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Cycling China's covered bridges

Steel fabrication and B.C.'s wildfire season contribute to delay

I understand that many foreign tourists visiting China must see the Great Wall. I gave it a pass on my first bike trip in 2010, preferring to concentrate on a more dynamic subject, favouring bird watching to wall watching.

Eight years later I'm back in China, and I still have no intention of visiting the Wall. Living in an international resort, Whistler, I prefer to spend holidays far from the maddening crowds.

Moreover, as a free radical that values personal liberty and mobility, I abhor walls. As a world traveller, I've lost count of the many times in my life that gates, fences, walls and other obstacles, either physical or bureaucratic, have impeded my progress (ask me how to scale a two-metre wall with a loaded bicycle sometime ... ).

Rather than barriers and divisions, the world needs more unity and connectivity. That's why I prefer bridges, especially historic, roofed structures, known as Covered Bridges. There are perhaps 3,000 left in the world, each one unique. Fewer than 1,000 remain in North America, while several hundred still stand in Western Europe. Almost all the others, as with so many other things, were "made in China." So, sooner or later every "Bridger" must visit China if they are to experience this unique architectural form. There is no official registry of covered bridges, so their pursuit is a veritable treasure hunt.

Unlike most others, Chinese bridges were almost exclusively built for foot traffic long before the wheel became the dominant form of transportation. Mostly found in rural areas, they are havens of peace and tranquility in an otherwise noisy, bustling country of 1.4 billion people.

Although the locals often hang out in them to enjoy a shady, breezy respite from the mid-day heat, the bridges are not on any popular tourist itinerary. In fact, I will not see a single non-asian face along my entire 564-kilometre journey.

Here, in the remote mountains and villages of Zhe Jiang and Fujian provinces (five hours by high-speed train and another four hours by bus, south of Shanghai), the main attraction seems to be me. I draw curious looks all along the way.

In one village square, I sit down on a bench to write postcards and within minutes, a throng of people gather around to observe. I would have never believed that my practice of postcardiology could make a spectator sport.

For much of the week I travel I am accompanied by my Shanghai friend Bato Wu, an international cyclist like myself, who is likely the only woman in history to have bicycled across Tibet solo in December! That sounds a lot chillier than this current trip undertaken in subtropical heat.

Bato's Mandarin and her smartphone are valuable assets. She uses GPS to navigate in an area where no adequate maps are available. One of many pleasant surprises along the way—one I am astonished at—are the consistently good road surfaces, perfectly suitable for a road bike and skinny tires.

On average, we encounter perhaps four cars per hour! That means only two honks per hour, as Chinese motorists blare their horns every 15 seconds for reasons evident only to them. The habit can be quite annoying in the car-choked towns and cities where, tragically, motor traffic has almost entirely replaced bicycles over the past two generations.

Noise appears to be an integral element of the Chinese way of life ... after all, they invented the firecracker. Be sure to pack your earplugs if you plan on sleeping in this country.

Besides avoiding the noise, there is another major incentive to favour quiet backroads here ... Chinese motorists are the most dangerous that I have witnessed anywhere (sample size: 67 countries cycled). At risk of understatement, local drivers are rude, unthinking and oblivious.

There is one kind of motorist I really appreciate here: bus drivers. Though no more courteous or quiet than the others, they are totally cool with cyclists boarding their vehicles. Even Bato is surprised that we are allowed to travel with our bikes in the aisles.

As a lifetime "Arbourphile" (tree lover), I am delighted to discover that Chinese covered bridges are often adjacent to even older entities: ancient trees, conveniently bearing metal plaques indicating their Latin name and estimated age. The most majestic specimen is a 1,200-year-old Camphor Tree in XiXi, with a trunk circumference of 6.5 metres.

As if their association with quiet backroads and with ancient trees weren't enough, China's covered bridges can, strangely enough, connect to another interest of mine: birth control (hardly surprising as I work as a physician when I'm not travelling). Along with other communist party propaganda, Bato tells me that some of the graffiti on the wooden walls of the bridges extolls the virtue of small families and birth control. Though I am No.8 of 12 children, I have long recognized the imperative to limit human reproduction everywhere. Now approaching 8 billion worldwide, humankind is likely 10 times beyond the number of people this planet can support long-term, if we hope to maintain both a stable climate and current levels of biodiversity. 

With Bato back in Shanghai, I spend a couple of days doing day trips out of XiXi, based in a rustic hotel built in the 1840s ($22/night ... you cannot spend a lot of money in rural China, even if you try). Before she leaves, I ask Bato to teach me essential Mandarin ... ni hao (hello), xie xie (thank you), you ju (post office), bu yao dai zi (no bag please) and of course, langqiao ( covered bridge). 

My road map is almost as rudimentary as my Chinese, but I manage nevertheless to find eight authentic bridges on my own, and more importantly, I also manage to find my way back to the hotel.

Alone one evening in XiXi, I am mysteriously offered a free meal and beer. Bato later learns that word had spread that I was a UNESCO observer, scouting out the area's potential as a World Heritage Site, by virtue of its concentration of historic covered bridges.

Little do the locals realize that I actually occupy an even more prominent position: I am a representative of The Organization of Collectors of Covered Bridge Postcards, which is based in Pennsylvania and boasts almost 90 members worldwide. Needless to say, I am very pleased to find a substantial number of cards devoted to the objects of my attention ... and what better place to write them than on the bridges themselves, often furnished with benches and tables.

The tour is a resounding success, as I bag a total of 37 bridges, including five on my last morning before 7 a.m.

My life-total of covered bridges is now approaching 300 structures visited in nine countries; all by bicycle ... maybe a world record? On the gao ti (high-speed rail) back to Shanghai, Bato asks me why I feel compelled to write so many postcards while aboard the train.

"Because it is safer than writing them while on the bike," I explain.

Next stop along this three-part Asian bike odyssey will be Korea, a land still tragically cut in half by an impenetrable wall. True to form, I won't be visiting the Demilitarized Zone there. Instead, I will be concentrating on bridges ... no, not covered, but nevertheless one of the world's finest collections of bicycle bridges.

These bridges are brilliant if you are a cyclist but not so grand if you are a water molecule, as most of them are built on dams, which essentially are massive concrete walls.