on cycle touring, England to China

[Sorry that I haven't designed and formatted this page nicely. If you're looking for a prettier website, the homepage is the best place to start, though some of the information there is out of date and/or incomplete. I've learnt a lot from other people's practical information provided on their websites, so I'll try and reciprocate here as best I can. If you find any errors, please let me know.]

In no particular order, then:

Visas
Border crossings
Routes
Food & water
Languages

NB all this information is based, unless otherwise stated, on my experiences in 2004. Things may have changed since.



Visas. For UK passport holders:

Europe is almost visa-free now; even in Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, you get at least 30 days without a visa.

Moldova: transit visas required. 48 hour visas issued on the spot at the Cahul/Oancea border crossing from Romania, 30 USD. Transit visas are REQUIRED, but NOT ISSUED, at the border crossing c. 50km south near Galatsi / Giugiulesti (apologies if spelling wrong), even though this route from Romania to Ukraine transits only c. 500 metres of Moldovan soil.

Ukraine: visas required. Issued by consulate in London without need for invitation. I heard that in 2005 the visa requirement was temporarily dropped for the Eurovision Song Contest. Perhaps they will forget to re-instate the requirement when the "visa-free" period elapses?

Visa registration not required.

Russia: visa required. For long trans-Siberian routes, etc, where more than 1 month is required, you probably need a business visa. These are expensive, but not especially difficult to obtain (in London), provided you plan ahead.

1. Get official invitation from visa agency in Russia. Search the web for current best deals. I got mine from www.tourstorussia.com/en/visas.php?page=1, for the full monty 12-month multi-entry visa invitation I paid 170 USD. You may find cheaper elsewhere. Tourstorussia.com did a good job and fairly efficient. I don't think it's necessary to get your invitation from a company based in a city you will visit - any one will do. Invitation can take up to a month (or more?) to process & receive.

2. Armed with your original invitation, DHL'd from Russia, send off your application to Russian Embassy in London. 100 GBP visa fee for the 12-month multi-entry. Visa processed within a week.

Once inside Russia, you should have your visa registered. Simplest way to avoid hassle is to stay in a "proper" hotel for one night on your first or second night in Russia, they will register you automatically. Beyond that, you're at the mercy of local interpretations of the rules. Do you have to register only once? Every three days? In every city? Only if you stay somewhere for three days? Depends whom you ask. Somewhere, someone will probably hassle you about your visa registration, however good you try to be. In general, if you are polite, apologetic but explain that you have attempted to follow the rules as you understand them, you can probably talk your way out of trouble.

If you never stay in a hotel, you may never have any questions asked until leaving the country. Roadside police checks will often look at your passport and may mumble something about "registratsiya", but they generally don't know what they're looking for anyway.

Make sure you get a migration card when you enter the country. You may have to ask for one if you come in via some sleepy border crossing.

Inbound customs may tell you that you don't need currency declaration forms any more, but try to get one anyway (not 100% essential) because outbound customs often want to have a look. If you don't get a form, don't declare travellers cheques on leaving the country, because apparently they are supposed to be declared on entry, even though cash (under 5000 USD or so) does not have to be. Strange world.

Mongolia: Visa required, though perhaps not for some nationalities, including ? Americans, Israelis. Check. Available in UK, no hassle, or with slightly more hassle at Kyzyl, Irkutsk, and maybe Ulan Ude too. Kyzyl consulate was very unwilling to issue 30 day visas, said 15 days was maximum. Eventually they were persuaded to give 30 days. 30 days is no hassle in UK. Kyzyl consulate says you cannot cycle over any Mongol border, including Kyakhta/Altanbulag, but this is not true: you can. See below for other border crossing info.

Mongolian visas can be extended fairly routinely (only about 7 forms, 11 fees, and 19 bureaucrats involved) in Ulaan Baator, but not sure about other places in Mongolia.

China: 90 day visas were being issued as standard (if you ask for them) at Chinese embassy in Ulaan Baator, Mongolia. 1 week standard processing time, quicker if you pay more. Don't mention Tibet on your application form, whether or not you're going there. It doesn't matter what cities you list on your form. 90 day visas can be extended at least once, for an additional 30 days, without much hassle at police stations in larger towns/cities. Costs 160 yuan and may take a couple of days.

There is a Chinese consulate in Khabarovsk, but not, so far as I know, in other Siberian cities.

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Border Crossings

These are routine in Europe, no hassle up to the Russian frontier in fact, so long as your passport/visas are OK. On the main Ukraine-Russia road along the Black Sea (towards Taganrog/Rostov), there is no trouble crossing the border into Russia on your bike. I have heard that this is not always the case at other borders, including from Finland, where they may want you to put your bike in a vehicle to cross the border.

Russia to Mongolia border crossings:

1. From Altay (Kosh-Agach to Tsaganuur, far western Mongolia): Russian authorities (FSB, border guards, police, etc) all swore blind that this border was NOT open to foreigners in 2004, but that there were plans to open it in 2005. However, I met Polish cyclists who claimed to have crossed that border without difficulty in summer 2004, so it may in fact be open.
2. From Tuva (Khandagayty): Russian authorities said it was NOT open in 2004, but plans to open it in 2005 or later.
3. From Buryatia (Khyakta/Altanbulag): no problem riding across the road border here, friendly officials on both sides of the border, cyclists waved to front of queue.
4. From west of Irkutsk to near Hovsgol Lake: No sign that this border would be opened to foreigners for the time being.

Summary: Kyakhta/Altanbulag definitely open. Altay route may be.

Mongolia to China border crossing.

Only one road route open to foreign travellers, at Zamyn Uud/Erlian (aka Eren, Erlianhaote). They don't want you to ride across, you have to put your bike in a jeep/truck across the approx. 10km no-man's land between Mongolian and Chinese border posts. The foreign ministry in Ulaan Baator can be persuaded to issue a document authorising you to ride through the Mongolian side. But at the Chinese side, they won't back down and you have to load your bike onto a truck for the 150 metres or so between the first and second gates. You can go through the immigration formalities on foot, but your bike goes in a vehicle. I negotiated with them for over an hour on this point, but they wouldn't let me ride. A Norwegian cyclist claimed to have persuaded them to let him through in the saddle, after a multi-hour discussion.

China to Hong Kong:

There is still a de facto border here, one country or not. You can ride to Shenzhen on the Chinese side but not across the border. Tried several crossing points, turned back at all of them because there is a restricted area on the Hong Kong side. Maybe if you got a permit from HK police in advance for the restricted area, you could ride across. At the moment, best you can do is wheel your bike through customs etc at Lo Wu, then put bike on KCR train for one stop to Sheung Shui, then get off and ride again. If you take one wheel off your bike, it's a lot cheaper, for some absurd reason.

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Routes

If time permits I will write more on routes. For now, a quick bit on Mongolia.

From the Russian border at Kyakhta/Altanbulag to Ulaan Baator the road is paved and in fairly good condition. There are very few other stretches of paved road in Mongolia, despite what a map might at first glance suggest. Even "major highways" marked on many maps are often only desert or mountain tracks. Cycling all the way from Ulaan Baator to the far west of Mongolia would be a major undertaking.

From Ulaan Baator south-east to the Chinese border at Zamyn Uud/Erlian, the road is paved and very good for the first 100km or so (2004). The road is being built beyond that and perhaps one day will reach Chyor or even all the way to the border. As things stand (2004) there are some 650 kms without a road worthy of the name, across the Gobi. In parts there are tracks, which are sometimes easy to follow, sometimes not; sometimes rideable, sometimes not (super-washboarding/corrugation; sand). At times the tracks disappear altogether; at other times they go in all directions, making it difficult to know which to follow. The going is mostly stony, but there are sandy sections where riding is not possible and you have to push. Beware of sandstorms. Much of the way you can stay within sight, or nearly within sight, of the railway line, which helps navigation. There are several towns/villages along the way, so carrying more than 2 days' food and water is not necessary so long as you make steady progress. (Longest gap between villages was around 150 km, as I recall, though along the railway there may be maintenance huts at more regular intervals.) You will have to camp in parts, though there are hotels at least in Ayrag, Saynshand, and Zamyn Uud, probably in Chyor too. There is virtually no road traffic on this route, apart from Chinese road-building trucks at the southern end, and a few motorbikes doing local runs. Several passenger trains run on the railway line daily, however, and if necessary you could get out on a train, assuming you can get to a station. There seem to be station stops every 50 km or so.

Once over the border into China, the road is paved.

Russia

Trans-Siberian highway in Russia is now 85% paved (approx). No particular difficulties as far east as Ulan Ude - all rivers are bridged. Further east there may still be some missing links, though nothing impassable.

The "Sayan Ring" south of Krasnoyarsk makes a nice loop route detour off the Trans-Siberian highway, into Khakasia and Tuva. It is possible to get from Altay to Tuva on mountain tracks, www.mark-ju.net covers the route.

Between Chelyabinsk and Novosibirsk, in early summer at any rate, the mosquitoes and horseflies are very bad. Things improve further east beyond Novosibirsk.

Beware of straying too close to the Kazakh border on minor roads west of the Urals - border areas are restricted zones and you will be arrested if you wander into these areas.

China

In eastern China there are no special difficulties other than heavy traffic on some routes and in towns, coupled with some very bad driving. The easternmost bridging point open to bicycles on the Yangtze river (Chang Jiang) is at Nanjing. Ferries will take you across further east. Most areas in eastern China (indeed all of China outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region) are now classed as "open" to foreigners, and you can probably ride without undue concern about getting caught in a closed area. There is a closed area in Inner Mongolia between Erlian and Jining, but if you ride straight through the police will let you pass.

Larger cities have numerous Giant bikeshops selling a reasonable range of spare parts. Smaller towns usually have a master bike mechanic lurking somewhere if you need something difficult fixing - ask in any bikeshop. Minor repairs can be done at pavement "clinics" for a few jiao.

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Food and water

Russia

On the trans-Siberian route in Russia, you will pass a village of some sort at least every 120 km and usually much more frequently. Bread, pasta, tinned meat, icecream, biscuits etc is usually available in even the smallest villages. Fresh produce like milk, eggs, potatoes, cabbage, etc. may not be available in the village shops but you can usually buy some from villagers - ask around. Apples and bananas are frequently available in villages as well as town shops and markets. South American bananas cost around 1 USD per kilogram. Cheese, salami etc also available in the majority of villages.

On trans-Siberian highway, and most main "M" roads, there are roadside cafes, typically every 40km or, serving borsch, gulash, etc, at reasonable prices.

Every Russian village has a well or pump, and generally the water is OK to drink untreated, as the locals do. Sometimes the well/pump is hard to locate - ask somebody. Do not count on village houses having their own tap - often they do not. Check by asking locally whether the water is OK - in a few places it is known to be contaminated and locals will tell you if this is the case.

Mongolia

On the north-south route from Altanbulag through Ulaan Baator to the Chinese border at Zamyn Uud:

Supplies plentiful north of Ulaan Baator. No need to carry more than one day's worth of food and water. Pasta, bread, honey, biscuits, ice cream, rice, etc available in towns, and fresh vegetables and fruit too, at least in summer. Water in towns and villages may not be clean, bring purifying equipment or buy bottled water. Towns also have restaurants/cafes with basic but hearty food.

In Ulaan Baator you can buy everything, big supermarkets available including on the ground floor of the state department store.

In the Gobi, no need to carry more than 2 days' food/water, though in high summer you might want to be cautious and carry extra water, at least, as insurance against getting lost and/or sandstorms. In very high temperatures you will need a lot of water, obviously. By September the Gobi is cooler, and by October or even late September the first snows may arrive.

Water from Gobi towns (there's usually a big queue at the town pump so you can't miss it) is generally yellow and not good tasting, probably bad for you too. Bring purifying equipment and/or buy bottled water in towns.

Food in Gobi towns is more limited, less fresh produce, bread not so good, etc. But there should be rice or pasta, and some kind of café/restaurant.


China

In China there is food everywhere, in the form of fresh produce at markets, dried/packaged goods in supermarkets, and cafes/restaurants everywhere. Further west distances between such places may be stretched, but you will struggle to go hungry in the east. Tap water is bad, and river water in the east is uniformly rancid, but boiled water in thermoses, and/or bottled water, is available everywhere. To eat cheaply but well, look for Muslim noodle restaurants, where you will get a huge bowl or plate of noodle soup or fried noodles for 4 - 8 yuan (0.5 - 1 USD). They often serve rice dishes too for similar prices.

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Languages

Eastern Europe - If you speak some Russian, you can probably understand 50%, and make yourself 50% understood, in Serbian, Croatian, and Bulgarian. Hungarian and Romanian are not Slavic languages, so Russian will not help you there (although many may have learnt Russian at school).

Moldova - in the south, Russian and Ukrainian are spoken more than Moldovan/Romanian. Elsewhere, Russian is probably widely understood too.

Ukraine - Pretty much everyone speaks and understands Russian, though in some areas Ukrainian would be the language of choice. I don't think you will offend anyone, as a foreigner, by speaking Russian rather than Ukrainian.

Russia - everyone speaks Russian. Very little English spoken outside of cities. In some areas, German would be more useful.

Mongolia - on top of Mongolian, many people, including officials, speak decent Russian. Younger people are more likely to speak English. In Ulaan Baator, English is spoken quite widely in shops, restaurants etc, and other languages too.

China - Mandarin is pretty widely understood, though not always spoken in an intelligible form (local dialects may prevail). In cities a surprising number of people speak at least some English.

Hong Kong - the local Chinese dialect, Cantonese, is not mutually intelligible to Mandarin speakers, though a knowledge of one is certainly a help in learning the other. English is fairly widely spoken in tourist settings, but this is by no means the case everywhere. Mandarin is widely understood too.

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