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 cynic would argue with gloomy enthusiasm that high hopes and fine expectations are a sure-fire recipe for disappointment, as, I suspect, would many a realist. And so it was that I headed for Mongolia earlier this month with both high hopes, and a niggling foreboding of doom.
It is for some years now that I have been eager to host a Mongolia tour, and so the surprise meeting early this year with an agent in Ulaanbaatar who asked to cooperate on a camping tour in the Kangi Mountains gave me cause for much excitement and the anticipation of a super adventure to come.
As I discussed the details of the tour and my requirements with the agent I felt more and more that I was dealing with a trustworthy fellow who valued the need for quality highly and believed in a fair and honest working relationship. And so it was that for the first time ever rather the venture alone or with a chum to inspect and explore a route I contacted a small group of PaintedRoads valued regulars and invited them to join me on a Mongolia expedition. Unsurprisingly most eagerly jumped at the chance of adventure in an unknown land and quickly became known collectively as, the LabRats.
And so it was that Dianne, Nigel, Marko, Phil, Keith, Echo, and I all met early in July in Ulaanbaatar’s Grand Khan Irish Pub, eager for a few pints of Gobi Gold and two weeks of Mongolian cycling adventure.
Rather than describe the two weeks in detail here and now I will let a few of my photos from the trip give you a little flavour of this wonderful land, and over the next week or so as I go through the pics I will post a few more prior to adding the tour to PaintedRoads' collection.
It is early days at the moment, we have just returned to our respective homes, but soon I will add the thoughts, comments, and opinions of the LabRats along with further images.
The bottom line, for now, is that I had no concern whatsoever to lumber my journey to Ulaanbaatar with nagging doubts. The Mongolia LabRat Run was absolutely superb in all respects. The crew were excellent, the food, produced in a kitchen tent was exceptional, the tents and the camping were great, and the overall organisation was splendid.
For anyone wishing to exchange the Westernised life of the 21st century for two weeks of wilderness, where neither car nor wifi nor crowds of people roam, then this tour is just the tonic. It’s a wilderness of trails, through desert and meadows and forests and pastures, across hills and valleys and rivers. It’s a land of nomadic herders who live a tough but pure life and understand the value of kindness, sharing, and friendliness, far above and beyond greed and materialism - am I smitten with Mongolia? Yes, I most certainly am, and I cannot wait to return.
Full details of the new Mongolia tour will follow soon.
Finally on a personal note, many thanks LabRats, it was, and you were, brilliant!
Our support vehicles were the rather wonderful Russian made UAZ - think of it as a VW camper on steroids.
A wilderness tour for sure, Mongolia offered a wonderful variety of terrain and riding from smooth tracks and grassy hills...
to river crossings
Camping was a civilised affair with a kitchen/dining tent, shower tent, loo tent, and a four made dome tent between one or two depending on booking
The camp chefs turned out an amazing selection of quality cuisine
The Orkhon valley, quite lovely
Cycling guide, mechanic, camp guard, and instant PaintedRoads legend - Toro
Riding across the pastures
From time to time we would overnight in a ger camp, an agreeable and comfortable experience
Another wonderful meal. The food far exceeded expectations
Wide open spaces
One of the many nomads we met along the way
More friendly nomads
Meeting yaks, a regular occurrence
Cheers all, a typical tea break
Apparently, the largest urban area on earth, the Pearl River Delta may not be the first place to pop into a cyclists mind when looking for a rural ride. The nine largest cities in the area have a population pretty much the same as the UK, so solitude is not something that one expects to find in ample abundance. However, the Perl River Delta is where Echo and I are to be found between our recent exploration of Sichuan Province and our forthcoming Mongolia Lat Rat Run, and so, with the desire for a ride, we set of one recent sunny morning for the 155-kilometre ride from Zhuhai to Chiken.
Chiken is little more than a village but is reasonably well known for its rather novel architecture. The nearby county town of Kaiping was home to an adventurous bunch of Chinese who early last century made their way overseas in search of wealth, something that had enough success in to be able to spawn a small building revolution of more European type dwellings, and fortified towers deemed necessary to protect themselves from marauding bandits intend on relieving these nouveau rich travellers from their hard earned wealth.
With the mercury showing in excess of 35º I was nothing short of impressed with Echo’s performance on her first ever 150 kilometres cycling day. I was also rather happy with the majority of the route we managed to find, courtesy of some fine fellow’s route on Strava mixed with some walking routes courtesy of Google’s algorithms. Even navigating out of Zhuhai was a painless affair, with small riverside paths and some leafy shaded streets more reminiscent of Hanoi than a typical contemporary Chinese city.
Out in the countryside, we found the sort of landscape one may expect of a huge river delta, with lots or riverside paths, bridges and fish farms that put us in mind of PaintedRoads’ Mekong Delta Tour. And the lovely quiet streets of Chiken, where we enjoyed an evening of street dining and cold beers in a cooling breeze, was a fine destination in which to relax after a fine day on the bikes.
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 you're after advice on a cycling route you need to ask a cyclist. Fortunately, this fellow turned up on cue with some sound advice
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 houses, 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.
Typical 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 previous 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 research 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 flagstone 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/acclimatisation day
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.
And herein 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.
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 pencilled 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
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 surely 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 shortfall is an imaginary shortfall. 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 cobblestoned 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 doesn't even appear on digital maps, fortunately, we stumbled upon on and it fits perfectly in the tour
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 altitude 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
Oh, I am looking forward to this tour. It will be the 2018 Lab Rat Run beginning 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 monastery along the way
High passes are always crowned with prayer flags through which the wind blows and sends incantations to the heavens. 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 village of Longsa Pasture, the highest night of the tour
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
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
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
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 greet 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 megacity? Bring a bike, have a look, and think again.
Just above Kunming are meadows...
and grassy trails
Great trails in the hills above Cathy and Lee's home
The hills north of Kunming have some interesting brick roads
Lee and Lao Fu
Closed trail, never mind, plenty of alternative routes
More brick roads...
and dirt trails
Lee in a mulberry bush
Heading back down to town
My first shock upon arriving in Taiwan a year ago, with the intention of crafting a tour for the less physically 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 travelled 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 Thailand 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 immigration 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. Its 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 southernmost 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 a sparkling ocean of most vivid turquoise and blue.
The ride draws to a conclusion in the thoroughly popular coastal resort town of Kenting Street, that with its 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 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 betel 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