Cycling for 4 days, this 180km trip took me through a series of small towns where I caught some simple glimpses of non-urban life.
- A local bike mechanic helps me change my inner tube in a small Zhejiang town. Two passers by watch animatedly.
- A rural CCP office guard in comfy slippers wonders what I’m doing taking a picture. The slogan above the office reads: “Listen to the Party, follow the Party”.
- A lone e-biker stands in picturesque contrast to the greenery around him.
4. Charming traditional waterside houses sit low in the water. These black and white houses are typical of southern China, a villager told me.
5. During 70th anniversary national week of the People’s Republic of China, flags fleck the streets with crimson in the evening sun.
6. An elderly man walks down a quiet street in a sleepy town in Zhejiang, while another man fishes under the shade of a bright umbrella.
7. Children play on bright metal apparatus seen all over China, used by the young to play and the old to stretch or exercise.
8. An elderly lady has brought her chair outside to sew in the evening warmth.
9. A woman trims unruly plants on the corner of a small street, trailed by a young boy.
10. My bike awaits wheel replacement in a garage, where I sheltered from typhoon rains in the company of a friendly old couple and their chickens.
China’s National Day comes with a week of national holiday, which gave me the perfect opportunity for some longer distance autumn touring. Nosing around satellite maps to see which direction looked like it had the most green in it, I decided I would go to Ningbo.
I rode for maybe two hours before grey clouds started threatening the horizon, and finally burst, accompanied by medium strength winds, while I was on the highway.
Fighting through rain isn’t actually that bad on a bike – unless you stop. Which I did. I am horrendously prone to taking wrong turns, and the necessary evil of pulling my phone out to make sure I was following the right route became the bane of my trip.
Every fifteen minutes I shivered under whatever meagre shelter I could find, tapping with soaked fingers at an often unresponsive screen, vowing to buy a weatherproof case.
Nonetheless, every now and again there would be a long stretch of road with no left or right turns, when I could turn up the speaker in my waterproof bag and blast my favourite songs euphorically into the rain. I was having a fantastic time.
Until my tyre burst, that is. Drenched, 10km from my destination hostel and with a darkening sky, I jogged on tired legs to the nearest shelter I could find to try and patch my tyre. I saw an open garage, and ducked inside.
Ever unsure how people will react to a foreigner, I prepared my explanation while I peeled off my soaking jersey and switched it for the dry jumper in my bag, surrounded by the clucks of curious chickens. Before long, a slender lady of about sixty rounded the corner, carrying a toddler in her arms.
Her accent was so thick I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but she seemed to understand my Mandarin and nodded that I was ok to stay. She switched the light on for me and disappeared, returning with her husband whose Mandarin was somewhat better. He seated himself on a stool to help me locate my puncture, chatting away and continuously puffing on a cigarette.
Though we eventually succeeded in patching the wet-through tyre, it was pitch black and still raining by the time I could’ve set off. With a kindness that still makes me smile, they offered me dinner with them. I thanked them profusely, but said it was already late and I had a hotel reservation I had made (also thinking that a dinner where I could hardly understand a word my hosts were saying might be exceedingly awkward).
So instead, my new friends – and the obligatory two neighbours who had come in to see what was going on – called me a “bread car” (classic Chinese people carriers, so named for the rounded rooves, giving them the appearance of a loaf of bread) to take me and my bike to the finish line. Drained of energy but full of gratitude, I loaded my bike into the boot and collapsed into the front seat.
The weather improved the next few days, and I made my way along well-paved roads, taking photos of people and fields. Again, I noted the immaculately kept Party buildings present in even the smallest township.
One such party building, post office like in its quaint smallness, was dominated by large red characters on its roof reading “Listen to the Party, follow the Party”. Just as I was taking a photo, a grumpy looking man walked outside, presumably to see what exactly a foreigner with a big camera was doing taking pictures of a party building.
I thought I was in for some trouble (it being 70th anniversary national day after all). I ventured a friendly “It’s national day and you guys are still working? Impressive!”
The change was instant. He cracked into a huge smile and was suddenly talkative and curious. “Where are you off to? You’re riding a bike all the way there? Great weather for it! Where are you from? How’d your Chinese get so good?”
It’s moments like this that make all the years of grammar and pronunciation struggle – not to mention intermittent existential crises – worth it. When I looked back at the photos, I smiled at the contrast between the somewhat ominous party slogan and his giant comfortable slippers.
Long hours pedaling can be a little lonely, but I felt privileged to be able to capture these scenes that were so ordinarily and idiosyncratically China. I pulled out my camera to snap away at a busy evening food market, flags attached to street lamps, and the wizened man who sat in a squat position of impressive flexibility, fixing my bike tire (it burst again and needed a replacement inner tube).
While he worked, I sat nearby, happily drinking tea, chatting to the men who inevitably wandered up to find out what was happening, and watching children play with small China flags on plastic sticks.
Once I arrived in Ningbo, there wasn’t much I wanted to see. I found a Starbucks for a celebratory coffee, wrote in my journal and read my book for an hour. I toyed with the idea of staying the night to explore Ningbo’s well-known bar strip, but I decided against it, feeling too old and too tired for much more than a bus journey home. I’ll find another time when I’m not hobbling from exhaustion to duck into the city’s watering holes.