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10 Questions: Bike Touring In Tibet

Posted January 2nd, 2012

From 1999 to 2001, Bob Foster rode his bicycle around the world.

He began in Malaysia and headed north to China, Tibet and Pakistan. From there, Bob toured the Middle East and Europe before flying to Central America and meandering his way home to California.

In this edition of 10 questions, Bob tells us about his time in Tibet, one of the most challenging parts of the entire adventure. You can read more about Bob’s adventure, and his upcoming book, on his Cycle Nomad website.

Bob Foster In TibetPhoto courtesy of Bob Foster, the Cycle Nomad.

1. How did you end up cycling in Tibet, and why did you choose that destination above any other route?

I was touring from Malaysia to France. Unable to traverse Myanmar because of visa issues, and without the desire to cycle through Mongolia or Siberia, Tibet was the only option. Also, I was intrigued by a romanticized Western vision of Tibetan culture.

Continue reading 10 Questions: Bike Touring In Tibet

 

Posted in Guest Posts

10 Questions: Cycling Across Tibet

Posted January 2nd, 2012

From 1999 to 2001, Bob Foster rode his bicycle around the world.

He began in Malaysia and headed north to China, Tibet and Pakistan. From there, Bob toured the Middle East and Europe before flying to Central America and meandering his way home to California.

In this edition of 10 questions, Bob tells us about his time in Tibet, one of the most challenging parts of the entire adventure. You can read more about Bob’s adventure, and his upcoming book, on his Cycle Nomad website.

Bob Foster In TibetPhoto courtesy of Bob Foster, the Cycle Nomad.

1. How did you end up cycling in Tibet, and why did you choose that destination above any other route?

I was touring from Malaysia to France. Unable to traverse Myanmar because of visa issues, and without the desire to cycle through Mongolia or Siberia, Tibet was the only option. Also, I was intrigued by a romanticized Western vision of Tibetan culture.

2. Tibet has a reputation as being one of the world’s more challenging cycling destinations. Does the reality live up to the hype?

If you are well-trained the elevation will slow you down, but it won’t stop you. The difficulty, for me, lay in the winds and hail storms. They can zap every last ounce of motivation.

Tibetan roadsPhoto courtesy of Bob Foster, the Cycle Nomad.

3. Because the terrain and climate can be extreme, did you have to carry any special gear?

You will want a four season tent, a robust windbreaker and a balaclava. Essentially, be ready to cover every square inch of your body. Also, be sure to bring extra off-road tires. Although the Chinese are paving the plateau at a breakneck speed you will likely be off road for a good portion of your ride.

4. How did you load it all on the bicycle, and keep your wheels in sound shape while going over rough roads?

Being on a world tour, I had 22 kilos of gear. The most common mistake beginners make when touring (myself included) is to put the majority of the weight in the back panniers. When you stop to think about it this doesn’t make much sense because when you are sitting on your seat you put the majority of your weight on your back wheel. I have found that it works best if you distribute your weight 70/30, with the front of your bicycle carrying the 70%. And given the rough roads in Tibet, it wouldn’t hurt to have tandem-gauge spokes on your wheels.

5. Was it tough to find the essential daily supplies like food and water?

As long as you plan you’ll be fine. Bring lots of dried foods, a map with rivers and bodies of water, and two water filters (I’d suggest a Steripen and a high-end filter pump as a backup). You should never have to go more than 80 kilometers without finding a source of water.

Beautiful TibetPhoto courtesy of Bob Foster, the Cycle Nomad.

6. Any local delicacies cyclists should know about?

Know that even in the most unimaginably remote parts of Tibet you will find kind-hearted nomads offering you yak butter tea. The salty, viscous sludge lines the back of your throat and oozes down the sides of your stomach. You will probably feel like a dog eating peanut butter, using your tongue at the roof of your mouth to try to remove the pasty film of salt. The preparation methods can be difficult on Western bellies, so you will likely be breaking into your Imodium stash if you want to ride the next day.

Tibetan Town

7. Tibet is also a place where you aren’t supposed to travel independently. Did you have any problems with police, or sneak under check point barriers at night?

When I was traveling in 2001 most of the Public Security Bureau (PSB) officials working the checkpoints were shocked to see someone alone on a bicycle. The usually cheered me on. The few that looked at my passport did so with a greater sense of curiosity than official duty. That said, the political climate in Tibet is constantly changing so be ready for anything.

8. Did you have much contact with the local people? What was their reaction to passing cyclists?

Children sometimes threw rocks at me as I rode by. At other points, groups of women and children would wait for me at sandy river crossings then grab hold of my bike and demand money and Dalai Lama photos to let me go. Please be considerate of the cyclists who will follow you and refuse to give in. On several occasions I held out for over 30 minutes before they let me go. I offered gifts to many gracious Tibetans who hosted me during my traverse of the plateau, but never did I pay ransom.

Tibetan SignPhoto courtesy of Bob Foster, the Cycle Nomad.

9. What is your most treasured memory of cycling in Tibet?

Leaving. Cold wind became the enemy in an exposed valley of the plateau, where on several occasions it forced me into dusty ditches the size of small cars, where I would feel ambition bleed out of my youthful body. When the wind would abate, I moved on, yearning for Kathmandu, shower and a moist slice of carrot cake with icing so buttery that you could slurp it.

The intensity of the wind met a serene hypoxia on the top of the last pass before leaving the plateau: Tong-La.

The drive to keep moving was like an incandescent cole that moved me with a fear of death, yet in the delirium of the hypoxia I began to laugh without ever contemplating stopping. Upon reaching the far end of the pass the peaks of the snow-laden Himalayas spread out before me with a grandeur that commanded reverence. For a moment I made no effort to understand or marvel. The stillness consumed me with the emotional rapture of riding a roller coaster on LSD. I subconsciously observed that the dirt road moved cut sharply down the most conservative grade of the slope. The valley I was to descend lie straight ahead.

As the bliss transformed into uncontrollable shivering I murmured to myself, “f*** it,” and let out barreling down the scree slope ahead into the glacial valleys of the Himalaya below. Bliss.

Mountains in TibetPhoto courtesy of Bob Foster, the Cycle Nomad.

10. What’s one essential Tibet experience that no cyclist should miss?

Descending from the plateau because it is not any one experience that will change us, it is the context of the experience. Tibet is a psychologically grueling cycling environment. From the intense climbs to the gale-force gusts on the passes, it will wear you to the bone. When you come off of the plateau and hear the chirping of birds, feel humid air caressing your skin and bask in the glory of a warm shower you will never feel more alive.

Thanks to Bob Foster for answering the questions and providing the photos. Do check out his Cycle Nomad website for photos, maps and more. And watch for his upcoming book!

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

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

Cycling In Serbia: Tips & Photos

Posted December 9th, 2011

In this guest post, Roberto Gallegos gives us a taste of bike touring in Serbia, through tips and photos. Roberto’s story begins with a ‘warning’ of his limited experience with international bike touring. This is, after all, the first big trip for him and his girlfriend.

***

Roberto & AnnikaPhoto by Roberto Gallegos, website: Tasting Travels

This journey represents the first and only time I have spent more than 10 days on the uncomfortable seat of this wonderful two-wheeled machine. It has been almost 3 months since my departure from Bremen, Germany. Since then, I have lost 15 kilos, cried a few times on the small mountains while climbing, suffered through the cold (a strange thing for my Mexican body), and patched inner tubes for the very first time.

Yes, I have suffered. Yet I still have a smile on my face and am continuing towards my goal: to reach the warm coasts of South East Asia with my girlfriend, hopefully before December 2012. This is also when the Mayans are predicting the end of the world…

Cycling alongside paprikasBut for now I have to deal with the roads of Serbia and seek refuge from the cold somewhere close to the Mediterranean Sea if I don’t want to wake up every morning to a tent covered in a frozen layer of unhappiness. This is because we are cycling through the chill of a European winter.

While I am here, as a way thanking and helping the cycling community that has inspired me, I have some personal (surely not professional!) recommendations on cycling in this wonderful country by the name of Serbia.

Fortunately I can give you more than one picture of what it’s like to pedal the roads in the country that created Rakia (the Serbian version of tequila). I will comment on the pictures and if you still have doubts waiting to be cleared from your head, I do have an e-mail and I do read it often.

Here goes:

Signs for Eurovelo 6Photo by Roberto Gallegos, website: Tasting Travels

#1. Road signs – Serbia is a relatively small country, with one Eurovelo bicycle path. Path 6 follows the Danube River all the way to the Black Sea. The signs are easy to find but they mostly follow roads for cars. Do not expect to find comfortable bike lanes like the ones in Germany or some parts of Hungary. The rule of thumb is: if you don’t see a sign just follow the obvious road straight ahead. In most cases it will lead you to the next sign and, ultimately, to your goal.

Road mapsPhoto by Roberto Gallegos, website: Tasting Travels

#2. Road maps are very accurate – Yes, it might seem obvious, but buying a map is the best way to find whichever route you might pick. In our case, the map was very accurate and we could follow small roads along the highway from Sombor (northern Serbia) to Niš southern Serbia). Expect hills, including some 20% grades, especially in the southern part of Serbia.

Riding alongside cars and trucksPhoto by Roberto Gallegos, website: Tasting Travels

#3. Riding alongside cars and trucks – Cars, trucks and buses are mostly courteous. They will often use the other lane to pass, if it’s free of traffic. That’s not always true, of course. Sometimes they do come very close but stay calm. They will also honk, for one of 3 reasons: they are warning you that they are coming, they are showing their support for your effort (easily identifiable by a thumbs up or a ‘yeah’ sound from the car) or they are just annoyed because you made them slow down.

Repair shopsPhoto by Roberto Gallegos, website: Tasting Travels

#4. Car shops can be bike shops as well – Many towns do not have bicycle repair shops but car repair shops often sell basic bicycle supplies such as tubes, wheels, bike tires, brakes and even gear parts. Be on the lookout for these places that can save you in an emergency. I know this because I bought tubes, spokes and even a wheel in one of these stores.

Not alone on the roadPhoto by Roberto Gallegos, website: Tasting Travels

#5. You’re not alone on the road – You will definitely see many locals using their bicycles for their daily needs. Using international sign language, these fellow bicycle travellers can help you find your way. You will also find that young people often speak English, and older people might speak German or French.

Accomodation can be tough to find
Photo by Roberto Gallegos, website: Tasting Travels

#6. Accommodation might be difficult to find in some places – We wild camped a lot before Serbia but our lack of winter gear and -10°C nights pushed us to use some hotels along the way. The problem: not all towns have hotels and if you are stuck in one of these towns when the sun is going down, you have a problem. It’s better to have the right camping equipment. If you do have the luck to find a hotel, expect to pay a minimum of €25 a night. In big cities like Novi Sad, Belgrade and Niš, Couchsurfing hosts are easy to find but avoid sending a last-minute request. Warmshowers.org is also an excellent option and you can find a few in Serbia.

Burek PausePhoto by Roberto Gallegos, website: Tasting Travels

#7. Food breaks are fantastic - Along the way, you will find bakeries and grills that offer delicious and affordable food. Nothing will taste better than a freshly baked burack with yogurt in a winter morning. The entire Serbian breakfast will cost around €1.50 and – believe me – the value for the money will always be higher than you expect. There will be healthy options like fresh fruits but if you like sweet and heavy food, burack will be the the perfect choice. Personal recommendation: try the spinach and cheese burack, and always take a jar of ajvar (a spread made from paprika and eggplant) with you.

Wonderful hospitality and kindnessPhoto by Roberto Gallegos, website: Tasting Travels

#8. Watch out for extreme hospitality and kindness! – Interacting with the locals will definitely be one of the best experiences you will have, riding the roads of this country. Many of them will show immediate signs of friendship and you should not feel in any way threatened by their surprising show of friendship. It is common that people will offer you food, tea, coffee and – in many more cases – rakia. That’s true even early in the morning!

Enjoy The Ride#9. Enjoy the ride – Finally, my last recommendation is to enjoy the scenery and try as much as possible to interact with the extremely friendly people of this country.There will be places where you will get to see only burned fields and trash on the side of the road but there will be others where surprises like the scale size Eiffel Tower in a nice lady’s house, will make your bike touring in Serbia a trip to remember.

I wish you happy riding and extend a personal invitation to ride through unexplored Serbia. You will end up making friends. I guarantee it!

***

For more on Roberto’s bike touring adventures, see his website: Tasting Travels.

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.