•   
  •   
  •   
 

You Are Viewing China

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.

The World’s 10 Best Bike Tours?

Posted March 18th, 2011

A little over a year ago, we wrote about 10 Places To Ride Your Bike Before You Die – a list of the favourite places we’ve been on our bicycles.

Now, we’ve come up with 10 more dream bike tours – our own personal list of the top places we’d like to go next. Some we’ve been to in part, but we’d like to explore more. Others we’ve never seen but we’ve heard so many great reports that they’re on our short list.

Of course, reducing the world to just 10 bike tours could rightly be described as a great injustice to all the potential routes out there. Think of this as a little inspiration to get you dreaming, and share your ideas of the best places to cycle by leaving a comment.

1. North Sea Cycle Route

Route de la mer du Nord, allemagne

 

This 6,000km marked route traces the coastline of the North Sea. It goes through the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway and it’s easy to do just a section if you don’t have time for the whole thing. Much of the route is on dedicated bike paths or small roads, making this a very tranquil bike tour. More info: North Sea Cycle

 

2. Pacific Coast, United States

The Bike Tour

 

The Pacific Coast Highway has always intrigued us. We’re talking spectacular ocean views, massive redwood trees, classic cities like San Francisco and plenty of facilities for cyclists as you cycle through the states of Washington, Oregon and California. Maps are available from the Adventure Cycling Association. More Info: ACA Pacific Coast route

 

3. Danube Cycle Path

Danube Bike Path

 

We’ve already cycled the start of the Danube Bike Path; a perfectly paved trail running through Germany and Austria to the Hungarian capital of Budapest. This stretch is great for families, beginners or anyone who doesn’t want to spend much time figuring out logistics.

Now we want to finish the job. Apparently the path gets less refined as it goes along. We like the idea of that slow progression.

There are tons of guidebooks describing the route from the river’s source to where it empties into the Black Sea. Ride it on your own or pick from the many package tours. More Info: The Danube Bike path is part of EuroVelo6.

 

4. Japan

Japanese Temple

 

We were in Japan many years ago, and we’ve been dying to go back on our bicycles. We want to check out more temples, soak in the hot springs and gorge on sushi. Many people think Japan is expensive but to keep costs low, you can cook your own food and take advantage of the free campsites and local hospitality clubs. More Info: Japan Cycling and Journey of 1000 Li (We wrote this before the terrible 2011 earthquake in Japan. Hopefully the country will recover quickly and be ready to receive tourists again soon.)

 

5. The Silk Road & The Pamir Highway

Andrew in front of a Bukhara Mosque

 

A trip along the ancient Silk Road trade route and the Pamir Highway is a real adventure. First you’ll cross Turkey and Iran, heading for the Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand. Then you’ll head for the mountains, where you can still get a wonderful glimpse of nomadic life. Continue on down Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway and you have enough cycling to keep you busy for a good 4-6 months.

We’ve done the first part of this trip, but we missed out on southern Kyrgyzstan and the Pamir Highway. Now that would make a great summer tour one of these days! It’s a pain to get visas (and they’re not cheap) but the rewards are spectacular scenery and a real sense of exploration in this little-touristed region of the world. More Info: Our own pages on bike touring in Central Asia and Tim Barnes’ Totally Knackered tour

 

6. Carretera Austral, Chile

Towards the Cordillera

 

Pack a sturdy bike and your tent for this 1,000km mostly unpaved road. It passes through the region of Patagonia and encompasses some of Chile’s most stunning terrain, including mountains, lakes and glaciers. This is definitely a summer route. In the off-season it can be closed by snow and heavy rain. More Info: A journal of a bike tourist in the Carretera Austral and Patagonia.

 

7. Southeast Asia

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

 

International bike touring doesn’t get much easier than in Southeast Asia, and there’s a lot to explore. We’ve spent 6 months here, and still not seen it all. Next on our list? The east coast of Malaysia and a jaunt into Myanmar / Burma. We also want to return to the Cameron Highlands tea growing area in Malaysia (pictured), where the air is refreshingly cool, for some day rides and hikes, which we didn’t have time for on the last trip.

Throughout the region, costs are affordable (even for the most budget-minded bike tourists), traffic is generally relaxed, hotels are easy to find and the food is great. More Info: Our own pages on bike touring in Southeast Asia and the slightly old but still helpful Mr. Pumpy

 

8. Morocco

 

Cheap flights and ferries from Europe make Morocco very accessible and it’s a great first taste of bike touring outside of the developed world. We’ve been to Morocco several times, and while the country is becoming increasingly touristy, it still offers plenty of opportunities to get off the beaten track.

Classic rides include the coastal route between Agadir and Essaouira and the trip from Marrakech, over the mountains and through the Draa Valley to the Sahara desert near Zagora. We’ve done all of these. Now we want to do a backroads tour of Morocco: no asphalt and lots of camping. More Info: Our own pages on bike touring in Morocco and the video (above) from our friends Blanche & Douwe. They’ve biked Morocco’s paths and tracks several times, so we’ll be picking their brains if we do this trip!

 

9. Great Divide Route

IMG_9573

 

Few places do “pure nature” as well as North America and the Great Divide is at the top of our list of routes to cycle on the continent. This off-pavement mountain bike route traces the Continental Divide from Banff in Canada all the way south to the Mexican border. It takes about 3 months to complete. A mountain bike with front suspension forks is often recommended to help cope with the tough terrain. More Info: ACA’s page on the Great Divide cycling route

 

10. Karakoram Highway

IMG_9573

 

A classic route between China and Pakistan, and one that may change significantly in the coming years (for the worse) as the road improves and becomes more accessible to heavy traffic. Go now, before it’s too late! More Info: Cycling The Karakoram Highway

 

What are the bike tours on your “to ride” list? Tell us. Leave a comment.

Photos: The Bike Tour by Tommy DavisRoute de la mer du Nord (by Vocivelo, flickr)Cycling Along Pakistan’s Gilgit River Valley (by Yodod, flickr)Towards the Cordillera (by Magical World, flickr), Cycling The Great Divide (by rich drogpa, flickr)

10 Questions: Bike Touring The Karakoram Highway

Posted March 4th, 2011

The Karakoram Highway (known as the KKH for short) is one of the world’s great roads, and also a classic bike touring route.

The scenery is nothing less than stunning, from soaring mountains to tiny villages wedged into valleys. The people are welcoming and the cycling is both challenging and incredibly rewarding. In short, it’s a heck of a ride.

John & Gayle cycled this route in summer 2010 and here they share some of their experiences and advice on riding a bicycle along the Karakoram Highway from Kashgar in China to Islamabad, Pakistan.

1. How would you describe the experience of cycling the KKH?

John Cycling The KKH

Cycling the KKH feels incredibly exciting and adventurous. The building of the road in the 60s and 70s was a marvel of engineering and riding down the road on a bike is a truly memorable and fantastic experience. The road begins (or ends) in Kashgar, Xinjiang Province, Western China and runs for 1,200km to just north of Islamabad.

Along this road you cross the highest paved border crossing in the world, highest point on the KKH, the Khunjerab Pass at 4,693 meters. You pass though deep gorges with the Karakoram Mountains towering above you and then the beautiful Hunza Valley. The people we met in the small towns and villages along the KKH were friendly and welcoming. This is a very different Pakistan to what you see in the Western media.

Continue reading about bike touring along the Karakoram Highway.

10 Questions: Cycling The Karakoram Highway

Posted March 4th, 2011

The Karakoram Highway is one of the world’s great roads, and also a classic bike touring route.

The scenery is nothing less than stunning, from soaring mountains to tiny villages wedged into valleys. The people are welcoming and the cycling is both challenging and incredibly rewarding. In short, it’s a heck of a ride.

John & Gayle cycled this route in summer 2010 and here they share some of their experiences and advice on riding a bicycle along the Karakoram Highway from Kashgar in China to Islamabad, Pakistan.

1. How would you describe the experience of cycling the KKH?

John Cycling The KKH

Cycling the KKH feels incredibly exciting and adventurous. The building of the road in the 60s and 70s was a marvel of engineering and riding down the road on a bike is a truly memorable and fantastic experience. The road begins (or ends) in Kashgar, Xinjiang Province, Western China and runs for 1,200km to just north of Islamabad.

Along this road you cross the highest paved border crossing in the world, highest point on the KKH, the Khunjerab Pass at 4,693 meters. You pass though deep gorges with the Karakoram Mountains towering above you and then the beautiful Hunza Valley. The people we met in the small towns and villages along the KKH were friendly and welcoming. This is a very different Pakistan to what you see in the Western media.

2. What were some of your favourite moments of the journey?

Dwarfed by mountains on the KKH

For almost the entire way the scenery is breathtaking so every day just being there on a bike is unforgettable. Other nice memories are stopping for some chai at a roadside teashop, buying freshly picked black cherries from local kids and sharing the road with the jangling, painted Pakistani trucks.

Passu is a nice village to stop and take it all in, especially the view of the Cathedral Ridge and the village itself with its stone houses and walled fields. Just before Passu the Batura Glacier reaches the road! Our favourite place though was Karimabad, the Hunza Valley’s ancient capital. Here there’s a beautiful old fort, wonderful hikes, good food and hotels and some nice day rides if you need more cycling.

3. And the most challenging part?

Perhaps being a woman on a bike in Pakistan was the biggest challenge for me but don’t let this put you off (see question 7).

However, another challenge faced us: In upper Hunza Valley the KKH was blocked by a huge landslide that had led to the creation of a 28km-long lake where the road should’ve been. The only way south was to take a boat across this lake. Unfortunately just when we arrived these boats had been stopped as there was a fear that the lake was about to burst and flood the valley below which had been evacuated.

The Pakistani army were now taking people by helicopter across the lake. Luckily this service was free but only available for those who really needed it. As we had plane tickets out of Islamabad we were able to take the helicopter. Trying to put 2 bikes and 8 panniers into an already full helicopter while its blades spin above you and create a strong wind that blows stones and sand everywhere with the Pakistani army directing operations is a challenge we won’t easily forget but Wow! I’d do it all again if I could.

4. The road has a reputation for being in a poor condition, in certain sections at least. What was your experience?

A Pakistani TruckThe KKH begins in Kashgar, China, and here it is in excellent condition and there is very little traffic. Over the border the condition of the road deteriorates rapidly.

It’s not just that there is less money here for the up-keep of the road but also the geography and terrain are such that you wonder how the road was even built in the first place. There are many unpaved sections but nothing too awful. However, the Chinese government are in the process of funding the widening of the whole KKH. You see Chinese road builders every day. In not so long the road will have changed.

Eventually, it will be wide enough for big Chinese trucks to come through and perhaps will change the whole feeling of this famous highway. But ultimately I imagine it will be good for both China and Pakistan.

5. What did you do for accommodation along the route? Are there hotels most nights, or is a tent an absolute necessity?

Camping on the KKH

We had our tent with us but only used it on the Chinese side of the KKH where I would say it is a necessity. When you leave Kashgar it’s around 200km to Karakol Lake and the first accommodation we saw. In Pakistan it’s not really necessary to have a tent as the distances between villages and towns with basic hotels is not big. The accommodation is very cheap and mostly good value. Oddly enough, the only time we used our tent in Pakistan was in Islamabad where there’s a very cheap and basic campsite for tourists.

6. Is food and water easily obtainable every day, and what kind of supplies can you buy en route?

Samosas on the KKH

When we left Kashgar we took a couple of days food with us as towards Karakol Lake there is not much in the way of supplies. Kashgar has good big supermarkets. You cycle through Ghez Canyon which is dry but we asked at the occasional house for water for camping. In the canyon there’s an army checkpoint and a basic restaurant.

In Pakistan some villages were short of food due to the landslide that I mentioned above but there was only one day, and not a long one, when we couldn’t find lunch. You can buy biscuits, noodles and sometimes fresh bread or chapattis but if you want anything to go on it bring it from China (or from home). Hunza Valley is famous for its apricots. You see these out drying everywhere and they’re delicious. The food is pretty simple in Pakistan, rice and dhal in a basic place. In bigger towns like Gilgit and Karimabad there are better restaurants.

7. In some parts of the KKH, women are rarely seen outside their home. Gayle, how did you experience this?

It’s quite strange arriving in Pakistan from China. In the first Pakistani town we came to, Sost, we didn’t see a single woman and of course a woman on a bike is a great oddity!

As you continue through Hunza Valley women are much more visible. They are Ismaili here, not Shia or Sunni and the women appear to have much more freedom. Women were working in the fields and invited us for tea. In Gilgit and southwards, things change and again there is an absence of women. At first it does feel slightly uncomfortable and just odd.

We would arrive in a village, stop for chai and be surrounded by boys and men. I was always stared at but I didn’t feel that they were unfriendly stares just curious. The men would speak only to John and never give me eye-contact. I accepted this as part of Pakistani culture although at first it seems so rude!!

I only wore a head-scarf in Gilgit, which is a conservative little town, and I had my cycling helmet on when I was on the bike. I wore loose trousers and a baggy t-shirt and we cycled together (usually John is way ahead). Off the bike we both wore shalwar kameez, the traditional Pakistani outfit, long tunic and pyjama type trousers. They are great to wear. I wear mine in the UK too.

8. What about more general security. Did you ever feel threatened or unwelcome as foreigners?

Friendly Faces Along The KKH

No, we never felt threatened or unwelcome as foreigners, in fact the opposite is true. Pakistan receives very few tourists compared with, for example, its neighbour India, and we felt welcomed as visitors. Pakistanis generally speak good English and are often keen to speak to foreigners and ask what you’re doing and what you think of their country. On the ride south from Gilgit to Islambad we often stopped to drink a chai or cold drink as it got progressively hotter….in that whole week of riding we never once paid for our own drinks, someone had always paid the bill before we could!

9. Is it possible to throw your bike on a bus, if you don’t want to cycle the whole way?

Yes, you can take your bike on local transport if you wish and are prepared to bargain hard for a fair price. They only use small buses though or minibuses, the bike would have to be tied on the roof and you’re probably better off doing this yourself!!

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

Don’t be put off by what you see of Pakistan in the media. The Pakistanis themselves are desperate and sad about what is happening in their country, especially the young people. The Karakoram area is simply beautiful and the people too. Go with an open mind and I’m sure that like us you’ll want to return.

Thanks to Gayle & John for answering 10 Questions and sharing pictures of their bicycle tour along the KKH.

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