Advice for Bike Touring in China
How I Prepared for the Trip
First, let me say that I don't enjoy cycling. I simply dislike it less than the alternatives. I don't own a car, and although mass transportation is good where I live, I only live 6 miles from where I work, and its faster, cheaper, and more pleasant to ride the wooded bike path than to stand on a crowded bus. Similarly, I find it more pleasant (though not cheaper or faster, though its probably safer) to ride bike from point A to point B in China than to take a train, bus, or plane.
Not only do not particularly like to bicycle, I don't like to exercise either. I much prefer to spend my spare time doing, well, almost anything. This isn't to say I'm in bad shape - I'm 5'11", 160 pounds, don't smoke, don't drink (to excess), etc. I just don't do a lot of cardio-vascular workouts on a regular basis. I did my first bike tour in China without any physical training beforehand - just flew over to China, jumped on the bike and rode.
Since I knew I'd be riding in a very mountainous area on this trip, I decided it might be wise to try to get into better shape this time. Therefore, in addition to riding my bike to work every day, I usually rode 30-90 miles every weekend for the three months leading up to the trip. This turned out to be enough for me. I was able to do all the rides each day, and although I felt worn out by the end of each day, I never felt like my physical fitness (or lack thereof) was hindering my ability to ride as far or fast as I wanted to, or otherwise enjoy the trip.
On my first tour of China my bike was a 21-speed mountain bike frame fitted with hybrid-style tires. I boxed it up and took it as luggage on the flight over, and broke it down and put it in a bag to bring it back. I took a pair of top-loading bushwhacker panniers and very small camelback packpack (enough for the water bag and an apple or two). That all worked out fine. I was pleased with the bike, and got a lot of use out of th camelback. I was less pleased with the paniers, which were not very convenient when I had to carry them around (handles too thin- cut into my hands, separate bags bulky and awkward, top-loading not convenient to get stuff that wasn't right on top).
One thing that was a pain about my first trip was what to do with bike when I wasn't riding it. I often had to argue with the hotel to let me take my bike up to my room. If I had to put my bike on a bus (for example, when I got detained for biking in an area of Anhui that was "not open to foreigners"), it had to go up on the roof, exposed to the elements.
The Bike Friday New World Tourist
For this trip I decided to get a folding bike, which looked like it might solve these problems. I considered Dahon, Airnimal, and Bike Friday. I settled on a Bike Friday New World Tourist because:
I wasn't looking for a bike with suspension;
I liked the fact that it has BMX-sized wheels, so I could get replacements easily in China;
it had a good combination of price, foldability, and ruggedness; and
it had a good reputation with those who had bought one.
I bought my Bike Friday through College Park Bicycles in Maryland (ask for Chad - very helpful). I got it configured with 27-speed Shimano shifters, kevlar belted-tires, and the "H" style handlebars.
Having done one China tour with a regular bike and one with a folder, I'd have to say that I'll be taking my folder on any future tours. I honestly couldn't tell any difference in the ride. My first trip was almost all flat, and I averaged 18-20 kilometers an hour. There was almost no flat roads on this trip, but on one day when I there was an extended mild climb, I was able to average 18 kilometers an hour. On really nasty climbs I usually did between 5 and 7 kilometers an hour. Furthermore, being able to fold up the bike and stick it in a bag in 2 minutes was an enormous convenience, for example, when one of the hotels in Sichuan wouldn't let me bring it into the hotel courtyard, much less the room. Taking a taxi to the bus station - no sweat. Want to put my bike in my train sleeper car - piece of cake.
I would strongly recommend the Bike Friday NWT to anyone contemplating touring in China. My bike took a lot of punishment on this trip, including over 150 kilometers of cobblestone roads that would practically rattled the fillings out of my teeth, and I only had two problems - one flat and a busted chain. The one flat was no problem - Chinese roads are practically coated in broken glass, and I had at least six flats covering a similar distance on my first bike tour in China. The broken chain was a bit more disconcerting - it happened only about 100 kilometers into the trip (and I'd put no more than 400 miles on the bike total). But I don't think that Bike Friday can be held responsible for that. I spent many, many hours doing some really nasty climbs, and felt the Bike Friday did a great job.
At no point did I feel like a regular bike could have made the ride easier. The only way I think the trip could have been made better with a different bike was if I had suspension for my NWT. This was an option, but I elected to go without because (a) price, (b) it seemed like one more thing to break, (c) it makes the bike look more expensive, and therefore more likely to be stolen (folding bikes are becoming more common in China, but they're generally cheap and low-quality, and never with suspension, and I like to think my Bike Friday was therefore more likely to "blend in", even if I couldn't).
Brule Euro Tour Panpack
Another piece of gear I can whole-heartedly recommend is the Euro Tour Panpack I got from Brule Mountain Gear. These 3,000 cubic-inch saddlebags are single piece, have a nice wide carrying handle, and convert into a backpack. Absolutely one of the best purchases I've ever made. Although this bag is not suited for use as a backpack for hiking, its more than adequate for when you're making the shift from biking to some other form of transportation (i.e., train or bus) and need to carry your gear around. For example, on my first bike tour in China, if was going from my hotel to a bus station and wanted to take a taxi, I would dread having lug those two-piece panniers, with them banging against my legs and the rack-hooks sometimes scratching my legs and the thin carrying straps cutting into my hands. With the panpack I could easily carry them by the nice thick strap, or if I was going a further distance, just convert them to a backpack and I was off.
The panpack is also very well designed. One day I rode in the rain for over 6 hours, but even though I did not have fenders on the bike (I fixed that the next day), none of my gear in the panpack got wet. They're also side loading, which means its much easier to get to your gear. There's a larger sized World Tour model, and a smaller Backcountry model, both of which convert into "real" backpacks with thicker shoulder straps and a waist strap. But I found both the size and functionality of the Euro Tour to be just right for my needs.
Kelty Day Back
The last major piece of gear I brought was a Kelty Blanca 2000 day pack, which is designed to hold a water bag. My original intent was to carry this on my back, but after a couple of hours it really started hurt my back and shoulders. My solution was to hang the bag over the handlebars. Although this was an improvised kludge, it actually worked out extremely well, and didn't hinder the way the bike rode. It worked so well, in fact, that I will adopt this same method on future tours. I could have gotten some front panniers, but that would have made it less convenient to fold up the bike, and I really liked being able to just whip the backpack off when I was going into a restaurant.
The following is a list of the rest of my gear. I would pack the same if I were to take another similar trip. Stuff in blue I carried in the Kelty day pack. I either wore the fleece and goretex jacket, or strapped them onto the panpack. Everything else fit inside the panpack (assuming I wasn't wearing it).
Some Suggestions for People Considering a Similar Trip
Get in shape. The climbs on this trip were wicked. You're also at a high altitude. No way I could have made, much less enjoyed, this trip if I hadn't trained up beforehand.
Ride defensively. China has over 100,000 traffic fatalities and almost half a million traffic casualties every year. You'll be sharing the road with dogs, pigs, cows, sheep, goats, chickens (I've hit two), bicycles, pedestrians, cars, 10 ton trucks, farmer's tractors, and motorcycles. Drivers regularly drive on the wrong side of the road, and never signal a lane change. People will walk out into the road in front of you without a glance to see whether a car is coming.
Prepare yourself for the “three H's”. You will hear people Hawk up loogies, Honk their horns, and yell “Hello” many, many times every day.
Get kevlar tires. Chinese roads are covered in glass, but with my kevlar tires I only had one flat in over 400 miles.
Bring Some Pocket Pepto Bismal. This is stuff is great if you get stomach upset, and on my past two tours its all I've needed (though I'd still recommend taking some Imodium, just in case.
Dress warm. I never really felt cold when I was riding, but I was wearing everything I had when I wasn't, and there were times when I wished I'd had a down jacket or vest. My room was often close to freezing at night. Several nights I slept in all my clothes, including my fleece and goretex.
Start preparing early. It took me five weeks to get my Bike Friday, and three weeks to get my Brule panpack.
Consider getting a bike with suspension. I discuss in the section above about my Bike Friday why I didn't get suspension, but the cobblestone roads were almost unrideable on my bike. I did it, but just barely. However, on my first China bike tour (also on a bike with no suspension) the roads were no problem, so it depends on where you're planning to ride.
Budget 20-25 dollars per cycling day. I only stayed in private rooms with a bathroom (except in Lige, where such a room wasn't available), and I never paid more than 8 dollars (except in Lijiang where I stayed in a really nice place for 15 dollars). Chinese food was cheap, and I never spent more than 3 dollars for a meal. Western food was available in Luoshui, Lijiang, and Dali, and it was generally 3-5 dollars for a Western meal.
Don't trust Chinese maps. My computer distances corresponded almost exactly with road signs and mile markers. My map, which was a recent map purchased in China and published by a large Chinese publishing house, was often off by as much 30 percent. For example, the map indicated it was 20 kilometers from Chang Bai to Zuo Suo, but unless one of those places has been physically relocated in last year, both my computer and the road signs indicated it was at least 30 kilometers. This is not surprising considering hat the Chinese government restricts the publishing of maps (indeed, the publishing of anything) to state authorized publishing houses, and the Chinese government is extremely concerned about people having too accurate information.
Take lots of film/memory cards. The scenery was spectacular. I took 1.25 gigabytes worth of memory cards, and I took over 1.5 gigabytes of pictures (about 700 jpgs at sizes ranging from 3-8 megapixels). Fortunately, there are places in Lugu, Lijiang, and Dali that can burn your pictures on to CD Roms so you can reformat your cards and re-use them.
Plan on averaging 10-12 kilometers per hour. I could do anywhere from 20-30 kilometers per hour on the flats and downhills on good roads. Unfortunately, a lot of the roads were cobblestone, and on those I could do no more than 7 kilometers per hour (even on downhills). Also, I could only do 5-7 kilometers per hour on the uphills. Between that and stopping to take pictures, and taking 5-10 minutes every 1-2 hours to stretch my back or eat something, I ended up at about 10 kilometers an hour.
Plan on riding between 8am and 7pm. Unless you're willing to risk riding in the dark, you're pretty much limited to between 8 and 7 in January.
Carry some food. It was often hard to find a place to eat lunch. Even if there was a roadside restaurant in a small village, I wasn't in the mood to have crowds gathering to watch me eat. It was great to be able to stop by the side of the road and munch on a powerbar in peace. Water was only a problem between Ninglang and the rest stop. Everywhere else its possible to buy bottled water along the way.
Learn Chinese? While it will enormously simplify things if you know Chinese, I wouldn't bother trying to learn it just for your trip unless you've got about a year before you leave. One guy I know who has learned German and French fluently said he thought he could pick up Chinese in 3 months. He gave up after a few weeks. You might be able to pick up enough to count and ask prices in a few months, but thats not enough time to learn things like asking directions and road conditions or the next day's weather. Still, I wouldn't let inability to speak Chinese stop you. Lots of people travel in China without knowing the language, and I think it would actually be pretty hard to get lost on the route I took. There just aren't that many forks in the road. Just make sure you have a map with Chinese characters on it and learn how to pronounce “zenma zou” (“how to get to”).