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 to my home in Newcastle 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.
Ready to roll: Josh, 23, was treated like royalty in the Giant factory near Shanghai. Afterwards – he set off for Newcastle
Josh is pictured here admiring the rainbow mountains in China’s Zhangye National Geopark
A drone shot of Josh’s sleeping set-up, taken in China. He didn’t take a tent as that would have slowed him down
Josh was stopped by a Chinese cycle tourist so he could sing him a song
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.
Josh clocked up 9,300 miles through 15 countries on his epic bike ride from Shanghai to Newcastle
Climbing up a pass in Kyrgyzstan with herders bringing down food for their livestock ready for the winter, when they move down in altitude
Josh riding past yurts in Kyrgyzstan, where he joined the Pamir Highway – often billed as being on the roof of the world
Describing this slightly comical scene in Kyrgyzstan, Josh said: ‘I cycled past these guys trying to cram goats into a 4×4. They’d get one in and then another would get out, which they would chase around the car’
Jaw-dropping landscape: Here Josh is making tracks for the mountains in Kyrgyzstan
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.
A snack break in Kyrgyzstan in the middle of the Pamir Highway, eating traditional bread bought from a market in Osh, the country’s second-largest city
Descending into the village of Sary-Tash, Kyrgyzstan. Josh said of this picture: ‘I thought to myself “they are some impressive clouds”, but the closer I got I began to realise they were not clouds, but huge mountains’
Herders that hosted Josh and a French hiker at the top of a pass in Tajikistan. Josh said: ‘They saved us from a very cold night. They allowed us to share the wooden platform they were sleeping on and provided us with food’
This shot was taken in Tajikistan, with the River Panj out of shot below. All the farms, fields and hills are in Afghanistan
Arriving into Samarkand, Uzbekistan, with the beautiful buildings there lit up
Standing in front of the Registan, the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand
THE KIT LIST
Josh travelled light. The bike was a Giant Revolt gravel bike with a carbon frame and tubeless tyres — no punctures en route. The bags were from Arkel of Canada. A blow-up Robens sleeping mat from Germany kept him comfy at night. Photos and video were shot on an iPhone XS, a GoPro Hero 7, and a DJi Spark drone. He rode in cycle clothing from Backyard Bike Shop of Gateshead and also, at times, wore a rice farmer’s hat. His route from China to the UK was tracked on a Garmin InReach GPS device.
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.
Josh made a fascinating YouTube video of the trip, which you can watch by clicking here.
Josh slept in a bed under the sheets of this watermelon stand in Uzbekistan. ‘I was hungry so was happy to be also allowed to eat one of the stock,’ he said
Taking a drink next to a beautiful blue minaret in Khiva, Uzbekistan
Cycling past camels in the desert in Kazakhstan. Josh took a ferry from Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan to avoid Iran and possible scrutiny of his drone
Trying to even out the tan lines in the Kazakhstan sunshine
Camping out in the Kazakhstan customs control area for 36 hours whilst waiting for a boat to cross the Caspian Sea on
Crossing the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, which spans the River Danube between Buda and Pest
Josh’s not-so-luxurious sleeping set-up by a Serbian roadside
Josh with Frank Veltman, second in charge of Giant Europe at Giant’s Lelystad factory in the Netherlands. Josh said: ‘As well as treat me to another slap-up feed, the kind folks at Giant also replaced my worn tyres and gave the bike a servicing’