Cycling in China - My Experience


21/12/2018

Growing up, I associated China with bicycles. I remember watching documentaries of grainy images of busy city roads filled with bicycles, like flocks of birds synchronised and coordinated in their collective movement as they turned and moved in unison together. It was a thing of beauty. China was once called the “kingdom of bicycles”. The founding of the People’s republic in 1949 was a turning point for the Chinese bike industry because the party promoted the bicycle as the people’s vehicle and the approved form of mass transportation. As a consequence, brands like Flying Pigeon have manufactured over 500 million bikes, more than any other vehicle on the planet. During Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, the aspiration was to have a bicycle in every household. With China’s rapid economic growth since the 1990’s this has changed the reliance on bicycles, as cars have replaced the bike as a status symbol and although there is a glut of bicycles from sharing schemes, the bicycle’s stature has now faded in China. While there is a UCI Tour of Guangxi world tour event and previously Tour of Beijing, road cycling is a peripheral sport but this is changing. . Several pro-teams have invested in talent development teams and the recent formation of the Global Cycling Project (GCP) aims to encourage the growth of cycling and produce a Chinese Tour de France winner by 2024.

So it was with some excitement and interest when I was invited to participate in a 3 day reconnoitre of possible routes for a future Haute Route event in Sichuan province in the south-west of China. I had lived in Asia previously for almost a decade and had visited Yunnan in 2002, however I had never ridden outside of Singapore and Malaysia. Arranging direct flights to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan was straightforward. Chengdu is the fifth largest city in China with a population of 7 million and serves as a hub for Air China with 3 direct flights a week and British Airways also have connections via Shanghai and Beijing. Getting in and out of the airport was very efficient with multiple transport options and obtaining a tourist visa prior to departure was a relatively easy and straightforward process given the government focus on encouraging tourism.

Chengdu has a reputation of being a very laidback city where things move slower than Beijing or Shanghai. Yet, it is very modern, the skyline dominated by skyscrapers, filled with office business districts, retail outlets line the streets and busy, often congested motorways connect the sprawl together. Surprisingly, air quality and visibility was good, an effort by the government to incentivise clean and greener forms of transport. People were very friendly and welcoming, being known for their tolerance, open-mindedness and enjoying leisure and pleasure. It is no surprise then that Chengdu has twice the number of teahouses as Beijing but half the population.

Chengdu has a reputation of being a very laidback city where things move slower than Beijing or Shanghai. Yet, it is very modern, the skyline dominated by skyscrapers, filled with office business districts, retail outlets line the streets and busy, often congested motorways connect the sprawl together. Surprisingly, air quality and visibility was good, an effort by the government to incentivise clean and greener forms of transport. People were very friendly and welcoming, being known for their tolerance, open-mindedness and enjoying leisure and pleasure. It is no surprise then that Chengdu has twice the number of teahouses as Beijing but half the population.
Sichuan is often called the “country of heaven” or the “land of abundance”. The latter is a consequence of a large scale irrigation project undertaken in 316 BC to manage flood and drought thereby creating thousands of kilometres of fertile soil. The site of the irrigation scheme, Dujianyan, is the city 70 km north of Chengdu, where we were based for the event. The irrigation scheme is a world heritage site and surrounded by a manicured park, pavilions and great views of stunning landscapes that are worth visiting. To the north of Dujiangyan, there are lush green mountains that mark the beginning of the Tibetan plateau, the largest and highest plateau in the world and where we would be riding. The mountains were exactly as I had imagined them from Chinese landscape art, transmitting a type of emotion or mystical atmosphere. Qingcheng mountain is sacred for Taoists (Daoists) whose philosophies emphasised living in harmony with nature. Since the invitational event I’ve learnt that the road of this mountain will be included in a stage which will be incredible. Off the bike you could also undertake a memorable seven-kilometre hike on paved walkways to the top of the mountain that is filled with wild forest, lakes, waterways, river bridges, temples and caves.

Sichuan is perhaps best known for its bold, hot and spicy flavoured cuisine with signature dishes such as Kung Pao chicken, Mapo Tofu and Dandan noodles being ubiquitous at Chinese restaurants worldwide. One of the highlights of the trip was the experience of Sichuan a hotpot washed down with some local very drinkable beers. Hotpot is a spicy chilli communal broth which you throw various local specialities in – duck tongue, chicken feet were some of the more exotic local treats - and then wait for them to cook. When the items are cooked they float to the top and you remove them to dip in a saucer of sesame oil, coriander and ginger. Possibly the next corporate team bonding trend.

The main non-riding highlight was a visit to a local panda rehabilitation centre, which was established to help transition pandas from zoos worldwide adapt back into the wild. It provided a unique opportunity to see pandas up close, playing together and eating bamboo at feeding time.

The cycling itself was a very different experience. I’ve ridden extensively in Europe, Australia and even Ethiopia but this was a different type of adventure and cultural experience. Once we had escaped the daily ritual of rolling out through the outskirts of Dujiangyan past trucks, cars and scooters that took us through areas of small industry and then patches of agriculture with roadside stalls including butchers and vegetable sellers, we were transported into a previous time and slower pace of life. Prior to the exponential economic growth of the past 30 years, the majority of the population in China lived in rural areas. A group of 10-20 lycra kitted cyclists riding in a group brought looks of amazement and novelty to what was obviously a very unusual occurrence. Occasionally we’d even be greeted by people on the side of the road watching, waving and clapping. The bituminised roads were generally very good as a consequence of rebuilding following the 2008 earthquake that claimed over 100,000 lives and caused significant destruction to the region. The epicentre of the earthquake was nearby and consequently the investment in reconstruction has resulted in modern, well-engineered highways and national roads. Reminders of the earthquake are evident with statues and 5.12 (12th May) memorials seen along the side of the road.

The cycling itself was a very different experience. I’ve ridden extensively in Europe, Australia and even Ethiopia but this was a different type of adventure and cultural experience. Once we had escaped the daily ritual of rolling out through the outskirts of Dujiangyan past trucks, cars and scooters that took us through areas of small industry and then patches of agriculture with roadside stalls including butchers and vegetable sellers, we were transported into a previous time and slower pace of life. Prior to the exponential economic growth of the past 30 years, the majority of the population in China lived in rural areas. A group of 10-20 lycra kitted cyclists riding in a group brought looks of amazement and novelty to what was obviously a very unusual occurrence. Occasionally we’d even be greeted by people on the side of the road watching, waving and clapping. The bituminised roads were generally very good as a consequence of rebuilding following the 2008 earthquake that claimed over 100,000 lives and caused significant destruction to the region. The epicentre of the earthquake was nearby and consequently the investment in reconstruction has resulted in modern, well-engineered highways and national roads. Reminders of the earthquake are evident with statues and 5.12 (12th May) memorials seen along the side of the road.
After the initial flat sections in the cities and towns the climbs would start to kick-up, quite steadily, taking us through different topography that included kiwi-fruit plantations, open fields, orchards, farmers houses and bamboo forests interspersed with occasional great views of the surrounding mountains or back down into the valley from which we’d ascended. As we rode, we would see local farmers tending their fields and animals, often in traditional garb, as they have done for centuries. At the top of climbs we’d be met with a welcome food stop with the standard energy bars, water and fruit. One highlight was a stunning 10 km climb past an enormous dam, resulting from the damming of multiple rivers and massive hydroelectric plants. We followed a river upstream and then crossed the river, ascended the other side of the valley through rural townships before being rewarded by a fast descent towards the hotel and the edges of Dujiangyan. The riding for Haute Route Qingcheng is certainly not as challenging as you would find in other events, but it’s like nothing else you will ever encounter.

The weather in November was similar to Northern Europe with the temperature consistently hovering between a chilly 6 – 10C and while it was dry, it was only the third day for the test time trial that the sun came out. This is perhaps unsurprising given that Sichuan has the lowest annual sunshine totals in China and generally gets less sunshine than northern Europe.

For those people who want to experience something different, both on and off the bike Sichuan may offer something unique and novel. I returned from my visit feeling energised and invigorated from a very different cycling and cultural adventure. You certainly don’t see many Flying pigeon reinforced cross-bar boneshaker bicycles in London being used to transport pigs (yet).