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This is our online journal with news, photos, tours and all sorts of interesting stuff... We like to post from the roads we cycle  throughout Asia to help give you a little insight into our cycling holidays so you may read words from the road in Vietnam, the mountains in China, the beaches in Thailand, a village in Laos, a bar in Taiwan, or the stunning hills of Sri Lanka.

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A New Tour - Sichuan, Eastern Tibet

16 June 17

Cycling in beautiful solitude

A sneak peak at a whole new tour

So many images and impressions are swimming in my head at the moment that it’s difficult to believe they are all from just one tour. It has taken me some time to calm these swirling fragmented images and organise them into some semblance of a tour description, but I am getting close, and am rather excited about it.

If your after advice on a cycling route you need to ask a cyclist. Fortunatly this fellow turned up on cue with some sound advice

Into Tibet

Lijiang is a much visited tourist haunt in the very north of China’s Yunnan Province. Many visit this town with good reason - once away from the tourist hordes its cobbled streets are a delight to explore. Few though head north from here, quite likely because what lays ahead is a little daunting. On the southern edge of China’s Tibetan region the area north of Lijiang takes one into a land of immensely high mountains, dry dusty valleys, forests of pine and rhododendrons, pastures where yak graze, villages of wooden house, and the traditional fortress like stone mansions of the Tibetan people. Nomad camps are populated by motorbike riding cowboys (yak boys?), and guarded by roaming Tibetan Mastiffs. And so with much excitement Echo Lee and I drove north from Lijiang to explore PaintedRoads’ latest Chinese adventure. 

Tibetan house and barley fieldTypical Tibetan architecture

Wot, No Bikes?

For the first time ever a PaintedRoads tour has been explored by car rather than by bicycle. Having made such a statement I shall state that it is not exactly true, as I have explored the region by bicycle on more than one occasion (see pics from the previouse blog post). What we were doing this time was going over ground previously ridden to see how things look in 2017, and to see how best to piece together the collection of routes we already have. Taking the car proved to be wise as we backtracked and amended the route on enough occasions to cover 1700 kilometres in order to put together a 900KMS tour.

Our resech vehicle

A Little Bit Of Yunnan

Early on in the tour is the dramatic little town of Bao Shan. Perched precariously atop a rocky outcrop high above the Yangtse river this delightful little spot has narrow flag stone streets where ponies are the only transport.  Were it not such a choir to get to and from, Bao Shan would be a major tourist hotspot, however it is not easily accessible with the result that during our visit we were the only tourists in town. But a journey is what we are all about, and so the dramatic bicycle ride into town combined with the river journey away is perfect, and the dearth of tourist is a delight as we wander the streets.

Bao Shan perches high above the Yangtse river and is home for one night

Lugu Lake, our next port of call, is a beautiful body of fresh blue water right on the Yunnan/Sichuan border, and a fine spot for a rest and acclimatisation day before we head into the Tibetan world.

Lugu Lake, the site of our first rest/aclimatisation day

Into Tibet.

The last time I left Lugu Lake on a bicycle was ten years ago, and the way we chose back then was so vague it took us two days to find our way into Sichuan. Today the road is better, it is sealed, it is quiet and it is immensely beautiful. Two days after leaving Lugu Lake we find ourselves heading towards our first 4000 metre pass via our first climb in excess of 35KMS. The surface is super, and the gradient is kind, gaining just over a thousand metres during those 35KMS. But the air is thin, and one must never underestimate the effect of altitude when cycling.

Altitude

And here in lies one of the beauties of this tour, although it is by all accounts a high altitude tour we have the benefit of sleeping notably lower each night that the day’s highpoint. This is a great feature to ensure safe and comfortable acclimatisation to altitude. 

The only night we do not sleep lower is our overnight at Baheng Pasture. This is the midway point for our two day off road section, mostly gravel tracks, but with some rocky stuff thrown in to keep us on our toes. The pasture is a beautiful spot situated a tad below 4000 meters, and the following morning our first hour or so takes us to a beautiful pass that offers stunning views of snow peaks and a forty kilometre descent on a white gravel road - strada bianchi, fantastic stuff.

Bicycle touring Sichuan province China

 

And In The End

As always when exploring a route there are highs and lows. The lows are generally when a part of the planned route doesn't work out for one reason or another, which in the case of this tour was the originally intended ending.

Chengdu was initially penciled in as the end of the tour, but as we explored it became acutely apparent it was just too far to fit into a realistic time frame.

So we drew things a tad closer to the start with the lofty town of Litang, which according to sources is the highest in the world. Cycling to the world’s highest town has quite a touch of drama, doesn’t it? It gives a wonderful element of romantic adventure, people would like that we thought, and so we went to Litang. This was an option that seemed quite splendid until we reached Litang, where we discovered that a decade after my first visit this dusty Wild West town remains a veritable dump. It has beautiful evening light, and we found a great hotel, but a tour must end on a high, and Litang, although lofty in altitude, does not create a sense of euphoria when, after a tough two weeks cycling, one rides into town. Litang also lacks a good infrastructure for departing the tour, and so with a flourish of pen we crossed Litang off of the list of ending places and refilled the car with fuel.

Three cycling day’s east of Litang is the town of Kanding, the final Tibetan town before dropping to the provincial capital of Chengdu at a lowly 900 metres above sea level. We set off to Kanding crossing valleys and passes and high plateaus on a road that a decade before had been bereft of traffic. Now, alas, dreadful internal combustion powered vehicles blight the road with fumes and noise. The road has no shoulder, and the traffic, whilst not exactly an endless stream, was to my mind too heavy to make for an enjoyable three days riding however beautiful the vistas may be - “this will not do” went the cry.

One of the hotels we will be using on the tour

Backtrack

And so we backtracked to the ending I had favoured secretly from the start, Shangri La. It was to my mind, in all ways but one, the perfect finale to this tour. To end with a dramatic ride across rugged wild passes into a beautiful Tibetan town with character, fine food, good locally brewed beer, and an airport was surly a winner. And so we looked. 

It was a road I had ridden back in 2007 when it was empty, very empty. It was also remote, it was high, and I was keen to see it again.

Now it is remote, high, and empty. It is sealed in places and not in others. We also found the finest hotel of the tour along this route, which came as a surprise as finding accommodation was a big concern. 

Typical for this tour, baron brown walls, a blue and white ceiling, and a carpet all hues of green

All but one?

I said that ending in Shangri La was a perfect finale in all ways but one, and that one short fall is an imaginary short fall. Unfortunately a lot of things in life are imagined but believed to be true. I expect that many people will tell you that Iran is a dreadful country to visit, that it is a nation of dastardly characters all out to slit your throat. You will, however, only be told this by people who have not been there, it is imaginary, it is untrue, but it stops people from visiting. Likewise fitting Shangri La into this tour can cause the imaginary problem that because Shangri La is the start point for our Yunnan tour the Sichuan Tibet tour must be similar, it is not. It is in actuality very different. Shangri La is the edge of the Tibetan world. In the Yunnan tour we start on the edge of Tibet and travel away, we drop lower and towards SE Asia. The Sichuan tour is high, and it is for the most part Tibetan in culture, in architecture, in scenery and smells and textures and taste. Shangri La is a fitting and very suitable end, a lovely place to wind down and relax, to wander the cobble stoned streets, to drink good coffee, and to enjoy a fine craft ale. 

Architecturally this tour is divided with the earlier days seeing bare stone houses that give way to white painted abodes as we move on 
 

This road is so new it doesnt even apear on digital maps, fortunatly we stumbled upon on and it fits perfectly in the tour

 

Shangri La

Anyone who has been on the PaintedRoads Yunnan tour will be only too aware of how delightful the little town of Shangri La is. Fly into Shangri La from the low lands and it feels high, Tibetan and exotic. Cycle into Shangri La from Sichuan and it feels low altiude, and more regular Chinese. It also has all the little luxuries one will no doubt have missed during two weeks of high altitude adventure cycling, cappuccino, apple pie, pizza, strong beer. It also boasts an airport but an hour’s hop from Chengdu and Kunming, and a lovely comfortable little boutique lodge we have been using for the past few years. 

A small town as we head towards Shangri La

 

Anticipation 

Oh I am looking forward to this tour. It will be the 2018 Lab Rat Run begining in Lijiang on June 2nd next year, and finishing 16 days later in Shangri La. Full details soon. 

Yaks graze in a high altitude pasture

A Buddhist monestary along the way

High passes are always crowned with prayer flags through which the wind blows and sends incantations to the hevens. This pass sits at a lofty 4250 metres

The streets of Tibet

Yak pastures and pine trees at four thousand metres

The road into the vilage of Longsa Pasture, out highest night of the tour

Monestary

Yep there's even cactus 

The streets of Bao Shan

Many of the roads are perfectly sealed and bereft of traffic...

some are not sealed - this deserted gravel road descends for forty kilometres into the valley below...

where these fellows reside

Exploring Sichuan - Eastern Tibet Then and Now

03 June 17

Back when the 21st century was in it’s first flush of youth my adventure cycling chum and I developed something of a passion for China’s Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces. We would cycle there from Thailand, via Lao, loaded to the gunwales with tent, and stove, and sleeping bags, and water filter, and sundry paraphernalia in search of wilderness and adventure. 

As anyone who has joined me on the PaintedRoads Yunnan tour is well aware this is a truly beautiful part of the world. But for all the drama that the landscape of Yunnan has to offer it is heading away from the big hills, away from Tibet, away from an altogether other worldly experience. For it is in Sichuan Province to the north of Shangri-La where the real Tibetan world lays. Here we are heading into the Himalayas. Yaks and Tibetan nomads roam the grasslands that sit amidst the world’s most rugged, dramatic and lofty mountains. 

Back in the early noughties as we rode through Sichuan we were crossing passes on our bicycles, higher than any peak in Western Europe on a daily basis. We would wake on the morning, as one does, and as the sun rose and warmed the land we would watch the hues of red play on the towering snow peaks from our tent, warm in sleeping bags and savouring coffee brewed in the wild.

It was clear all those years ago that this was the perfect venue for a Tibet cycling tour. Sichuan is as Tibetan as the Tibetan Autonomous Region, it is as beautiful, it is as buddhist, but for we Western cyclists it has the huge bonus that it is far easier to visit.

And now, after years of pontification and procrastination the time has come to put the Sichuan tour together. Having cycled much of the region on the past I have a good idea of the route I wish to use, and with much bicycle tour experience in the region Cathy and Lee have been able to give tremendous input into the route. Now, for the next couple of weeks Lee, Echo and I are taking a look at what will hopefully be PaintedRoads new tour for 2018 - Eastern Tibet.

I will keep a journel of our journey on this humble blog, updates of which publicised on Facebook.

Cheerio for now

D

Camping high in the Himalayan foot hills

Camp fire merriment 

A typical Tibetan village

Spotting a poor old fellow huffing and puffing and wheezing to the top of a loftey pass these Tibetan kids rushed out to give me a push

Sichuan

The Rural Cycling of a Chinese Mega City

31 May 17

The image most hold in their mind’s eye when Chinese cities are mentioned is of densely populated high-rise sprawls, a mass of humanity, blaring horns and pollution. And whilst not always a huge distance from accuracy, there is so much more than this to twenty first century Sino urban living.

Our friends and colleagues Cathy and Lee live in Yunnan Province’s capital, Kunming. With its location just north of the Tropic of Cancer, and an elevation of around 1800 metres, the town boasts a wonderful year round climate giving it the rightfully deserved moniker of the Eternal Spring City. 

Amongst the surprises to great the visitor to this city of six million inhabitants is the dry warm and mild atmosphere, the relative lack of pollution, and the proliferation of the gas guzzling Porsche Cayenne. But for the cyclist lucky enough to have a chum with local knowledge the greatest surprise of all is the quality of the cycling. 

From Lee’s abode on the western side of the city a quick nip through narrow winding lanes of small shops, market stalls, and street hawkers takes us to the edge of West Mountain. The initial climb is on bitumen where heart pumping and lungs searching for some extra oxygen at this slightly depleted altitude we quickly gain 500 metres.   

The scenery up here at 2300 metres is absolutely beautiful - jagged grey rock, pine trees, meadows of flowers, are all negotiated on fantastic red dirt tracks. The views vary dramatically as we circumnavigate the hills - here wilderness as far the eye can see, there a city landscape sprawling to the distance, at times countryside with rural hamlets, all pastoral and romantic looking in the classic sense, and elsewhere modern communities of high rise apartments sprout amongst the trees adorning the hills and valleys.

Lee and his cycling chums have led me on numerous accessions through the environs of his home city, the rides are always different, on occasion we stick to rural byways of tarmac, but mostly our rides take us on a variety of surfaces, gravel, concrete, dirt and tar, which my ever accompanying titanium gravel machine tackles with graceful aplomb, and not once has the cycling been anything less than wonderful.

Think you have an idea of a Chinese mega city? Bring a bike, have a look, and think again.

Just above Kunming are medows...

and grassy trails

Great trails in the hills above Cathy and Lee's home

The hills north of Kunming have some interesting brick roads

L​​​​ee and Lao Fu

Closed trail, never mind, plenty of alternative routes

More brick roads...

and dirt trails

Rehydration stop

Rocky road

Lee in a mulberry bush


Heading back down to town

Inaugural Taiwan Tour

05 May 17

My first shock upon arriving in Taiwan a year ago, with the intention of crafting a tour for the less physical inclined, was the discovery that it is, in essence, one big mountain. 

An island a tad larger than Belgium, Taiwan rises almost immediately from the ocean and rears up to a lofty level above the briny of 3250 metres. As I had traveled to this island looking for a less demanding tour two things quickly became apparent, A: I was very poor at advanced research, and B: I had my work cut out. Fortunately #B turned out to be incorrect, for Taiwan is an island paradise for the cyclist and offers much forgiveness for the bumbling tour researcher. 

And so it was in the middle of April this year, armed with a tour I had toted as being of a level of physical demand suitable for those who are happy riding our Northern and Southern tours, I arrived  In Taipei with the usual apprehension of a first tour and a merry band of PaintedRoads’ finest lab rats.

Taipei is, in my experience, the most developed and orderly capital in Asia. That is not to say that there are not even more orderly capitals, for there may well be, but if there are I have yet to visit one. Everything I experienced is orderly and organised (except for the machine at immigrations that scans visitors fingerprints, that is the sort of rubbish Microsoft would be happy to sell). For example the colourful lights found decorating road junctions in most Asian capitals are also abundant in Taipei, but rather than simply brightening up gloomy days during the monsoon season, in Taipei they appear to indicate to road vehicles when to proceed and when to halt, and the whole nation, with few exceptions, seems to have accepted, and even, perhaps, embraced this concept.

Leaving Taipei, a city with a population of nigh on three million, is an absolute delight as we cyclists follow the Tamsui river north along a network of dedicated bicycle paths bereft of both traffic and hills.

The following two days contained short but significant sections to which I had given much consideration since first riding them. The main concerns I had were a couple of short but hilly sections that I considered suitable for the tour, but having toted the tour as suitable for those of a certain physical disposition it was clear to me that only when those people had ridden these undulations could I be sure that my appraisal was correct. Fortunately a combination of providence and knowledge of my guests proved the choice of route to be a success, and even a little push or two on a couple of steeper sections were deemed an acceptable trade off for a beautiful and tranquil route. And so, with that, I relaxed. 

Midway through the tour we rode the wonderful East Rift Valley. I love this road, it is a two wheel paradise, with gentle climbs and descents on a rural road that winds through emerald fields of rice, plantations of betel nut palm, and orchards of fruit. As an added attraction we also crossed the Tropic of Cancer before lunch, and we finished the day at a hot spring resort. Before setting out on the bikes that morning the group suggested that perhaps my description of the day’s ride made too much of what a great day lay ahead and that I should perhaps have lowered expectations in a bid to lessen the chance of disappointment. As it turned out, I had it right and the group concurred, it is a beautiful day to be on a bike. 

The final day’s cycling begins with the longest climb of the tour which sees us gain 450 metres over 10KMS. It s a satisfying sort of a climb that leads us via an equal satisfying descent to the south coast and some truly outstanding scenery. As we round the southern most tip of the island the end of a wonderful tour through a cycling haven is rounded off with a crescendo of cliffs and downs, and sparkling ocean of a most vivid turquoise and blue.  

The ride draws to a conclusion in the thoroughly popular costal resort town of Kenting Street, that with it’s selection of restaurants serving pizza, burgers, and steak, and Thai to name but a few much embraced delicacies was the icing on the cake for a group of Western cyclists.

This is but brief highlights of a wonderful tour which which is encompasses highway, byway, rail and wonderful cycle paths that together constitute a national network of bicycle routes. 

With this inaugural tour being a resounding success I will now make a few detail improvements and before the passing of much more time announce the dates for the next tour of Formosa.

Many thanks to Rod, Mark, Peter & Anne, JP & Alison, Priyen, Kevin, and Mike coming along, providing the fun, and helping to make the tour a great success, looking forward to seeing you all again, hopefully before too long.

Riding through the betal nut palms gives the journey an altogether exotic feel 

Narrow lanes light of traffic are a cyclist's delight

Ah, yes, someone led the group along a little lane to a gate that was locked - well, you can't always get it right, can you?

An old suspension bridge as we near our rest day venue in the little surfer's town of Dulan

An old harbour wall and cloudy sky lends a somewhat Cornish atmosphere 

Peter and Rod rest after a long and hot climb

A brief pause as we cross the Tropic of Cancer - that it was less than 20º at sea level was a little odd.

Rice fields and jungle

At one stage we managed to become muddled up in one of Taiwan's major iron man events...

and so we released our stallion - he soon showed them all a thing or two

 

A Gravel Road Tour In The Offing.

17 February 17

A Thailand gravel tour has long been on my mind. Slowly, for longer than a decade I have been dipping a metaphorical toe into what I thought was a meandering stream of unsealed tracks dotted around this nation that offers so much to the adventurous cyclist, but as time goes by it has become apparent that the babbling brook is in fact teaming torrent. 

Finding routes here has long been a somewhat hit and miss affair. The paper maps available have always been, and I am searching deeply but with little success for a kind way to say this, absolute tat. They showed what any half wit could easily imagine, major roads between towns. So whilst finding a route suitable for a tour was a satisfying activity that left one with a glowing feeling of success, it was nevertheless a trifle trying. And then came Google. In the early days Google Maps were not all that great for exploring, and having to drag a MacBook out of a pannier was far from convenient, but by golly have we not come a long way since then? 
Now the world is mapped, and mapped so bloody well that it leaves me wondering, and worrying a little, about how it's done. Algorithms I am sure the I.T. Savvy are crying out, but what does that mean? Orwell plonked a huge imposing TV screen in the corner of every home to watch our every activity, I expect that the concept of the spy being carried freely in our pockets, and voluntarily, even with enthusiasm, sending all manner of info regarding our every movement and ponder back to Big Brother was even beyond the vision of even the great visionary back in 1948 - but I digress, more than a tad. 

So Google and Garmin (which niggles me greatly but seems to have no viable completion), have come together to make route finding for the gravel loving bicycle itinerant a joy to behold. 

My plan for the past week was not to create a tour suitable to add to the PaintedRoads website this year, rather to give me an insight, knowledge, and confidence necessary to ensure that my long hoped for for Gravel Tour of Thailand could soon be a reality. And in this respect it has been an outstandingly productive week, as well as a lot of fun. 

A Thailand gravel tour has long been on my mind. Slowly, for longer than a decade I have been dipping a metaphorical toe into what I thought was a meandering stream of unsealed tracks dotted around this nation that offers so much to the adventurous cyclist, but as time goes by it has become apparent that the babbling brook is in fact teaming torrent. 

Finding routes here has long been a somewhat hit and miss affair. The paper maps available have always been, and I am searching deeply but with little success for a kind way to say this, absolute tat. They showed what any half wit could easily imagine, major roads between towns. So whilst finding a route suitable for a tour was a satisfying activity that left one with a glowing feeling of success, it was nevertheless a trifle trying. And then came Google. In the early days Google Maps were not all that great for exploring, and having to drag a MacBook out of a pannier was far from convenient, but by golly have we not come a long way since then? 
Now the world is mapped, and mapped so bloody well that it leaves me wondering, and worrying a little, about how it's done. Algorithms I am sure the I.T. Savvy are crying out, but what does that mean? Orwell plonked a huge imposing TV screen in the corner of every home to watch our every activity, I expect that the concept of the spy being carried freely in our pockets, and voluntarily, even with enthusiasm, sending all manner of info regarding our every movement and ponder back to Big Brother was even beyond the vision of even the great visionary back in 1948 - but I digress, more than a tad. 

So Google and Garmin (which niggles me greatly but seems to have no viable completion), have come together to make route finding for the gravel loving bicycle itinerant a joy to behold. 

My plan for the past week was not to create a tour suitable to add to the PaintedRoads website this year, rather to give me an insight, knowledge, and confidence necessary to ensure that my long hoped for for Gravel Tour of Thailand could soon be a reality. And in this respect it has been an outstandingly productive week, as well as a lot of fun. 

I would venture to say with some confidence that I now have 50% of a brilliant route ready for a group to ride. Even better than that I have the knowledge and understanding of the lay of the land, and the working of the necessary apparatus, to finalise a tour with just another two weeks on the road. 

And be assured that this will be a most beautiful tour. I have traversed mountain paths, riverside trails, cattle tracks and rice paddy gravel roads, and byways free of traffic enough to be able to create a wonderful and varied route. 

More than ten years ago I cycled the length of Thailand for the first time and saw the country afresh, a land not awash with backpacker's and tourist, but the real Thailand, a land I quickly developed a great passions for. And now, all these years later I have cycled half the length of the land on roads most will never know exist, and my love for this country is refreshed anew. 
Should a gravel adventure through Thailand tickle yer fancy then please either sign up for the PaintedRoads news letter, "like" PaintedRoads on Facebook, or better still drop me a line and I will keep our up to speed. 

Oh, and one last thing, fancy an adventure in Mongolia this summer? If so, please email me, I have a little something brewing.. 

 

The Kinesis ATR shod with Clement MSO tubeless tyres is the perfect machine for this sort of riding. Averaging 150KMS on day with a mix of gravel, dirt tracks and sealed roads the mantra Fast Far, as coined by the ATR's designer Dom Mason is most apt. Having converted to tubeless tyres last summer I feel that  the 30 to 35 psi pressure I was able to run without fear of punctures was ideal both on and off road. Way to go dude, as I believe the young say these days.

 

 

Gravel riding in North Thailand's Wonderful Winter Weather

25 January 17

 Winter weather in north Thailand is as close to perfect as one can hope for. Think of a perfect summers day in the UK and you’ve got it, warm days and cool evening that may, or may not, require a light jacket over a tee-shirt - oh, and it’s 95% certain to be dry each and every day. 

And for the cyclist it just gets better with a wonderful web of secluded byways weaving through the rice fields, across mountains and along the wide fertile valleys of the region. And as if all of this is not enough, if you happen to have a bit of a passion for gravel bikes the unsealed roads tracks and trails that spread like groping tentacles through the hills and valleys that are home to the north’s hill tribe people are a gravel bike utopia. 

With our Chinese tour partners Lee and Cathy visiting, Lee and I have been making the most of things and having a blast, shredding out in them there hills.

Gravel roads abound in Northern Thailand...

and unsealed jeep tracks...

a few river crossing

this image fails to tell the full story, this hill is just shy of 30% gradient.

Jungle trails...

and tea plantations.

The bike Lee was riding in the photos is my old Salsa Vaya with a twist, a 27.5" x 2.1 wheel and tyre combo I happend to have kicking around on an old bike - Lee's verdict? Fantastic. More of this later.

 

 

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