Huan wears a beautiful flowered dress as she stands at the corner of the street to pick me up. She is looking down the main road, trying to spot me. I approach her from the other side as I missed a turn-off and had to circle back. Seconds later we hug, happy to see each other again.
Our friendship began four years ago by now when I boarded my first flight to China in Helsinki. I was nervous when I got onto my seat. In seven hours this plane would land in Shanghai, where I knew no-one, where I had to figure out how to take a taxi that would bring me to the hotel my new employer had booked for my first two weeks in Shanghai. I knew pretty much nothing about the country and despite the language class I had attended, didn’t know the language either. I sink into my seat, notice the girl next to me and get my phone out. Probably to set it into air-plane-mode, when she suddenly says “Bist du aus Deutschland?” – “Are you from Germany?”
As it turned out, she was not only one of the most impressive Chinese girls I ever met, but a German-language-student who just returned from one year in North-Germany and a fluent German speaker. I felt so relieved, so less alone, so excited as we both fell asleep during the night-flight.
She had an amazing amount of hand-luggage with her – “I love books.” – and in return for me helping her, she helped me get a taxi, told the driver where I had to go and not to screw me over. Which he didn’t, even though I fell asleep on the ride. Just before Huan and I said good-bye at the airport we exchanged our email-adresses and as I had we-chat we started writing there.
We met up in different places in China – in Shanghai, where I lived; in Tianjin where she did an internship; and developed a deep friendship as we are two like-minded souls that love to discover the world.
And now – I am invited to stay with her family for a week! To cook baozi, jiaozi, explore her ‘little village’ that is about the size of Hamburg and meet her family.
The ride itself had been pleasent and short – only 60k on smooth roads so I was easily averaging 19k per.
„No – it’s way too early to sleep.“ where the lasts words Yan uttered, seconds before falling asleep at 9pm. We had a rest day ahead and no riding in the heat to worry about. Beauty of the rest day. We slept in until half past 6.
Just like our rest-day in Nanjing – we were very lucky to have a cloudy day so we simply started walking around Xuzhou towards the big lake where a lot of touristy stuff is to be found. Xuzhou doesn’t feel like the industry city it once was. It has a lot of parks and lush, green hills. Through one of them leads a tunnel with an extra level for e-bikes, bicycles and pedestrians. The cars pass through the lower level and everyone else through the top one. The space along the road is full of stores – you can buy fruit, bicycles or clothes – a wine cellar and storage spaces that double as safe areas during hurricanes. They go deep into the mountain, are comfortably cool but wet. Fascinating to walk in and a bit scary to think about having to stay there with 5000+ people while a storm is going through the city.
We enjoyed the old and the new Han Stone Gravings museums and opted out of taking the cable car to the viewing platform as it was getting hot.
The guy on the motorcycle stops right next to me as I am about to enter a store to get a cold ice tea. I greet him – we waved at each other before as he saw me cycling past and he passes me a bag with two bottles of ice tea he just got. I say my thanks – as there is not so much more I can say in Chinese – and we exchange WeChat-contacts.
We cycle through stone-country. Many places exhibit and sell this kind of impressive stones around here. A small one actually gets through my tire and I have the first flat of this trip. Apart from that, we just get our head down and try to get to Xuzhou.
When we get there, traffic gets heavy – of course – and I lose sight of Yan again on our last up-hill of the day. After check-in and shower we feel up to leaving the hotel – it’s less sunny and therefore less hot today. But we opt for busses and taxis. It just seems impossible to walk 1.1km to the – very interesting – Xuzhou Museum.
Before dinner, we even get a proper thunderstorm but it doesn’t cool down.
4:45 am. I leave the hotel. Instead of the freshness of the night, the air feels like a wet blanket. I sigh and get onto my bike. Wuhe is still asleep – hardly any traffic on the road, not even hawkers are selling their trade of mantou and soymilk at this time of the day.
I keep pedalling without breakfast then. Following the main road I leave the city centre behind as the sun starts to rise. This is going to be our hottest, but although prettiest day of riding so far.
The road is smooth, it’s a slight down hill and I am doing a good speed. Depending on the point of view despite the heat or because of it. Nonetheless it is 10:30 and awfully hot as we get to the first hotel of Daluxiang. We don’t care about much when checking in apart from the air-con and skip lunch, determined not to be outside again before the sun goes down.
The town itself seemed rather poor, the store across from the hotel looked almost like it’s been looted. But dinner was at a surprisingly good at a muslim restaurant which had the air-con on and all fans running at maximum speed so it felt a bit like eating in the middle of a very refreshing thunderstorm.
A bunch of birds flies off as I walk past, pushing my bicycle, to get the most out of this short piece of fresh, lush forest along my way. I’ve been cycling for about 50km this day and my body is pretty happy about this change in the way of movement as well es temperature. I am still on the G-road but it leads through some dense trees for a few kilometers.
I don’t dare to really sit down and stop and temperatures are still rising and are supposed to get up to 36°C again and unfortunately this idyllic piece of federal roads ends soon, if I looked straight ahead I would see the sun burning onto the tarmac but instead I look to my right to soak in the beauty of nature while trucks and motorcycles zip past.
Getting out of Zhangbalingzhen was some more undulating hills, longer even then before. In total, we will be climbing until Xuzhou, but do get downhills in between. The G-road 104 changes from wide, with a shoulder and everything to two lanes and no shoulder and back. It leads around one bigger city, past some smaller villages until we are there.
At 11:30h, 5 1/2 hours after we started, I finally cross the bridge into Wuhe, counting the meters to the hotel where Yan is already checked in. When the receptionists see me, of course, they know who I am and where I want to go, so a few minutes later I can start admiring the air-con.
Racing along empty streets, running most lights as there is no traffic yet anyway, enjoying the temperature at a comfortably cold 26°C – that’s how we appreciate our really, really early start at 4 am. No crazy, dense Nanjing traffic, just us, a car here and there, some motorcyclist and the first food stands at the crossings.
We arrive at the ferry dock to cross the Yangtze-River at 4:45 – a bunch of motorcyclists are also waiting for the first ferry that will leave in 15 minutes. Enough time to get some breakfast-pancake.
The rest of the ride is rather uneventful. We get past some factories, some fields, some smaller rivers – and some roadworks for about 20km. The same undulating hills that lead into Nanjing on one side, are leading out to the other.
And around lunchtime we made it to the nicest hotel so far. Rather unexpected. Over lunch the restaurant owners told us, that they do get a lot of cyclist here but hardly any foreigners. Only one french guy that married a girl from this city and me so far.
Since both of our live-stories are entangled with Nanjing we stayed for two days. Okay, in my case the entangled bit is overdoing it a bit. But my roommate’s from Nanjing and she was so lovely to set me up with her parents. A lovely, nice couple of Chinese teachers who invited me for lunch, showed me around the tourist area and explained a couple of the typical Nanjing-style things that were sold in the stores. So lovely, so awesome and they just kept talking despite my almost non-existent Chinese skills. I didn’t understand every single word, but recognized some and then there is always context, gestures and just feeling yourself into it while accepting you just understand some. I had a great time and tasted so many different dishes. Her parents were even kind enough to walk me to the metro and explain where I had to go. They double checked with their daughter to make sure I understood it. And I had. (At this point, imagine me smiling in a very, very proud way).
Yan’s live-story is much closer to Nanjing as it’s his father side of the family who lived there until the Japanese massacre which they had to flee. There is a very well done, very interesting, educational and foreigner-friendly as everything is written in Chinese, English and Japanese. It really gripped me to learn that the Japanese are denying this massacre. So of course the Japanese people aren’t very well-liked in Nanjing. As to quote a taxi-driver “Japanese and Germans are all fascists”. This goes as one of the Chinese sentences I understand without any further explanation.
Until the massacre his great-aunt had a leading position at the observatory which was opened in 1934 and was married to the man who was leading it. Nowadays it’s a great exhibition that shows modern equipment from the opening times as well as ancient, Chinese utensils to tell the position of celestial bodies. These had been taken away by German and Japanese troops in 1900 and eventually returned five and twenty years later.
The Observatory is one of a few tourist attractions on Purple Mountain. The Tomb of Sun Yat-Sen, the founder of modern China, is the one that is most visited. After we’ve climbed the many, many steps to go there, we went to an ancient one of one of the emporers of China who was much more humble when it came to the point of how much work you have to put into visiting his tomb.
From there we hiked towards the Observatory and I saw for the first time, Chinese people that were going for a swim in a lake in the mountains. If I lived in Nanjing I would spent many weekends there. The hike, even though exhausting, was what I enjoyed most on this mountain.
Lost in the loneliness of beautiful mountains with impressive, Daoist temples in which’s shadows I hide from the fierce sun – what more could I wish for?
Sophias Mouse and I had a small photo session instead of lunch or fresh water. It was totally off-season and apart from the temples not so many people seemed to live there. So, no restaurants, small stores or gas stations. My initial plan was to hide in some restaurant and write and read around lunchtime but since I got lost on some disappearing X-roads I didn’t get back into any village until almost Nanjing so I dismissed this plan.
Out of the mountains I kind of followed an official green-way but it must either be given up or out of season. I came past a huge official information centre, really excited about finally getting water. I had none for the last couple of hours in 35°C but it was closed. There even seem to be some rest-places for cyclists but they were – even still in a good shape – deserted and the door broken into.
10k further down the road I toppled into a gas station and hardly ever had I been happier about a cold drink!
The last 30k or so were soft, undulating hills were I enjoyed the downs and loathed the ups as I was already pretty exhausted. Traffic in Nanjing was slow, a lot and annoying – if you can get there earlier in the day, try so.
Early start to try to beat the heat? Or be rested and better able to deal with the heat?
It was a late start and for me, it was great. The heat didn’t feel as bad since I was rested. Different for Yan though who really belongs into the arctic.
We finally got a bit outside of the big cities and followed the Grand Canal for a long time. So far the nicest part of the riding. We stayed on the river side of the road, ignoring the bicycle-motorcycle-way on the left hand since that side had all the streets coming onto our street. This way, we only had to worry about traffic lights if there was a bridge.
Riding out of Shanghai was simply beautiful. We started at about 5am to beat the heat and were on the roads before the traffic was. And – my dear friends – I am sure I have told you all about my pancake-lady? I had one of them for breakfast every morning I went to work in Shanghai four years ago. Four years are a long time, especially in Shanghai. So when I realized we were riding towards my old place I started wondering if she would still be there.
And yes! She was still there, doing her business. Actually upgraded it to having a real, small store instead of standing in front of one that wasn’t opened yet and her husband was now working with her selling drinks.
Luckily we hadn’t eaten yet so I could fully enjoy my fresh made pancake.
The rest of the ride was rather uneventful, city-ish riding with a lot of traffic lights. Traffic itself felt okay, most times we had a shoulder that was very well apart from the traffic.
We got so Suzhou around lunchtime, exhausted and hot.
Yan decided to stay within the air-con while I set off to be a tourist and explore the Humble Emporers Garden. It’s really beautiful but was pretty busy on this hot day in the middle of the summer holidays.