It is the night of Oct. 1. The sun has set on China's National Day, 24 hours of festivities have ended, and we've set off the last of the firecrackers that the hotel staff gleefully provided. The streets of Changzhou are nearly empty.
But Joe, Phil, Gail and I are not quite ready to let the holiday end. So off we ride, pedaling as fast as possible on our single-speed Chinese bicycles right down the center of the broad avenues, looking for nightlife in this Grand Canal city 100 miles northwest of Shanghai.
Soon, in the midst of the darkness, we come upon a colorfully lit gateway to a large building, noise coming from inside. One flight up in a smallish room, a few dozen Chinese are jammed onto folding chairs. They don't notice us in the doorway, so engrossed are they in their kung fu video.
But on the next floor we cause an immediate stir. It's a disco, a drab room with more folding chairs, a few valiant blinking lights and nothing to drink but tea. As far as we can determine, no foreigner -- let alone a gang of four foreigners -- has ever set foot inside.
They're startled, but gracious. We sit and sip tea, watching young couples and Sino-hip single men dance to waltzes, to clanky, countryish Chinese pop tunes, and to the very occasional legitimate rock 'n' roll song.
After what we agree is a polite spell, we walk out -- and about a dozen disco customers follow, giggling excitedly.
Outside, we give a few of them a quick lesson in what we decide is an easy dance: the bunny hop. Then -- this being China, they've all come by bicycle -- we pedal off in a gang of about 15.
A few blocks later, when the four of us are on our own again, we spot a pool hall. We stop at the doorway. The habitue's glower at us in true pool-hall style.
We take off, speeding back to our hotel, singing oldies into the Chinese night.
We feel like the kids in "E.T."
Seeing China by bicycle is both mundane and magical. It's mundane partly because it can mean sweat and sore muscles, but mostly because among China's billion-plus inhabitants, the bicycle is Everyman's -- and Everywoman's and Everychild's -- mode of transportation.
The Chinese certainly think it's mundane. They use bikes because they have to and finding out that foreigners (waiguoren, or "outside country people") pay good money and come halfway around the world to do it as a vacation has sent more than a few Chinese into fits of baffled laughter.
But for those baffling waiguoren, a bike trip in China can indeed have moments of magic, not to mention lots of plain old fun. I had plenty of both during the week I spent cycling through the Yangtze Valley with a New Jersey-based tour group. As a resident of Beijing, I joined the group of 24 as it was leaving by overnight train from the Chinese capital for Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu Province. I stayed with them for the week of biking through Jiangsu Province, and said goodbye in Shanghai just before they left for Guilin, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and home.
The magic and fun of such trips come not only in late-night bike flights. By night or by day, cycling in China -- even when you're part of an organized group, as we were and as most bike tourists are -- provides freedom and inspires a sense of adventure and accomplishment.
For example: No bus-bound tourist returning from the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial in Nanjing has had the adrenaline rush -- okay, call it raw fear -- that comes with navigating a heavy Flying Pigeon bicycle through a rush-hour bike lane in a city of more than 3 million people.
Traveling pedal-to-many-many-pedals with the locals, bike travelers see parts of China almost as the Chinese do. That's by no means always pleasant, but it does eliminate some of the barriers that still exist in Chinese tourism, and it gives both sides a better chance to come up with smiles and attempts at conversation.
As they do anywhere, bicycles in China provide an opportunity to cruise around back streets, to poke down alleyways where motor vehicles would fear to put their treads.
On our China bike trip, that meant, for example, going to an out-of-the-way restaurant for a huge Chinese breakfast in Yangzhou. It meant, for three of us who got a late start in the wrong direction on our afternoon in Zhenjiang, being befriended by a young Chinese businessman on a bike who helped us find our group and then stuck around to practice his English by talking -- with intense animation -- about basketball.
Throughout our 200 or so cycling miles, we drew a crowd whenever we stopped to regroup: A squadron of 24 white faces, many topped by bike helmets, is not exactly inconspicuous. But the attention was cheerful, and we got offers of assistance when we had a problem -- such as the chronically flat tire on Daphne's bike, or the crankset on Steve's that couldn't seem to stay together.
Actually, though, our group of two dozen had few problems or complaints -- certainly not with our cycling cohorts or our nearly perfect weather, and rarely with equipment, accommodation or food.
Well, true, there was the night in Huaxi village, our sleepover in the "real China." Five of us had to flee our bunks to get away from the rats -- but we'd had a rollicking few hours of poker before that.
And, true, there were those few meals that inspired the game "Wheel of Food." Participants had to spin the omnipresent Lazy Susan and take a morsel from whichever dish ended up in front of them, and sometimes we had to sweeten the pot by counting the container of toothpicks as a dish. But most of the time we had good food, and lots of it.
By the time I boarded the train, the other 23 tour members had been in Beijing three days, seeing -- aboard tour buses, not bicycles -- the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven and other standard local attractions.
As the train pulled out of Beijing's chaotic rail station, the group was, in a word, psyched. They were in China. The next day they'd start biking. This was what they had come for, and they were happy -- or at least willing -- to put up with 17 hours of train food and train bathrooms to get to it.
We were booked into "soft sleeper," the most luxurious class for long train rides in China. But Joe, Phil and Steve insisted on going "hard sleeper" -- for the experience, they said. Within a week these same three guys would be lost in unrequited longing for burgers and girlfriends, but for now they wanted the experience.
The group was California-heavy, with 10 from that state, but it had people from seven other states and Canada. There were 13 women and 11 men, including five couples, and they ranged in age from twenties to sixties. There were engineers, journalists, bureaucrats, businesspeople. A veterinarian. A retired church secretary. A lawyer. A waitress who said she hadn't ridden a bike in 15 years. An airline mechanic who was one of the top bike racers in California.
The cycling was just about right for the midrange of fitness and energy. The distances were moderate -- on our heaviest biking day we covered about 40 miles -- and the hills were virtually nil. Those who wanted to push the pace were free to take the lead, and those who wanted to ride more slowly were given plenty of time to catch up.
The biking began in Nanjing, and continued to Yangzhou, Zhenjiang, Changzhou and Wuxi. The group also had a day to cycle around the charming canal city of Suzhou after going there by train from Wuxi.
On a typical day, we'd spend the morning biking from one city to the next, then sightsee by bike in our new locale after lunch. Evenings were improvised, although those of us who wanted to usually connived a way to go dancing.
As organized for a trip like ours, it's the means rather than the ends that makes bicycle touring in China different from other touring in China. What sticks in the memory are the physical feelings of biking and the slices of Chinese life that we pedaled past in and between the towns -- villages and city marketplaces, workers in the fields and along the Grand Canal, the often-honking array of farm vehicles that my husband called Road Warriors.
The attractions we visited in each city were essentially what any tourist would see -- an orchestrated assortment of historical, cultural, scenic and industrial sites. That, of course, didn't make them any less interesting, especially as all but three of us were first-timers in China.
The group loved the performances at the Children's Palace in Changzhou and in the classrooms at Huaxi village, and they were delighted to be swept up in a wedding reception when we went out to dinner in Nanjing. They were fascinated -- and occasionally repelled -- by the huge variety at the open-air free market in Wuxi. They were full of questions about the model housing we visited in Changzhou and the jade factory we toured in Yangzhou, although the guides' English wasn't always good enough to translate the answers well.
That, in fact, was one of the trip's few real minuses. Some members of the group had briefed themselves well on China, were taking notes throughout the trip and tried hard to amass historical and cultural knowledge. It was especially frustrating for them when, at times, a guide couldn't speak English well enough to explain thoroughly, or understand it well enough to answer questions adequately.
On the other hand, there was more frequently a we're-in-this-together spirit. The guides' eagerness to master English more than equaled their shortcomings in the language. They practiced new bits of it with the help of tour members, and success brought a real sense of shared triumph.
On our night in Yangzhou, the guide asked me -- because of my rudimentary knowledge of Chinese -- to help him puzzle out two magazine articles. I wound up doing push-ups in the hotel lobby to explain the exercises that the Cosby kids were describing in TV Guide -- but that was much easier than trying to translate Erma Bombeck from idiomatic Americanese.
Then there was our guide in Wuxi: very pretty, very flirtatious and partial to diaphanous lavender for bicycling. She asked the best-looking men on the trip to teach her "bad words" in English. They obliged, and she learned quickly. Joe called her "the Scarlett O'Hara of China."
For me, one of the group's best qualities was a collective refusal to take ourselves too seriously -- and I think that had a lot to do with the fact that we were a bike group instead of an "ordinary" tour group.
On what other kind of tour, after all, would Steve have been able to crow "meiguo fengzi!" -- American crazies -- as we passed through every town? (Okay, so not everyone liked Steve doing that -- at least he had the air space.)
On what other kind of tour would a visit to Yangzhou's lovely Slender West Lake Park have prompted John -- a bit weary of anecdotes about imperial times -- to bellow, as we made our way along a trail, "So what's this? The emperor's dirt-bike path?"
We liked being outside and on the move. But I don't think any of us realized how obvious our enjoyment was until Jiao Min, the Beijing-based guide who accompanied us, made a startling comment.
"I like you guys much better than the last tour-bus group I had," she said. "They were Australians, and they were much too serious."
We made a busload of Australians look serious. Clearly, we had a great time.
Lenore Magida is a free-lance writer who is living in Beijing.