I recently met up with Edward Shoote, who bikepacked together with his wife Marion and his friend Jack Chevell in a circle around the Altai, crossing the 4 countries divided by the mountain range: Russia, Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia.
There is already a good report on their journey online, but I wanted to ask him a few more things about the practical side of traveling by bicycle in the 4 corners of Altai.
How is the road?
It’s ok, it’s good for cycling, it’s pretty rough though. Especially in Mongolia. It was nice to have a bikepacking setup instead of heavy loaded bikes on the gravel roads there: they were super-bumpy all the way to Olgii. From there a small section of tarmac ran, but that was it.
What about food and water? Especially bikepacking.
Food was an issue, at times it was touch and go. In China it’s big city-nothing-big city-nothing. Chinese food is fantastic, though, especially after riding in Kazakhstan, passing only some small villages and basically not much at all. We did the Austrian Road in 1 day to make sure we had enough supplies. Mongolia had yurts and a few small towns so it was doable bikepacking. Water was the main stress in the desert in China, in other countries there was plenty to get from rivers.
Who is it for? What level of experience do you need?
It was just extremes. The heat in the desert was 40 degrees on average. Bikepacking we could only carry 4l of water, so we often needed to cover 100 km in a day to get to the next water source, and we had headwinds. So you need a certain level of fitness.
It’s not somewhere to start out, especially bikepacking, since you cannot simply cram water in panniers and just keep going. Then again, with those winds, I was so glad to have bikepacking bags, because into those headwinds with panniers and heavy bikes would have been torturous.
What should people keep in mind?
China is very restricted in that region. Really tight security: getting across the border took 4,5 hours of conversations and interrogations, so that was pretty full-on, and in towns they would not let us stay in hotels. We were just getting passed around and around with nowhere to stay, nowhere to camp. A lot of police checkpoints, police checks every day. Just constant. It’s pretty stressful and hard to keep your temper sometimes.
Cycling in this part of China, nothing but headwinds, deserts and camels, it’s just a mental challenge against the elements: you either enjoy that or you don’t.
What did you enjoy most on this trip?
Mongolia was amazing. Everyone was friendly, except for some drunk encounters. We really enjoyed getting invited for tea, being in the yurt, enjoying the traditional evening meal. We managed to stumble across an eagle hunter. It’s getting a bit touristy, the eagle hunting, perhaps it is kitschy now to wear the furs and pose with the bird, but we really loved meeting these people.
Do you need a lot of advance planning?
I am quite a big fan of just jumping in and seeing what happens, but for this trip, I am glad we did a lot of planning. Especially contacting travel agents and getting the permits in Kazakhstan took time.
How would you rate this trip compared to your other bikepacking expeditions?
For me there was an interesting variety. You see a lot of Kazakh culture in different countries. They are all Kazakh people but the effects of different governments makes each place distinct. So you have the Soviet history in Kazakhstan and in Russia, whereas in Mongolia it’s very traditional, and then in China there is not much there other than roads and Chinese cities. And that element I found really interesting.
It’s actually an amazing route to cycle and see it. You want to read up on it when you get home, that kind of trip.
In terms of scenery, I guess we have been to places more dramatic and more spectacular. There are still mountains but it’s pretty dry and you can ride all day with the same landscape.