China from North to South

On day three in rainy Germany two mountain bikers start riding next to me. Seemingly surprised they look at my packed bicycle. ”Where are you going!?” ”We are cycling to China”, I say. Both men start laughing. They shake their heads and they don’t seem to believe me. About 200 days later I see the skyline of the border town of Horgos in a distance, the far west of China. What a difference with the typical village in Kazakhstan, where time seemed to stand still.

A week in Xinjiang

A country the size of Europe is too big for us to cross by bicycle, mainly because our visa is only valid for three months. Also, the Gobi desert and current situation in Xinjiang province let us decide to travel by hitchhiking, bus and train. Xinjiang is traditionally populated by Turkish-speaking Muslims, the Uyghurs. China is currently increasing its supervision on the Uyghur minority. According to the United Nations, a million Uighurs have been detained in labor camps. China says it’s preventing terrorist attacks, but the locals themselves experience it as a police state..

We are very happy when we enter ”the gates” of China. And when we look around us, it is exactly how we expected China to be. Chinese tourists taking pictures of the border crossing. A brand new city with huge skyscrapers and four-lane highways. What is immediately striking is the great superiority of the police. We see more police than locals on the streets. It looks like an occupied war zone. We too cannot escape checkpoints. Before entering and leaving a city, a village, the bus station and even the shopping mall. What also impresses us is the number of cameras and police stations. In all major cities, you will find a police station every 500 meters.

From Horgos we take the night bus to Urumqi, the capital of the province. At some checkpoints, all passengers have to leave the bus for an ID check. Everyone walks rather quickly through the detection gates with their Chinese ID card. Unfortunately, the system doesn’t recognize passports and the Chinese police has difficulties reading ours. Everyone has been back on the bus for a long time, while we are starting to get worried about the bus leaving without us. After having translated and entered our data into the system, we run back to the bus. Fortunately, they have been waiting. The day after we decide to try hitchhiking. It doesn’t take long before we are picked up. Unfortunately, the kind man drives us a bit in the wrong direction, so we have to cycle back a few kilometers. During this short bike ride, a police van comes driving next to us and they gesture that we have to stop. Five officers get out of the van and want to search our bags. When we open one bag and they see how full they are, they quickly approve. Photos are taken from us and our passports. But while we continue cycling, the van keeps following us. Fortunately, they let us go after half an hour.

The next day is more successful, after one hour waiting along the road, a big car stops that is able to take us for about 500 kilometers. At checkpoints, it takes us sometimes a long time to go through. We feel guilty for letting the driver wait. But he doesn’t seem to be bothered. At one of the checkpoints, we are told that we have to wait for one hour in the parking lot. And we are not the only ones, all cars have to wait! When we ask around, no one seems to be surprised. This is normal, we are told. Every ten minutes a police car arrives to tell which cars may continue. In the evening our friendly driver drops us off at a hotel. When I am taking a shower, someone knocks on the door. A perfectly English speaking lady (for Chinese standards) tells us, “Sorry, you have to move to another hotel.” We couldn’t discuss anything and two of the staff take us to the other hotel. Once there, I ask where it’s possible to have dinner somewhere. The woman says that we are not allowed to leave the hotel until the police have checked us. After checking and taking some more photos, we are free to go. But even in the evening, when we leave the hotel, I notice that someone is watching us. Even though the police and security guards are friendly towards us, we do not feel at ease. We cannot imagine how this must feel for the local people, who are literally watched everywhere.

The next morning we are optimistic. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out and we are waiting for hours. The owner of a local restaurant is happy to help us and even invites us for a huge Chinese lunch. And all his employees help us to find a ride. It’s already noon when someone wants to take us. We ride out of the province Xinjiang and that’s perhaps the reason that no one could have or wanted to take us. The checkpoint is extra strict because many Chinese (Uighurs) are not allowed to leave the province. It takes a long time at the checkpoint and the officer even wants to search our phones. We are getting annoyed so I quickly translate that our driver leaves without us if he doesn’t hurry up! Luckily that helps. Not much later is the next checkpoint and we have to stop again. To our shock, the co-driver is dragged out of the car by a few police officers. We wait a bit further and our driver apologizes, he tells us that we have to wait for about 15 minutes. But the 15 minutes become one hour, and after some discussion with the police, we leave without his friend. The driver doesn’t want or can’t tell us the reason.. The last 500 kilometers to the city of Xining we decide to take the train. From there we start cycling, in the Northeast of Qinghai province.

Of course we had to visit the Great Wall 😉

The Tibetan Plateau

We are very happy when we can finally continue cycling and the first few days we are super motivated. We cover big distances. The roads are perfectly paved and fairly quiet. The roads are quiet because most of the time a new highway is built right next to it. Often supported by many bridges and tunnels, so the road runs straight through the landscape. As a result, our view is often obstructed by concrete pillars. Every now and then a newly built city pops up, which on our map is still indicated as a village. It is unbelievable to see how fast this country is being built. Everything has to move for economic growth.

Our route through China, approximately 4,000 kilometers by bicycle

We cycle up to the Tibetan plateau, other than the province of Tibet, where foreigners can’t enter without a ‘permit’. The plateau is located at an altitude of about 3,000 to 5,000 meters and mainly consists of grasslands and yaks. A lot of yaks. In Central Asia, we were glad when we saw a few, but here we see hundreds of them at once! The locals mostly live in nomadic tents. What we also like to see is that all generations still wear traditional clothing. When we cycle past some locals they literally open their mouths. They may have never seen a tourist before. Every mountain top is decorated with thousands of Tibetan flags. They also buy a box full of small paper cards. They throw them all at once, into the air, so the whole mountain is full this stuff. Even 50 kilometers from the mountain top we still see them… In this part of China, we also visit quite a few Tibetan temples and monasteries with miles of walls with prayer wheels.

While we are still cycling on the plateau, we see on the weather forecast that winter is approaching. The last morning, before we descend to the metropolis of Chengdu, we wake up in our tent covered with a layer of snow. The last kilometers before the city we see the landscape and climate change slowly. From grasslands to pine forests, to increasingly tropical vegetation and warmer temperatures.

Cycling in China

Good roads, beautiful landscapes, and delicious food make cycling in China fun and comfortable. However, particularly difficult is communicating with the Chinese. Simple things like ordering food often turns out to a surprise. When we want to eat something in a restaurant, we try to find a place where there are many people. We walk past the tables and point out to a dish what looks best. Sometimes we try to translate the menu but that usually doesn’t work out, once we got a plate full of only green beans, with a noodle soup.. We try to avoid meat because they eat a lot of organs and meat with cartilage. Finding a suitable camp spot is also not that easy. Because of the mountains, there are few suitable places, and when we find a flat spot, usually there are people living there or fences around it. That’s why most of the time we make long days in the saddle and sometimes it’s already dark when we set up camp. It takes a lot of perseverance, but we manage every day to find a place. Be it behind a sand dump where the people are defecating.. Or next to a highway where all night cars are passing by.. The Chinese we meet are kind, but the language is a big barrier. Often they are shy too. When we take a break in a village, in contrast to all the other countries where we have cycled, almost no one wants to have a chat. Only when someone dares to talk to us, mainly with hand gestures, the rest will follow and soon a group of people gathers. Suddenly they are not so shy anymore 😉 ! The difference in social standards is also quite big (spitting, talking with their mouth full..). We do not get annoyed anymore because we realize this is Chinese culture. However, the constant honking in traffic is one thing that continues to disturb us. Basically, everything needs to be honked at. Anyway it was quite funny when we saw a Chinese, having their driving lessons, being learned to look into the mirrors and to honk at each action 😉 .

There is a big difference between cities and villages. In the city a truck with a special kind of fog cannon is trying to reduce the smog. In the villages, we go 50 years back in time where work is still done by hand. Every day we are amazed in China. In contrast to the super clean cities, we see dirty villages. Children shit on the street, right in front of their house. There often is only one public toilet block for the entire village, without running water. Animals are slaughtered on the sidewalk. Waste is collected and put on fire at special burning sites. And in the midst of all the dirt, someone is easily taking a nap. The big cities all look alike, everything seems new. Wide roads with perfect flowerbeds. Shops with the most expensive clothing brands and hipster bars. All these contradictions certainly make China an interesting place!

Together with Quentin and Florine from Switzerland

The natural beauty of China

For us, the highlight of China were the beautiful landscapes and National Parks. Chinese also love to travel, and of course, they take many pictures. Anything just a bit beautiful, will be turned into a major tourist attraction. In the National Parks, we find special wooden walking paths, bridges, routes and free wifi, so you can share everything immediately with your friends. All this makes the places a bit less attractive. Despite that, the places were still very worthwhile. Below some pictures of our favorite places.

During route planning across the plateau, we see a small nature reserve on the map called ”Zecha Stone Forest”. With little further information, we toke the risk and make a small detour. It turns out to be a very beautiful bit of nature with a few Buddhist sacrifices. It seems that it was a tourist attraction, or will be because the place was rather deserted.

At Huanglong National Park with Shahira and Marijke

We have our first real holiday around Chengdu when two friends of Lynn visit us. Together we visit Songpan, a village on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, Huanglong National Park and Leshan.

Descending to Tiger Leaping Gorge
Descending into the Tiger Leaping Gorge
Ferry to the Tiger Leaping Gorge

Just before Tiger Leaping Gorge, we cycle into Yunnan province. The ride to one of the deepest gorges in the world is very beautiful. We cycle along the Yangtze, the longest river in China and over high mountain passes again.

Tiger Leaping Gorge hike

In the Tiger Leaping Gorge we do a trekking, which is amazing as we walk very close to the edge all the time. The next day we cycle through the gorge again, on our way to Kunming.


The province of Yunnan is a country in itself. We see many differences compared to the rest of China. Visibly less police on the streets. Also, in the rest of China, it’s difficult to get petrol for our stove, because they are not allowed to fill anything other than a car or motorcycle. Here we see large barrels being filled so also our bottle isn’t a problem. The hotels are super cheap and we can stay anywhere, no special ”foreigner-hotels” anymore. The cities are less developed. We see more local life, as in the rest of Southeast Asia. It seems the government isn’t too interested in this province yet. For us only positive!

Working in the ricefields

The last three weeks we cycle from the city of Kunming to the border of Laos. Along the way, we meet Quentin and Florine from Switzerland, with whom we continue together all the way to the border. We visit the beautiful rice fields of Yuan Yang, tea plantations and we start to descend to the tropical south. After three months in China, we cross the border to Laos, from where we will explore the rest of Southeast Asia.

Tea plantations in Yunnan

3 Comments on “China from North to South”

  1. Thanks for the inspiring text!!! Amazing that it been a year since the beginning for your trip staying at our place in Würzburg! and you made it!!

    1. Thanks Birgit, great to see that you still follow us 😉 !! We remember the night at your place very well, but it seems such a long time ago! I hope you and your family is doing well 🙂 Best regards, Robert and Lynn

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