CHINA by bike

It was only a matter of time before someone introduced bicycle tours to the People's Republic oc China. That someone is Fredric M. Kaplan, a young China hand who says of the course he has laid out in canton, "If I can bike it, anyone can. I'm 50 pounds overweight and not exactly an athlete."

The blond-bearded Mr. Kaplan need not apologize, however, for his knowledge of China or his abilities as a travel promoter. He may yet be recognized as the Commodore Perry of China travel. His latest enterprise, 16-day bicycle tours of Canton province, is selling out fast for 1981, but he says his outfit, China Passage (302 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10001), has a few dates still open and will expand the schedule in 1982.

Biking through China should not be seen as a trendy new way to visit the People's Republic of China. It happens to be much cheaper than the customary tour, and that was Fred Kaplan's aim. "China travel opened up in 1977," he said , "and within a short time everyone who could afford the $3,000 or $4,000 -- now it's up to $4,000 and $5,000 -- had gone. But there were still a lot of people who wanted to see China and couldn't afford it, so I started thinking of how we could cut the cost.

"The answer seemed to be bicycle tours. The main cost of China travel is within the country -- domestic air fares and hotel rooms are very expensive. This was costing people $100 a day. Biking would eliminate all that flying around, and the old inns and hostels would be much cheaper than big city hotels."

With high hopes Mr. Kaplan drew up a biking tour and shaved the cost to $2, 600. But he was turned down by the China International Travel Service, which worried about all those unchaperoned young American men and women rambling through the countryside together ("China is a very puritanical country"); the safety of visiting bicyclists in a country where, as Mr. Kaplan noted, one saw an accidetn occur on every other corner; and too much mixing of foreigners and peasants in rural China.

"I was bitterly disappointed," Mr. Kaplan said, "but on a visit to China I ran into an old friend from Hong Kong who told me to skirt the official travel service and try the Youth Federation. So I biked out of town to see them, and they were crazy about the idea. Meanwhile, the safety factor had been taken care of in 1979 when China put in bike lanes with stone barriers -- the kind Mayor Koch tried to introduce to New York -- in every major city."

Fred Kaplan studied Chinese languages in Hong Kong for three years in the 1960s as part of the Yale in China program and was a correspondent for Time and the Far East Economic review. He first saw China in 1965 -- illegally.

"People in Hong Kong used to go over twice a year for the festivals, and I just went along with them. My name was written in Chinese on my Hong kong residence card, and the official at the border never looked at my face. I was scared to death. I wandered around for a week and slept in a part two nights. In those days bicycles were a luxury.most of the people were walking."

His main company, Eurasia Press, has produced a number of books on China, including the top-selling guide book on the country, published with Lippincott & Crowell. Mr. Kaplan and Elliot Winick, an American Youth Hostel executive, laid out the bike route together and will lead some of the 1981 tours.

"We chose Canton province because it's in South China where the weather is subtropical -- never too cold for biking though very hot in the summer," Mr. Kaplan said. "And it's flat. Just the other day we got approval to go to a tropical island in the South China Sea, Hainan, which has the only real beaches in China.We'll fly there and try to rent bikes. In 1982 we will expand to central and northern China."

The bicycle groups will number 16 or 17 and average 30 to 35 miles a day -- not the 150 miles that the Youth Federation suggested to Mr. Kaplan in early planning stages. People of all ages have signed up.

"Some of our inns are 300 and 400 years old," he said. "There are Taoist retreats from the 15th century and Buddhist retreats from the 18th century. The average tourist has never stayed in these places; they've been used as political retreats. South China is very lush, so we'll eat the best vegetables and rice, and a lot of fish too. We'll eat at communes, which no foreign groups have ever done."

Until Mr. Kaplan contracts with the Chinese to provide bicycles for his groups, people will have to bring their own. Those three-, five-, and 10-speed bikes will no doubt be conversation pieces in a country of one-speeds. "China is a true biking culture," Fred Kaplan said. "Cars are not allowed -- there's no such thing as a private car. You see nothing but one-speed bicycles, made in China. It's become a prestige item.Everyone's goal is to get a bike."

He showed me a brochure advertising Chinese-made bicycles, headed by the Phoenix and Forever models.

"Phoenix is the top of the line," Mr. Kaplan said. "The Forever is one grade below, and there are about ten other levels. You are a very important person if you have a Phoenix."

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