The Chinese really know how to ride a bike. China has the largest number of bikes of any nation in the world and bikers regularly frequent their roads and highways, so if you want to see China the way locals do, your best bet is probably a bicycle.
This spring, Scott Williamson of Red Deer experienced China by bicycle on a 12-day trip with Gap Adventures. Unlike many tourists to this region of the world, Williamson travelled off the beaten path, slowly making his way from village to village, meeting the locals and seeing the countryside.
The journey began in Hong Kong, where Williamson was joined by five other travellers and a tour guide. Introductions were made over a nice dinner in a Hong Kong restaurant and the group set out the next morning by high-speed ferry to Gaoming and then transferred to Zhaoqing, where they explored both on foot and on bike.
The first day was designed to be a relatively easy biking day, so the group could get used to their 27-speed mountain bikes.
The Seven Star Crags Lake makes Zhaoqing a popular tourist stop for many Chinese, but few westerners go there.
The next day, the group had a very long day, cycling 88 km from Zhaoqing to Deging. They were transported by bus out of the city and from the countryside they cycled over rolling hills and through small villages.
Williamson was amazed by the response from locals as the cycled along.
“This is a part of China that receives very few visits from westerners and we were treated like celebrities,” he says. “Farmers waved from their fields and complete strangers walked up and took our pictures. Some people even followed us on their bicycles or scooters, because they were curious. Local children ran out of their schools to high five us and practise their English by shouting hello.”
After spending the night in Deging, the group continued cycling along the West River through remote villages and over the rolling terrain of Guangxi Province. The total biking distance on day four was 83 km, but bad weather made it seem much longer.
“It was absolutely pouring rain for much of the day,” says Williamson. “In fact, it rained for about three days straight. It was a warm rain and it was very humid, so it made it much more difficult than it would have been if you were travelling during the dry season.”
Despite heavy traffic at times on the highways, no one in the group felt unsafe while cycling on the highways in China.
“The traffic did seem chaotic at times, but we never saw any accidents,” Williamson says. “There are so many cyclists that drivers are used to them. Even though traffic seems chaotic, there is an understanding in place between drivers and cyclists. I felt safer cycling there than I would feel cycling on the QE2 in Alberta.”
Williamson, who describes himself as a casual cyclist, believes the cycling would have been easier if he had invested in proper cycling attire and brought some protein bars and other nutritional supplements along.
“The other people on the tour had proper cycling shorts and shirts that dry quickly when they get wet, but I was just wearing a cotton T-shirt that never really dried,” he says.
“Our meals were all provided on this portion of the trip and they were really good, but some people in the group had brought protein bars and energy drinks and that really seemed to help, too.”
The fourth night was spent in the city of Wuzhou, which is considered to be the snake capital of the world, because more than one million serpents are exported annually from this city to other parts of China and Asia.
The Chinese believe there are health benefits to be gained from eating snake. Snake blood and bile are thought to make a man more virile. Many shops sell bottles of local rice wine, which contain a whole snake and the group found it fascinating to visit some of these little shops and see the local market.
Another key stop was a visit to Yangshuo, a beautiful resort area that is popular with Chinese tourists, but lesser known to western visitors.
“The scenery was so beautiful in Yangshuo,” Williamson says. “It’s amazing to me that such a beautiful place could exist and so few people know about it. The hills there seem to go on forever, disappearing into the mist. Since it is a resort area of China, there were lots of things to see and do. You could have a hot air balloon ride, experience a river tour on a traditional Chinese junk, sample local foods or just cycle on some of the local routes.”
The next stop for the group was the ancient Chinese city of Xi’an. They boarded a plane to fly into Xian and explored the city on bicycle and foot.
A highlight of the city was seeing the Terracotta Warriors, which were constructed in about 207 BC.
The warriors were a part of Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s attempt to reconstruct his empire for the afterlife. Although he is known as the emperor that first unified China, he is also known for the brutal act of burying alive more than 700,000 workers who helped to build the warriors.
This was done to keep the tomb a secret and it worked, because it lay untouched for thousands of years. The giant tomb was actually discovered by some farmers in 1974 when they were drilling a well. It was one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time and the farmers never received any compensation for making the discovery.
The government does allow them to sign autographs in the museum for a small fee. Williamson says that meeting one of the original farmers and getting an autographed book from him was one of the highlights of the trip.
Beijing was the final stop for the group, who boarded an overnight train from Xi’an to travel to the capital city. The last few days of the trip were much lighter in terms of cycling.
They toured the markets of Beijing, hiked along the Great Wall and visited the city’s most famous sites: the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.
“Hiking along the Great Wall and shopping in the Pearl Market were both fantastic, but the highlight of Beijing for me was our visit to Tiananmen Square,” Williamson says.
“We were there on the date of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre. We asked our tour guide if he knew anything about it and he said he didn’t. The massacre is a forbidden topic in China and as a result, many local people don’t know what happened there. The interesting thing about visiting at the time we did was the large military presence. As well, there were dozens of young Chinese men standing around the square dressed in plainclothes who were clearly secret police. They seemed fairly obvious about it, but I think they wanted it that way.”
Williamson highly recommends touring China by bicycle.
“If you want to really see China and interact with locals, you can’t beat travelling by bicycle,” he says.
“I loved seeing the scenery, meeting farmers in their fields, and watching seniors doing their morning exercise in the city squares. Our tour guide was amazing and the people we met were so friendly and eager to show us their country. A trip like this is far better than being shuttled from site to site on a tour bus.”
If you go:
• Gap Adventures offers this 12-day bicycle tour at several times during the year. Tour costs start at $1,899 and include a tour guide, land transportation within China, accommodations, entrance fees to specified attractions and some meals. A 27-speed mountain bike is supplied, but travellers need to provide their own helmets. International airfare is not included in the tour price. For more information, visit www.gapadventures.com and look up tour code ACCC.
• Williamson travelled in late May when it was very rainy. He recommends taking this tour during the dry season in September when the weather is better. He also recommends bringing along protein bars, energy drinks, and proper cycling gear.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.