China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: Random notes on cycling China
Date: Sun, 30 Aug 1998 16:47:25 -0700

00:24 Feitian Hotel, Dunhuang; Gansu--China :: SU 30 AUG 98

Parts: No matter how many you carry, the one you really, really need won't be in your parts box when you really, really need it. To minimize this, carry a duplicate of everything which, should it fail catastrophically, would absolutely end your cycling. Also, when you buy your bike, get the most vanilla components possible. Shimano Alivio is commonly available in large cities, but even this technology does not appear on any bikes west of Lanzhou.


My rear hub is probably toast. No problem, just replace it, right?

Wrong. After numerous cities and nearly 2,000 km in the province of Gansu, I've yet to see a quick release, a hollow axle or a hub compatible with a Shimano 8-ring cogset. Xian, Beijing and Hong Kong are the only PRC cities I've seen these in, though I'm assuming they're available in Kunshan, near Shanghai, where Shimano operates a parts factory.

Oh. Well, just downgrade to whatever the locals use, right?

In other places of the world, a viable option. However, my trailer hitches onto the rear axle via a nifty and clever modification of a quick release spindle. So, I can downgrade to a solid axled 6-ring hub fine, I just won't be able to use the trailer. And even if that weren't a problem, what about that cog set?

Also problematic in this case is the low availability of wheels. A Dutch couple I met cracked a rim and found a compatible replacement, but the replacement came with an entire bicycle attached and the dealer wouldn't sell the wheel without the rest of the bike. They eventually found a slightly incompatible rim, after a trying search, had their hub built onto it (with those questionable Chinese spokes) and and did some jury-rigging magic to get the brakes to work with the rim.

Actually, this couple was quite clever and resourceful. They also repaired broken struts on their pannier racks with tent pegs and zap straps.

What I'll do next time:

Hubs, particularly brand new ones, don't fail that often. And they're not light in your bags either. My spare parts include a duplicate quick release for hitching the trailer. The trailer manufacturer also makes nuts for solid axles. Next time I'll carry these rather than the spare quick release. They're lighter than the quick release and will get me out of three kinds of serious difficulty: quick release breakage; bent hollow axle; terminated hub. One spare part and a trip to any cycle shop or even junk yard puts me back on the road with a minumum of fuss (and a minimum of gears.)

Ball bearings: carry a full set for overhauling your hubs. The bearings here are cheap, in both senses of the word. I don't like having to trust my already damaged hub to them, particularly after today's nearly fruitless search of Dunhuang for something resembling the right size and shape. Bearings don't weigh much, so carry two full sets for long tours, for your hubs and your headset and your pedals.

Spokes: Like ball-bearings, the spokes here look a tad cheesy. I haven't had to install any, but I'm not looking forward to the eventuality.

Tires: Yes, you can buy 26" tires here, but they may not fit your rims. If Emma's Chinese front tire ever gets a flat, we're going to have to cut it off--the fit is just too tight. So, carry a spare tire, or two. The ones with the kevlar bead are lighter and fold flattest.

Additional tire info: slicks are not recommended. You will almost certainly have to traverse dirt roads, probably shortly after a rain. On the other hand, rolling resistance of knobbies is incredibly high. That is, the tires that come stock on most mountain bikes make awful road tires. Em sounded like a swarm of killer bees whenever we rode pavement, and all that racket means friction, which means you're rolling more slowly than you could. Pick a hybrid tire, slickish in the middle with knobblies on the outside, and something which you can pump a lot of air into. The harder the tire, the faster and more stable the ride. I started with very expensive Bontragers, which were nice, but now I've got a Specialized Dirt Baldy on the rear wheel. It's slicker, grips amazingly well in soft, loose conditions, pumps up to 80PSI and appears more resistant to punctures. All that for half the price of the Bontrager's. I like it!

The rear tire will wear much more quickly than the front, particularly if, like me, your hauling a trailer or only use your rear panniers. The front tire on my setup is the original Bontrager. It's done over 4,000 kilometers and appears just barely worn. The Dirt Baldy on back is nearly slick after just 2,000 K, though it's still got plenty of wear to go. The Bontrager I had on for the first 2,000K was also getting quite slick. If you carry only one spare, make sure it's suitable as a rear tire.

Brake pads: Old cantilever style are available all over China, but you're in trouble if you need anything more recent. I've not found any of these in all of China. My originals still haven't worn down to the wear indicators. I'm beginning to suspect they won't before this trip is over in another 2,000 K. Kind of a shame since I'm carrying five spare pairs of them, and four of these pairs are thicker than the originals, designed explicitly for extreme wear conditions. At $10CDN a pair, I'm not eager to leave them behind.

Tools: if it ain't in your toolbox you won't be able to find it when you need it. Make sure you can turn every nut and bolt and screw on your bike. This includes the funky 10mm hex bolt that may be holding the crank arms onto the bottom bracket spindle. If that crank starts squeeking, you want to cinch her up immediately, before you round it like I did, and are forced to replace the crank. Better yet, check the tightness of the bolt from time to time.

Road hazards:

The trucks will normally give you plenty of space, up to half the road. They'll sometimes even wait for oncoming traffic to clear before trying to pass you. On the other hand, oncoming trucks passing other oncoming trucks and vehicles may expect you to get the hell off the road.

Perhaps more dangerous and certainly no less annoying, trucks are armed with about 5 bizillion decibels of horn, and trucker's are not afraid to use them. In fact, they take a certain glee in giving little 'pip-pip' hello's as they draw alongside. The only people I swear at, loudly, and in english four-letter monosyllables, are truckers who lean on their horns, as if you can't hear their rumbling behemoths sneaking up from behind.

Meanwhile, car horns often sound as if they've been muzzled so you'll hear this far-off car horn and almost immediately get blown down by the shockwave as the car passes. These are usually VW Santanas, the most popular car in China, and perhaps the worst driven vehicle per capita in China. Watch out for them.

Break downs: On many of the highways there ain't much of a shoulder. Don't be surprised to see a truck taking up an entire lane, its engine lying a meter or so in front or to one side or the other and in the process of being totally rebuilt.

When it is rebuilt, they'll drive away, leaving on the highway the large stones they used as chocks to keep the truck stationary.

13:47 Shirley's Cafe, Dunhuang; Gansu--China

Construction: No warnings of any kind. No diversions. Often work proceeds on all lanes at the same time, effectively closing the road to all vehicles with more than two wheels. Patchwork repairs can sit for days before being refilled. I've seen a set of skid marks cross a two foot deep rectangular hole in the highway. At the end of them, a truck with the left front wheel sheared off.

Map reading: thick red lines and a numbered highway do not necessarily indicate pavement.

At the best of times, in the most advanced countries, maps are frequently inaccurate. Expect mileages to differ, and the course of various roadways to vary from the printed version.

Notes on preparation:

Make sure, before you leave, that you can take your bicycle entirely apart and put it back together again, yourself, without an english speaking bicycle mechanic looking over your shoulder offering pointers.

Test all your spare tubes. Emma's were all punctured. One of the three needed two patches.

Know all the sounds your bicycle makes when you ride it. When a new sound appears, figure out what's making it and eliminate the cause if at all possible.

Toolkit musts:

Zap Straps/Zip Ties: there are currently 15 of these attached to my bicycle holding various kluges and jury-riggings together. Several more keep my spare tires tightly packed. They're light, so bring more than you can possibly imagine using.

Duct tape and electrical tape: needs no explanation. In a pinch, duct tape alone will suffice.

Kevlar emergency spoke: Don't be lazy: replace the spoke if possible (you should be carrying spares), however, if you break one on the cogset side of the rear hub, this will get you to the day's destination. Pick a hotel room with open plumbing in the bathroom.

Getting the cogset off withuot a chain whip:

I recommend removing the axle before doing anything else. That way you are really going to have to do something awful to damage the hub. Gives you a good reason to overhaul the hub, anyway.

Get out your spare chain, or if the one in use is due for replacement remove it from the bicycle. While you're in there, get the 6" crescent wrench and that heavy piece of metal for removing the cogset lockring, you know, the one you figured you'd never use. Find a nice solid pipe in the bathroom, one that is easily accessible and goes straight into a broad, flat, horizontal surface. Lay your wheel down flat and butt the tire up against the pipe. Wrap a towel around the pipe. Thread one end of the chain around the second-largest cog and wrap the other end around the towel encased pipe a couple times. Don't overlap the chain and keep the links as close to horizontal as possible, unless you won't be needing the chain anymore.

Now you're ready to reef. Hold the free end of the chain tightly to the pipe, get a firm grip on the crescent wrench (which is securely set on the lockring tool) and carefully apply pressure until the lockring backs off. Ole!

If you don't have a spare chain, and your shifters are Shimano Hyper-Glide or Inter-Glide, you're in trouble. You won't find any of these in Gansu or Xinjiang or anywhere else outside of Beijing or Shanghai or Xian or similar sized cities. In this case, don't use the chain off your bicycle (it's an endangered species, treat it with special care). Instead, walk to the nearest sidewalk repair shop and buy one of his castoffs for a couple jiao. Later, when you're done with it, give it back to him.

Chain cleaning: we've been removing the chains, soaking them in kerosene then going over every link with one of the complementary toothbrushes provided by the hotel. We usually ask for a few extra: they're weak toothbrushes and cleaning the whole drivetrain completely destroys at least two of them.

I once cycled into a "meiyou meiyou" town, that is, a "no kerosene" town with a very cranky chain. I used a whole bag of laundry detergent in a bucket of very hot water, probably enough for twenty or thirty loads of dirty sheets. This worked remarkably well. Just don't forget to thoroughly rinse the detergent from the links. It took two days of long rides before my chain lube would stick for very long. Fortunately, detergent is a bit slick itself.

Next time, though, I'll make room for one of those chain cleaning gizmos. Something compact and light, of course, but something you can apply daily with a minimum of meiyou, muss and fuss.

Cycle Computers: I went simple and cheap and sturdy. Now wishing I'd gotten one with an altimeter. Maybe if I had one I'd be thinking it wasn't worth the hassle.

But what I really wish my computer could do was stop calculating my average speed whenever the bike isn't actually moving. Then I could differentiate quite easily between how many hours in a day is required to traverse a specific distance and how fast I'm pedalling when actually in motion. As it is, if I want to track the latter I have to keep switching the meter off every time I stop for a break and remember to switch it back on again when underway. I always forget one of these, so I just switch it on as we start the day and (try to remember) to switch it off when we reach our destination.

Books and other references:

The preface to Roger Grigsby's "China by Bike" states something to the effect of:

This book assumes you are already an experienced cycle tourer.
If you are not, China is no place to start.
I ignored that statement, came anyway and used Grigsby's exceptionately accurate and detailed trip logs to traverse Shanghai to Suzhou and Tai'an to Beijing. However, I never did manage to get my cycle computer to synchronize to Grigsby's mileage. So we'd often resort to just showing Grigsby's maps to one of the locals and pointing to the Chinese characters for the town we figured must be coming up. This worked marvellously well and the only time we ever got lost (and hopelessly so) was when I kinda figured I should get a local's opinion, but didn't. Thankfully, I came to China with a compass and we eventually slogged our way, through fields, over donkey cart paths and into muddy villages, back to an alternate route also appearing on Grigsby's map, with the aid of the ever-helpful local Chinese. "Hmmm, that highway's to the east, into the wind, eh? What about this one? Ahh, WEST! Two kilometers? YES! Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you!"

You don't need a guidebook specific to cycling China. You need two maps. One in english that you can read and use for trip planning. One that the Chinese can read and you can use for trip planning. The english one doesn't even have to be particularly accurate. You're just using it for the names of towns so you can plan out your basic route. The Chinese one needs to be accurate and thorough.

When cycling, I keep the Chinese road atlas handy, using it to ask locals where I am and how to get where I'm going. Another guy I rode with for a day writes the chinese characters of the towns he'll be passing through that day, clips them to his handlebar bag and shows these to the locals when asking directions. "Is this town ahead of me or behind me? Turn right or left to get to this place?" You could also trace out a simplified map and put this in your handlebar bag, perhaps providing the locals with a little more clarity.

Though locals rarely steer me wrong, I have sometimes received false information. It's wise to seek a second opinion for corroboration.

This is important: road signs are not unheard of but they are infrequent at the best of times and rare at the worst. Getting out of a town on the right road can be particularly confusing. Don't assume the street your highway comes into town on exits town as the same highway.

Unless you're pretty good with mandarin Chinese, a good sturdy phrasebook is a necessity. Most Chinese people you'll encounter speak no more english than "Hello, Hello," "Bye-bye!" and "Please sit down." A useful addition is a Chinese-English/English-Chinese dictionary. You can look up the Chinese characters for the chinese map for the english transliteration of a town on your english map. But, more importantly, you can find most of the vocabulary missing from the phrasebook, useful words such as appear in the sentence "Do you have any brake cables?" (Nimen you shache lan ma?) Neither Lonely Planet or Berlitz consider these worthy of defining.

As for travel guides like the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, they're geared to bus and train folk. Useful, perhaps, for when you finally reach that touristy destination, but just more weight on you axles for the four or five or seven days of riding ahead. Which leaves the question, "Where am I supposed to sleep those four or five or seven nights ahead?"

You can find a surface to sleep on in any town on your Chinese map, and quite a few towns and truck stops not appearing there. These are not always pleasant experiences, even when the rooms are clean and the sheets recently washed. But it is a place to sleep. In the mountains and other more remote regions than the eastern plains camping is a simple option. How to's on camping are available online; in particular search for one couple's trip down the Karakorum for explicit detail. It's out there, you'll find it.

If you don't like either of these options, plan your route around it. In my road atlas, the smallest dot on the map indicates a small town or a village, usually place too small to support a Binguan. Any dot larger than that I refer to as "a Binguan-class town." Typically, a Binguan is a western tourist-class hotel with rooms including private bath (almost always a bathtub though sometimes just a shower; and a western toilet), telephone and a television. Quality and price vary widely, and price is no indication of quality so always ask to see a room and, if you're wiser than me, you'll tick off the items important to you on a checklist so you don't get any surprises after check-in.

Hotel things to remember:

Hot water may not run all day, in fact, it probably won't. Find out when, and even if, the hot water will be turned on. I've taken my share of cold showers. I've even stayed in a couple hotels without any running water at all.

I've given up on direct dial from the room. Even when possible, internal hotel lines can be absolutely awful. Meanwhile, the merchant at the corner newsstand probably has a great line, won't hassle you when you yank the line jack out of his phone and plug it into your computer, and will almost certainly charge you less for the privilege than the hotel. The corner store can't help if you need to dial internationally, but any Binguan-class town also supports a post and telecommunications office and they too will charge less than your hotel.

The complementary tea provided by hotels is often thin and bitter. Bring your own supply, or, if you're a coffee hound, get some instant. Nescafe 1+2 packets can be bought in boxes of 10 or bags of 20 in larger towns, for as little as 1.4RMB per packet. Non-dairy creamer and sugar already premixed in one serving packets. Not so bad, unless you're a Starbuck's snob.

You'll probably be forced to store your bike outside in the courtyard, or out back somewhere. These areas are typically gated and locked at night, and patrolled by security. However, try to get inside storage. Hotel managers have gladly given up space in their offices for two bikes and a trailer. If the staff aren't going for it, at least find something solid and immobile to lock to. However, failing all that, China's an amazingly safe place, and outdoors in a hotel courtyard, locked only to itself, is a safer bike in China than one U-locked to a water pipe in a basement storage locker in Vancouver.

This is long enough. More later, if I think of anything.

Return is the movement of the Tao.
Yielding is the way of the Tao.

All things are born of being.
Being is born of non-being.
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 40
trans. Stephen Mitchell