Post Trip Note:
It was useful to have done this research. We made major changes our route when we an area was suddenly “closed to foreigners” in China and again when our Iranian visas were denied.
Trans-Asia 2009 Plan
The options through China have recently been complicated by the earthquake centred near Chengdu. We have studied 3 possible routes:
1) Western route:
This stays as close as possible to the Tibet border but does not cross it. It is the shortest route by about 10%, but crosses about 10% more contour lines than the other routes. It has a significant distance at 15,000 ft elevation.
2) Central route:
This goes through the metropolis of Chengdu, and has some distance at 15,000 ft.There is a variant on this that does not go to Chengdu, but passes about 100km to the west of the earthquake zone. It only goes to 13,000 ft, and is reasonably flat when it does. This variant, the present favourite, is only 3% longer than the shortest route. It misses all major cities.
3) Eastern route:
This goes through Chengdu, Lanzhou and more populated areas near Chengdu. It crosses the fewest contour lines, and climbs only to 10,000 ft. It is the longest route by about 10%. There will be more traffic on this route as it passes through higherly popoulated areas.
All three routes cross contours roughly every 10 km (contour interval=1000 ft). This means you go up through a contour about every 20 km, so on an average 60 km day you climb a maximum of 3000 ft. Since many contour crossings are due to going over hills (for instance from 8000 ft up to 8500 ft and back down to 8000 ft) the total daily climb is probably closer to 2250 ft on average. Of course the elevation change for a given distance is roughly 20% higher on the Western route than the Eastern Route.
Once near Lanzhou we have options, shown roughly on the map below, that we can choose based on our experience in the first few thousand kilometers in the mountians.
The most difficult route decision is how to proceed westward from Tashkent.
The options are:
1) Fly to Baki, Azerbaijan. This feels like cheating.
2) Go north of the Caspian Sea. Two problem arise: firstly the 30 day Kazakhstan visa does not allow time to cycle to the Russian border, so bus or train must be used; secondly travelling in Russia has risks due to police checkpoints which are often corrupt. Even Russian friends suggest getting a Russian cyclist to join the trip for this section. The advantage is you have two subsequent choices: take a boat across the Black Sea to Trabzon, Turkey; or stay north of the Black Sea entering Europe through the flat route of the Ukraine and Poland.
3) Go to the northern Caspian Sea port of Aqtau, Kazakhstan, then take a boat to Baki, Azerbaijan. Two problems arise: firstly the 30 day Kazakstan visa does not allow time to get to Aqtau so bus or train has to be used; secondly it takes 2 weeks in Tashkent to get the Azerbaijan visa. In addition a dual entry visa to Kazakhstan is required because, when coming from the East, it is necessary to go first to Almaty to get visas for the Stan states. Azerbaijan visas, however, are not available in Almaty, but must be obtained in Taskent. The route of necessity would be Almaty(Kazakstan), Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Aqtau (Kazakstan).
4) Go to the southern Caspian Sea port of Krasnovodsk (Turkmenistan, renamed from Turkmenbashi) and take a boat to Baki, Azerbaijan. For this you do a month long hot ride in the desert of Turkmenistan. Getting a visa for this grueling trip is a lengthy and expensive undertaking.
5) Go south crossing Turkmenistan in less than 7 days (because a visa is easy to get for 7 days) and enter Iran. Stay in the mountains of Iran (typically with a tail wind of 20 kmh), which are much cooler the the Turkmenistan desert, and enter Turkey from Iran. This route sounds dangerous, based on reading the newspaper, so initially we had ignored it. However, reading blogs by cyclists and the Government of Canada’s Travel Advisory Site we have become convinced this route is a serious option. At time of writing it is the most frequently used route.