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Pete fording a stream across the road

Yumay looks concerned

Village below in Western Sichuan

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Mark H. Jay
"My Bike Trip to Sichuan Province, China"

Copyright © 2005 Morris Area Freewheelers Bicycle Club, all rights reserved

Mark Jay

I just returned from a two-week bike trip in Sichuan Province, China, and thought that a short account of it might be of general interest to the MAF membership.

Sichuan Province is a part of China that most U.S. tourists never see. It lacks the hutongs and sights of Beijing, the terra-cotta soldiers of Xi'an, and the seafood of Shanghai. But, to a bicycle rider, it can be wonderfully appealing. Stunning scenery you pass as you cycle on a country road; kids who look at you with wide-eyed interest and shout "Hello!" as you pass them because you are the only non-Chinese person they have seen in many months (or even ever); stopping for a mouth-watering (and, given Sichuan peppers, sometimes mouth-burning) lunch from a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Meeting a migratory Tibetan family that is living in a Yak-hair tent, photographing them, and seeing their amazement when you show them their images on the camera display; suddenly finding yourself enveloped in a swarm of schoolchildren who have been released from class in the afternoon.

lovely Tibetan girls in traditional clothing

I signed up with Bike China (www.bikechina.com) a business run by Peter Snow Cao, American expat who married a Chinese woman and moved to Chengdu (the 13 million large capital of Sichuan Province) to be near her family. Peter and his guides all speak English fluently - have cycled their way all around Chengdu and other parts of China. They know what to see, how to get there, where to stay, where to eat, and where to buy things. My first guide, Godspeed Wu, was a 22-year-old free spirit of enormous capability, goodwill and athleticism. My second guide, Danny Chen, was a 36-year-old fount of information on Tibet and its religion and culture, the history of China, and specific information about the places we were visiting. ("bike-centered" people will likely prefer Godspeed; "tour-centered" people will likely want Danny to guide them. Danny also runs his own tour service at www.tibetgateway.com and will construct a non-bike tour for you anywhere in China. My wife and I are planning a more conventional tour next year and we will use him to set it up and accompany us.) Both were very companionable; Godspeed was more exuberant, and Danny was quieter and dryly humorous.

I started and ended at Chengdu. We visited the Wolong Panda Reserve, a world-famous facility for preserving the giant panda. We went to the cities of Danba (famous for its towers), Bamei (in a region holy to Tibetan Buddhists), and we visited the Taogung Monastery, the Dujiangyan Dam, the scenic town of Huanglongxi, and lots of places in between. The food was generally excellent, but on a scale of 1-10, Chinese breakfasts are -6. And keep in mind that the Chinese just love a nice bite of kidney or liver or stomach lining (yum!). Chinese pork is wonderful, but leave your cholesterol concerns at home. Chinese pigs are not like those raised in American hog farms; a piece of pork will have one inch of fat attached to it and the fat is to be eaten, not cut away.

Tibetan Buddhist Holy Shrines

If you are considering a bike trip to China, Bike China offers you a variety of pre-packaged rides or will customize a ride to your liking. Be warned, though: C riders like me should not make the mistake I made of signing up for a "strenuous" ride. No way could I climb mile after mile of 10% grade to altitudes of 15,000 feet! And, in the Tibetan Prefectures of Aba and Guanzi where I spent my time, hills come in only one flavor: unending @ 10% grade, with switchback after switchback. But, purchasing support makes it possible to keep going when the biking gets too tough; I highly recommend this. And, finally, don't assume (as I did) that you can predict your performance on a mountain bike by de-rating what you do on your road bike. Forget it! If you are a middle-aged C-type rider who is interested more in sightseeing than in athleticism, buy support, put your stuff in the van to make the riding more fun, and don't hesitate to get in the van yourself when things get impossible (which they do).

A couple of other points: keep in mind that China is a third-world country. You will learn to treasure Western-style toilets, you will encounter bathrooms that are unspeakably vile, and if you once make the mistake of not showering when hot water is available you will never repeat that mistake again. You will see driving that leaves you shaking your head and that, if you experience it close up, will leave you shaking in rage. But ... you will also get a chance to feed a panda (see picture below), see "Pre-Peking ducks" see lovely Tibetan girls in traditional clothing, and see sights that are most holy to Tibetan Buddhists.

Pre-Peking Ducks

Spring and fall are the best times to ride in Sichuan; summer is way too hot and rainy and winter is too cold.

If you want more information, or if you are a masochist who wants to sit through someone else's travel pictures, don't hesitate to contact me recorder.dulcian {at} gmail [dot] com. [This was written by Mark in Oct. 2004]

To view Mark's photos from his Sichuan bike tour click here:
Mark's Photos in Western Sichuan


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