SHANGHAI ― Marian Rosenberg doesn’t fit the profile of a Chinese “wanghong,” or influencer, and she never expected her solo cycling tours of rural China to draw a following. An American translator living in the city of Haikou since 2004, and China since 2002, Rosenberg has been exploring the country’s expanses by bike since 2005 — and mostly on her own starting from 2008.
She doesn’t fit the profile of a celebrity athlete, either. Now 40, Rosenberg has a collection of tattoos joining the scars she incurred at 20 years old when a swimming pool explosion shattered her leg. She requires a mobility aid after the accident rendered walking and standing permanently unpleasant.
“I’ve been 65 years old since I was 20,” she says.
Along with culinary fare such as roadside noodles, her travels documented on TikTok and her blog mainly show her navigating propaganda from the 1960s through the 2000s with “occasional forays into old buildings and temple art,” Rosenberg says.
Rosenberg gets really excited when finding a legible remnant of former premier Jiang Zemin’s political theory “Three Represents" from the early 2000s, or “recognizing that an educational slogan is part of the Two Foundations” campaign to universalize primary education in rural China, also from the early 2000s.
Her TikTok captures a remote side of China, presented in fluent Mandarin under her Chinese name, Yue Meigui. (While she can be found under the username MeiguoMeigui in China, her account isn’t accessible in the United States). Rosenberg also maintains an English-language cycling blog on Cycleblaze.com and a bilingual WeChat channel.
Rosenberg first took to cycling as a way to get around cheaply, and more comfortably for her injured leg, during her early years in Haikou. Before long, she was joining local cycling groups exploring the tropical island, and those grew into longer forays.
“I like the independence of having my own transportation, the ability to go unusual places, and — most importantly — the ability to eat 6,000 calories a day and still lose weight,” she says. “No other form of vacation allows that.”
In November 2020, she documented her first trip after China’s coronavirus lockdown: a 2,097-mile tour from Haikou to Tianshui. That trip saw her followers climb to almost 30,000, with some posts nearing 3 million views — relatively small numbers, but enough to draw notice and sponsorship in the adventure-travel market.
In mid-March, she took to the saddle again, starting from Xi’an and heading roughly 3,100 miles to Beijing.
Though a budding online celebrity, Rosenberg often has run-ins with small-town police, who arrive at most stops after being called by disconcerted hotels and locals who, she says, intend to move her along for the next village to worry about.
Sometimes, like last year on a steep mountain road in northern Guizhou, they come to Rosenberg’s rescue.
More often though, her determinedly countering the common but illegal practice of barring foreign nationals from low-cost accommodations can draw baffled cops for a familiar argument that Rosenberg usually wins.
She has even gamified the wrangling with police and hotels and made it into a point system. Before 2020, Rosenberg had accumulated a score of 123 victories to 6 relocations, five of which were of her own volition.
Restrictions on where foreign nationals can stay were lifted in the early 2000s, and while any accommodation with a business license can register foreigners, proprietors in small towns assume otherwise. She advises travelers in China to utilize online booking giant Trip.com, which bears responsibility for any nationality-based cancellations.
Following a national lockdown in early 2020, China had reopened by last summer, apart from specific outbreak sites, though some towns and tourist sites have stayed closed for longer and with stricter measures than officially mandated. Like in many countries, more remote parts of rural China see few outsiders, and fewer who are visibly foreign, let alone on a bike.
There was “more freedom of movement” before the pandemic, recalls Ellie Bouttell, a Shanghai-based British translator and editor who similarly tours around China alone, blogging about it at Chinapedlar.com.”
Both women opt to tour mostly alone out of an enjoyment of the solitude and of setting their own routes and paces.
Bouttell, who is more inclined to camp out than fight over hotel registration, says, “You draw a lot of attention as a White girl especially in rural areas, and if you’re obviously alone then it can feel threatening sometimes, even if the risk is low.”
Long-distance touring remains a niche activity in China, for Chinese people as well as foreign cyclists, Justin Jencks says. The British American landscape architect who co-founded the riding club ShanghaiCycling.org says touring is mostly “groups of elderly Chinese and post-university, [with] nothing much in between.”
Jencks says covid has impacted cycling about “the same as any other travel,” with “restrictions on entry to some areas” and increased reluctance by some hotels to admit foreign nationals, with the same health codes as urban travel.
Cycling through rural China is “actually easy” now, Jencks says, with expanded ranks of English speakers plus phone translation, mapping and booking software. He says there are a few areas where foreigners aren’t allowed, such as around military sites, “but you normally just get politely turned out.” Overall, “people are extremely helpful and nice to people on bikes here."
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