By Karen Kefauver
September 15, 2011
Link to Sentinel article
I survived my first bicycle ride in China. I felt like a little kid on training wheels — scared, uncertain and thrilled, too.
I made my two-wheeled debut on a busy street of Dali, an ancient walled town in the province of Yunnan in southwest China. About three million people call this city home, and it appears more of them drive cars and motor scooters than ride bikes.
The rules of the road here are simple: The bigger the vehicle you drive, the more power you have. More Chinese than ever can afford cars, making less space for the throngs of motor bikes, bicycles, truck drivers and buses that crowd the road. I learned very quickly that no one yields to you when you’re on a bike, unless it becomes a necessity at the last minute to avoid a collision. Only pedestrians are lower on the transportation pecking order.
Adding to the adrenalin-pumping experience of navigation, drivers are not shy about using their horns. All this means biking can be intimidating, or, as my American tour guide, put it, “exhilarating.”
Fortunately, I will have more time to adjust to the rules of the road and will also bike in less urban areas. I continue biking for the next two weeks in China as part of my 20-day guided trip with Imagine Tours, based in Davis. Fourteen of us signed up and put our faith into two trusty guides: Nancy Redpath, owner of Imagine Tours, and He Zhi Qin our Chinese guide, who runs Grand China Bike Tours. We call him Mr.Ho. Nancy has been working with Mr. Ho since 1998 and noted that the number of bikes has declined, but the condition of the roads has improved.
Together, they are shepherding our group from Dali to Hong Kong, a distance of more than 700 miles, with many stops in between. Among them are Tiger Leaping Gorge, the world’s deepest gorge, Shangri-La and even Lhasa, Tibet. It’s my first visit anywhere in Asia, and I am excited that I get to travel parts of this trip by bicycle, as well as plane, bus and train. I also am glad my first bike ride was not in Beijing, a city of 19 million people with traffic jams far worse than L.A.’s.
During my first ride in Dali, I was intently focused on not hitting anyone or anything, including my fellow riders.
“Be predictable,” advised Nancy.
I was glad I had packed my own bike helmet and gloves for protection and felt secure astride the brand new Giant mountain bike the tour company provided. I had been curious about what type of bicycle I would ride because many Santa Cruz friends in the cycling industry have traveled on business to China, where many bikes and parts are manufactured.
Dressed in my helmet, short-sleeved Santa Cruz County Cycling Club jersey and lightweight pants, I was comfortable in the late afternoon haze. It’s the rainy season here, and the weather is warm and humid. As I pedaled along, it took great concentration to not get distracted by the street vendors selling steaming pots of noodles, fried cheese on a stick [a specialty of the area], and ice cream and Coke to the tourists. I was also keen on looking at the fashionably dressed young people wearing Western-style garb so chic that it put my wardrobe at home to shame.
I worked up a sweat going up a few hills and dodged some motor bikes that seemed to be coming at me head-on. Despite the traffic hazards, it was well worth the effort for our group to arrive at a small market. I strolled by the merchants selling tourist trinkets and dried and fresh fruit, including the dragon fruit I have come to like. Tourism is Dali’s No. 1 source of revenue, followed by tobacco and building materials. I did my part by buying a bracelet after forging through the requisite haggling over the price. Safely back at our hotel, I parked my bike with its sturdy kick stand and exhaled.
What a thrilling ride! It had only been one hour, but I saw so much it felt much longer. And yes, I felt the altitude. Dali is at 6,200 feet elevation — Denver is its sister city. I felt proud of my accomplishment and excited about my next ride.
At last, I had biked in China — and lived to tell about it.
Karen Kefauver is a freelance journalist based in Santa Cruz, CA. To read more about her China adventures, visit the Out and About blog at www.santacruzsentinel.com.