The great thing about China is an adventure is always near. As the longest continuous civilization on the face of the earth, there is always someplace to go, something to see. It was time to let the spirit run and see what there was to see. Destination: the coastal fishing village of Za Pu in Zhejiang province on the north shore of Hangzhou Bay.
After kissing my wife and daughter on the cheek, I pedaled my bike out the compound gate and down the street in a southerly direction. Gradually the concrete, steel, and glass of Shanghai fell away behind me. Traffic congestion easied and the riding became more relaxed. I considered the importance of time, our most precious resource. When the opportunity presents itself, ride.
Muddy Waters Await
Pushing south for the muddy waters of Hangzhou Bay, situated safely well off most foreign travelers’ beaten paths, interesting places lay in wait. Frequented by Chinese weekenders getting away from the city for a short holiday or to buy fresh shrimp to take home, Za Pu is an authentic Chinese fishing village and a small fleet of boats that cast nets and ply the coffee brown waters to capture shrimp and small fish.
The flat 70-80 kilometer ride out is a never-ending patchwork of cities, farms, factories, a heady economic cocktail of manufacturing, shipping, and agriculture. Towering construction cranes are erecting new towers for housing or state of the art factories. It’s a chance to see a bit of China’s economic miracle first hand. Many of the worlds leading manufacturers, such as Apple, are there. The modern exists alongside the antiquated with everything else in between. That alone is something to see.
The route mostly follows protected bike paths with occasional forays onto narrow tree-lined country roads. Occasional petrol stations along have plenty of snacks for energy and clean restrooms to use. Local noodle stalls abound in each village. Steaming bowls of noodles or wantons go for a dollar or two. Bicycle travel in China is easy on the wallet.
Wandering among friendly locals, who are continually surprised to find a stranger in their midst, provides excellent opportunities to explore the human terrain. Traveling to and living in China for the past seventeen years, I’ve become accustomed to their stares. The Chinese are just as interested in you as you are in them. Curiosity drives me forward. Chatting with locals at service stations or convenience store are excellent opportunities to broaden my horizons and listen to different perspectives. I’m eager to hear what the average local has to say.
You can live here your whole life speaking fluent Mandarin and you will still be a foreigner. It’s okay. The Chinese are a very accepting people but in their own way.
My trusty Divide is rolling steady. No issues. I can’t say enough that if you have the resources, get the most dependable, reliable bike you can. Set it up the best you know how so you can travel troublefree. Life is so much easier. The Divide never gives me a bit of trouble. The Rohloff hub and Gate Carbon Belt are the optimal drive train. The bike is a bombproof, low-maintenance rig in every way. I am able to focus on the traveling and exploring rather than fixing the bike or fretting about whether it will make the journey or leave me stranded on the side of the road.
Simple Life Along the Sea
Fisherman working the turbid coastal waters of the East China Sea make daily sorties on rickety old boats to fetch the day’s catch of small white shrimp the area is known for. Gaggles of customers greet the shirtless boatmen at the docks. Buyers cart away basket after basket of fresh silvery shrimp is until the boats’ holds are empty. Fleets of small trucks stream away with their fishy cargo bound for wet markets in Shanghai and outlying towns along the way. Locals and weekend tourists jostle among the small commercial buyers to pick up a few shrimp to take home for themselves.
A Foreigner in Their Midst
Startled to see a foreigner so far from the city, fisherman and tourists alike allow me and my camera in into their midst as they go about selling and buying the day’s catch. After a while, few pay attention to me. Only an old lady or little kid cast inquisitive glances in my direction. I am free to raise my camera and shoot away. No one cares. A few raise their smartphones and take a photograph of me.
Waiguoren is a word I often hear mentioned. It means “outside country person” or foreigner. Like I said, you will always be a foreigner. Laowei is another term I often hear among their chatter, which also means foreigner. Yangren, or “ocean person” is another, but less common, term locals have called me. Its a name used to describe early sailors who arrived in China on ships “coming from the sea or ocean.”
Vestiges of the Past
Abandoned gun emplacements near the town make for great exploration. Wandering among the ruined earthen ramparts constructed to defend the shores from oceangoing intruders of another day, it’s easy to wonder what life was like in that bygone ear. It’s not hard to imagine Chinese defenders peering through spyglasses over the walls out onto the bay. Did they ever have to fire their canons defending the homeland? Or hand they remained silent during their service? None of the locals seemed to know and were more interested in selling their shrimp. China as such a deep and varied history, there is always something to see.
A Means to Authenticity
Adventure cycling opens avenues to authentic places where life is lived on some of the simplest terms. You can pedal to places where people go about their lives in different, but uncomplicated ways. From the saddle of my bike, I am able to see the world as it really is, in its unvarnished natural state and not what the tourist industry wants you to see. I like to see the world as it really is and the bicycle it the vehicle that takes me there.
Ventures in Eating
Food in China is usually good. Boiled dumplings and espresso to send me on my way. Cheap and tasty, it’s just the way I like it. Good homemade eats like this can be found all over China. I’ve found that Chinese people will put up with a lot of stuff, but bad food isn’t one of them.
Surprisingly I found a legitimate espresso shop in Za Pu. However, the only girl behind the counter wasn’t completely familiar with operating the big shiny commercial-grade espresso machine. Though helpful, she was only proficient at making Cafe lattes or perhaps a Cafe Americano even though espresso is an ingredient of both. After a little discussion about what I was asking for, the young lady invited me behind the counter to assist her in making an espresso.
Pack a Bag and Go
Stuff a few things in a pannier, hang it on your bike and go. You don’t need much, just enough for a day or two. Get on your trusty bike and pedal down the street. Endeavor to places unknown. Explore the landscape around you, near or far. Wander through the human terrain. Adventure, it’s out there for those caring enough to sally forth out the door.