China: The Big Cycle

Posted by James Anderton on August 24th, 2018


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For a while, China’s reputation as the world’s greatest cycling nation seemed to be a thing of the past. Beijing’s nine million bicycles had been replaced by cars and electro scooters. The Chinese new rich looked down on everyone who still pedaled to work or school. However, in recent years the bicycle has made a remarkable comeback. As the wealth in the big cities stabilizes, the people’s focus is slowly shifting toward a better livelihood and green living. Millions of rental bikes now populate the wide bike lanes of the cities. Young Chinese have discovered road cycling and mountain biking as a great way to spend their free time outdoors. For the long distance cycle tourer China remains a paradise. The diversity of landscapes, terrain and cultures coupled with amazing food and low costs mean there is everything here to meet the needs of any cycle adventurer. For me personally I was fascinated to see the cultural differences in China as you move from the secretive West to the more affluent East. I certainly found out.

Cycling China Huangnan

Incredible mountain road in Huangnan province

The West

I began in Xinjiang entering via a remote border with Western Mongolia. Xinjiang has a reputation as a mysterious place riven by cultural conflict. The indigenous Muslim Uighur groaning under the yoke of Han Chinese rule. I tried to cross from Kyrgyzstan by bicycle a few years ago but my visa application was turned down. I suspect due to the unrest in this area that culminated in the 2014 riots. An event largely unreported in the west. The capital of Xinjiang is Urumqi (pronounced ooh-room-chee) and is quite famous for its claim that it is the most inland major city in the world. That being the farthest from any ocean; roughly 2,300 kilometers. I am always very bad at taking in the tourist attractions when I find myself in a foreign city. This is not a problem in Urumqi. There are no tourist attractions. This place is not really geared up for westerners. I barely saw any in my time there. The vast majority of hotels do not accept foreigners. Everywhere I went I got looks of friendly bemusement (that could of been my ginger beard). There was no Irish pub. I couldn’t even find anywhere to buy a postcard. I am not complaining. It made the place all the more interesting. I always get a bad first impression of big cities because cycling into them is such a jarring experience but I grew to like Urumqi. The grand bazaar, an Islamic market area and main Uighur enclave is lively and excellent for people watching. The black market was always fascinating to amble around.

China-Xinjiang-Urumqi

Urumqi (Photo Credit : La Jolla)

I was looking forward to getting on the bike and heading into the Tia Shan mountains around Urumqi and progress was initially smooth. Then I got pulled over by the police for what turned out to be the first of my daily police stops. At the station I handed over my passport and calls were made. I was there about 2 hours. I stuck to the golden rule in such situations. Smile like an idiot at all times. I was treated courteously throughout. Given tea, apples and bread. I was allowed to charge my phone. Eventually my passport was handed back and I was allowed to leave. I began to factor these police stops into my days. No need to rest on the road. I can rest at the police station. No need to find somewhere to charge my phone. I'll do it at the police station. I was slightly perturbed one time when I was shepherded into a police car and whisked off. They were just taking me to a restaurant for lunch. All offers of payment were refused.

China-Xinjiang-Police

My daily check in with the police in Xinjiang

At other times I would hit a roadblock and there was no way through. I would get Google translate out, and try to persuade the police officers that I was a harmless cyclist just passing through. They were having none of it. Just kids following orders (see photo above). One day I cycled into Korla a few hundred kilometers south of Urumqi and was promptly hauled into the police station. I carefully explained the route I was trying to take and they wished me well and let me go. I then cycled 40km south into the Xinjiang desert and hit a roadblock. They told me I needed a special pass to continue and had to return to Korla to get one. I returned to the same police station and was sat down with a senior policeman. No amount of smiling was going to work with this guy. He explained that foreigners need a special permit to go south and I wasn't going to get one. I pointed out that I have stopped in countless police stations over the last week, including this one today. I have been clear on the route I intended to take and no one ever mentioned the need for a special pass. He replied, a little cryptically, that most police are unaware of the real problems in Xinjiang. It was only a year later that I would find out the real reason when I was reading about the re-education camps in Xinjiang. The Chinese have been accused of holding of millions of Uighur Muslims in these camps. Forcing them to renounce their faith, learn mandarin and swear allegiance to the state. If they don’t pledge allegiance they don’t get fed. I checked out where these alleged reeducation camps were supposed to be and turns out they were right where I was trying to cycle. The police presence in Korla is like nothing I've seen. Small police stations every couple of hundred yards. Armed police on every street corner. I have seen waitresses, hotel receptionists and shop assistants wearing bullet proof vests. I am stopped on the street and asked for my passport wherever I go. I can only imagine the frustrations that many Chinese experience on a daily basis.

China-Xinjiang-Roadblock

None shall pass. Road checkpoint, Xinjiang

That said the people of Xinjiang were a joy. Whenever I am cycling in far away places I am always helped along by the locals. A bottle of water here, a bag of fruit there. None more so than in Xinjiang. Often when eating in a Uighur restaurant they wouldn’t accept payment for my meal.  One day on the road I was given an enormous bundle of grapes, a bottle of juice and some cake. Another day I was handed a can of red bull, a bottle of water, a Greek yogurt, one of those coffee smoothies I don’t really like and a big piece of naan. All gratefully accepted. I was also offered a lift and numerous cigarettes. All politely declined. I met the guy who gave me the grapes a few kilometers before a roadblock. He was smartly dressed in an impressive jeep. He happened to pull up alongside at the roadblock as I was about to be shown into the police station for my daily detainment. He started yelling at the police. Naturally i couldn’t tell what he was saying but probably something along the lines of leave the tourist alone. He must have been of some importance to speak to the police like that. I was promptly handed back my passport and waved through.

China-Above-The-Clouds

Typical early morning scene in the Sichuan mountains



The Middle

Eventually I made it out of Xinjiang and across to Huangnan province and the beginning of the high mountains that divide the west from the east. If endless hairpin bends are your thing then this is the place for you. 4,000m passes and stunning mountain views every day. In my idle moments back home I have read countless 'Top 10 world cycle destinations' articles. None have mentioned Huangnan province in China. It certainly took me by surprise. Huangnan is a Tibetan province. Tibetan flags colour the mountain sides. Lots of monks on motorbikes. I was cycling in November at the beginning of winter. At such high altitude I would regularly wake up to a blanket of snow. Warm clothing and four season sleeping bags are essential for this time of year. The nights get seriously cold and I would often sleep with my bobble hat pulled down over my nose. That said it is great weather for cycling. The days are cold but clear and sunny and the endless climbing keeps you warm. Snow capped mountains and frozen lakes all around. There are also regular hotel options which are comfortable and cheap for when it gets too cold.

China-Cycling-Winter

Winter Cycling

Cycling along the Tibetan border towards Sichuan I had a few more encounters with the police. One freezing morning I rolled into Jimai, a small Tibetan town. I decided to take the afternoon off and warm up in a hotel. 10 minutes after checking in a policeman comes into my room and says you cannot stay in this town. I must pack my things and leave immediately. I tell him in that case I will need to go to a shop first to get some food. He follows me around the shop a yard away at all times. I deliberately take 20 minutes to choose which flavour noodles to buy. I went for chicken. I always go for chicken. I was then given a police escort to the road they want me to take. Having successfully kicked me out of town he then has the nerve to ask for a selfie. He is only following orders I suppose. Still I put on my best frown.

Another time I wanted to take a road that led further into Tibet up into the mountains to a Buddhist temple considered holy to the Tibetans. I thought the police would have something to say about me taking this road and I wasn't wrong. In the village at the foot of the climb was a serous looking roadblock heavily guarded by police. As expected they told me the road was not open to foreigners. I dealt with the disappointment the only way I know how. Went into a shop and bought a beer. Here I got talking to a couple of likely lads and I explained that I was barred from taking the mountain road. They beckoned me to follow them. Before I could think I was following them down the village side streets. Squeezing me and my bike through a hole in a fence and down more back alleys to the other end of the village. Bypassing the roadblock. I thanked them and shot off down the road. I was now cycling in a forbidden area of Tibet.

Tibetan exile in Sichuan China

'It looks like we are free but we are not free'

I met many interesting people along the way. One afternoon I was sat in a warm restaurant steeling myself for another cold night in my tent when I got talking to a Tibetan guy who spoke a little English. When I told him I was planning on camping he laughed and invited me to sleep at his home in the mountains with his family. Very interesting guy. He was based in Dharamsala in India for years where many Tibetans live in exile. To get back to China he walked 18 days from Kathmandu across the high Himalayas to Lhasa where he was arrested. He spent 3 months in prison before being driven to where we were and let go. He told me if the police found a picture of the Dalai Lama on his phone he would be arrested. He said many times, 'It looks like we are free, but we are not free.'

Continuing South from Sichuan into Yunnan I finally came out of the high mountains and out of the cold. Yunnan is still dramatic mountain scenery and incredible cycling just at a slightly lower altitude. Descending into a valley one day I found myself cycling along a spectacular gorge. Tiger leaping gorge. Approximately 3,790m from river to mountain peak it is one of the deepest gorges in the world. The river, a tributary of the Yangtze, is fast flowing and is not navigable. In the early 1990's four rafters attempted to go down the gorge and were never seen again. There is a road dug into the cliff side. Amazing to cycle. Big tourist attraction. I've never seen so many selfie sticks. Also some interesting signage.

China-Tiger-Leaping-Gorge

Oh ok!

The mountains in Yunnan south of Dali are very close to how I always pictured rural China. China has historically always been an agrarian economy. The numbers of rural Chinese has fallen just below 50% in recent years as people migrate to the cities to make the most of the country's rapid economic growth. Just less than 50% is still a lot though. The hills are well populated. Every spare inch of the mountainside is terraced and farmed. They grow rice, corn, chilies and vegetables. Enough to eat and any surplus is taken to market. Everyday I passed through a small local market selling an amazing array of vegetables and fruit. I particularly enjoyed the local tofu in a spicy vinegar sauce. Along the road the farmers live in simple wooden houses. Everyone else lives in courtyard houses packed close together in the centre of the village. In most the kitchens are outside. The kids go to school or watch TV. The youngsters play on their phones. The adults work the land. The old people sit around and play cards/chess. The roads wind through the mountains. You never go more than a 100m without a bend in the road. Up, down, up, down all day and wonderful to cycle.

China-Cycling-Yunnan

Terraced fields in Yunnan

The East

Cycling east predominantly rural areas give way to predominantly urban areas. Everything goes up a notch. Prices go up. From dirt cheap to very reasonable. The villages are now like towns. The towns are like cities. The cities...well I keep well clear of those. The minor roads are now dual carriageways. The main roads are horrendous. Cycling is still good though. With so many roads to choose from it's easy to get away from the traffic.

The highlight of my cycle to the coast was around Yangshuo. Soaring limestone peaks, lazy rivers and apple orchards galore. Narrow roads meandering through peaceful villages. Yangshuo itself is a surprisingly smart looking city with a small town feel. Popular with backpackers. I saw more tourists in one day than in the previous two months. Went to check out the old town but the first thing I saw was a McDonald's so sacked that off and continued east.

Excellent Chinese Hospitality in a local restaurant in Huangnan province

These lovely people wouldn't let me pay for my meal

No big climbs anymore but I found many an excellent minor road sauntering through the hills. Short ups and downs. Alongside languid rivers and through sleepy villages. I headed down a quiet road at the end of one day and camped on the outskirts of a village. A kid on a motorbike clocked me pitching my tent and a few minutes later half the village joined me for dinner. They bought food and booze along and kept me company for the evening. It only takes a few minutes for me to have used up all my Chinese. From there on in I just smiled a lot and posed for photos. This is arguably the greatest thing about cycle touring. The people you meet in the places in between. No tourist would ever stumble across this village. The younger people will have probably never spoken to a foreigner before. They bend over backwards to make you feel welcome and comfortable. You get such encounters everyday and for me the brief connection you have with people you will never see again is priceless.

I can’t finish without mentioning the food. The food in the east of China, as it is everywhere in China, is amazing. You often here it said that it is very different to the Chinese food we know back home. Initially I hoped it wouldn't be as I used to love my Friday night sweet & sour chicken from the chippy. It is so much better though and I enjoy sitting in restaurants waiting to see what I've ordered. I love the table manners in China. None of the pomp and ceremony we go in for back home. The locals put their heads an inch from their food and shovel it in. If the restaurant is full all you can hear are a cacophony of slurping noises. Fantastic.

Conclusion

I followed the river. I got to the sea. After 3 months of snowy mountains, desert, dramatic gorges, encounters with the law and meeting people of all different ethnic backgrounds my journey across China finally came to an end. It was an incredible ride. The scenery and cycling is spectacular. The mountains down the middle of the country through Huangnan Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan will live long in the memory. The food is wonderful. The highlight though has been the people. The Chinese are good, honest, hard working folk. In every province I traveled through the curiosity, encouragement and generosity I received made my time here a pleasure. It was very interesting to cycle through Xinjiang at the time of the national party congress. Tightened security in an area tight on security. The congress was considered a mighty success for Xi Jinping as he more than consolidated his position of power. He seems to be a popular leader. He has certainly done a lot in terms of economic reform, improving foreign trading and addressing the corruption that has dogged China for so many years. When I asked people in the east what they thought of Xi Jinping they would smile enthusiastically. However when I asked people in the west they would shake their heads sadly. Xinjiang and Tibet in the west are police states. Fascinating to cycle through but here the people lack the basic freedoms we take for granted. Freedom of movement, freedom of speech. A couple of times I heard Tibetans talk of close relatives that live a few hundred kilometers away that they have not seen for many years because they are not free to travel. A story that could no doubt be told thousands of times by the Tibetan people. A major blemish on an otherwise wonderful country.

Roads:

Generally excellent. I only encountered a couple of dirt roads and by the time you read this they'll probably be paved. New roads are being built all the time. Often just for the fun of it i think. Drivers are generally pretty good and respectful of cyclists.

Wild camping:

Not as difficult as you might think. I'd been led to believe that wild camping was tricky in China as they make use of every spare inch of land. This is true in the east but you can still find a place to camp if you keep an eye out. I found the attitude to me pitching my tent was always friendly. I would often be on view and people would stop by for a chat but they were always happy for me to pitch my tent even if i was on their land. I was never moved on. Easy in the West of China where there is a lot of space. Can get very cold in the mountains. You can pick up camping gas in all big cities but it would be difficult otherwise.

Visa and Border Crossings:

Forever changing so you will have to check the latest. Caravanistan is generally kept up to date by travelers and a great source for the latest information. If you are heading to the West of China remember not to mention this when detailing your itinerary on your visa application

Bicycle Shops:

Every town has a bicycle shop but remember in the West there is often a long distance between towns.

Tips:

Get a VPN so you can access Whatsapp, Google and Facebook. Or don't get a VPN so you can have a nice break from Whatsapp, Google and Facebook. If you don't have a VPN then Bing is the best alternative search engine. Everyone in China uses WeChat instead of Whatsapp.

Side of the road:

Right