What about cycling in China? Is it possible? Is it crazy? Is it really not as difficult as it seems? China is not a country, it’s a continent, I sometimes tell people. China is also the country with the most bicycles in the world although Holland has probably a bigger density of bicycles per head of the population.
Cycling is fantastic, there can be no doubt. But what about cycling in a country like China? There are two ways to approach the problem and they depend on the time you have available.
If you have limited time, say 3 or 4 weeks, limit yourself to one area, even a province like Yunnan is already as big as France or Texas. However, if you have time on yourself, you can easily spend a year, even two in China. Even in two years you will not need to do roads double. China is huge.
What to bring to Travel China
China is a cheap, apart of the big cities. Most of what you need in terms of clothes you will be able to buy. In cities like Beijing, Kunming and Chengdu there are these days outdoor shops in case you need outdoor material. However, bring your own shoes as big size shoes are hard to find.
Bicycle shops are a bit more rare. Again Beijing, Kunming and Chengdu have some shops. For ordinary repairs you will be able to find bike repairs at every street corner. Bike repair comes usually with a hammer and screwdriver. Tires are not difficult to find though you may get 2.10 inch tires with a lot of profile. These tires usually do not last more then 500 to 1000 km.
Where to start?
Where to start cycling in China? Beijing? Hong Kong? Shanghai? Personally I am not a fan of big cities but I admit, Beijing is a city you have to visit. However, I would prefer Hong Kong as a good starting point. In Hong Kong you can get easily a good Chinese visa, 2,3, 6 or even 12 months without a problem.
Another advantage of Hong Kong is that you can get quite easy out! Take for example the boat to Zhaoqing at the other site of the pearl river delta and you are directly in the flatlands of China. I did the road to Guangzhou too but I would not recommend this. Read here why.
From here you can cycle to Yangshuo, still a backpackers paradise and worth a visit. In fact if you visit south China, Yangshuo with it’s limestone mountains is a must and it’s only about a week cycling from Hong Kong.
The great cycling areas in China
Where are the areas you absolutely should do on bicycle? Again it depends on time. I would say there are 3 distinct different areas to cycle in China.
- Guilin area
This choice is arbitrary. Many cyclist want to cycle Tibet or Xian. Both are also fantastic but Tibet, with it’s altitude is not an easy way to start your bicycle adventure. Xian has of course the fabulous Terracotta Warriors but in the Xian area there are plenty of other sites to visit, check my Xian page for those details. Cycling around Xian is good to do but, it is quite far from other areas with the exception of Luoyang.
Yunnan in south west China is probably the best and most well known province for cyclists. You can fly in to Kunming (international airport with flights from Thailand) and start your round trip here with a ride to Dali, Lijiang and Zhongdian (Shangri-La). But Yunnan has plenty of other excellent cycling areas.
Baoshan, in the south west corner of Yunnan is fascinating. Baoshan borders with Myanmar. Around Tongcheng you will find geisers, the border with Myanmar is very different from any place you find further in China.
Xishuangbana is located at the border of Laos and it does see quite some tourists, mostly those who come or go to Laos. It’s beautiful with many different minorities and plenty of natural beauty to discover. It’s a 10 to 14 days bicycle ride to Kunming.
Much lesser known is north east Yunnan. Here’s a good road, very scenic that leads to south Sichuan. I admit, this road may not be your first idea to cycle in Yunnan but if you are late, or too early in the season and you can not do the road out of Zhongdian to Chengdu, this road to Zhaotong and further to the Bamboo forest and eventually to Leshan in Sichuan is worth the effort. It will take about two to three weeks to cycle Kunming to Chendgu this road. Another option is to cycle from Kunming to Vietnam through Tonghai and Jianshui.
Together with Yunnan, the Guilin area is one of the most popular places to get a bicycle and go around. The best way to explore the area, Yangshuo, is anyway by bicycle. So even if you do not want to bring your own bicycle, you will most likely do a roundtrip on daily base by bicycle.
But if you are thinking of long distance cycling, it takes about 3 weeks to cycle from Guilin to Yunnan. Alternatively you may want to cycle to Vietnam. The road to the border will lead you to Nanning and then in a few days to the Vietnamese border. This road is maybe not very spectacular but it’s worth the trip as few people ever travel along this road. Most travelers see the countryside passing by in busses and trains and the local Chinese see seldom foreigners in real life, which causes sometimes excellent experiences.
Last, but certainly not least is Sichuan. Cycling in Sichuan can be quite an experience you won’t forget soon. Many cyclist come to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan to try to find their way into Tibet, a fair deal. However, if you are a bit late in the season, as I was at the time, you can have your Tibetan experience in a round trip west of Chengdu. A road that leads to Tibetan towns as Danba and Barkam and then back to Chengdu. On this road you will experience serious altitudes up to 4000 meter and typical Tibetan towns on the way.
The road north to Gansu is another great option. This road is well traveled. Less traveled but still interesting is the 2 week journey to Xian. This road will lead you through the north eastern flat lands to the mountains that separate Sichuan from the Xian. On the way you find some unexpected gems like the rock caves of Guangyuan, a seldom visited area similar to the caves of Luoyang.
China by bicycle is very good to do. Here’s some additional tricks to make life in China easier. I say easier because cycling in China is quite easy these days. To make it easier, buy a provincial map in the Xinhua bookstores in the province you are cycling . These maps are usually much better in quality then the foreign produced maps and they give you the possibility to get easy in touch with locals as these maps are in Chinese characters. Together with for example the Nelles maps they are very useful.
Here is another trick I have regular performed with quite some success. Outside the tourist areas hotels can be dirt cheap and extremely good. What I usually do in those towns and cities is going to one of the more expensive looking hotels and ask for the room rate. Usually they tell me it’s Y800 or Y1000 (US$1 is roughly Y8). Way too much of course. So I apologize and make my way out. 7 out of 10 the staff calls me back to offer me “discount”. “You can have a room for Y100”, and then the bargaining starts. Usually I can bargain it easy down to Y50 to Y70. In return I get then a great room, with bath and TV.
In Huangjiang it was even better, for Y100 I got a two rooms, with 2 big TV’s, a sofa where at least 12 big fat people could sit on, a king-size bed and TWO bathrooms. I usually joke about this saying they gave me this suite because the staff understood my bicycle needed some rest too. This can happen in China, and I loved it!