The story appears on

Page B2-B3

April 24, 2010

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

Easy riders: Hardy seniors rough it as they bike around China

You're never too old to cycle and no destination is too far for dedicated and healthy seniors using pedal power. That's especially true for former workers who many years ago took part in the herculean development of the Tarim Basin in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

They had to be very hardy to endure the harsh conditions for years, so riding a bike sounds like a walk in the park. They even cycled back there for the 50th anniversary of the Karamay Oil Field's exploration in 2005, and made it in a symbolic 50 days.

Defying stereotypes and advice to take it easy, these grandmas and grandpas -- the Orient Elders from Fengxian District -- have traveled far and wide on their bicycles.

The average age is 65 in the 33-member group. The eldest is 83, the youngest 57.

Since the group was founded in 2005, they have traveled 4,900 kilometers to Karamay in Xinjiang, 3,100 kilometers to Harbin in Heilongjiang Province and 2,540 kilometers to Baotou City in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Those are one-way trips: they take the train back.

They have braved sandstorms that rip the roofs off buildings, negotiated steep mountain paths on cliffs above crashing rivers and traveled muddy, rutted roads where huge coal-carrying trucks roar past.

For them, life began after retirement.

"Bike riding is a good way for us to stay happy and healthy," says Cheng Leiming, the 60-year-old team leader and founder. He is smiling and animated, his skin deeply tanned and his face wrinkled from years of exposure to the elements.

"We've got loads of things to do instead of waiting till the day we die," says the youngest team member, 57-year-old Fang Jianchun. "We want to be part of this beautiful world and involved with what's happening."

Most of them are retirees from the Karamay Oil Field in Xinjiang, who spent the best years of their life contributing to oil exploration and development.

The pipeline from the field today sends gas to Shanghai and other east coast cities. Developing the oil and gas resources in the geographically hostile region has been a national objective for decades and considered a heroic mission. Now the heroes are back in Shanghai, the home they left to go out west.

Team leader Cheng, who returned from Xinjiang in 1998, lived in the locked-away oilfield for almost 50 years. He worked as an oil prospector, a truck mechanic, a bench worker and electrician. Fang was a materials supplier to projects in Xinjiang and returned to Shanghai in 2001.

Both of them took part in the six-year development of the pipeline from the Tarim Basin 21 years ago.

In 2005, their first long-distance ride was a trip to Karamay.

Why do it?

"Because 2005 was the 50th anniversary of the Karamay Oil Field's exploration, we made it in 50 days to celebrate the big day," says leader Cheng. "After all, most of our members have a special emotional attachment to that place, where we spent our youth."

The reason for setting up the bike club was simple.

"Bicycling is good exercise, it's an eco-friendly travel and there are no parking fees," says Cheng.

Before the Xinjiang odyssey, they had only bicycled to nearby Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province, Suzhou in Jiangsu Province and Mt Yellow in Anhui Province.

Once they started the big journeys, it was hard to stop.

In 2006 they pedaled to Harbin, China's northern city of ice, though they traveled in summer. It took them 36 days.

Last year, they spent 23 days on the road, 2,540 kilometers, to Baotou City in Inner Mongolia. On the way they passed through seven provinces and 33 cities, including Beijing, to promote World Expo 2010 Shanghai.

The bike riders have their own red uniforms, bikes and helmets. All are in red color.

It's a regular and licensed team under the Fengxian District Bike Ride Committee, with regular weekly meetings.

Any retiree is welcome, but those who want to go on long-distance rides must pass a physical exam and have the formal written consent of their family. Anyone with high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic ailments are ruled out -- of course.

"Safety comes first," the team leader says. Since the first long tour in 2005, there have been no accidents or health problems on the road.

All they take is a backpack with necessities and a couple of changes of clothes -- and mobile phones.

They stay in cheap motels, youth hostels and family-style inns as they can't afford expensive hotels.

Lodging is usually no more than 30 yuan (US$4.40) a night and sometimes as little as 5 yuan (in Inner Mongolia).

Cheng draws up the course for the day, including places of interest, and they usually set off in the early morning.

"It's often quiet and cool at that time and there aren't many cars or pedestrians, so we can pedal faster and easier," says member Fang.

"The limit is 100 kilometers a day and beyond that it would be difficult for our members," Cheng says.

They eat a simple lunch, ride some more, find a place for the night and then see the nearby sights.

Fang and the deputy captain Zhang Xigui are responsible of repairing bikes, and they carry heavy boxes of clamps, pliers, rubber and a pump. They fixed 14 tires on the trip to Inner Mongolia and on the Xinjiang trip, far more hazardous, they repaired six flats a day.

Retired geography teacher Cao Zhenqian briefs the group on the folk culture and history of interesting places and even tells jokes.


Everyone got used to difficulties and unpleasant surprises, after all, if you can survive in the Tarim Basin, a road trip shouldn't be too hard.

One day in Shanxi Province they couldn't find a place for breakfast, so they rode for two hours, stopped at a farmhouse and begged the housewife to cook a pot of congee for them.

"She agreed and also stewed corn cobs for us," Cheng says. The meal cost three yuan.

They've gone without water and electricity, once sharing a basin of water to brush their teeth and wash up.

On a trip to Hainan Island early this month, a guide warned them to be careful of their safety in Dongfang, a small city in the west.

When they got there at noon, they first looked for a motel, but all were expensive, almost 200 yuan a night.

Finally they found a small hostel, charging 40 yuan for a room for three persons.

"But when we entered, we saw a long row of scantily clad young women with heavy makeup sitting around," Fang recalls.

When they looked back at the street, they saw some tough-looking young guys following them.

"We were a little scared," Fang recalls. They bought ferry tickets to Haikou, the provincial capital, to find a safer place to stay.

But almost everyone they met was friendly and kind.

"Wow, we're amazed that you're biking at your age," Feng quotes people as saying.

When they reached Wenchang in Hainan Province they met a father and son picking coconuts.

"They urged us to drink before noon because it would taste better and insisted we take coconut milk to drink on the road," Cheng recalls.

In Inner Mongolia they were given free soybean milk when an inn keeper heard they rode all the way from Shanghai to promote the World Expo.

In Xinjiang they met a Shanghai native who had lived there for more than 50 years -- he gave them a place to stay for free, a tour and a feast of freshwater fish.

They sent back postcards along the way.

Cheng wants to make a long annual tour a ritual of the bike team, saying, "Life for us is rolling on two wheels."


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend