6 hours of riding and a hefty dose of sunburn stopped me from exploring the “Lake City”, but the road to it was full of emerald green tranquility.
- A quiet fisherman surrounded by greenery on the outskirts of Hangzhou.
- One of China’s ubiquitous bikes with a scenic side road to himself.
3. Colorful housing in a quiet watery town nearer to Huzhou.
4. A blissfully quiet road between villages, basking in the late afternoon sun.
5. A rural school sports faded but optimistic government slogans: “Bring people blessings; the China Dream”; “Protect the earth, live low carbon”.
6. Heavy industrial equipment crowds out a background hilltop temple in Huzhou.
“Hello? Miss? See, she doesn’t understand.
Her legs are red as tomatoes.”
I bit back Mandarin swear words as I listened to the ruder-than-usual chatter of the clearly inebriated men sharing the elevator, and regretted, for about the twentieth time that day, not bringing any clothes that extended past my now glaringly red thighs.
This month’s distance cycle was to nearby city Huzhou, about 100km north of Hangzhou and extending out from the southside of the enormous Taihu (太湖) lake. My usual strategy of stabbing randomly at a map gave me the destination of Qiaoxi (乔溪), a tiny village in the hills near Mogan Mountain (莫干山), but I doubted that the 20 or so buildings I could see via satellite there included a hotel that would house an exhausted foreigner and her unwiedldy bicycle, so I opted for the safer Huzhou instead.
Baidu.com tells me it’s a historic city, with a classic old water town that’s rumoured to be prettier and authentic than the average, and a particular fame for producing traditional Chinese ink brushes. Taihu lake/lake Tai, from which Huzhou takes its name (“lake prefecture”), is an impressive presence. It dwarfs the city on a map, with a circumference of almost 400km and a smattering of 50 islands, 18 of which are inhabited.
Setting out from Hangzhou around 9am, I hadn’t accounted for how long it would take me to get through the city. My route took me through loud, industrial and stressful roads of Linping – a poor route decision I won’t make again – for 20km before I finally hit quieter intercity tarmac.
Hot but mercifully flat highways slowly unfolded into rural scenes, until I was surrounded by green farmland and a cloudless blue sky. Nothing accompanied me, other than the sound of the breeze and the odd ebiker.
This was easily the most beautiful part of the ride: the space between China’s giant, homogenous cities, these tiny, sleepy, almost suspiciously immaculate villages. Brilliant green leaves framed watery fields which I guessed were growing rice, though I couldn’t find anyone to ask. It seemed everyone was inside, hiding from the afternoon sun, leaving the fields to be tended by jealous white cranes.
Well-kept party buildings were present in every village I passed through. Childlike Chinese characters daubed on rundown once-whitewashed walls instructed people to “live low carbon”, “reject alcoholism” and “share the Chinese dream”. I wondered when they had been painted, and who had decided which words of wisdom most deserved this humble platform.
Widening roads signalled that I was drawing close to Huzhou. More cars joined me on the baking hot road, saluting my aching legs with well-meaning but irritatingly constant horns and speeding past at uncomfortable proximity.
The last 20 kilometres were a struggle; I was painfully aware that in the 35 degree heat, I was sweating off sunscreen faster than I could put it on, and was burning badly. The thought of a cold shower and soft bed waiting for me at the hotel I had booked was the only thing coaxing my muscles through the final hour of riding.
On arrival around 5pm, a bewildered receptionist agreed to let me leave my bike in the little-used hotel gym, making a valiant effort not to stare at my legs or make eye contact with her open-mouthed colleagues. A foreigner on this clearly less developed side of town would have been an occasion to gawk at the best of times; let alone a foreigner wearing short shorts, exposing legs that were half angry red and half brilliant white.
Glad to escape reception, I revelled in a cold shower quickly followed by a makeshift nest in my queen bed. Going out for food and being stared at all evening wasn’t an appealing option, so I ordered delivery. Going down to collect it, I sighed inwardly when the elevator doors opened to reveal a crowd of inebriated middle aged men.
“LOOK at that foreigner’s legs! My god!” “Careful, she might be able to understand you.” “I don’t think so, she’s not responding. Hello? Miss? Do you understand Chinese? See, she doesn’t. Her legs are red as tomatoes.”
As I said, swear words were bitten back. Though I couldn’t resist quipping that I understood, but didn’t make a habit of talking to rude drunk men.
Unfortunately, instead of the theatrical elevator door close I had envisioned, I realised they had pressed level 3 by mistake, and we were in fact all walking the same way. It made for an awkward couple of minutes.
Curled up in bed with a beer, a film I’d been meaning to watch for years and warm bowl of tofu, however, all was quickly forgotten. Exhausted, with skin smarting and zero wish to ride the same 100km route home, I instead cruised 8km to the central bus station. 10 yuan and one bumpy hour-long journey later, I was home.
Safe to say I didn’t do much exploring of Huzhou, but it was a beautiful gift of a ride. Maybe next time I’ll cycle to the calligraphy brush village. I’ll certainly be wearing longer leggings if I do.