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10 Questions: Bike Touring In China

Posted November 2nd, 2011

Louis & Lysanne left their home in Canada in September 2010 for a bicycle tour around the world.

Louis & Lysanne

By July 2011, they had reached China – and they spent 3 months exploring a relatively small corner of this massive country.

In this edition of 10 Questions, Louis & Lysanne share a wealth of tips and advice for other cyclists, also planning to explore China from the saddle of a bicycle.

1. Can you describe your trip through China, and why you chose China as a destination?

We had the great pleasure to cycle from Beijing to the southermost border of China (Dongxing/Mong Cay, Vietnam) over 3 months, and a total of 4,500km. We rode through the provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi, Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi. Why China? Because it has so much to offer. What’s your pick? Scenery? Food? History? Low cost country? Quiet, remote cycling roads? Just name it, China has it all!

Keep reading about Bike Touring In China…

10 Questions: Cycling In China

Posted October 28th, 2011

Louis & Lysanne left their home in Canada in September 2010 for a bicycle tour around the world.

Louis & Lysanne

By July 2011, they had reached China – and they spent 3 months exploring a relatively small corner of this massive country.

In this edition of 10 Questions, Louis & Lysanne share a wealth of tips and advice for other cyclists, also planning to explore China from the saddle of a bicycle.

1. Can you describe your trip through China, and why you chose China as a destination?

We had the great pleasure to cycle from Beijing to the southermost border of China (Dongxing/Mong Cay, Vietnam) over 3 months, and a total of 4,500km. We rode through the provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi, Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi. Why China? Because it has so much to offer. What’s your pick? Scenery? Food? History? Low cost country? Quiet, remote cycling roads? Just name it, China has it all!

Happy Kids

2. What resources did you use to plan the Chinese leg of your journey?

We knew of a couple of sights that we really wanted to see, and we had to be in certain cities for our visa extension, but besides that the planning was usually done a couple of days before. We have the usual Lonely Planet travel guides but more useful are the people you meet, who tell you to go see this or that, and take this road instead of this one. If we have a decision to make between two places, we ask on internet travel forums like the Lonely Planet forum or Crazy Guy On A Bike.

3. What was your experience getting a visa for China? Did you have to extend it? Did you declare that you would be travelling by bicycle?

We got our Chinese visa in Tehran, Iran. It went fairly smoothly, because they didn’t ask for travel tickets out of the country or a bank statement. We had to wait 5 working days to get it, which seems to be the norm. Never, ever say that you are travelling by bicycle when you are applying for a visa.

It’s rare that you get more than a 30-day visa when applying far from home, so we had to do 2 extensions in China. That went well.

If we had to apply again for a Chinese visa we would do it from our hometown, or use a travel agency to have at least a 3-month visa, or even apply for a visa in Hong Kong, where you can easily get a 3-month visa. Note: you cannot get any visa on arrival, by land or plane.

Chinese Ladies Selling Their Goods

4. Once you were there, how did you communicate with people? Was it easy or hard? Did many people speak English, or not at all?

Ooohhh that’s a good one!

Don’t expect the Chinese people to understand any English outside big cities or really touristy sights or cities. To our big surprise, Chinese people do not understand sign language either, even when the signs were commonly used in other countries we visited prior to China. Even our picture book was frequently not understood by them!

So, yes, it was hard to communicate and sometimes frustating. But all this is meant to change rapidly because the ”young generation’ (under 15 years old) have mandatory English classes. One good piece of advice, which saved us all the time, was to have certain Chinese phrases already written down on a piece of paper to show people. For example: Where’s the nearest low cost hotel/guesthouse? How much does it cost?

Louis & The Water Buffalo

5. To navigate, did you use maps or a GPS, and how did that work out?

We used both and we are glad we had those two tools.

Actually we had two paper maps, one in English and one in Chinese. We bought both in Beijing in a big book shop. This is a MUST, or else you will never be able to ask any Chinese for direction. And always ask 3 different people to make sure you’re on the right road. Since they don’t want to lose respect, they’ll send you anywhere, even if they don’t know the answer. Also, don’t rely only on policemen because they just don’t know!

As for the GPS, we have a Garmin Etrex vista HCx. Since GPS maps (even ones you pay for) contain many errors for China, do not exclusively rely on them to create a route. We used GPS maps from Open Street Map. This is a free website and they have ok to good detailed maps for big cities. Finding the small, remote secondary roads is more difficult because the information is not on the GPS map. The trick, is to create your route with the Bike Route Toaster website and upload it to your device. This gives a more precise result than Open Street Map for creating routes.

If there is no road shown on your GPS, don’t panic! this is not a problem because you will follow the trace you’ve created. Make sure you compare the Google map with your Chinese paper map. This is important because you will see more small secondary road on the Chinese paper map.

A Chinese Guesthouse

6. Where did you mostly sleep: in your tent? Hotels?

We strongly believe in wild camping but, since accommodation is cheap and of reasonable quality, we always slept in hotels or guest houses. It was the first country where we found that wild camping was mostly not possible and strongly prohibited by law as well. This was the case, even though we often cycled in the countryside. Most of the land was either cultivated, industrialized, inhabited or full of rubbish. So, hotels are the way to go.

The accommodations we chose ranged from $10-15 U.S. per night. It seems that accommodation in the north is of lower quality than in the south, and service varies from nothing to breakfast included (rare cases) and a free internet connection jack (very common but bring your own cable).

Like we said, quality varies a lot. Some places were new and super nice for the same price as a worn-out hotel in other places. Shopping around and bargaining is a must here. The prices listed on the wall were double, if not more, then what we really paid.

Louis Enjoying A Nice Meal

7. What did you spend per day? Can you give us some average costs?

We spent an average of $30 U.S. per day for two people, including accomodation, food, bottled water and, yes, beer. The average cost for breakfast (soup or dumpling) is $1 U.S. per person, lunch less than $2 U.S. and $3 U.S. for dinner. In small eateries, the rice is self-serve and you can eat all you want, at no extra charge. A small bottle of water is 15 cents, and a big bottle of beer about 70 cents.

Entrance fees to tourist sites can be expensive. For example, the Forbidden City in Beijing will cost you $12 U.S. and some attractions are even more expensive.

All in all, the total cost for our 3-month trip was $3,495 U.S. for two of us, including food, accommodation, one train ride, tours and entrance fees to tourist sites, visas, souvenirs, new clothes, bike repair and post office expenses.

Beautiful View

8. How were the roads; busy, or pleasant to cycle on?

In the north, the roads are mostly flat, with a constant flow of trucks and buses. There’s not much choice of secondary roads but main road #108 had a nice wide shoulder. If you plan to cycle in the Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces, come prepared with a facial mask and dark clothing because these are coal regions.

In the south, we managed to find nice, quiet secondary roads with almost no traffic and amazing scenery. Don’t be afraid to venture out on small roads in China. They are surprisingly in very good condition and sealed 99% of the time.

What we found annoying in cycling China was the overuse of the horn, by everyone from the tuk-tuk driver to the trucks and crazy bus drivers. Also, you always have to be aware of the person in front of you. It seems they have the right of way because they rarely look to the right before turning on to the road. Finally and most importantly, don’t rely on signs or indications of turn-offs for that small road you want to take, because there won’t be any.

Dumplings!

9. What about food? Did you cook for yourself, or eat mostly in restaurants? What kind of food were you able to find?

Chinese food in China is far from the western Chinese we’re used to. There is so much variety and many tastes, including spicy or not, that you can find easily something to your liking. We are use to self-catering but not here, since the food is mostly good, easy to find and cheap. We didn’t find any advantage to cooking.

Another good thing about China is that there is always a kettle in your room so you can always go to the corner store and buy an instant noodle meal. Restaurants are very easy to find but the meat they offer can sometimes scare you. The Chinese eat everything on an animal, from the lips to the tail and inside out.

Also, the low-cost restaurants are (most of the time) hygenically repulsive. But the food is good and we never got any sick stomachs from eating there. Ordering a meal was always a pleasant experience. Since there’s hardly ever an English menu, we would point and order plates from the tables around us. That was cool because it was always a funny moment, and we met a lot of people this way.

10. What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other cyclists planning an independent tour of China?

Overall we had a wonderful time in China, and it is one of the highlights of our trip. We will definitely be coming back, and we have the following tips:

  • Get the longest length of visa that you can
  • Don’t forget to write down useful Chinese phrases on paper, in advance
  • Do go to Beijing and visit the Great Wall, then jump on a train all the way to Xi’an. The 1,000 kilometers between those two cities is not very interesting, from our point of view.
  • Trains are easy to take in China with your bike.
  • Travel lightly, and send things home if you need to. The postal service in China is very efficient and dirt cheap. We mailed all of our camping gear and kitchen from Beijing to Nanning.

Thanks to Louis & Lysanne for answering the questions and providing photos. Check out their On Roule La Boule (in French).

Need more information? Check out these helpful resources for cycling in China:

If you’d like to answer 10 questions about a favourite cycling destination, read the guidelines and then get in touch.

10 Questions: Bike Touring Along Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway

Posted October 21st, 2011

Cycling The Pamir Highway (in November) Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway is one of the world’s most famous routes for the adventurous bicycle tourist. Its stunning scenery is rewarding, but the challenging terrain can be a true test of your endurance.

Because of the high altitudes and extreme climate, most people tackle this route through Central Asia in the more temperate summer months, but a few brave souls show up on the edge of winter – as Christine McDonald did.

In this edition of 10 Questions, she shares her experiences of cycling the Pamir Highway in November.

1. The Pamir Highway is quite a challenging ride; how did you prepare for the trip?

Cycling The Pamir Highway In November The truth is that we didn’t! We flew into Kyrgyzstan hoping to get a Chinese visa there and ride across the Tibetan plateau, but because it was the year of the Olympics in Beijing, we weren’t able to get visas. At that point, we hadn’t even heard of the Pamir highway. I don’t remember where I read it, but somewhere it was written that “the Pamir Highway is like the Karakorum highway on steroids.” That was what made our minds up.

In terms of gear, we were well-prepared for rough roads and cold mountain weather since those were always part of the plan. We had heavy down sleeping bags, down coats, gore-tex jackets and mittens. Our bikes were rugged mountain bikes and we hauled bob trailers instead of using panniers as these help take the stress of the back wheel of the bike and let you pile a pretty much unlimited load of stuff on top!

Keep reading about Cycling The Pamir Highway – in November!

10 Questions: Cycling The Pamir Highway

Posted October 21st, 2011

Cycling The Pamir Highway (in November) Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway is one of the world’s most famous routes for the adventurous bicycle tourist. Its stunning scenery is rewarding, and the challenging terrain can be a true test of your endurance.

Because of the high altitudes and extreme climate, most people tackle this route through Central Asia in the more temperate summer months, but a few brave souls show up on the edge of winter – as Christine McDonald did.

In this edition of 10 Questions, she shares her experiences of cycling the Pamir Highway in November.

1. The Pamir Highway is quite a challenging ride; how did you prepare for the trip?

The truth is that we didn’t! We flew into Kyrgyzstan hoping to get a Chinese visa there and ride across the Tibetan plateau, but because it was the year of the Olympics in Beijing, we weren’t able to get visas. At that point, we hadn’t even heard of the Pamir highway. I don’t remember where I read it, but somewhere it was written that “the Pamir Highway is like the Karakorum highway on steroids.” That was what made our minds up.

In terms of gear, we were well-prepared for rough roads and cold mountain weather since those were always part of the plan. We had heavy down sleeping bags, down coats, gore-tex jackets and mittens. Our bikes were rugged mountain bikes and we hauled Bob trailers instead of using panniers as these help take the stress off the back wheel of the bike and let you pile a pretty much unlimited load of stuff on top!

Cycling The Pamir Highway In November
This beautiful morning ride followed the coldest night of the trip: -14°C.

The bureaucracy was a bit of a hassle, especially trying to get a Tajik visa in Kyrgystan.

First, finding the Tajik embassy on a bike, using only sign language to ask directions, was an adventure in itself. Then, finding it actually open was a hassle and on our many trips there, we often waited for a long time before someone showed up to help us. And, finally, you need a letter of invitation from a tour operator in Tajikistan in order to get the visa. Getting this ended up being a bit of an exercise in trust as we had to wire money to a complete stranger and hope that he followed through with sending the letter to the embassy.

This whole process took us a week so I strongly recommend to anyone planning to travel in Tajikistan to get the visa before they arrive in the area!

2. Why did you decide to go in November? Wasn’t it quite cold?

My cycling partner and I both work as forest fire fighters in Canada during the summer and our season ends in September. That means that fall is the best time for us to go touring. It’s not ideal for trips in much of the northern hemisphere, but we’ve tried hard not to let it hold us back. It was very cold and we spent several days riding through snow. Our coldest night was -14°C.

3. What condition is the road in? Is it unpaved road the whole way?

Christine in her replacement “gore-tex” from a Kyrgyz market.

We were actually very impressed by the quality of the Pamir highway. About 85% of it is paved. There are a lot of potholes, but these are easy to dodge on a bike and they keep traffic from going too fast. I should say, though, that if someone is reading this and trying to gauge how far they might ride in a day, other factors will affect your daily mileage, including the altitude (you’ve only got half the oxygen as at sea level to work with) and the wind, which can really rip across the open plateau. It had us seeking shelter in culverts under the road at times!

The road quality elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, however, is pretty rough. The road from Khorog towards Dushanbe (a national highway) is a very rough gravel track carved into the mountainside overlooking the Panj River into Afghanistan. You’re actually close enough to throw a rock into Afghanistan! It has frequent rock-falls. It is incredible to watch transport trucks try to pass one another on the narrow ledge and no way to squeeze a bike through as they do.

4. What about services en route? How often would you come across small towns or shops, and how much food and water did you carry on average?

The lack of services is one of the most challenging aspects of riding the Pamir highway and elsewhere in rural Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. We often had to carry 4 days worth of food with us. Water, fortunately, was fairly easy to find and as long we stopped to refill our bottles at every opportunity (including two litres for dinner and breakfast), we never ran out. We used a Steri-pen to treat water from lakes, creeks and community wells.

Every small village has a store, but they are often in someone’s home and do not have a sign so we always had to ask around to find them. In the small stores, we were able to get enough dry goods (lots of packaged cookies!) to get by. Families quite often sell fresh bread and cheese or butter as well. Local honey was easy to come by and delicious and we had it almost daily on our bread for lunch. Fruits and vegetables could only be found in larger centres at a market so we always bought and carried lots of these.

Cycling The Pamir Highway In November
A typical Pamir town. This is Karakol.

5. What was the most challenging part for you?

Cycling The Pamir Highway In NovemberThe cold! Especially after the bag that I kept my down coat, gore-tex jacket, toque and mittens in was stolen. I ended up restocking from the market in Osh, Kyrgyzstan and wore fuzzy pyjamas in place of down and a heavy military rubber coat in place of gore-tex. It did the trick, but made me appreciate our technical gear from home!

The cold created more challenges, too. In the mornings, our derailleur cables were often frozen so we were stuck in whatever cycling gear we had ended in the day before until things thawed out again. It was also hard to keep our water from freezing. We would sometimes keep it in our sleeping bags, but it felt like it sucked all the warmth out of the bag and resulted in a lousy sleep.

The other big challenge was the language barrier. Simple things like finding a place to stay, buying food and asking for directions were difficult. In one road-side restaurant, we tried to order a pot of green tea and ended up with a whole cooked chicken and a loaf of bread!

In a few situations, not being able to communicate led to some uncomfortable moments, like when a man with a gun who smelled like vodka showed up on his horse at our camping spot after dark.

6. And the most rewarding?

The views along the Pamir highway are absolutely incredible. I can’t do it justice with words, but the vastness and emptiness of it are amazing. Doing it late in the season and dealing with cold and snow was also rewarding in a way that I think many other cycle tourists would understand.

Cycling The Pamir Highway In November
Karakol Lake. One of many spectacular views from the Pamir Highway.

7. Did you find the people generally welcoming?

Interacting with the people of the Pamir was very special. We had many long sign-language conversations with people who stopped us along the road to give us an apple or invite us in for tea. We joked that if we accepted every invitation for tea in Tajikistan, we never would have made it anywhere!

8. Was there anything that you took but wouldn’t take again, or (vice versa) something you should have taken but didn’t?

I didn’t know that they existed at the time (and maybe they didn’t yet), but a SPOT GPS tracker would have saved both us and our families at home some stress. Contacting family members at home was very difficult. Internet was non-existent and phones were few and far between, and sometimes out of order when we did find them. A SPOT, which we’ll take on our next trip for sure, uses GPS technology to let you send pre-set messages home to let people know that things are ok.

As far as something I wouldn’t take next time, well…I didn’t need that tank top….

Cycling The Pamir Highway In November
Welcome to Tajikistan. It’s a heck of a climb to get there, but worth it!

9. Is there any option to throw your bike on a bus, if something happens and you can’t or don’t want to cycle the whole way?

There were no buses travelling the Pamir highway in November (and not many buses in either country at all) but anyone with a vehicle can be hired to drive you where you need to go if you’re desperate. Unfortunately, these rides aren’t cheap. We got a ride in an ancient Russian Jeep (the driver had to go get the battery out of the house because it also powered their am radio) on the Pamir highway and paid about a dollar a kilometre.

Hitchhiking, on the other hand, costs very little or nothing if you have time to wait for trucks to pass. Keep in mind we only saw 3-5 vehicles per day on the Pamir highway, but more elsewhere in the country. We had to hitch into Dushanbe to catch our flight home and ended up being taken in by a convoy of Tajik truckers who wouldn’t accept anything from us and even bought us lunch.

10. One piece of advice for people who want to do this route?

Pack a good sense of adventure and some warm clothes, but do it!

Thanks to Christine for answering 10 Questions and sharing pictures of her bicycle tour along the Pamir Highway.

If you’d like to answer 10 Questions about a favourite cycling destination, read the guidelines and then get in touch.

A Bike Tour Through West Africa

Posted September 19th, 2011

Cycling Through West AfricaPhotographer Jonathan Tillett and Anne-Sophie Christensen spent 10 weeks in early 2011 cycling 2,500km across Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

With Sierra Leone and Liberia opening up recently, the route provides an interesting variation on the more usual passage via Mali. Here’s a quick snapshot of their experiences on the trip.

1. Give us a rundown of the route.

Dakar, Senegal is an obvious place to start. It’s a major hub for flights and Senegal is an easy introduction to a tough travel region. It has good food, accommodation and tourist infrastructure.

Cycling Through West AfricaOur route took us south to The Gambia, another easy country (and English-speaking to boot) for some relaxation and side trips up the Gambia river, then into the stunning Casamance region of Senegal.

River deltas are easily crossed with the bikes in pirogues (a small, flat-bottomed boat) and vast deserted beaches make for awesome riding.

Read more about a bicycle tour in West Africa.