Cycling in China – My Trip to Xichang

Bike trips in China through some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes are popular adventures for both Chinese and foreigners. These aren’t just casual bike rides either, I’m talking about trips that last weeks or months. Cycling routes in China range from the (relatively) relaxing 450 km trip around the tropical island Hainan, to the intense, spiritual 2200 km climb from Chengdu to Lhasa, Tibet. A huge China bike trip is on my bucket list, but over Spring Festival holiday, I settled for a day ride around a city in southern Sichuan called Xichang.

Xichang, the ‘Spring City’

Chengdu can be a little cold in the winter, so over Spring Festival holiday, I wanted to go somewhere warmer. I ended up taking a 12 hour train to Xichang, where the temperature during February consistently gets up to about 20-25 C. The fresh air, sunny skies, and warm weather are invigorating, making it a popular tourist attraction among Chinese, but still not too many foreigners go there. The city sits by the massive Qionghai lake in a valley 1500 m above sea level. Instead of doing a bus tour around the area, my two friends and I opted to bike around the lake.

We rented bikes in the city for 20 RMB each for the day. First, we began in a crowded, touristy part of town, where we had fun weaving in and out of traffic. Soon, though, we made it to the less developed side of the lake where we could relax, soaking in sunshine as we biked.

Biking Around Qionghai Lake in Sichuan, China

The scenery around Qionghai Lake offers a nice change from the big city in Chengdu.

The route around the lake is very bike-friendly, with pedestrian and bike-only paths for almost half of the lake. The scenery is incredible the entire way as you ride between the edge of the water and foot of the mountains. Xichang calls itself a ‘Spring City’, due to its unique climate that gives it a pseudo-tropical feel year-round. We stopped often to take in the astounding views and weather, spending seven hours to complete the 40 km loop around the lake.

Why I Take a Bike, Not a Car

Biking has always been one of my favorite forms of exercise as well as my preferred transportation. It is a convenient way to get around while being able to enjoy your surroundings. The crisp feeling of the wind as you speed down a hill, the natural smell of flowers as you zip through a garden, and that burning feeling in your quads as you power up a mountain slope; it is a complete experience of sensation, something sitting in a car simply can’t compare to.

American cycling on a bike trip in China in Sichuan

In the spirit of Chinese New Year, I sport a red outfit to match my red bike.

One drawback, perhaps, is that it is so easy to stop and take pictures of the beautiful scenery along the way! Bike trips aren’t meant to be rushed, so give yourself more time than you would need to actually cycle the whole way. With the blue water, clear skies, and rolling mountains all around Xichang, I found myself snapping photos at every turn, even taking detours down hidden paths just to see what surprises may await.

Making Friends with the Yi Minority

One such detour made me a new friend. After biking up dirt path into a field, I came across a local farmer. He motioned me over to take a picture of his sheep grazing in the field. We struck up a conversation, and I found out he was Yi minority, the ethic group whom this special jurisdiction of Sichuan was named for (Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture). He pointed to his house at the top of the hill and talked about his family. Also, he was quite curious about me, asking questions about where I was from, why I interned in China, and even if I had married yet. Suddenly, he quickly ran off to shoo away his sheep from some crops they’d begun to chew on. Spur-of-the-moment experiences such as this come naturally with the freedom of a cycling trip.

china yi minority farmer in liangshan grazing sheep

A local Yi minority farmer chats with me while out with his sheep.

With beautiful scenery and countless surprises, China is a great place for bike trips of any duration. Biking offers active stimulation of exercise, immersive feeling in the scenery, and freedom to discover the hidden experiences a tour bus would speed past, helping you get the most out of your China adventure.