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