Can you believe it? The first bicycle tourists showed up in Beijing in 1891. Two globe trotting Americans called Allen and Sachtleben crossed to here taking three years from Istanbul. This was a novelty. Today there are over 250 million bikes in China, most of them in the large flat cities in eastern China. On our initial bike trip in China in April 1995, it was a two-day bureaucratic hassle to get our bikes out of the Shanghai airport (see road story). It’s as simple as this; the Chinese are world-class bureaucrats. Our second trip to western China in March, 1998, the biking was better but we encountered the same issues as before. The roads were under construction with barely any alternatives for current travel. In fact, all of China is a large construction zone. All the cities will look the same: over populated, polluted, and filthy. Both these trips did not offer continuous pleasant biking. Two tough trips.
How we rate this trip
Maybe now all these roads that were under construction have been built and the quality would be vastly superior. But then, 1995 and 1998, the construction zones were longer than the finished sections. We had some good luck in western China in that we, on bikes, were able at times to use the new roads before they were open to vehicles. There are always bike lanes in cities, but they are slow and crowded.
There were only a few times in the west where constant traffic was not an issue. Eastern China is no place to be searching out quiet roads.
Kunming’s climate is pleasant but as you head west into the mountains, the climate is much cooler and wetter. In March, we lost days of time due to cold and rain in March. In April (spring?), the weather was cool and rainy for weeks out of Shanghai. As we moved south and spring established itself, it got drier and warmer. Nearing Hong Kong, the weather was fine and warm.
Winds were not such a major factor as was the overall weather. Granted, when the weather was bad, often it was windy and unpredictable. If the weather is settled, the winds are more gentle and predictable. In spring, the winds along the eastern coast were usually behind us from Shanghai to Hong Kong. In western China, the weather was bad and so were the winds in spring.
Old China is disappearing by the day. High-rises are taking the place of old quaint towns and cities. Urban sprawl is pervasive. There are snatches of good scenery, but you suffer through a lot of the mundane.
You must arm yourself with a map with Chinese characters to get pointed in the right direction when you ask directions. European script gets you nowhere. There’s a biking guide, “China by Bike” by Roger Grigsby and published by the Mountaineers in 1994. This guide was of little value to us. It has a clear and concise route description, but on relatively short routes around Shanghai and Hong Kong. There’s nothing about Western China. Recognize that no one speaks English, so getting immediate information is impossible.
Road Safety: 7
If the roads have been modernized, they usually offer a shoulder/bike lane. These make the roads a lot safer than the narrow, congested older roads. Also the cities invariably offer bike lanes which make city riding a lot safer, all be it slow. There are a lot of bikers so the drivers are used to sharing the road.
General Safety: 8
As we have generally found, the more controlling the government, the tougher, “no questions asked” are the police and the lower the crime rate. We saw arrests for petty crime that made our due process hair stand on end. The flipside is you are very safe as law abiding foreigners.
This is a hard one. Value varies a lot. Tourist or businessman hotels can be very expensive, but often worth the money. The Chinese hotels and guesthouses are once in awhile good value but usually you get a bad room for a cheap price. For restaurants, if you are patient and willing to suffer through a complete lack of communication, try the common restaurants and street stalls. Only go to the crowded ones and be flexible.
Dali beer is terrible and often served warm. Sometimes we bought beer (Tsungtau) and put them in the store freezer and came back 30 minutes later for “cold” beer. Drink purified water in plastic bottles. There’s always tea, seldom coffee.
Breakfast and lunch at the noodle shops—bowl of noodles, sometimes laced with MSG, in a spicy broth. Eating is mostly a crapshoot. Look for the busy places. Often very good but hard to find snacks that we liked. Eventually we started eating on the street. It was better. In the restaurants only half the time did we get what we wanted. Usually there was a communication problem and we would just eat what we got. Never a sure thing.
Very basic in the non-tourist areas. In serious tourist areas, the hotels are very good. The government hotels are run indifferently. In non-tourist hotels you need a phrase book, otherwise they will tell you “no room.” The tourist hotels and new business hotels could be very expensive if others were not available. Even the hotels are bureaucratic, i.e., check in, check out, key deposits, phone use, etc. Hotel water is sometimes available at limited times. Towels are often not available.
Some try to rip you off at every turn and some won’t accept money for anything. Usually they are indifferent about service. You will be forever surprised by the unexpected kindnesses in the most out of the way places. In any non-tourist town or city, the word goes out and usually the local school teacher will show up and speak pretty good English. This is fun and informative. It’s the yin and the yang of hospitality.
Kunming still offers some of the old ways, but it’s changing fast. The indigenous life is hanging on. There is still indigenous life in the western part of China, far more interesting than the homogenous rest of China, including eastern China where the wrecking balls are working full time and the cities and the culture are homogenous and dull.
History, history everywhere but not a bit to find. The cities are simply being rebuilt with little regard for the past. Aside from the major historical buildings, all else is sacrificed for progress. Very disappointing.
TOTAL SCORE 63
China Route Descriptions & Maps
March, 1998 – China – Kunming to Kunming
Almost all main streets have bike lanes which are slow and busy.
Kunming to Chuxiong 160Ks by expressway, 176 Ks by Hwy 320
Out of city, bike lane with divider on the highway for 25Ks, then expressway splits from Hwy 320, then old Burma Road. No bikes allowed on expressway and Hwy 320 was rough and has lots of old dump trucks (China is the dump truck capital of the world). Through urban sprawl. Eventually we opted to break the rules and ride on the new expressway. There were a few Chinese “law breakers” also. Some moderate climbs. Good grades. More hills and curves. Moderate traffic on the expressway. Nice scenery but brown in the dry season. Old villages that you look down into from the expressway. Sometimes Hwy 320 is parallel. Police stopped us, but let us continue to next exit. Some tunnels. We flagged a “sleeper” busy to Chuxiong. They took our bikes.
Chuxiong to unnamed town 130Ks before Xia, 85Ks
Out of town on 320 but it was virtually impossible to bike, very heavy traffic, narrow and rough. New expressway was under construction. On the old road 205Ks to Xia, the new road 20-25Ks shorter. We took the new road (not open to regular traffic yet). Our own four lane, well engineered route. Magic. Beautiful scenery. Strong westerly winds in March. Old road was like a long truck stop dotted with traditional villages. On the new road, the minority tribes do much of the work so we did see the people and often we could look straight down into the village. Interesting. Lots of places to stay but very basic rooms of the truck drivers. Mountains and valleys. The new road at times split into separate valleys so it could be very isolated for food and descent lodging. The old road which we saw from time to time was bumper to bumper traffic.
Unnamed town to Xia 130Ks
The old road was winding and narrow through the mountains. The surface was bumpy and the traffic was heavy, packed with trucks. It took four and one-half hours in a bus. Not recommended. The new road was not yet completed enough for us to use.
Xia to Dali 13Ks
New road under construction (3/97). Old road was (as usual) crowded. Flat. Found a side road into Dali. It’s a beautiful town (a rarity in China) with all the creature comforts.
Dali to Jianchuan 100Ks ±
It was cold. There was a new and old road. The new road was under construction and along the lake. The new road ended at north end of the lake; then the old road is quieter. Up a gorge (mild climb) then another valley. Quieter road. Interesting indigenous minorities. Often encounter markets (very colorful). A 10K climb and 10K descent after Sanging, then flat to Jianchuan.
Jianchuan to Lijiang (Dayan) 75Ks ±
30 Ks up a valley to the junction. Quiet fair surface. Interesting villages and tribal people. Right toward Lijiang. At 2200K worker (God, China’s big). Up 10Ks of switchbacks. Great scenery. Then a few ups and downs before a long gradual descent into a valley. Excellent scenery with views of the great snow capped mountains to the north. A short climb just before Lijiang.
Lijiang to Tiger Leaping Gorge (Qiaotao) 90Ks ±
It’s very cold and rainy. (We couldn’t do this trip because of the sustained bad weather in March.) 45Ks ± back to Jonathan. Then right (north) to Qiaotao 45Ks ±. Most of the trip is along the Jinsha River. It’s possible (reported in 1998) to bike (mountain bike) through the Gorge.
Qiaotao to Daju through the Gorge 25Ks ±
From the map I determined that it must be strenuous (mountainous).
Shanghai to Hong Kong, April 1995
Shanghai to Jiaxing 115Ks
Crowded roads out of Shanghai for 10Ks, then another 10Ks were still busy. Sometimes a bike lane. As usual, the road was under construction, flat, cross lots of canals. Tree lined roads. Often no bike lane. On and off traffic. Minor roads to main road to J. 40Ks on main road. Big and slow traffic but a wide shoulder. Countryside looked a little like central France.
Jiaxing to Hangzhou 90 Ks
We eventually got to Hangzhou but to us the Chinese characters were hard to decipher and we went “somewhere” through the ubiquitous construction into an industrial city before we realized we had gone 25Ks the wrong way. So really, there’s no proper description. It is flat.
Hangzhou to Shaoxing 65Ks
Started by riding around the lake. Beautiful views of mountains and islands. Climb over the big bridge over the Qiantang River. The highway to Shaoxing is busy all the way. Mostly flat. Along the railroad tracks. Skirt Xihu tollgates, but bikes are free. 20Ks to Xiaoshan. Then there were side bike lanes. 30Ks to Keqiao, then heavy truck traffic. 13Ks to Shaoxing, past busy textile markets.
Shaoxing to Cixi 75Ks
Rain and cool in April. We bought two heavy blue ponchos which covered us and much of our bikes. A good purchase. Road under construction (as usual). Toll road but no charge for bikes. Flat and often windy. It’s 30Ks on Route 104, then 35Ks to Zhouxiang on another toll road. It’s another 10Ks to Cixi.
Cixi to Ningbo 68Ks
Leaving town, it’s an easy ascent, then down aging through terraced fields. The old towns of China are being torn down for the characterless new towns of new China. (Depressing, but I guess it’s progress.) 16Ks to Guancheng, then it’s 32Ks to Luotuo. A few minor hills. Another 16Ks and you pass the ferry terminal on the Yong River. Until now, it has not been anything special.
Ningbo to Putuo Island (by ferry)
We rode around the island. Very quiet as a break from the highways. Roads were often muddy because of the rain. It’s cold. This could have been good. Returning, we ferried to Shenjiamen and rode to Dinghai 10Ks and out another 6Ks to the ferry to the mainland. Then rode to Ningbo. Quiet roads about 20Ks. Busy toward Ningbo.
Ningbo to Ninghai 77Ks
Out of town. Much more scenic. More hills including a small mountain. Much less traffic. Building a new road with a tunnel through the mountain. Gradual hills. A little more rain.
Ninghai to Huangyan 139Ks
More rain. More construction. Quiet road through tunnels. 57Ks to junction for Tiantai, continued another 34Ks to Linhai (just another big Chinese city). Pushed on to Huangyan 38Ks.
Huangyan to Hongqiao 84Ks
We fought muddy construction. Eventually it improves but it was a tough ride, sometimes on stones. We climbed a small mountain and the construction was over. A new road and much better riding. Rain stops us in Hongqiao.
Hongqiao to Wenzhou 56Ks
Flat run to the ferry. Some more rain. Usual conditions: wide road with traffic. Nothing special. Wenzhou was our favorite stop. Nice city and nice people.
Wenzhou to Fuding 122Ks
The usual wild obstacle course through the city. More rain. To the highway south, a toll road but no charge for bikes. 45Ks to Ruian. Mostly flat along a river. 63Ks to Fenshuiguan. Road was okay (no construction). Some modest hills. The usual. Then 4Ks to border of Fujian province. Another 10Ks to Fuding.
Fuding to Songcheng 45Ks
Climb a mountain. Then major construction. Very heavy and slow traffic. Long delays for the construction. Awful.
Songcheng to Ningde (mostly by bus) 127Ks
Construction in China. Close the road and rebuild it. Let the vehicles figure out a way to get through. I don’t know how far we went or where we went over night in a packed sleeper bus. Back roads, then stopped for hours waiting for the construction. Eventually we got out in a traffic jam and rode toward Ningde. Really, really bad, but what we saw was beautiful.
Ningde to Fuzhou 127Ks
Construction as usual. The route was fabulous along the coast. Great views from higher up. Through mountains and then across the Dai River. 90Ks. Up and down through mountains again to Fuzhou, 37Ks. Much warmer. Nice ride except for the construction. Great scenery. Rice and tea fields, terraced in the mountains.
Fuzhou to Putian 108Ks
Leaving town, there was a nice bike lane and the road construction was finished. This was the first day without construction. Some rolling hills. Some locals ride long distances (25Ks or so). The scenery was not so interesting. Small towns with big, new high-rise apartments. The finished road is eight lanes. There are traveler restaurants along the highway.
Putian to Quanzhou 90Ks
Rolling hills. Small snatches of construction. Quanzhou was an interesting old city.
Quanzhou to Xiamen 101Ks
The road was a little poorer but the pollution was horrendous. 20Ks of choking black smoke. 66Ks to turn off for Xiamen. Here we go aging. More construction on road to Xiamen for 20Ks, then 15Ks on a fancy new freeway with special bike lanes that went under the freeway at the intersections. Also a beautiful day.
Xiamen to Yunxiao
Took the ferry across the bay to Longhai. Then (what else) more road construction. To the highway was 9Ks. Then the highway was good all the way. 56Ks to Zhangpu. A few small climbs. 42Ks to Yunxiao. Some mosquitoes at night.
Yunxiao to Shantou 126Ks
Good road all the way. Over a small mountain initially. Good scenery. Then onto the flats. Some nice views. 70Ks to Zhaoan, the 56Ks into Shantou. Urban sprawl for 20Ks into the city. Hellish. Flat.
Shantou to Puning 71Ks
What else. The bridge out of Shantou to Puning was under construction. We took the ferry across the river and rode to Chaoyang 10Ks. Then 61Ks of good roads and low rolling hills to Puning. Not very interesting or scenic. The sign “Welcome to Puning” was easily 15Ks before the downtown. In 1995, the hotels wanted Hong Kong dollars as we approached Hong Kong.
Puning to Haifeng 106Ks
Still a good road through a lot of small hills. Upon approaching big hill (mountain), we discovered that the dynamite crew was finished here and we cruised through the new tunnel. Easy riding. Nothing special.
Haicheng to Huizhou 138Ks
Still good weather, warmer everyday. Good roads over rolling hills and all well graded climbs. Nothing special but easy riding.
Huizhou to Shenzhen 79Ks
From here on out, everything is built up. Occasional glimpses of rice fields. Mostly flat with a few small hills. Ride on the busy highway with a shoulder/bike lane. Not worth it. Strictly industrial.
Shenzhen to Hong Kong 25Ks
It’s more a function of time than distance. In 1995, this entailed a border crossing. It seemed impossible to go by bike then, so we took the train (no bikes permitted but we got on) to the first stop. We found a bike path for a short way. Then it was just survival on narrow roads. We frequently just walked. Not at all recommended to ride in Hong Kong.