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Maps, useful and a lot of fun

Every cyclist knows, a good maps are of life importance. Even nowadays when a GPS has become standard equipment for some, I still prefer a map. When you're on the road for a long time it's not always possible to bring maps for all the countries you travel. Once on the road you learn quickly you can do without a map but it makes a few things a bit more difficult.


What kind of map?

There are all kinds of maps. When you visit a tourist information center you will receive the so called tourist maps. Those maps show with pictures the most interesting sites to visit. Are they useful for a cyclist? Yes and no.

What we really need is a map with enough details but not too detailed. For most countries, a map of around 1:500.000 is good enough, see below for more details

It is handy if the map is in English although I used local made maps in Thailand, Iran and China. Maps in local language can be useful to get in contact with local people.


When I cycled in China I always had a local Chinese (in mandarin characters) with me. The map below shows a small piece of one of my Yunnan maps.

 Although I can not read Chinese, after a while you get used to the characters and you start recognizing some of them. Especially in countries where people speak little English, a map can be an excellent help to figure out where you and where you want to go to.

A funny anecdote, when I came down from Sichuan to Yunnan, I was about 60km from Kunming.

I had passed the little town Sonming and arrived at a junction. It was not clear what my direction would be. The road sign gave me a road ahead and a road to the right, while in effect there was a road ahead and a road to the left.

Yunnan China, 
    a map in Chinese characters
Yunnan China, a map in Chinese characters but too rough to use for cycling

So I asked. Probably my pronunciation was bad enough for people not to understand the word Kunming.

When I showed them the map all doors went open. I got tea and a noodle soup while the locals where talking about my map in Chinese.

The scale

How detailed do you want your map for cycling?

In my experience the best maps have a scale of 1:400.000 t0 1: 650.000 maximum. However, that depends also where you travel. A map of 1:1.000.000 would be sufficient if you know you are crossing deserts, like south Iran or north west China, where there are few, if even more then one road. I had a heavy Near East map with a scale of 1:4.000.000 which would have worked well enough in Iran.

Too detailed maps make you easy cycle off the map which generates another problem: you have to bring many maps!

Detailed maps are usually better for walking than cycling.

For a long distance journey, don't bring too detailed maps, you don't need it.

In Asia I started using the Nelles maps. Nelles maps are like Ravenstein, Euromap, Kummerley+Frey or Michelin very popular.

For Asia in general I would recommend them although I found also on them regular mistakes, even on the newest versions issued. Ongoing roads shown as B roads with the wrong distance happens quite often, especially the south Thailand and south China maps.

Maps and GPS

Best maps and GPS deals with EBay... Cheap and reliable. You can't loose...

Maps and GPS

Local made maps can be a great asset. Apart of the local language, see above, I found some local maps better then the international maps.

The Chinese provincial maps are a good example. These Chinese maps were usually more accurate and better to use then my Nelles maps. In China I used both maps next to each other. One for the English names and ideas for direction, the Chinese map to work with when on the road.

Buying maps on the way ...

Local map 
    of Pakistan
Local map of Pakistan, detailed enough as there are not many roads

I prefer to buy maps on the road. It's however not always possible. For example, I couldn't find Turkish maps even in Istanbul or Ankara.

I expected that those cities would provide me also with maps of the Middle East and Iran. I was wrong.

By the time I reached the Turkish-Iranian border I had no map of Iran. I hoped to find one in the first town in Iran but it was only until Khoy that I found a map in Farsi, the Iranian language.

Later in Esfahan I got an English map.

In Pakistan it was the same story. I cycled through Baluchistan without a map but as the road directions were clear, in fact there's only one road, I could not get lost. The Pakistani map above I bought in Quetta.

Map of south Iran
My 2nd map of Iran, I bought this one in Esfahan, unfortunately I have not been able to find my original map in Farsi

Some cities are good places to pick up books and maps. In India you will find plenty of great bookshops in many cities, Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay. In India it has everything to do with the legacy of the British Empire. Even Penquin has it's own Indian publishing company.

Thailand has in the main tourist areas good bookshops. Koh San Road in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket are areas to find good books and maps. See my maps in Thailand page for many more details


If you travel to China from Hong Kong, then you will find great bookshops in Hong Kong but forget to find English maps in most of the country.

As said earlier, I recommend for cycling in China an English map (Nelles is probably a decent choice) and a local provincial map. Check the Xinhua bookstores, the maps are typically Y6-8 and they are excellent, I found them often much better than the foreign produced maps, despite in Chinese.


More and more people are using a GPS. A GPS is a very useful system to determinate your exact location. There are many systems available but the real question (if you ask me) is if you need one. Here are some views:

GPS for cyclists


Our bicycle bookstore has a large collection of maps available for almost every country imaginable:

and more books and audiovisual materials at:

I have plenty anecdotes about what can happen if you don't bring a map, Here are a few of those stories

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