Planning a 20,000km China cycle tour #2

I have figured out where to go on my China cycle tour. Next up I need to pick when and where to start. There are a few areas to watch out for. Too early on the Tibetan Plateau and the snow will not have melted, and summer in the Taklamakan Desert sees temperatures of up to 45C. The only real reason I need to make a proper plan, though, is the northeastern provinces, where the temperatures dip below -40C in winter. I want to do the trip in one continuous loop, so I need to time my arrival in the northeast.

Altitude on the Tibetan Plateau

To kick off I had a look at the altitude of the passes I am planning to cross. I have been using the open-source tools at GPS Visualizer to calculate the elevation profile of my route, beginning the loop in Kunming in the southwest.

So lots of mountains at the beginning. Start in Kunming, up to the Tibetan Plateau, with the world highest point, and down to the Taklamakan, with the world’s third lowest point. Everest (8848m) to the Turpan depression (-154m) in the space of 1500km. So, even for me, only going up to 4700m, the downhill is going to be a bit of a treat. But before that, I will be hoping to spend about 1500km above 3000m and most of that above 4000m.

Managing the Seasons

My current plan basically involves doing all of the aforementioned things not to do. Too early on the Plateau, summer in the Taklamakan, and the northeast in the middle of winter. But I will probably go a lot slower than I think. Sitting looking at google maps is very different to the reality on the ground.

Cycling the Tibetan Plateau in March

I don’t think this is a problem with the right gear. The roads are apparently pretty good and waiting for a pass to clear on the Tibetan Plateau isn’t the end of the world. The passes go up to 4700m.

Source: China Meteorological Association. From Wikipedia.

Litang, at 4000m, has an average low of -6.5C in March and -2.9C in April. And that is when I will be tucked away in a good sleeping bag. And the daytimes are barmy at up to 8C and 11C. So it is not too cold, and the scenery will be amazing. There is also much less cloud cover than in the summer season, so I will be able to see it.


Cycling the Taklamakan Desert in June

Source: China Meteorological Association. From Wikipedia.

That does leave me in the desert when it starts to heat up though. The ideal time is apparently September. But deserts are always going to be hot. I have cycled in up to 40C before and it is not the end of the world. The real problem is the ability to take on the vast quantities of water you need. I will probably be on the more remote south side before it reaches its hottest, though, and there are apparently plenty of petrol stations and friendly lorry drivers with huge vats of drinkable water on the more developed north side. I will just need to stock up and carry lots of liquids.

Cycling to Mohe in Winter

The only real problem is the northeast. I want to give myself a shot to do it. But it is a c. 5,000km round trip from Beijing, and I will need to be at the most northern parts at a reasonable time. Putting together all of the above, a timeline might be:

  • The Tibetan Plateau in March-June
  • The Taklamakan in June-August
  • The Mongolian Steppe in September-October

Source: Weather China. From Wikipedia.

If that is the case then I am starting a 5000km round trip through the northeast at the start of the cold, and reaching the northern-most points in deep, deep winter. The average low would be around -34C. Problem. Ideally I want to be up there on either edge of winter: snow, ice, cold temperatures, awesome stars, and the northern lights, but no frostbite.

So a few options

  1. Stick to the original plan and leave from Kunming around the start of March. I will probably go a lot slower than I think. And if not perhaps I can try and tempt someone to give me a stupidly expensive set of extreme winter gear. Sounds good.
  2. Start at an earlier point, spend spring in the south, summer on the Tibetan Plateau, autumn in the Taklamakan, and cross the Mongolian Steppe in winter. So I can begin the trip to the northeast in the later stages of winter in 2018. Sounds pretty good too.
  3. Start a later point, like Kashgar, fit in the trip to the northeast in the summer of 2017, and leave the Tibetan Plateau to the end – in winter. Fully feasible, but not so keen. Too flat for too long.

Dilemma caused by over-planning! Maybe the solution is to start cycling towards China when I am free in early March. Tempting!


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One thought on “Planning a 20,000km China cycle tour #2

  1. Oh dear its becoming a bit real !!!! Sounds fascinating though. First option sounds a bit scary ….

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