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China's countryside, the Great Wall, Yangtze River valley ... on a bike.

Cycling along a country road outside Canton (Guangzhou), you stop at a small village bounded by terraced rice paddies. Within seconds, a crowd of villagers forms around you, staring at perhaps the first foreigner they've ever met. Then their eyes meet your 10-speed bicycle, and the awkward moment disappears into a spirited sign-language conversation about wheels, brakes, and derailleurs.

Started in 1981, bike tours to the People's Republic of China allow you to see the country in a more personal way and often at a lower price than standard bus tours. And you get plenty of exercise in the bargain. In a nation where the bicycle is the chief form of transportation, pedaling allows you to travel at the pace of the Chinese themselves, opening up new perspectives on their life style.

After some trial-and-error trips, organized China bike touring has become more sophisticated, with greater choices of destinations and departures. You can steer an all-terrain bike past Inner Mongolian yurts, pedal out to the Great Wall near Peking, bicycle past rice-growing communes in the Yangtze River Valley. In the evening, you might find yourself at a 12-course banquet, followed by a Chinese opera. Your tour operator arranges everything: visas, meals, lodging, and transportation.

You don't have to be a dedicated cyclist to enjoy the trip. "I've had everyone from 11-year-olds to 63-year-old grandmothers," says Robert Carpenter of China Bike Tours, based in Boulder, Colorado.

Tours are escorted every mile of the way by experienced American cyclists and Chinese. On an average day, you'll cover about 30 miles, though you need not ride that far; a bus, van, or truck brings up the rear to transport baggage and any pooped-out bikers. Some days, you won't cycle at all.

You'll no doubt visit communes, craft factories, and famous sightseeing spots such as the Ming Tombs near Peking and the 2,000-year-old terra cotta army of the Ch'in Dynasty outside Sian. But the unique reward of biking is a leisurely look at China's countryside, where 80 percent of the country's 1 billion people live close to the land, growing rice, wheat, millet, and other crops. Expect some surprises

China bike touring is not for everybody, and there can be problems. Itineraries occasionally change without notice. The quality of interpreters varies, and--as is usual in China--officials may leave you little free time. Lodging ranges from uninspiring old Soviet-built hotels to elegant guesthouses used by dignitaries.

Cycling in city traffic can be a white-knuckle experience; country roads sometimes resemble washboards. The Chinese heat with coal and wood; resulting air pollution can cause discomfort.

You can rent heavy Chinese men's 10-speed bikes (about $75 per trip), but they don't fit everyone, so you may want to bring your own. You can transport your bike as free baggage on most trans-Pacific flights, but you must keep the bike box with you as you travel around in China (ask the tour operator for details). Choose your tour operator carefully

A tour leader with tact, humor, and a working knowledge of China and bicycling is a must; before you put down your deposit, find out as much as you can about him or her. Also, be sure to find out the driest, pleasantest months in the region you intend to visit. In April, for example, Peking can be a dry and cool 55[deg.] while Canton can be a wet and muggy 72[deg.].

Prices--current at our press time--include round-trip air fare from the West Coast, double-occupancy lodging, and all meals in China.

Tours usually start in Peking, then fly to another area for the bulk of the biking. It's best to reserve early: some trips fill up months in advance. Groups marked with an asterisk provide their own tour leader but work through China Passage, the largest bike tour organizer by far.

* American Youth Hostels, New York Council, 75 Spring St., New York 10012; (212) 431-7100. South China, 21 days, $2,849 to $3,196; four departures, April through December.

* American Youth Hostels, National Office, 1332 I St. N.W., Suite 800, Washington, D.C. 20005; (202) 783-6161. Yangtze Valley, 24 days, $3,145; July.

* China Bike Tours, 422 Pleasant St., Boulder, Colo. 80302; (303) 449-0148. Yangtze Valley, 21 days, $3,400; several departures.

China Passage, 302 Fifth Ave., New York 10001; (212) 564-4099. Yangtze Valley, Inner Mongolia (using all-terrain bikes), East China, South China, Silk Road, Yunnan Province and Kweilin, 18 to 26 days, $1,995 to $3,174; 63 departures.

China Sightseeing, Inc., 58 Second St., Fourth Floor, San Francisco 94105; (800) 227-7897 in California, (800) 227-3920 elsewhere. Tours by arrangement; 14- to 21-day trips along the Grand Canal and in South China, from $2,181.

* Country Cycling Tours, 140 W. 83rd St., New York 10024; (212) 874-5151. Yunnan Province and Kweilin, 24 days, $3,100; August and October.

* Open Road Bicycle Tours, 1506-C Belle View Blvd., Alexandria, Va. 22307; (703) 768-8687. Inner Mongolia, Silk Road, South China, 18 to 26 days, $2,150 to $3,516; March through October.

Sierra Club, Outing Dept., 530 Bush St., San Francisco 94108; (415) 981-8634. All-terrain bike tour of Inner Mongolia, 25 days, $2,600 (excluding air fare); July.

Travis Pacific Corp., 1100 Glendon Ave., Suite 900, Los Angeles 90024; (213) 208-0628. Eastern China, 16 days, $2,200; August.

* Wilderness Travel, 1760 Solano Ave., Berkeley 94707; (415) 524-5111. Yangtze Valley, 24 days, $3,153; July and October.

* Womantrek, Box 1765, Olympia, Wash. 98507; (206) 357-4477. Tours for women only, Inner Mongolia, Silk Road, 24 days, $3,219 to $3,519; May and August.
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Feb 1, 1985
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