The chance to meet cute girls was a definite plus, although it wasn't the main reason 28-year-old Niu Bin embarked on an epic bicycle journey around the mainland. The affable Shanxi native had long dreamed of exploring the beauty of his country, and last December set about realising that goal. He quit his job as a car salesman, bought a mountain bike, sketched a route and, within 15 days, set out from his hometown of Changzhi to pedal through every Chinese province, municipality and region. It was a journey of more than 14,000km that he estimated would take him about eight months by bicycle, but Niu saw the chance to make lots of friends along the way. 'I love cycling; it's a challenge and you can make so many friends on the road,' he says. Niu, who was in Beijing a few weeks ago for a breather and to catch up with some friends, shows off photos of his journey, which includes a fair sprinkling of pretty girls smiling coyly into the lens. A former model whose 1.9-metre frame is even more buff from four months of hard exercise, he flirts incorrigibly during his interview. 'I've lost 20 pounds so far on this journey,' he says with a wink. 'Before I set out, my body was not as muscular as it is now.' More than once, he urges: 'Come back to Shanxi with me.' The mainland's hordes of Mao-suited cyclists are a thing of the past but even as the affluent middle class replace their sturdy Flying Pigeons with Buicks or Volkswagens, a growing number of people are taking time off from making money to explore China the slow way. The country's main long-distance cycling club, Peking University Cycling Association, started in 1995 with just 10 members. 'Now we have hundreds applying to join every year,' says its chairman, Qin Yuxiao. Every summer, the association organises a cross-country trip of about 2,000km. This year, members plan to pedal from Qingdao on the east coast to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province which has been devastated by the recent earthquake. The association plans to hold several activities en route to remember the tens of thousands of people who died in the disaster. One reason that cross-country biking is catching on in China, says Qin, is access to better bikes and equipment. But cycling is also being seen as a slower, intimate and more satisfying way to see the mainland's natural beauty. 'I love cycling so much that even if I had lots of money I wouldn't buy a car,' says Hu Changshui, a Beijing bicycle-shop owner. 'When you get out there on your bike and all you can see is a flat expanse of green and overhead is just blue, it's amazing,' says the 36-year-old who has been taking long-distance bike journeys around the country for about a decade. 'Cycling like this gives you confidence in yourself, confidence you can succeed in life.' His cycling buddy, Hu Dongyue, who is perhaps China's first cross-country cyclist, says it's the chance to see things you wouldn't be able to see from a bus or a car that tempts him into the saddle. 'When I was cycling across the Qinghai plateau back in the 90s I witnessed Tibetan sky burials, but when I talked to truckers on the road they didn't believe that such things happened,' says Hu, a three-time Ironman champion. 'You get to see a lot of things when you bike.' Hu Dongyue was 27 when he set out on a Japanese mountain bike in 1991 to ride from Beijing to Lhasa. 'By the time I got to Golmud my bike had broken so I had to complete the journey on an erba che [an old-style Chinese-made machine with 28-inch wheels]. The entire trip took about 45 days.' Eight years later, he cycled from Lhasa to Everest base camp on a tandem bike. 'My God! It was cold,' he recalls. For Niu, being on the road represents freedom. 'Human beings are so weak and life is so short; you have to grab it with both hands and follow your dreams. When I'm on the road I feel so free,' he says. 'The kind of life where you work and eat and sleep day after day is not for me.' Niu has had his fair share of adventure. He initially headed east towards the coast, covering about 200km a day, and had his first crash just 13 days into the journey. 'I was in Anhui province and was so tired I fell asleep while I was cycling. The next thing I knew I had fallen off. I was all right, but my helmet was broken.' But it was Inner Mongolia that left the deepest impression, when he was caught in a sandstorm. 'All of a sudden the sky turned black. I was in the middle of the desert, there wasn't anyone for miles. I just pedalled as fast as I could to find shelter. It was pretty scary.' Making his way down the coast, he took in Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Guangdong, where he spent a 'depressing' Spring Festival. He caught a ferry to Hainan, circled the island in a few days, took another boat to Guangxi and then headed west through Yunnan to Tibet, and was temporarily trapped in Litang when curfews were imposed following the unrest in March. The trouble in Tibet prompted a change in his route ('I thought it was too dangerous to cycle into Qinghai then'), so from Beijing, Niu is heading back to Changzhi before continuing to Qinghai and Xinjiang - his final two destinations. These days, mainland long-distance cyclists are beginning to look overseas. Li Jianjiang, a 34-year-old geologist working for Shell, plans to cycle 8,000km from the China-Kazakhstan border through Russia, Poland and Germany to the Netherlands, where the oil giant has its headquarters. Li, who has cycled all over Tibet and Xinjiang, hopes to set off June 15. 'I'm just waiting for visas,' he says. Lengthy bicycle trips might seem costly - buy a good bike, equipment and take months off work - but such travel needn't be that expensive. Qin says students usually spend about 1,000 yuan (HK$1,125) on a mountain bike. 'It doesn't have to be great quality because lots of us are travelling together and we have bike repair kits.' Lodging in cheap motels, they usually spend about 30 yuan a day. Niu, who is cycling solo, spent a bit more. After saving 30,000 yuan, he bought a sturdy mountain bike, a GPS and other gear for about 10,000 yuan, leaving the remainder for use on the road. But spending about 80 yuan a day, he's now almost out of cash. Despite long periods on his own away from friends and family, Niu insists he doesn't feel isolated. 'There are always people to talk to on the road,' he says. 'And if I get lonely I just talk to myself. I ask myself: Where am I going? What am I doing?' Perhaps it's not surprising then that his most precious piece of equipment is his mobile phone. 'My mobile is more important than my bike. It's how I keep in touch with all my friends - those back home and the ones I meet on the road,' he says. During the interview, he replies to text messages every few minutes, fingers flying over the keypad. Niu hadn't done much cycling before his marathon trip but it has now become a way of life. After the expedition, he plans to open a guesthouse in Changzhi and get back on the road from time to time. 'I hope to have more chances to go cycling again,' he says. 'I always want to be doing this kind of thing.'