Cycle Touring in China
China is vast and even with a 6 month visa we only saw a fraction of this amazing country.
We cycled into China via the Laos border in the Southern province of Yunnan. Together we cycled up to Dali, reaching the 9000km mark and cycling our longest day 114km. Chris then continued north along the Tibetan border into Sichuan, riding up 4000m and 5500m passes, in the ice and snow, through the winter months, finally meeting up with Liz again in Chengdu. After travelling by train to Beijing via Xi'an, and then onto Jining, we cycled up through Inner Mongolia to the border town of Erenhot, before crossing in Mongolia.
After our time in Mongolia we re-entered China in the very north west province of Xinjiang. The border here has only just opened to tourists.
We went to Urumqi and then crossed the region to reach the kazakhstan border, at Khargos.
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd expect China to feel crowded, yet it doesn't, not when you travel by bike anyway. Before coming to China we were expecting to find an industrial, polluted, dense country. Some parts may well be, but Yunnan is very rural and picturesque, with neat green terraced mountains, lush valleys, gorges with blue rivers swirling below, open spaces, miles of protected national park and an unspoilt landscape. Nobody told us it would be so beautiful. The sign of a once more industrial, quota based existence does still remain and as you cycle through villages you see mills and small factory buildings, but most are not in use anymore. That said people are still hard at work, unlike much of Asia, no-one seems to relax or sit around here, they are always busy. Mostly people are working the land or tending to their animals, other are involved in road building or running shops and restaurants. Children run around freely and everyone welcomes you with waves, smiles and "Ni hao".
All of the Chinese people we met, in the south, the cities, the north and Sichuan, were universally friendly. We were made to feel so welcome in this big country and often treated us like guests of honour. Sure they looked surprised when we turned up in their town or village, but once they realised that we were friendly and keen to eat and chat, they went out of their way to make sure we ate well and looked after us with such kindness. And we loved their pride and optimism
Communication is a challenge at times as Chinese is hard to master; our usual trick of using sign language and gesture didn't work too well. At times it felt like people were being deliberately ignorant or just didn't want to help us. However I think they genuinely had no idea what we wanted, despite our efforts and we just got blank faces or lots of giggling!
Other challenges almost unique to China were using ATMs, using internet cafes and buying mobile sim cards, internet time etc. As a foreigner you can only use a few ATMs such as the Bank of China. Smaller towns only have local ATMs. You can only use a computer in an internet cafe if you have a Chinese ID card. No, your passport will not be accepted. Nope no-one cares that you need to email your family to let them know you are alive and well. Rules are rules.
Buying a sim card can be complicated, more still if you want to buy a dongle for internet use. Only way was to sign up for a 6 month package and pay 1200 Yuan. Once you have internet, social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Blogger are blocked. Don't worry, fellow travellers will refer to proxys and ways to bypass the block...
You are supposed to register with the police or your hotel every 72 hours as you travel, this can be tedious and labourious for everyone involved. Also difficult when camping and on the road in remote locations. However we only registered a handful of times and no-one seemed to care or check up on us. Paperwork is big here, if you want to post a parcel home you have to fill in several bits of paper. If you want to do anything in China you pretty much have to fill in a form of some sort and have it stamped. We once queued to get a stamp and then took the piece of paper back to the original official, who looked at it and then screwed it up and threw it in the nearest bin!
Once you get your head around all of these quirky rules and stop feeling frustrated (or like crying), then you will enjoy China! In the meantime Dicos fast food restaurants have free wifi!
Forget what you might have heard about Chinese food being about eating dogs or strange animal parts, the food is A-maz-ing! Steaming bowls of fresh noodle soup for breakfast; steamed dumplings with dipping sauces; stir fried pork and peppers, chicken and red onion, beef and onion all served with as much steamed rice as you can eat. Washed down with pots and pots of tea. Not to mention spare ribs, Beijing duck, Sichuan hotpot, bowtsa (meat filled steamed buns), dumpling soup, stir fried noodles, bak choi in boiling water, fried rice, the list is endless... Ordering outside of a city generally involves pointing at the meat you want and the vegetable and then waiting to see what arrives. The Chinese food we know at home - sweet and sour, black bean sauce etc doesn't really feature here, but the food is really tasty and wonderful. Eating out is a social activity here and a messy one too, sometimes resembling a Henry the Eight style feast with bones tossed on the floor, people spitting out what they don't want to eat onto the floor etc.
However back to cycling, the roads are good - the Chinese build great roads. The traffic isn't too bad, although like the rest of Asia it's 360 degree. Bicycles are very welcome though and many people cycle in China. On mass bike power can stop the cars in Beijing! Bikes however are seen as a poorer person’s mode of transport and people may be surprised to see a foreigner riding a bike rather than driving a car. Once you tell them what you are doing though, they are usually very happy for you!
Camping is fine, no one bothers about where you camp, however finding a spare patch of land can be tricky as the Chinese plant every square inch if they can. All towns have hotels, some may not accept foreigners, which can be frustrating but they have to have a licence or something. Rooms can be as cheap as 30 Yuan per night. Most hotels offer rooms by the hour and it's common to find the hotel being used by prostitutes and their clients, at all hours of the night and day.
There is so much more to write and say about China, but for now we'll simply say that it is a fantastic, diverse country and you will have an amazing time if you cycle tour here. Enjoy!
Mohan - Mengla - Jinghong - Puer - Zhenyuan - Jingdong - Hujie - Nanjian - Weishan - Dali.
(Liz flew home from here to see her family and work for 3 months. Chris continued cycling...)
Dali - Lijang - Shangrila - Batang - Baiyu - Dege - Manigange - Ganze - Luhu - Kangding.
Jining - Qahar Youyi Houqi - Tomortei - Sonid Youqi - Erenhot. (Last 100km by post van - v. bad weather)
Xinjiang, NW China (1200km):
Bulgan Border (Mongolia) - Urumqi - Shehezi - Khargos (Kazakhstan)
- The most amazing landscapes and scenery
- Beautiful terracing and use of the land
- Smiling, happy, welcoming people, who are very genuine and happy to help you
- Wonderful, tasty, healthy food
- Good roads and wide shoulders, bicycles are welcome here
- Mengla to Jinghong
- Jinghong to Dali
- Dali to Kanding (Chris)
- Chengdu & the pandas
- Noodle soup for breakfast
- Beijing - great city for visiting and for cycling
- Jowtsa & Bowtsa: Dumplings and steamed buns
- Eating out is a regular, slightly messy, social event for the whole family and many friends - great for people watching
- Chris experiencing Tibetan culture and hospitality
- Meeting other cycle tourers
- Cycling our longest day and hitting 9000km on the same day
- Sleeper trains
- Fantastic internet connections
- A little bit of Chinese and a smile goes a long way in China. Or if in doubt, offer a cigarette to the older men in the room and you'll be instant friends!
- Huge hills and long climbs
- ATMs don't work for foreigners in smaller towns, only Bank of China
- Gesture doesn't work very well- blank faces all round, even when it seems obvious
- 'Not losing face' can result in being ignored by shop keepers who are worried they won't be able to understand you
- So much paperwork and stamps!
- Prostitution openly 'on display' in many towns
- Dirty toilets - the worst we've encountered, no soap or loo roll, and you may have to pay.
- Smelly bathrooms and noisy guests in cheaper hotels and hostels (some double as brothels)
- Fish - two bad food poisoning experiences eating fish
- Firecrackers - so loud and so many!
- Train stations- more like airports, leave enough time before your train
- Bikes on trains have to go separately as cargo
- Smoking - people smoke everywhere!
- Spitting - you know you're in China when you get woken up by the sound of someone hacking it up and spitting it out. Nice.
- Long tunnels on new roads
Liz and Chris cycle touring in China photos from Nov 2010 May 2011.
Things to do
eat, shop, visit palaces, fountains, pandas, street markets, tea tasting...