It’s always been a dream of mine to explore the remote parts of China by bike. This dream finally came true last year, when together with a friend, I departed on a one-month cycling trip through the provinces Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan. In 25 days, we traversed vast plains and mountains, visited cities and remote villages that (almost) never see tourists, not to mention foreigners. Cycling in Western China was a fascinating experience and in my opinion, there is no better way to discover the country!
In this article, I will share my tips on planning and cycling in Western China, based on my experience.
The first and main factor of planning a cycling trip around China is the visa. For most countries, the duration of each stay can be between 30-90 days. In my case, as a Polish (EU) citizen, I could only stay for 30 days. Since I was already travelling for two weeks in Yunnan province before starting my biking trip, I had to get a new Chinese visa and cross the border with Vietnam.
I strongly recommend NOT considering overstaying your visa in China, as you may be fined 500 CNY per day or up to 5.000 CNY in total, upon leaving the country. On some forums you may read that “it’s ok” to overstay your visa up to 10 days, but in China this is regarded a serious violation.
The situation with restricted or permit-requiring areas and regions in China is constantly changing. Make sure to search for the most up-to-date information and, if necessary, contact the Chinese embassy or a local travel agency for guidance.
The Lonely Planet forum thread on restricted areas in China has some information, although it may not be up-to-date.
The only region currently requiring a travel permit is Tibet. Getting such a permit can be difficult and can take up to 3 weeks. To my knowledge the best place to get such a permit is through travel agencies in Chengdu.
Areas of military interest and in politically sensitive situations are completely closed and heavily guarded. We experienced such a case when trying to get to Larung Gar (also called Serthar) in Sichuan province, the biggest Tibetan Buddhist Academy in the world. Unfortunately, we were stopped by police and had to turn around.
As my tourist visa was for 30 days, I had to plan accordingly. My cycling buddy was stationed in Xi’an and so we conveniently used the city and his home as a base to make all essential preparations (buying bikes, supplies etc.).
We wanted to travel as long as possible, so our schedule was very tight:
We had bought our train tickets from Chengdu (finish point) back to Xi’an in advance and therefore we had to arrive in Chengdu by August 3rd the latest. We planned our trip in a way that, if needed, we knew we could shorten the route a bit or take a bus in order to gain some time.
China has 22 provinces, 5 autonomous regions, 4 municipalities and 2 special administrative regions. It’s one of the largest countries in the world, stretching for about 5,250 km (3,250 miles) from east to west and 5,500 km (3,400 miles) from north to south. So focusing on one region / province is essential.
As I only had 30 days on my visa in China, I could not travel as far as to Xinjiang or the northeastern Heilongjiang provinces, because this would significantly extend the time lost for train travel (i.e. 45h one way).
Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou are the most popular regions for cycling in Western China. I’m not going to write about the different options for cycling routes in China, as there are simply too many. You can find some good sample biking routes of other cyclist on Bikemap and here.
Because of its good train connections and natural beauty, we first chose Chengdu in Sichuan province as our finishing point. Now we just had to decide where to start! It had to be a big city, where a train from Xi’an could take us in no more than 10-15 hours. In the end, we chose Xining in Qinghai province which we both have not visited before.
Another reason why we chose the route Xining - Chengdu is because of the sights we were interested in seeing on the way. However, we ended up going a different route than initially planned (I will explain why further below). Here is our initial cycling route and the sights on it:
(Switch to Google Roadmap to see names of places on the Bikemap above in English.)
Points of Interest along the Initial Route
On the fifth day of cycling in Western China, we made a spontaneous decision to change our route and go a different way. We were on the national highway G213 from Luqu to Langmusi in Gansu province. National highways are the fastest roads in China. It was busy with cars and big trucks, making in unpleasant and fairly unsafe for cycling.
So instead of going south towards Langmusi, we turned west onto the provincial road S204 towards Gahai Lake and Maqu. This was the best decision we could have imagined! We spent more time in the remote, western parts of the Tibetan plateau and had the pleasure to be invited to a few Tibetan festivals (and homes) by wonderful locals.
We sacrificed skipping the popular Jiuzhaigou Valley National Park, but during the cycling trip we found that we enjoy the remote and quiet parts of the country the most. The further west we went, the “wilder” it was getting. On the other hand, the closer to Chengdu, the more civilized and densely populated it was.
(Switch to Google Roadmap to see names of places on the Bikemap above in English.)
Points of Interest along the Final Route
(Back to) Qinghai province:
We camped 6 days per week and stayed the last day of each week in a hotel / guesthouse.
In the remote areas camping was generally not a problem. The areas we cycled were mostly inhabited by the Tibetan minority. The people we encountered along the way were friendly, curious but distant at first. Some had never seen tents before and would come up and snoop around, even look inside without asking for permission (later we found out that they didn’t speak any Chinese, only Tibetan).
Around 6pm we would start looking for a good campsite, but usually we’d stop cycling at about 7:30pm (sunset was at 8pm). Twice we cycled at night till around 9 or 10 pm, because we couldn't find a good camping spot but also started looking too late. I don't recommend biking in after sunset.
An ideal campsite would be set by a creek on an open grassland (no fence - no owner). Every time we were close to civilization (read: tourist site or city), finding a campsite would get more difficult. The land would be fenced.
One time, near the Labrang monastery in Gansu province, we were setting up our campsite near a creek when a landowner came on his scooter and asked for 100 CNY. After some bargaining, we settled on 50 CNY and the landowner gave us a watermelon, too.
Another time, in a place where everything was fenced as well, we went up to a beekeeper and asked to stay on his land. He invited us in, gave us milk tea and bread.
On the day of rest, we always chose a bigger town, where we could shower, rest, do laundry and stock up supplies. We usually looked for cheaper guesthouses, as we were on a tight budget. Prices ranged from 100 CNY to 150 CNY for a room with bathroom (sometimes the bathroom would be outside). Most of the times we could to laundry for free.
Roads in China are in surprisingly good condition. In many provinces the government is very busy building new roads, highways, bridges and tunnels.
In Western Sichuan province, we talked to construction workers who were working for months moving from one place to the other, building new bridges and connecting some of the most remote places with civilization. We also went through many, many tunnels (especially in Sichuan province) and even passed some which were still under constructions. Although cycling through tunnels is not the safest, it's cold, dark with cars passing by, it saves you the time of going all the way up and across the mountain pass.
Expressways are the fastest roads and begin with the letter G or S, but are only followed by one or two numerals, e.g.: G5, G93, S04. The G and S here stand for 高速 (gāosù), meaning ‘fast / express’.
Nationwide highways also begin with the letter G, followed by three numerals, e.g.: G213. The G stands for 国道 (guódào), which means ‘national highway’.
Provincial roads start with the letter S, followed by three numerals, e.g.: S313. The S stands for 省道 (shěngdào), which means ‘provincial highway’.
County roads start with the letter X, followed by three numerals, e.g.: X418. The X stands for 县道 (xiàndào), meaning ‘county roads’. These roads are usually very remote, gravelled (not paved), therefore difficult to ride on.
The best roads for cycling in Western China are Provincial Roads. They are paved and traffic is low, making it safe and enjoyable. As far as it’s possible, avoid taking national highways and expressways. These roads see a high volume of cars and trucks.
Don’t expect Chinese people to speak any foreign language outside big cities. During our month-long trip, we only met a handful of people who spoke English. Bring a picture dictionary such as this one. Learn some basic Chinese phrases - check out our basic Chinese phrases here.
But because Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan provinces are highly inhabited by Tibetans, it was often difficult to find Mandarin Chinese speakers! In the remoter regions, Tibetan only slowly starts to become the first language in schools for kids (but the Tibetans learn it rather unwillingly).
One time in Gansu province, we were invited by a nomad family to eat dinner with them in their yurt. Can you imagine that the only person in the family who could speak Mandarin was a gifted 11-year old girl? Neither her parents nor their neighbours could speak Chinese.
There are three main Tibetan languages spoken in China, as seen on the picture below. I learned some Amdo Tibetan during the first stage of our trip, but after cycling into Sichuan from Qinghai, around Nianlong township, I realized people spoke another language. We had entered the Kham region. So I had to start over...learning Kham Tibetan.
Here are the phrases I learned in Amdo and Kham from people on the way. They are from my personal notes and written the way I heard them spoken by locals:
Jiudemu - hello
Zaxitere - greetings
Demu - good bye
Shata - thank you
Ciet demu ena - how are you?
Jari - yes
Na2 margu - I don’t want it.
Na zeizei gohge - I want a little bit.
Ciu - you
Xie'hsm'ge - very delicious
A dzirski - are you full?
Ciehta jon nin dżo - I ride a bicycle
Nia no bolango4 nieje - I’m from Poland
1 chdzich (4th - tones in brackets)
2 eni (2,4)
4 ri (4)
8 e'dje /edzie
9 - a'ge
10 - c'tam'ba
Ha dziom ziom - very delicious
Jiatong - eat
Ade - good morning
De a de - you as well (in response to ‘ade’)
Zaxitere - greetings
Mugu - I don’t need
We got paper maps of the three provinces at a large book store in Xi’an. This is important, because the Chinese paper maps show more small secondary roads. Also, cities and towns in Western China have different names in Mandarin Chinese, Tibetan and English. It’s important to compare them and know where you're going.
For example, the Tibetan town of Chugqênsumdo (དྲུག་ཆེན་སུམ་མདོ་) in Jiuzhi County, Qinghai province, is called Zhìqīngsōngduō (智青松多镇) in Chinese and Jiuzhi on Google maps.
Another thing is that although we had a portable solar panel with us to charge our phones for GPS navigation, it’s good to have backup paper maps in case you do run out of battery (which happened to me all the time!).
Every day, we cycled between around 8-10 A.M. till 6-8 P.M. We made breakfast at our campsite, then had lunch at a town or city around 2-3 P.M. and dinner at the following campsite. During our lunch break, we would always stock up food for dinner and breakfast.
To tried to keep our bikes as light as possible. We would never carry more food than for two or three camp meals. We usually carried about 5 liters of water and sometimes some beer for the evenings. Oftentimes, we were lucky to find campgrounds next to small creeks, so we could also use that water for washing and cooking.
For breakfast we usually went with oatmeal - a quick, healthy and nutritious meal! We’d add fruit, local honey and even freshly picked wild strawberries. I also discovered canned rice porridge (zhōu 粥) with beans and dried fruit.
We ate our lunch in small restaurants and cafeterias. A typical meal would be noodles with meat and veggies, or several shared dishes with rice.
For dinner, we mostly made instant noodles and/or scrambled eggs with local mushrooms. We always tried to buy and taste local specialities, such as honey, bread, yoghurt and fresh butter in Qinghai and Gansu provinces and mushrooms in Sichuan province. This was also great because these products reminded us of the food flavours in our country.
We have also many times been invited to dinner by locals in their homes. This involved lots of eating and lots of drinking milk tea, which gave us stomach aches (the Tibetan culture requires the host to top up your tea bowl even after a few sips to show their hospitality and generosity).
Generally, we felt very safe during our cycling trip in Western China. People were distant but friendly. The only “rude” people we occasionally encountered were in touristic spots, where they’d want to charge us money for things just because we were foreigners.
Sometimes local people would walk up to our camp site and look around without saying anything. They would never take anything from us. At some point, we realised that they were simply curious, as (a) we were the first foreigners they saw in their lives and/or (b) they’ve never seen tents and cyclist before.
Avoid cycling on national highways and expressways, as those are full of trucks and cars, making the biking dangerous and unpleasant.
Beware of large and dangerous dogs (the tibetan mastiff - zànggǒu 藏狗) which might attack you along the road. They usually belong to the nomads, but many don’t have fences. The dogs, being territorial, would try and chase us. We sometimes carried rocks with us but never had to actually use them in self defense. A useful thing to get is the Dog Dazer.
Make sure to have good bike lights. There are many long tunnels, especially in Sichuan province (up to 13 kilometers long!) and they are not well lit.