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A couple of weeks ago, I was admiring Zhejiang province from my seat on the high-speed train. The idea of taking a bike ride through the passing scenery entered my head. I didn’t want to rush through it on the way to a work meeting as I always do; I wanted a firsthand look. There and then, I began looking at viable treks into Zhejiang from Shanghai city. Shanghai to Ningbo? Perhaps a tad ambitious. Shanghai to Jiaxing? A bit underwhelming maybe. Shanghai to Hangzhou? A reasonable distance and a city I’ve visited before but might gain a new perspective. And so, it was settled.
As for the bicycle, I determined that the most convenient choice would be a shared bike since it wouldn’t have to go on the train back to Shanghai.
The distance from my apartment in Shanghai to West Lake in Hangzhou is 182 kilometers, according to Baidu Maps. After some rough calculations, I concluded that the trip should be possible to complete over a regular weekend.
Screengrab via Baidu Maps
I called up my amenable friend, Michael, and pitched him the idea. He said he’d join as long as we made it back in time for work on Monday.
About a week later, we met at the Shanghai Library, ready to roll. Since we hadn’t discussed the trip in much detail before leaving, we laid a solid game plan at a FamilyMart on Huaihai Lu:
1. Follow Baidu Maps
2. Drink water
The trip commenced at around 9am on Saturday with a very important task: finding suitable bikes. After all, you don’t want an old beater for something like this.
After walking a couple of hundred meters, we found and unlocked what appeared to be two brand new 2020 model Hellobikes. We did a quality check as we started the journey. Brakes: responsive. Steering: tight. Tires: full. Both bikes got full scores, and by the time we reached Metro City, the decision had been made; these bikes would take us to Hangzhou.
The cyclists and their bikes of choice
Neither of us had any previous experience with long-distance cycling and didn’t know a lot about bicycles, but the Hellobike features everything you need in a city bike: a basket, an adjustable seat, pedals (you know, the works). But how would it fare outside of its natural habitat?
The first few kilometers were uneventful: it was like a typical bike ride in the city but with a bit more anticipation. As soon as we left Xuhui and entered Minhang, Shanghai started to dwindle into what looks and feels more like a tier-two city. The buildings look different, the vibe is more relaxed, FamilyMarts change in favor of off-brand corner stores.
When we reached Songjiang, the transformation felt complete – it’s almost hard to think that we were still in Shanghai. It’s still a city, but a far cry from Huangpu. We had our lunch there, which consisted of xiaolongbao and scallion pancakes at a fragment of the price you would pay in the city center. With bellies full of affordable dumplings, we rode away from the urban area and onto the highway.
We hopped onto the mighty China National Highway 320, known as the G320. While the G320 meant that we were on a straight shot to Hangzhou, we had to deal with the traffic and boring scenery along the way. Fortunately, we only had to cover a very small portion of the highway, which stretches 3,695 kilometers long.
One disadvantage of Hellobikes that became glaringly obvious as we cruised along the highway bike lane was that they only have one gear. As soon as you reach any sort of speed, the one gear becomes much too low and all you’re left with is furious pedaling, taking you nowhere. This means that nice stretches of road where pace could have increased significantly left us with roughly the same tempo as anywhere else.
As we struggled onward, a serious cyclist showed us how much speed we were missing out on, overtaking us and blasting off into the distance within a matter of seconds. Try-hard. After riding along the highway south of Shanghai surrounded by factories, we hit Shanghai’s rural roots.
It featured traditional houses with vegetable gardens, mom and pop restaurants and pine trees planted along winding roads. Between villages, we passed through peaceful rice fields.
Having a vegetable patch while living in Shanghai is pretty sweet
A hanging power line nearly catches us while we admire the rice fields
Biking outside of the city was surprisingly convenient. Only a couple of kilometers along the way were without designated bike lanes. These kilometers illustrate the need for bike lanes, though. The roads are narrow and convoys of loaded trucks pass with millimeter precision. Sinopec gas stations were evenly placed almost the whole way and proved to be real lifesavers. Besides beverages, they also provide much-needed air conditioning in the scorching July weather. One thing less convenient which became more and more of a problem was the blazing sun. You would have to be pretty arrogant to not account for the sun, but that’s us I suppose. I started seeing signs of sunburn as we went for some ice cream at Hua Lian Supermarket in Qingpu District. I choose to ignore it and pedal on. Soon after, we arrive in Jinshan, which marked the final district before we entered Zhejiang province. It felt rural and we even saw goats walking on the road.
It’s not everyday you see goatherds in Shanghai
We entered Zhejiang and immediately the vibe was different.
After riding a few kilometers on the G320 in Zhejiang, it started to dawn on me that the best part of the trek might be over and that I had over-romanticized this part of the province. It didn’t look like the charming countryside you see when cruising from Shanghai on the train.
The railway runs a few kilometers south of the highway, which might explain the difference. Along the highway, there was constant construction and roadwork and the air quality was worse than in Shanghai. Hundreds of bikes and scooters shared the same narrow sidewalk that was full of potholes.
While not ideal, this was the road we had to ride along if we wanted to reach Jiaxing before dark. To hydrate and get ourselves oriented with the area, we stopped at a corner store in a small community center full of tire shops and scooter repairs.
At this point, we were no longer riding on asphalt as the roads turned into dirt. We made some new friends who give us tips on how to get to Jiaxing; about an hour from where we were at. The most noticeable member of the group was a towering older man the others referred to as ‘Yao Ming,’ the name of the former professional basketball hall of famer and CBA president.
They mentioned my sunburn, which I had to explain was due to a bit of carelessness with the sun. Yao kept insisting that I was having a severe allergic reaction to alcohol. Although taking a shared bike this far might have shown poor judgment, I tried to tell him that I wasn’t riding around intoxicated. However, this fell on deaf ears; his mind had already been made up. Disappointed with my perceived image in the community, we rode on.
Three hours later, we arrived in Jiaxing city. Entering Jiaxing was confusing as every building and street looked the same for a very long time. It felt like we were in a fever dream going nowhere. Eventually, we reached the city center. After a failed bridge crossing and some missed turns, we found our hotel, conveniently named ‘South,’ by Jiaxing’s illuminating South Lake. We were too late and too tired to search for the local specialty, which is like a Dragon Boat Festival zongzi but served year-round.
Oddly enough, downtown Jiaxing seemed to have the highest amount of tattoo parlors per capita in the world. It was easier to get a tribal tattoo than a meal. But instead of getting inked up, we managed to grab some mediocre Shaanxi food and called it a day.
South Lake by night
We woke up to the scenic and serene South Lake. As usual on this trip, there was no time to stroll around and take it all in; we had a lot of ground to cover.
We found our parked Shanghainese Hellobikes and made way for Hangzhou. The weather was looking sunny, which was worrying.
The forecast the day before said it would be 30 degrees Celsius and overcast, but we were looking at clear blue skies with our skin already burned purple. It didn’t take long for the temperature to reach 37 degrees and the UV index to hit 11. We got some sunscreen at a supermarket and also bought cooking sleeves, which would protect my wrists and aid me in my struggle against the sun.
But the sleeves were too short and the ever-increasing UV index made the situation kind of desperate. I needed long sleeves, pronto.
After riding for awhile we arrived in Honghe, which is the kind of town that has heaps of small factory outlets for local manufacturing specialties.
We soon realized the specialty of Honghe is knitwear – there’s even a marketplace called Sweater City, which was precisely what I was looking for.
The only downside was that they only had sweaters my mom would wear. But in reality, I was just grateful that I had found an endless supply of long sleeves and maybe even a Christmas present for the person who gave me life.
After purchasing a big white sweater with wizard sleeves, we also covered our legs in t-shirts for extra protection. Now the only thing missing was a large hat. Fortunately, a grocery store near Sweater City had a beautiful selection. Fully kitted up and looking like scarecrows, we were ready to move safe and swift.
The improvised UV protection suit in its final form
At this point during the ride, the sun was still a menace and we decided to take a break. A quick note for any future road warriors: On the off chance that there isn’t a Sinopec along the way, you can be sure to find a telecom operator (don’t ask why). We strolled into a China Telecom outlet and nearly emptied their water cooler. I took off my cooking sleeve-made gloves and suffered a small panic attack when I saw the color of my hands. I looked up my symptoms online to try and calm myself down, but it backfired as I self-diagnosed that I had melanoma.
Thankfully, I had a good friend with me, and the comforting words ‘you won’t get cancer, bro’ fixed everything and we were ready to go again.
The problem with biking in makeshift sun protection from head to toe in 37 degree heat is that you get hot. Very hot. We blocked out everything for a while and most of this part was a blur. No one suffered any heat strokes and we made it the remaining 30 kilometers to Hangzhou with only one break at a Sinopec (an oasis under the grueling South China sun). A road sign outside the gas station told us that it was 176 kilometers back to Shanghai, a testament to how far we had come.
From here on out, we saw a good stretch of farmland – a glimpse of the Zhejiang I had imagined.
What a timeout at Sinopec might look like
A moment of peace along the G320
The outskirts of Hangzhou were busy with traffic as people were running around and shops flashed with LED lights. But there were no high-rise buildings in sight; pine trees grew along the road which ran next to the river, giving it the feeling of an enlarged village.
Street food carts started to appear. Fried rice, whole chicken, spicy river snails – it was tempting, but there was no time to relish in Hangzhou’s outskirts culinary scene if we wanted to sleep in Shanghai the same night.
As we counted down the kilometers toward zero, Hangzhou looked more familiar. When we saw structures belonging to Hangzhou Old Town, the finish line was close.
In the distance, we saw flashing lights and the biggest crowd of people since leaving Shanghai. Unfortunately, none of this was for celebrating the end of our conquest; it was the West Lake shopping area. A strict bao’an forbid us from taking the bikes down to the lake. The West Lake Apple Store would have to do.
We lifted the Hellobikes above our heads in triumph. This one’s for you, Tim Cook.
The two beers we kept in our backpacks for the celebration were properly shaken from riding on bumpy, pothole-riddled roads, making the boozy moment look like we were on a Formula 1 podium.
We haven’t been near a Hellobike since we made it to Hangzhou.
The train ride home was a bizarre one as the journey we had made during the whole weekend seemed to vanish in under an hour. But still, it was quite the experience, although the next time I go to Hangzhou I’ll probably take the train – both ways.
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[Images provided by Sindre Laksemo]