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Challenging China

Thursday, January 9, 2014

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Seeking adventure can be a lot of fun, until you realise you’ve made things extremely difficult by making the wrong choices. Cycling through the mountains of China with just a GPS digital map was a misjudgement (I’m being kind to myself here!) on my part. The mountain passes seem endless and with no way of knowing where the summits are (they are not marked) climbing them is much more stressful than it should be, as I have no way of knowing if I’ll be ending the day near the top – something which I had to avoid because of the cold and I finished more than one day in total darkness. Oh and Clive (and others), the roads we cycled in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are not the worst in the world, trust me on this. Apparently the roads here are being improved with a finish date sometime in 2014, however many are just mud baths at the moment. From a cyclists perspective I think the hardest part for me was trying to get into a climbing rhythm, then coming up against impossible to cycle steep sections all too frequently. I’m a good climber (I should be – I now weigh just 54 kg) yet I walked a lot.

Near the top of another pass and nothing much to see.

What has really saddened me is the fact that there has been very little to see, not just actually but photogenically as well. Maybe it’s just the time of year, but I have to say it’s been pretty unappealing cycling. Lijiang is just over 700 km from Leshan where I set out a week ago from and I expected to be there or very close by now. Truth is I’m over half way with some major mountains left to climb. Being turned back on a pass (the S208) by the police has not helped, but I know it was the right decision because I later struggled to walk up another through the snow and ice. In seven days I cycled (and walked) 488 km, climbed 15,147 m (that’s 49,694 feet) and I’m now well behind schedule. Having arrived here in Xichang (why does Lonely Planet not even mention this very large city in it’s guide?) and found a hostel, I need to do washing and have a good rest up.

The river feeding a huge hydro electric plant.

Another misjudgement on my part is the sheer scale of distances between the major tourist sites. For a cyclist attempting to get around them without resorting to public transport it is a major challenge, my visa extension giving me the extra month is not enough and I’m now going to be heading south as I’m fairly certain I haven’t time to visit Lijiang and then cycle to Kunming, even if it’s possible to get through the mountains – which I doubt. I think it’s the wrong time of year to attempt my original route. On a positive note, I did actually see the sun in one of the valley floors!

Positive proof that the sun does indeed shine in central China during the winter!

Though for the most part it was the grey skies of smog and mist.

Wild camping has been a challenge to say the least, with my requests to sleep on someones land meeting with very different responses. I have a message asking if I can camp (written in Chinese), which if I’m stuck I show to a local and it has seen me sent packing, but also being offered a bed for the night, as long as I keep the children occupied for a while. Yes I look a little wild in the picture, in my defense it is after six of the hardest days of my life. Other than that I’ve camped in a public park (the police patrol them) and tried to stealth camp in the woods, my success rate being 50%. Thoughts that it would get warmer the further south I traveled have not yet been realised, more to do with being in the mountains (I think) and how I’m hoping things warm up a little, as I shook frost from the tent this morning.

For some unknown reason, the kids love me!

Quality food has been hard to come by along the way, it’s certainly been a trial for me as I hate most of the fatty meat dishes on offer. A friend on Facebook says “China is a break you place” and I’d wholeheartedly agree with that. Hindsight is a wonderful thing though and the rest of this trip through China will go much better, because I (hopefully) learn from my mistakes. One really positive thing is the large packets of pot noodles which make a quick (and hot) meal for lunch and with my gas powered stove they are ready in no time at all. They have saved me and are available in even the most remote tiny store, but I carry two at all times.


I had no idea as I approached Xichang just how big this place is. The tourist information office is on the main through route and a kind English speaker gave me access to their WIFI so as I could find a hostel. There are literally dozens to choose from, but my choice (the Skylark International Hostel) was a short walk away and about the cheapest. It’s a spotlessly clean place with a real ‘atmosphere’ and I’ve had my best meal since I left Beijing with the portions being quite large and tasty.

The Skylark Lodge Hostel, Xichang

The Lobby, Skylark Lodge Hostel, Xichang

My washing is now hanging, so I’m a happy chappy. I’ll take a look around in the morning, for now it’s time to get some much needed quality sleep. More soon…

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Peter Watson
Thursday, January 9, 2014 at 12:33 pm

Love it when your updates arrive in my inbox.This is a truly remarkable journey your on and your posts brighten up a gloomy Scottish winters day.Already looking forward to the next one 🙂 As we say up here ,HUD IN MIN 🙂

Thursday, January 9, 2014 at 2:34 pm

Hang in there

Thursday, January 9, 2014 at 2:37 pm

We hear what you say about hilly China. We cycled from the Laos border at Boten to Jinghong, through Pu’er to Dali and Lijang and into Tibet. Even though we had several maps (no gps) we could never figure out where the hills or passes would be. Most hills were much longer than we had expected. We were there in spring with mostly nice weather. There is nice country with a section of beautiful tea plantations, but nothing spectacular until after Lijang. Dali is nice, but very touristy. I wonder if it is possible now to hitch rides on boats from Jinhong into Laos (Luang Prabang) these days. You might be able to find out via the mei-mei cafe in Jinghong.

    Friday, January 10, 2014 at 5:16 am

    What you say about the maps and terrain fits with my experience, there did seem to be little indication of how long the hills were and it was difficult trying to work out whether to keep on or stop. My plan now is to cross the border at Hekou and go onto Hanoi (there is a friend there if I can catch up with him) but I’ll take a look around the Kunming area first as I will have some visa time left. I’ll look into the Jinhong option though, thanks.

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