Chinese factories make most of the world’s bicycles, even those marketed in the UK as American as apple pie.
I decided to cut out the middleman and import my own bike – but I did it the hard way, by riding it back from China, a trip of 9,300 miles through 15 countries.
Giant of Taiwan makes bicycles for many of the top US and UK bike companies, but it also sells Giant-branded bikes. And I ended a 2019 Asian backpacking trip in China to pick up a rugged bike from the company’s factory in Shanghai.
After a slap-up lunch (the factory folk treated me like royalty), I strapped bags I had carried on my back around Asia to the bicycle I could have just as easily bought in Europe, and started the long journey home.
I began at the end of July, in a heatwave, sleeping in hotels when forced to by Chinese police (they’re quite strict with independent travellers — although they also sometimes bought me food) but more usually I camped by the side of the road in a sleeping bag. I didn’t pack a tent: too heavy. I wanted to ride home fast. And in the end, I often clocked as many as 200 miles a day.
China has some world-class bike paths – I didn’t see any others until I reached Europe. After Xi’an – home to the terracotta warriors – I followed the truck-heavy route of the ancient Silk Road, but unlike most Western cycle tourists, I rode east to west.
Once away from the big cities, there weren’t many roads to choose from, which made navigation a no-brainer. Leaving China, I entered Kazakhstan and headed to the country’s largest city, Almaty, where I gloried in a massage in one of the city’s public baths. This was the last taste of normality for a while, if you can call it normal being beaten with oak leaves and afterwards skinny dipping as naked men swan-dived around me.
Rather than take the flat desert route through Kazakhstan, I detoured along one of the world’s wildest, highest roads, the Pamir Highway, at one point reaching 15,000ft in altitude. This snaking, mostly-gravel road — often billed as being on the roof of the world — took me through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan where I rode for 250 miles along the border with Afghanistan.
In a Tajik village, I asked a passer-by where I could sleep — he called over to friends who said their grandparents would look after me. They did and also fed me, asking for no payment. This hospitality – so welcome and so touching – was the norm throughout Central Asia. During my journey, I was invited to sleep in several mosques and stayed in many people’s homes, including a bed in a roadside watermelon stand.
I had bought a small drone from the DJi shop in Shanghai but hadn’t banked on it being 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.
It might have been a different matter with Iranian religious police, so I decided to cross the Caspian Sea rather than take the land route through Iran. There’s no regular ferry, but if you camp in the port of Aqtau in Kazakhstan, you can eventually hop on a freight ship going your way.
After twiddling my thumbs for 36 hours, I got on a ship that subsequently sat at anchor for another 36 hours.
In Azerbaijan, back on the bike, 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 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.