I’m often asked why I do it and, to be honest, the answer isn’t as simple as: “I enjoy it”. There are many days I don’t enjoy it at all, frequently I wonder why I’m doing what I do and, almost every day in a long journey there comes a moment when I wish I was doing something else — but, there’s never a single day on any of my journeys that I wish I hadn’t started or ever wanted to stop and head home.
Riding long distances, as anyone who does it will tell you, can be punishing, it can be grueling and it can be incredibly tiring or uncomfortable but cresting that hill you’ve been climbing for the last three hours and seeing the snow-capped mountains in the distance or the sweeping plains as you come down from a mountain range make it all worthwhile. Crossing a desert, carrying 10 litres of additional water for each person, sleeping in a hollow by the side of the road in freezing conditions when the day’s temperature was as high as 45C (114f) is not easy but, when you arrive at a small town on the edge of the desert, get your first cold drink and look back at what you’ve just done, there’s an incredible sense of achievement, not to mention the bragging rights — how many people do you know who have crossed the Taklamakan, Tengeli or Gobi desert? I’ve done all three, on a bike; not once, but twice.
I was 53 years old and not a bike rider when I decided that I wanted to do something a little different. I knew I needed to lose weight and I was worried because my mother and her father, whose body shape I inherited, both had experienced heart problems in their mid-50s. I decided to buy a bike and take a long ride. I happen to live and, at the time was working in China so, the obvious thing was to do something that was both interesting and unusual. I figured that something which met both criteria would be to ride from the Southeast of China at the border of Macau to the Northwest where we would meet the border of Kazakhstan.
I don’t think it was a unique ride, but certainly for two foreigners, one of whom spoke no Chinese and the other (me) was limited to functional language, it was going to be an adventure.
Since I completed that ride, I’ve also ridden from Harbin in the far North of China back to Zhongshan, where I live, in Guangdong. My wife and I spent 7 weeks touring Guangdong province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and, two years ago, with another friend she and I flew to Urumqi, in the much-publicised Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and rode back, once again to home in Guangdong. All in all, I guess it’s fair to say I know a little about the topography and geography of China with over 30,000 kilometres of long distance and local riding under my tyres.
A country as diverse as China can’t be described easily. The South is tropical, warm and humid, the centre we spent days getting wet and cold and the North is seasonal but it’s the Northwest that strikes me as the most amazing place. Once you are 1,000 kilometres slightly North but West of Shanghai, things start to change. There are less trees, less rain and the sun seems to hit you harder, as you climb from Shaanxi and enter into Gansu and Ningxia, which are on a high plateau, you ascend to 2,500m and that’s roughly where you stay for the next 2,000 kilometres until you descend into the second lowest place on earth, the Tarim Basin near Turpan in Xinjiang. There’s no oxygen deprivation problem but there is a feeling of sluggishness, the bike seems heavier and you are more tired.
Surprisingly, the hardest part of each journey hasn’t been the mountains or the deserts, difficult as they are. The hardest part is getting in, or out of Guangdong province. A range of mountains called the Nanling Mountains stretches across from the Northeast and across to the Northwest of the province. These mountains historically created a barrier gave Southern China its unique and different culture. For cars and buses and trains, they aren’t a problem, the new high-speed trains have tunneled through them and the freeways China is so famous for constructing, bridge over the valleys and tunnel through the peaks but, if you’re on a bike, there’s no way the authorities will let you use them, we’re forced onto minor roads but… the minor roads are why we do this.
The benefits we get from these tiny little locally maintained roads, is the beauty, they are incomparable, the cost is the pain. Most of the roads don’t go over 800m above sea level, although the peaks tower above us and small villages dot the riversides at the base, often with waterfalls cascading down through cracks in the rocks. But the hills are hard, climbing from 200m to 800m may not seem tough but they are steep, very steep and it might take 3 hours to travel just a few kilometres, then you go down, perhaps 5 kilometres but that only takes 20 minutes and, without having had time to recover your legs, you’re climbing again. 6 hours of riding and you only cover 40–50 kilometres, hopefully soon you’ll see a village with a small binguan (guest house). If you’re lucky, the village will have a restaurant too and you can rest, relax in very basic comfort and prepared for the next 40–50 klm day tomorrow.
I consider the best possible way of travelling in China to be on a bike, the places you’ll travel through all have their own small industries. Some days we smell tea being dried, another day will be oranges being bottled, other days it’s cinnamon, another moment it might be star anise that you smell in the air or the pungent odour of peanuts being heated and crushed for their oil. Every village in every corner of China has something to offer and the only way to know about it is to travel through it and stop if you have time. If you don’t have time; make time.