20+ Tips for Bike Touring in China
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China used to be home to the largest population of cyclists in the world, but now the car has arrived. Touring is still a popular activity in China with the most popular route, Chengdu to Lhasa on G318. China is a wonderful place to go bike touring and has many things to offer, from outstanding scenery to a myriad of culinary delights and changing cultures throughout the country.
Below are my top 20+ tops for bike touring in China.
1. Road surface quality is good.
The roads are generally in good condition though they may be built to a different standard than you are used to. While riding in the mountains there are a lot of rumble strips on the way down that are not present in other countries. Although the road surface may be nice and smooth, there tends to be a good amount of road debris (glass and wires) on the roads that can give flat tires, so be prepared with tubes. We have ridden a number of roads in the Southern half of China and for the most part they have been very nice. The bad sections are when the Chinese decide to build something. Riding by construction zones can feel interminable, but eventually you will make it through and get back to nice roads. We had one road in Guilin that was beautiful pavement except for stretches that went through towns and villages where it turned into a pothole riddled swamp pit.
2. Your road choice is nearly endless.
You can ride on almost all of the roads in China. The only ones off limits to bikes are toll roads. If in doubt, look at everyone else riding bikes, scooters, and motorcycles, and see where they are riding. On my commute to work, I pass by multiple signs that say no bikes on that road, but I am accompanied by hundreds of more people on scooters, bikes, and motorcycles.
3. Bike tourists generally do not camp in China.
While in China, and more generally, Southeast Asia, most touring cyclists do not stealth camp. First, hotels are cheap. There is no reason to ever spend more than the equivalent of $30 (~200 RMB) on a hotel and many more can be had for significantly less than that. Quality of hotel is not necessarily correlated with price. When we stayed in an unexpected tourist trap, all of the hotels were charging 500 RMB. When we started to ride out of town, we came across a homestay advertising on the side of the road for 100 RMB. It ended up being a very nice stay and it got us free breakfast in the local Sichuan/Tibetan style.
4. warmshowers.org is gaining more and more traction in China.
If you see a host on the map, use them. We are always happy to host people. The more the network gets used by touring cyclists, the more people we can get to open their houses to us. Here at Crawford Creations, we host touring cyclists about every 2 months and would love to have more. This is a wonderful community, and all who are touring should use it to meet like-minded people.
5. Terrain is extremely varied in China.
There are areas with many mountain ranges, and others with none at all. Where we live, there are mountains all around, but none of the roads go up them, so the riding is nearly pancake flat.
6. Google Maps is not accurate in China.
For routing, it is best to use Ride With GPS, set to Open Street Maps routing. Google Maps looks like it has the roads, and it does, however, the roads are offset from GPS location. Basically, if you look at profiles drawn using Google Maps roads in China it will go over the top of the mountain instead of through the gap giving misleading profiles and leading you on long circuitous routes to avoid mountain passes that are not there.
7. China loves blowing holes through mountains, so be prepared to ride through tunnels.
You need a readily available headlight and taillight for the tunnels. The lights are not just for personal visibility, but to see where you are going as well. Many of the overhead lights inside the tunnels will be off. We ride through tunnels in China that are upwards of 5 km long, so you will be out of visible light for a long time inside a tunnel.
8. Beware of traffic!
The Chinese drive like madmen with no regard to anyone else. We have had large SUVs swing over inside a tunnel and come head on at us to make a pass. We had to dive to the edge of the road to avoid being hit. There are many examples of poor Chinese driving, but do not let this deter you from touring in China. The scenery is unmatched and the general road quality is very good. This tip is just so you know what you are getting into around the larger cities. We live in a huge metropolis, so the bad traffic is exaggerated here.
9. Keep your head.
Know that the Chinese drivers are all first generation drivers, so they did not get the chance to grow up in a driving culture and know proper rules of the road. None of the drivers today had parents that also drove and taught them how to be responsible drivers. They learned from the other inexperienced drivers, that demonstrate the mantra “if you not first, your last.” Do not get too frustrated with it, since there is nothing we can do to change Chinese driving habits quickly.
10. The water is generally not okay to drink.
However, if the locals say it is okay to drink it, then drink the water to your hearts content. We were able to drink the local water during our entire trip in Yunnan and Sichuan. There were roadside water stations to fill the trucks brake cooling reservoirs, and that water was drinkable, so we never had to buy water. In general though, assume the water is non-potable unless otherwise told.
11. 26” Schrader valve tubes are the standard in China.
The cycling culture is growing in China and with it the adoption of road bikes and 700c wheels with presta valves, however, most roadside shops will not have 700c tubes. It is best to tour in China and other developing countries with 26” Schrader valve wheels.
12. Most cities will have bike shops.
The bike shops that are most easily located are the little roadside shops that have a bunch of rusted out parts and are there to repair city bikes. Don’t expect shops to have nice touring tires or parts to fix your bike in inventory. If you are able to find a shop online before arriving to town, then it will likely have Shimano parts in stock.
13. Bring the major spare parts that you will need especially if they are proprietary.
This is a no brainer for tourists using belt drive and other proprietary parts. Always carry the means to fix your bike for most repairs. If you don’t have the parts, then you will never find a shop to fix it. Most parts can be acquired in China by ordering online via Taobao (Chinese Alibaba storefront), but you will have to wait 1-5 days for them to arrive. Also, be prepared to do your own maintenance on your bike, since the Chinese mechanics are used to working on only city bike junkers and not quality touring rigs.
14. Lock your bike or bring it inside.
China is one of the safest countries you could possibly tour in, but there is no reason to take the chance of your bike disappearing. If the front desk will watch it, there is nothing to worry about.
15. You do not have to be able to speak Mandarin (Chinese).
Don’t expect the locals to speak English either. Be prepared to mime as your primary means of communication.
16. You will not be able to read the characters.
Unless you have been here for a long time, the characters will make no sense. Do not worry, since there are very few that you actually need to recognize to get by. To find somewhere to sleep look for: 酒店，旅舍，宾馆. Restaurants is 饭店。These few sets of symbols are the primary ones you will want to try and recognize.
17. Restaurants are cheap, tasty, and in every town.
Walk around and point at the dishes you want that others have ordered. In order for the meal to stay cheap, you need to eat lots of rice to fill up. Also, I have a hard time eating enough food before getting full to replace all of my calories burnt while riding, so look for dishes that are high in calories.
18. Be prepared for very different food choices in the grocery stores.
Grocery stores come in lots of sizes. There are the super markets of the US and Europe along with small corner shops with just a few items. All of these stores will be stocked with foods not available anywhere else. Try whatever looks good to you, but do not come to China expecting to be able to acquire the same foods that you can in Europe and the US. Foreign foods in China are very expensive with 2-10x markup over prices from the foods country of origin.
19. Cooking for yourself on a camp stove allows more “normal” foods for your consumption.
Cooking some of your own food on the camp stove will allow you to control your diet better than at restaurants. We cook because we are tired of eating out and to help replenish calorie loss during the times eating at restaurants.
20. You can get gasoline for your stove from the gas station.
Sometimes the gas attendants will tell you otherwise, but just show them what it is for and they will help you.
21. The Chinese people are very helpful and nice to you if you ask for help.
They will go out of their way to help you once they get to know you. Be prepared to take a selfie with them in return.
I hope this list helped you prepare for a bike tour in China. If you have any questions on how to tour in China leave a comment below and I will help you out. I look forward to hearing about your adventures on the bike in China!
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