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September 29, 2010

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Pedaling along the Silk Road

CYCLISTS find exotic locations appealing. China's Silk Road is more exotic than most destinations and continues to lure amateur cyclists.

Dulwich College Shanghai teacher Andy Clapperton says he couldn't resist the lure of the Silk Road and has spent more than a month cycling over 5,000 kilometers in west China.

Clapperton, who teaches Spanish and French at Dulwich College Shanghai, has been a cycling fan since 2003 when he lived in Beijing.

And he didn't give up his hobby when he moved to Shanghai in 2009. The 30-year-old now cycles to and from work each day. It takes about 50 minutes each way, including a ferry over the Huangpu River.

"I find Shanghai very cyclist unfriendly, but I still very much enjoy the ride to and from school - it keeps you in good shape, gives you an excuse to eat more, makes you feel really alert when you start work and allows you to get any of the day's stress out of your system on the way home," Clapperton says.

Going on long-distance rides is even more thrilling.

"I love the thrill of being out of my comfort zone, and the satisfaction that generates when you come through difficulties successfully," Clapperton says.

He once thought about traveling to the United Kingdom, his home country, on his bicycle. And as soon as the idea hit him, there was no way to forget - it was just too irresistible a challenge. He has been using virtually every holiday to go on cycling trips.

His cycling trips include stops in Zhejiang and Fujian provinces, Thailand, Ethiopia and Macedonia. And during the summer of 2010 he made his way to the famous Silk Road in western China.

Clapperton says he originally planned to cycle the route of Chairman Mao's Long March, but changed it at the last minute due to flooding along the route.

Without much planning, Clapperton still cycled 5,272 kilometers over 36 days from Kashgar to Xi'an. A friend joined him for part of the trip, but he completed a significant stretch of the journey alone.

Traveling by bike allows you to take in much more than you would if you were on a bus or train, according to Clapperton. You can stop whenever you like and therefore meet more people on the way. You can see everything, not just the touristy bits. You can examine industrial wastelands, sprawling cities and the poverty, rather than just the beautiful scenery and ancient monuments.

"You will gain a much more accurate picture of the place you are visiting since you are that much closer to the ground," Clapperton says.

Amazing grasslands

For example, Uygur people are sometimes viewed with a certain caution. But Clapperton says that he encountered some fascinating people in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. It's a completely different world from eastern China, but Muslim culture is equally, if not more welcoming, to travelers, according to Clapperton. He found himself constantly being waved at and asked about his journey.

He says the most impressive scenery was the mountain grasslands in Qinghai Province.

"As you hit about 3,500 meters above sea level, the scenery seems to quite suddenly and quite remarkably change from being very dry to these wonderful grasslands," Clapperton says. "The hills are covered with sheep and yak and yurts, with the occasional wild dog chasing you.

"At one point I stopped about 5 meters from a huge eagle that was perched on the side of the road. It looked me in the eye for about 10 seconds and then spread its enormous wings and rose up on the hot air currents," he recalls.

While Clapperton usually doesn't make detailed plans before heading off on a cycling trip, it's a good idea to have high-quality maps of the area and learn how to do some basic bike repairs before venturing out.

As the International Award Coordinator at Dulwich, Clapperton spends much time taking students on outdoor expeditions to remoter areas of China and beyond, and they are often interested in his travel stories as well.

Clapperton says high school students often ask more intelligent questions than adults as they are more open to new ideas.

"Adults often tend to have a fixed and sometimes very negative attitude that it would be impossible for them to go on such an expedition, when in reality it is beyond reach for very few," Clapperton says. "But children are more likely to feel inspired and hopefully go on to do similar things themselves."


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