Planning a 20,000km China cycle tour

I used to live in China, and speak and read Chinese, but deciding where to go on such a big China cycle tour left me a little dumbfounded. It is more like a continent, with so many places and provinces to choose between, and huge differences in season.

The trip is about experiencing the whole of China rather than just cycling the highlights, though, so I started off with a few basic ideas:

  • One big continuous loop of the country
  • As much difference and diversity as possible

Nothing prescriptive. Just a general direction that didn’t skip the difficult areas and passes through interesting places with different terrain, languages, culture, and levels of development. Here is where I ended up. Click the different shaded areas or scroll down to learn more about the thought process. The plan will definitely change. Regularly!


Where to go?

I started with the places I knew I wanted to cycle through.

The Tibetan Plateau

The “roof of the world”, extending 1000km north to south and 2,500km east to west, with an average elevation of over 4,500m. It is five times the size of France. In China, the plateau covers the Tibetan Autonomous region as well as most of Qinghai province and large parts of Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. I will be travelling through Yunnan, Sichuan, and Qinghai provinces.

The Taklamakan Desert

The Taklamakan covers an area 1000km long and 400km wide, making it slightly smaller than Germany. It is the world’s second largest shifting sands desert, with 85% made up of shifting sand dunes, and has an average annual rainfall of only 1cm. The name apparently means “the place of no return” – literally “to leave behind” and “place”.

The Mongolian Steppe

The Mongolian-Manchurian grassland or steppe extends across Inner Mongolia in China, Mongolia, and into the northeastern provinces of China. The grassland covers an area of more than a million square kilometres, with an average elevation of over 1,000m.

The Cradle of Chinese Civilisation

The earliest traces of Chinese civilisation are found in the lower and middle stretches of the Yellow River basin, in the provinces of Henan and Shandong. Historical accounts of the legendary Xia (2100BC – 1600BC) and Shang (1600BC – 1046BC) dynasties were seen as semi-mythical, until archaeological excavations in the 20th century provided comprehensive evidence of their existence.

Guangxi and Guizhou

Famous for their limestone karst peaks, the provinces of Guangxi and Guizhou are rugged, sub-tropical, and under-developed. Near Vietnam, the area is known as the homeland of a number of ethnic minorities, such as the Zhuang, Dong, and Miao peoples. The scenery is amazing, with misty rivers, underground caves, and vast terraced fields extending up the hilly landscape.

Getting off the beaten track

It is not like the Tibetan Plateau and the Taklamakan desert are overrun with tourists. These places are definitely off the beaten track. But they are classic areas for adventure travel, with a long history of representation within travel literature and the journals of explorers and archaeologists. I want to visit some places I knew completely zilch about – rather than just almost zilch about – and came up with a few ideas.

The “other half” of Xinjiang province

“Xinjiang” means “new frontier”. It has been unified as one province since the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), but historically has been two pretty distinct entities.

Xinjiang consists of two main geographically, historically, and ethnically distinct regions, Dzungaria north of the Tianshan Mountains and the Tarim Basin south of the Tianshan Mountains, before Qing China unified them into one political entity called Xinjiang province in 1884. At the time of the Qing conquest in 1759, Dzungaria was inhabited by steppe dwelling, nomadic Tibetan Buddhist Dzungar people, while the Tarim Basin was inhabited by sedentary, oasis dwelling, Turkic speaking Muslim farmers, now known as the Uyghur people.


Crossing over the Tianshan mountains, from the northern side of the Taklamakan desert, will bring me to the Ili River Valley and the start of the “other half” of Xinjiang province, somewhere I know very little about.

The northern-most point in China

It would be easy to turn south when I get to Beijing. It might end up happening if I arrive there in the middle of winter. But northeast of Beijing is a huge area extending north, surrounded by Mongolia, Russia, Japan, and Korea. It is the place of origin for the Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty, houses the industrial heartlands of pre-1978 communist China, and is home to the northern-most point in China, Mohe – at 53° latitude, subarctic, and witness to temperatures as low as -52C.

I have always been fascinated by this area but have never been. Under the Qing, there were restrictions placed on internal migration to the region, often broken, adding to its allure. The establishment of special economic zones in the south of China after 1978 devastated the regions industry, leading to huge layoffs as vast city-like factories closed up shop, captured in the documentary West of the Tracks.

Bracketed by stunning long shots taken from the front of a moving freight train, Wang Bing’s epic, three-part documentary, “Tie Xi Qu: West of Tracks,” is an astonishingly intimate record of China’s painful transition from state-run industry to a free market. In Part 1, “Rust,” we enter the decaying, state-owned factories where the few remaining workers toil in an inferno of smelting furnaces and particulate matter so dense they can barely see.

(NY Times)

The region has now become a major tourist destination. Harbin’s onion-domed cathedral and annual ice festival draw in huge crowds, and the more adventurous organise a tour to try and see the Northern Lights in the far north.

The industrial mega-city of Dongguan

Dongguan is probably the biggest city you never heard of. It has achieved some fame in the West as a result of Leslie T. Chang’s book on migrant workers in the city.

According to the city government, Dongguan has 1.7 million local residents and almost seven million migrants, but few people believe these official figures, and speculation about the city’s true population is rife… Today Dongguan makes 40 percent of the world’s magnetic heads used in personal computers and 30 percent of its disk drives.

(“Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China”, Leslie T. Chang)

Part of the Pearl River Delta, the world’s largest megacity, the region is undergoing a major transformation into one “megalopolis”. By 2020, projections forecast a combined population of 66 million people and a GDP of RMB 15 trillion (about the equivalent of Brazil and more than Canada).


If you want to get a bit more detail, the route map includes a brief summary of 50 places along the way. I still get excited whenever I look at it, which is a good sign!

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