Province route and cycling info: Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Sichuan, Yunnan and Guanxi
We were in China from the 30th October 2003 until 8th May 2004. We entered from Zamyn Uud in Mongolia to Erlian in China and left by Mohan to Boten in Laos. We headed south through Inner Mongolia to Jinning, then to Datong in Shanxi, and via the Hanging Monasteries and Wutai Shan to near Taiyuan. From there we went west, crossed the Yellow River into Shaanxi and then turned south towards Xi'an. We took a bus from Yan'an to Xi'an and then from Xi'an to Guanyuan in Sichuan. Then we pedalled to Nanping, Jiuzhaigou and Songpan, then went south to near Chengdu. We did a circuit of Leshan and Emei Shan and then went west by Kangding to Litang and then south to Zhongdian in Yunnan. From Zhongdian we went south to Lijiang and then Dali and then across country to see the terraced fields of Ailao Shan, then south to Mengla and Laos.
We got 90 day Chinese visas in Ulaan Baatar. They cost $30 each plus a $30 same day processing fee each. We simply asked politely if we could have a 90 day visa, wrote 90 days on the form and provided a list of about a dozen touristy cities from Hohhot to Kunming via Beijing. We did not mention cycling. Apparently whether you will be granted a 30 or a 90 day visa from this office is in the hands of the gods. We can't comment on the probability of getting the longer visa. The embassy is open from 9:15am until 12:00pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Friday. If you pay for same day processing you collect your passport in a kind of scrum at 5pm.
Halfway through our time in China we visited Hong Kong (without our bikes) and obtained new visas from the Japan Travel Agency in the East Ocean Centre on Kowloon. They sold 90 day single entry visas for about $30. We bought six month multiple entry visas for $60. They were ready the next day.
Some areas of China are still closed to foreigners. Transit is permitted by bus, train or taxi, but not by bike or on foot. This causes real problems with routes, not least because finding out which areas are closed is difficult. For further information, especially on Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Sichuan and Yunnan, click here.
The best we could find were road atlases with hill shading. We couldn't find anything with proper contours or even pass heights. The maps we found also failed to distinguish between surfaced and un-surfaced roads. Almost all trunk roads are surfaced but the second class roads vary from beautiful smooth asphalt to bumpy dirt.
Any big town will have a bookshop selling rather useless road atlases of the whole country at scales of several million to one. In Beijing there is a shopping street about 100m east of the Forbidden City called the Wangfujing Dajie. On this road is a big bookshop which had a section of road atlases on the ground floor near the entrance. We bought two, a smallish green one with hill shading and a large format one which we ripped up to put in the map case. They also sold "teach yourself Chinese" cassette courses, Ju bought one and learnt a lot from it.
Thanks to Erin Lynch for these scans of topo maps of Sichuan, Chongqing and Yunnan:
Be warned that cash machines that take foreign cards are rarely found outside provincial capitals, and most banks will not give a cash advance against a credit card either. As a result you must either carry plenty of dollars (which can be changed in many banks) or get plenty of cash out when you do see a cash machine.
In the countryside we found we could live quite comfortably, eating out and staying in hotels, on 100¥ a day between us, which is about $12.
Beijing apparently has some good bike shops, although we didn't visit them. In Hong Kong we went to the Flying Ball Bicycle Co, which is excellent and has a wide range of components, clothing, mountain bike and racing tyres (didn't see any particularly good touring tyres). Over the road from it is another good shop.
Every town has a many bicycle repair shops and stalls but getting good quality Shimano components, etc is difficult outside the provincial capitals. We found good bike shops in Chengdu and Kunming. Some components that are made in China (eg. Sun rims) are extremely cheap! See this page of bikechina's excellent website for the location of Chengdu bike shops:
Guidebooks and phrasebooks don't seem to mention this but the universal unit of weight in China is the "jin" and is equal to 500g.
Chocolate bars and bread (unless you like it sweet and light) are hard to find. Deoderant is virtually unobtainable. Pharmacies stock only Chinese brands of pharmaceuticals, often labelled only in Chinese. Sun cream is quite easy to find in Yunnan, but I think hard to find further north. Mosquito repellent is very hard to find (mosquito coils and insecticide sprays are readily available).
Spotting the small, cheap hotels found by the road in many large villages or small towns, can be difficult. A good clue is the character meaning "to stay".
It is not permitted to post a letter inside a parcel. A short note seems to be OK. In general Chinese parcel post is slow but reliable as long as you don't post anything desirable. So pictures and kimonos get home OK but more expensive things might not. The incoming post to China is not so reliable either, with tales of deliberate vandalism of parcels addressed to westerners. The post from Hong Kong is cheaper, faster and more reliable, and Hong Kong is a duty free port so it is an excellent place to get bike spares posted to.
This an interesting time to be in a Chinese town. On "New Year's Eve" kids and adults alike let off huge numbers of bangers and rockets in the streets. You will see people doing everything you were ever told not to do with a firework (holding them in their hands, throwing them at people, breaking open smoulding fireworks to peer inside).
The downside is that for at least four days after New Year's Eve most restaurants, hotels and many shops are shut, as well as all offices, banks, etc. We camped for two of the nights and found hotels for the other two. Traffic is much lighter during the festival, could be a good time to ride into a big city.
Taking your bike on a train is a rather daunting sounding procedure in which you sometimes have to send the bike on ahead on a different train (we never tried but friends who did had no problems). However you can take your bike on a bus quite easily and this can be useful for crossing closed areas or skipping less interesting sections. Expect to pay between nothing and a similar amount to a single ticket for the bike and your bags. It all depends on how hard you bargain, about 10-20% of the ticket price should be achievable. The bike will go on the roof and obviously you should make sure it is tied down securely.
Even the man who pedals a pedicab for a dollar an hour will have a mobile phone, they are ubiquitous in China and very cheap. Coverage is excellent, even the smallest village seems to have its own mobile phone mast. If you have your own phone (remember to get it unblocked before leaving home) you can buy a SIM card in any China Mobile office. Unfortunately there are several varieties of card and none are ideal. I tried two:
China Mobile Shenzhouxing SIM card. This can be used and recharged anywhere in China although it does have a "home area", I'm not sure if this is the city where you buy the card or the province. The SIM card costs 50Y, there is no monthly charge. Within the home area local calls are 0.6Y/min, countrywide calls are 1.3Y/min and international calls are 8.6Y/min. Receiving a call also costs 0.6Y/min. Outside the home area local calls are 0.8Y/min, countrywide are 1.5Y/min, international calls are 8.8Y/min and receiving calls costs 1.5Y/min. The bad news is that you can't send or receive international SMS messages or place data calls (ie. no use for WAP or email).
China Mobile M-Zone SIM card.This can be used anywhere in China, but ridiculously you can only charge it in the province where you bought it. Different offices quoted between 30Y and 140Y for the card and when I bought one I had to credit it with a further 300Y. There is also a monthly charge of 20Y. I'm not sure what the call costs are, probably similar to those above. I bought this card because I wanted data access for email and updating this website, and also because it can send and receive international SMS messages. You can make circuit switched data calls with the card (for example to your own internet service provider if they have an access node in China) and can also connect directly to the internet for 0.15Y/min. The settings are:
|WAP browsing||Internet access|
|Telephone number||17266||Telephone number||17201|
|User id||wap||User id||172|
|Gateway IP address||10.0.0.172|
In major cities it is supposed to be possible to get GPRS access. I think you may need to ask in a China Mobile office for the service to be enabled. I haven't tried this yet, but I think the settings are:
Other westerners I met who were living in China, had China Telecom SIM cards, so they would be worth checking out too.
Outside of tourist areas this is usually ridiculously cheap, 2Y (20p) an hour seems to be typical. The main problem to be aware of is that China is within "The Great Fire-Wall of China" and access to such instruments of Western Imperialism as CNN and the BBC are prevented. A particularly annoying restriction is that placed on Alta-Vista and its extremely useful Babel fish translation service. The best alternative I have found is www.systransoft.com.
To connect to the internet from any Chinese land line, dial 163, the username is "163" and the password is "163". See www.163.com for more details.
To be honest camping in China is not worth the effort as all small towns seem to have places to stay. Once in a room you can enjoy sumptuous banquets in local restaurants for less than a dollar a head (the same price as a tin of fish). A room for 2 normally costs 3 to 5 US dollars, but can be up to 10 USD in tourist traps. If you are a solo cyclist perhaps camping would be more worthwhile, but still difficult, as the countryside is full of curious people. We only camped in the remote mountain areas of western Sichuan and in Inner Mongolia, and then only for a few nights.
Our only experience of this was on a hired tandem from Yangshou. But we noticed that the roads were not usually busy except of course near the big cities. Highway 321 through from Guillin to Yangshou and beyond for example, is a pleasant enough road for cycling. There must be more traffic in the summer though. Yangshou has shops selling basic bike spares and also hiking equipment shops.
The weather in December was very pleasant for cycling, cool and often sunny.
People interested in cycling to Lhasa should read this page: How to Cycle to Lhasa Illegally
www.pratyeka.org/bike/southern-yunnan.html Nice page about a ride from Kunming to the Lao border, good route info.
home.hetnet.nl/~busaba/ Informative website by four dutch guys who tour China and S.E. Asia
www.bikechina.com Site of a guided cycling tour operator. Lots of good information for the independent tourist too, these are really helpful people.
Some roads are bumpy, filthy and busy...
...others are smooth and quiet.
You can take anything on a Chinese bus.
Especially in the mountains, expect the unexpected!
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