Week 1: Shanghai to Huainan, 629km
I managed to survive my first week on the road and am now in a small city called Huainan in the province of Anhui.
I left Shanghai early on Monday morning and headed to the neighbouring city of Wuxi, about 150km away. As soon as I hit the road, all the pre-trip nerves and apprehensions I had the day before disappeared and I was happy just to be rolling along turning the pedals. I was making good progress and by about 10AM I had already left the outer city limits and stumbled upon a nice temple that I thought would be a good place to have my first rest stop.
A wee bit after, I stopped at this nearby noodle shop and had an amazing lunch. I’m not exaggerating when I say this is the best bowl of noodles I’ve had in my five years in China!
Tender beef ✔
Handmade noodle ✔
Flavorful broth ✔
If you happen to be in Taicang you should check it out.
My GPS (Wahoo Elemnt) has done exactly what I’ve needed it to do today: plan my route. If you’re into cycling and looking for a new bike computer, I would definitely recommend this one. It was very kindly donated for this trip by my fellow PE teacher and good mate Ciarán Charlton. It’s quite a clever piece of kit, helping me avoid the main roads and plans the route according to which off-beaten tracks that are most suitable for cyclists. This led to me taking some beautiful, quiet farm roads away from all the busy traffic. It may add a few KMs onto the total, but it’s a small price to pay for the peace of the back roads.
I rolled into Wuxi pretty much bang on my estimated 4PM arrival time to be greeted by an old friend. After a quick shower, we went for some cantonese food and had a catch up. Unfortunately I wasn’t very good company that evening and passed out on the sofa about 9PM after a tiring start to the trip.
The plan today was to reach Nanjing, which was 180km away — so this was another big day!
I was set to stay with my first warmshowers host. For those that don’t know, warmshowers is a community for cycle tourists where people sign up to host you when you are in their city, kind of like couch surfing but more specific to bike tourers.
It was an unexpected bonus. My hosts Wim and Jenny were incredible. I had my own room and private bathroom in their beautiful apartment. I could wash all my clothes and Jenny made me lasagne and homegrown side salad for dinner, which if you know me, you will know is my all-time favourite food! They were so helpful and super easy-going.
All round, a great introduction to this community. I’m sitting there thinking, this is easy, the whole, cycling-home-from-China thing!
My plan from here on out was to play it by ear. From Nanjing, I just began heading west. I had intended to see how far I got before evening, and then just find some place to camp before making it to the next city of Hefei the day after.
But it eventually started to get late and I hadn’t found a suitable place to camp in the country side. There was hardly a patch of land that wasn’t cultivated for rice growing. As I pulled into the next village, I stopped to buy some fruit and asked the fruit seller if there was anywhere I could pitch a tent for the night. She seemed to quite love the idea and encouraged me to pitch it anywhere I wanted: in the park, in the village square, anywhere really, she said was fine. She pointed out a spot by the river that I thought looked good so I went over to settle down for the night.
As I was arrived there was another elderly lady washing her clothes. When I asked if I could pitch my tent by the river, she said I could but there were lots of mosquitos about so it would be better if I pitched it inside the housing community across the street. It felt weird walking into a bunch of houses and pitching my tent, but she assured me it was fine, so I went for it. By this point it was dark and the mosquitoes were out in force, so I threw the tent up as quickly as I could and dived in. Despite the 33 degree heat, humidity, and being eaten alive by mosquitoes, I had a very decent night sleep! Must’ve needed it.
As I was packing up in the morning, all of the neighbours were understandably curious about this strange foreigner who was randomly sleeping outside their houses. When I told them what I was doing, they were so amazed and invited me into their house for breakfast — an offer I couldn’t refuse, even if I was unsure where the water for the rice porridge I was eating came from. It didn’t seem like any of their houses had running water and I was just hoping it wasn’t from the river last night that I was going to camp beside. Anyway, I ate it and didn’t get sick, so all is good!
This day was a pretty easy ride into the nearest city of Hefei where I checked into a hotel for the first time. It was cool that they let me trudge my bike into the room.
Setting out from Hefei, I was more optimistic about finding a better place to camp. I headed north through some little towns that seemed like they had been recently invested in. I think the plan was to turn these nearby towns into weekend getaways for the people in the cities. Anyway, it meant that the facilities around were a little nicer than the other towns and villages I had passed through.
I stopped for lunch at a little roadside noodle shop and had a nice conversation with the owner and some of the other customers inside. As I was trying to pay for my noodles, the woman wouldn’t let me, saying that I’ve got a long journey ahead of me and I need to keep my energy up. This had happened previously in a petrol station when the guy didn’t want to let me pay for a can of coke but I just paid anyway. This woman though, was adamant that she wasn’t taking any money. So I accepted the free noodles and took a selfie with the kind owner.
This got me thinking about how to pay people back for all the random acts of kindness I have received already on this trip. So I went and bought a bunch of red envelopes or hongbao as they call it here. It’s a common way of giving gifts in China, anything from small pocket change for kids during the Chinese New Year to more formal wedding presents. I’m going to fill each of them with a 50RMB note (about 6GBP) and go from there.
That evening, I headed down to the lake to find a place to camp and was pointed in the right direction by a goat herder rounding up his flock for the end of the day. He said I would get the best view of the sunset, and he wasn’t wrong! I cooked on the camping stove for the first time that night — the classic instant noodles — and retired for another humid, sweaty night in my tent.
Getting up on day six, I rolled into the nearest village for some breakfast and was delighted to stumble upon a guy selling one of my favourite things, shao bing 烧饼! It’s basically a big naan bread stuffed with meat and coated in sesame seeds, incredible! I used to live off of these things when I first came to Shanghai five years ago. Feel like I’m going back full circle.
On the main road today, I was again struck by the kindness of strangers. Someone actually slowed their car right down and handed me a nice, cold water bottle with shouts of jiayou 加油, which is a common shout of encouragement in Chinese. After about 70km, I arrived in Huainan and checked into my hotel.
A nice day off to rest the legs!
The Rain before the rainbow
I’ve got to admit. There were a couple of drawbacks from week one that I haven’t mentioned which I feel I should, just in the interest of unbiased objective reporting.
About 50km into the journey, one of my aerobars broke. The screw that was holding it in just came loose and fell out. Now I had a spare in my tool kit but it was too long so it didn’t tighten fully. I have managed to get it back on but it is still very loose, so no aero position for me while riding until I can get that fixed properly. Not that I’m concerned with aerodynamics on a bike laden with 30kg worth of panniers! its just nice to have an alternate riding position, especially one that relieves a little bit of pressure from those developing saddle sores. They were a very cheap purchase on Taobao (the Chinese equivalent of amazon/ebay) so I wasn’t expecting amazing things.
On the second night camping, I managed to rip the bottom of my tent on a sharp rock that I didn’t notice while setting up. I have patched it up now using the puncture repair kit, but this was not an ideal solution. Lesson learnt, always use the groundsheet.
To sum it all up: I have been in China for a wee while now, and so many of the sights and sounds that I have seen on my first week have been quite familiar to me. Still, this week alone has just surprised me so much with how amazingly kind everyone I’ve met has been.
I hope this is going to be a running theme.