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Cycling in China
What is cycling in China? Is it possible? is he crazy Is it really not as difficult as it seems? China is not a country, it is a continent, I sometimes tell people. China is also the country with the most bicycles in the world, although the Netherlands probably has a greater density of bicycles per head of population.
Cycling is fantastic, there can be no doubt. But what about cycling in a country like China? There are two ways to approach the problem and they depend on the time you have available.
If you have limited time, say 3 or 4 weeks, limit yourself to an area, even a province like Yunnan is already as big as France or Texas. However, if you have time on your own, you can easily spend a year, even two in China. Even in two years you don’t have to make double roads. China is huge.
What to bring
China is cheap, except for the big cities. Most of what you need in terms of clothes you can buy. In cities like Beijing, Kunming and Chengdu, there are these days outdoor shops in case you need outdoor material. However, bring your own shoes, as large size shoes are hard to find.
Good bike shops are rare. Your best bet is Hong Kong, but there are good deals in Beijing, Kunming and Chengdu. For ordinary repairs, you will be able to find bicycle repair shops on every street corner. Bicycle repair usually comes with a hammer and a screwdriver. Tires are not hard to find although you can get 2.10 inch tires with a lot of tread. These tires usually last no more than 500 to 1000 km.
Where to start?
Where to start cycling in China? Beijing? Hong Kong? Shanghai? Personally I’m not a fan of big cities, but I admit, Beijing is a city you have to visit. However, I prefer Hong Kong as a good starting point. In Hong Kong you can easily get a good Chinese visa, 2,3, 6 or even 12 months without problem.
Another advantage of Hong Kong is that you can get out quite easily! Take for example the boat to Zhaoqing at the other site of the pearl river delta and you are directly in the plains of China. I also made the road to Guangzhou, but I do not recommend this. Read here why.
From here you can cycle to Yangshuo, still a backpacker’s paradise and well worth a visit. In fact, if you visit South China, Yangshuo with its limestone mountains is a must and is only a week’s bike ride from Hong Kong.
The great cycling areas in China
Where are the areas you absolutely must cycle? Again it depends on the weather. I would say there are 3 distinctly different areas to cycle in China.
- Guilin area
This choice is arbitrary. Many cyclists want to cycle in Tibet or Xian. Both are also fantastic, but Tibet, with its altitude, is not an easy way to start your cycling adventure. Xian of course has the fabulous Terracotta Warriors, but in the Xian area there are many other sites to visit, check out my Xian page for those details. Cycling around Xian is good to do, but it is quite far from other areas with the exception of Luoyang.
Yunnan in southwest China is probably the best and most popular province for cyclists. You can fly into Kunming (international airport with flights from Thailand) and start your outbound journey there with a flight to Dali, Lijiang and Zhongdian (Shangri-La). But Yunnan has many other excellent cycling areas
Baoshan, in the southwest corner of Yunnan is fascinating. Baoshan borders Myanmar. Around Tongcheng you will find geysers, the border with Myanmar is very different from any place you find more in China.
Xishuangbana is located on the border of Laos and sees many tourists, especially those coming or going to Laos. It is beautiful with many different minorities and a lot of natural beauty to discover. It’s a 10 to 14 day bike ride to Kunming.
Much less known is the northeast of Yunnan. Here is a good, very scenic road that leads to the south of Sichuan. Admittedly, this road may not be your first idea of cycling in Yunnan, but if you are late, or too early in the season and you can’t do the road from Zhongdian to Chengdu, this road to Zhaotong and more in the bamboo forest. and eventually to Leshan in Sichuan is worth the effort. It will take about two to three weeks to cycle Kunming to Chendgu this way. Another option is to cycle from Kunming to Vietnam via Tonghai and Jianshui.
Along with Yunnan, the Guilin area is one of the most popular places to take a bike and ride around. The best way to explore the area, Yangshuo, is anyway by bike. So even if you don’t want to bring your own bike, you’ll probably be commuting on a daily basis by bike.
But if you are thinking of long-distance cycling, it takes about 3 weeks to cycle from Guilin to Yunnan. Alternatively, you might want to go cycling in Vietnam. The border road will take you to Nanning and then in a few days to the Vietnamese border. This road may not be very spectacular, but it is worth the trip since few people travel this road. Most travelers see the countryside passing by on buses and trains and local Chinese rarely see foreigners in real life, which sometimes leads to excellent experiences.
Last but certainly not least is Sichuan. Cycling in Sichuan can be an experience you won’t soon forget. Many cyclists come to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, to try to find their way to Tibet, a fair deal. However, if you are a little late in the season, as I was at the time, you can have your Tibetan experience on a round trip west of Chengdu. A route that leads to Tibetan cities like Danba and Barkam and then back to Chengdu. On this route you will experience serious altitudes up to 4000 meters and typical Tibetan towns along the way.
The route north of Gansu is another great option. This road is well traveled. Less traveled but still interesting is the 2 week trip to Xian. This road will take you through the flat lands of the northeast to the mountains that separate Sichuan from Xian. Along the way you’ll find some unexpected gems like the Guangyuan Rock Caves, a rarely visited area similar to the Luoyang Caves.
China by bike is very good to do. Here are some additional tips to make life in China easier. I say easier because cycling in China is pretty easy these days. To make it easier, buy a provincial map at Xinhua bookstores in the province you are cycling. These cards are generally much better in quality than foreign produced cards and give you the chance to get in touch with the locals as these cards are in Chinese characters. Together with for example the Nelles cards are very useful.
Here is another trick that I perform regularly with great success. Outside the tourist areas, hotels can be dirty and very cheap. What I usually do in those towns and cities is go to one of the more expensive hotels and ask for the room rate. I’m usually told it’s Y800 or Y1000 (US$1 is about Y8). Too much of course. So excuse me and be on my way. 7 out of 10 the staff calls me back to offer me a “discount”. “You can have a room for Y100,” and then the negotiation begins. I can usually easily negotiate down to Y50 to Y70. In return I have a large room, with bathroom and TV.
In Huangjiang it was even better, for Y100 I had two rooms, with 2 large TVs, a sofa where at least 12 big fat people could sit, a king-size bed and two bathrooms. I usually joke about this saying that they gave me this suite because the staff realized that my bike also needs a rest. This can happen in China, and I love it!
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