Wanderlust is a regular series where we speak with a notable individual from the travel industry.
Guangzhou is by no means China’s most popular tourist city, lacking the name recognition and big-ticket attractions found in Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai. That said, Guangzhou offers a treasure trove of hidden gems for those adventurous enough to track them down.
In an effort to help visitors and curious locals in Guangzhou to explore beneath the surface of the metropolis, Bram van Ooijen launched Cycle Canton in 2013. The bike-based tourist experience company aims to help curious people discover Guangzhou’s fascinating history, culture and architecture.
Give us some background on how you came up with the idea for Cycle Canton?
I would often ride around town for fun, exploring areas of the city I hadn’t been to. I would find hidden markets, historic buildings, temples, galleries, you name it, and locals would share their stories with me. I developed a network of safe, fun and interesting routes away from the main roads, and invited friends to come along. At one point, a friend and I decided to open this up to expats and visitors and show them the ‘real Guangzhou.’ Few people venture out into the old neighborhoods, where you find the soul of the city. In 2013, we developed routes, compiled stories from interviews with locals, books and articles, lots of online research and personal experiences. We then set up a company, got our online presence sorted, and got it going.
Image via Cycle Canton
In the age of Mobikes and other shared-bike companies, do you use your own bicycles or rely on shared bikes?
We have used shared bikes in the past, picking and testing the best ones available, but we now operate with our own bikes – the classic Chinese Fenghuang (Phoenix) bike, the kind that Katie Melua refers to when she sings about ‘9 million bicycles in Beijing.’ We retrofitted everything to make them comfortable and safe to ride. A comfy seat, sturdy brakes, better pedals, new wheels, a kickstand and much more. We have retained the classic look though. The old-fashioned bell is still my favorite part. You get a lot of attention from the locals, most of whom owned one in the past. We’re bringing back memories of their youth!
Image via Cycle Canton
What have been the main challenges in operating a tour company in Guangzhou?
One challenge has been to find a place to park our bikes without committing to RMB5,000 per month in rent. We now cooperate with Happy Monk, where we park our bikes and start the tours, so we both benefit.
The major challenge now is increasing the number of guests. Just over half of our guests are visitors to the city, tourists or people on business. Unfortunately, Guangzhou does not have a Forbidden City or Great Wall, so it’s not high on the list of places to go in China. So, while selling our tours, we also need to sell the city of Guangzhou. But it’s an amazing city, where the old neighborhoods are still mostly retained and you can get a real feel of the traditional China. It’s also a city that shaped again and again the fate of the country: foreign trade, the Opium War, the start of the Republic of China, the rise of communism and the start of economic Reform and Opening-up policy. These all started right here in Guangzhou – and I don’t need to tell you about the food and the climate.
There’s so much here, but people abroad, including myself when I first visited 14 years ago, just don’t know. And it’s actually quite safe to cycle because of its old car-free neighborhoods, greenways, parks and riverside promenade.
Image via Cycle Canton
Who is the most famous person to join one of your tours?
Oh wow, there were quite a few. We’ve had ministers, governors and mayors from many countries. It’s funny how you see these people on TV, and when you meet them on the ground, they’re always very down-to-earth, engaging and interested in the city and culture. These people are usually bored with receptions and meetings, and just want to get a real feel for the city.
I’m a big-time soccer fan, and we’ve hosted quite a few professional football players. And one of the top soccer referees in the world, who insisted on getting a haircut on the street during the tour. The hairdresser turned out to be an apprentice, so it was free of charge.
We’ve also had an Olympic gold medal winning BMX biker, CEOs of major companies and the London Philharmonic Orchestra – who detailed how classical musicians actually live a secret rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.
But really, I just as much enjoy our ‘ordinary’ guests. One guest once brought a Bluetooth speaker along and took the local aunties in People’s Park dancing to reggaeton. We have the chance to meet people from all over the world and from all walks of life. We share our stories, but they share theirs too. It’s great fun and an enormous privilege to run our tours.
To learn more about Cycle Canton visit cyclecanton.com. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 156 2640 6926
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
[Cover image via Cycle Canton]