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China Redux: Nine Day Sensational, but Grueling Bike Tour from Canton to Beijing

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My first Backroads bike tour was  China in 1994 and I thought it would  be fitting 21 years  (and 35 tours with this company in many countries) later to see the amazing changes which have taken place since.

Surprisingly modern

The first six days we covered 183 miles in the same villages, towns and cities as we did in 1994 BUT almost all of it was now unrecognizable to me!  On this tour I was able to catch some glimpses of rice paddies and even a few water buffalo here and there.  It appeared to me that many of the natives who were riding bicycles then are now driving motorcycles and small  cars. Motor vehicle and pedestrian electronic traffic control systems as well as advanced neon-like advertising (LED technology-based) are now prevalent in Chinese cities.   State of the art air conditioning, plumbing (and sanitation!) and infrastructure are also currently widespread in urban area.

In Constant Motion

Because we stayed in hotels in six cities and had two domestic air transfers we were constantly on the go. (from 6 AM breakfasts on!)  The four hardworking and very capable  guides and drivers carried out the logistics of these constant movements efficiently.  The last three days which were recently added to the tour involved time in the World Heritage site of Qin Shi Huang’s Terra Cotta Army.  We also cycled atop the city’s perimeter wall for 6 miles.

Beijing

Our last stop was China’s modern capital city of 20,000,000 people where we walked and climbed  on a steep section of the Great Wall.  Another highlight of our visit here was a short spin to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.  (This was the only stretch of rainy cycling on the tour and since I had this experience on another visit to the city and was anxious to get to Hong Kong so see Joan that day I opted out.)

Yangshou

This is the only place which looked familiar to me from the previous bike tour.  It is surrounded by karst (a unique mineral rock) formations and is a backpackers mecca.

Group Dynamics

There were some hilly portions of these cycling kilometers.   The quality of the roads we used varied so Backroads wisely furnished (and included in the tour cost) us with well-maintained quality mountain bikes. We had good cycling weather for our late September visit - I might have used my arm warmers on one or two mornings but other than that our normal summer bike outfits were sufficient.  We had a small group of 8 cyclists: one couple, a guy in his late 20’s with his mom, 2 single gentlemen, one single woman and myself—we hailed from both US coasts and Arkansas and  I was the oldest.

Costs and Guides

The cost of the tour was about $7,000 which also included almost all meals, hotels and internal flights. “Guests” were responsible for a single supplement if needed, trans Pacific air, some alcohol beverages and a  well deserved gratuity for the American guide, Paul Smith.  He has been leading Backroads tours  for over 20 years and I was a member of one he led with his wife, Jo in Bali  (1999).  He and his Chinese colleague, Charles, are very knowledgeable in all aspects of Chinese life as well as all route details..we never got lost!

My Backroads guide from the 1994 trip, Linda is still employed by this remarkable and unique organization and she claims to remember me after these 21 years.

Hotels

The six hotels we used were outstanding!  I have stayed in over 600 hotels in the past 20 years and 2 on this trip are among the 10 best I have ever been to.  (BTW, none of the 10 are in the U.S. or Europe)

Modern contrasts

Beijing and Hong Kong (where we started our tour) are by no means third world cities (at  least anymore)  In many ways they are similar to New York.  As for the countryside, as we cycled, we encountered some backwards areas with dilapidated buildings but just after we saw a modern superhighway or a modern superhighway or a new bridge or tracks of a bullet train.

The populace and drivers  were friendly and courteous and tried to be helpful with directions, restaurant food orders, etc even though many don’t speak English.

Yum Yum

Almost all the lunches and dinners were Asian culinary events.  Most were served in a private room on large lazy susans on a round table which could accommodate our group of 8 and 2 guides. Although knives and forks were usually available we became proficient in handling chopsticks.  The last dinner was a memorable Beijing duck feast of about 20 courses reminiscent of the Nixon/Kissinger banquets when relations were reestablished in the 1970’s. Even though this was an athletic 9 days, I am now dieting to lose the 4 or 5 pounds I gained at these tables!

If you are contemplating a bike trip to this fascinating part of the world, go soon! If you wait, it will be just like New York or Chicago.

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