Cycling to China — off to a good start

ODENSE, Denmark Odense, a 1,000-year-old city on the Danish island of Fyn, has a counter in the central square that records every passing bicycle.

ODENSE, Denmark

Odense, a 1,000-year-old city on the Danish island of Fyn, has a counter in the central square that records every passing bicycle.

Last year 2.5 million bicycles crossed its path.

So it seemed a good place for Darlene and me to begin a year-long bicycle tour across Europe and Asia.

On the way we expect to experience the Old World culture of Western Europe, the resurgence of formerly communist Eastern Europe, the fables of the Silk Road in Central Asia, the classic bike tour Kashgar to Lhasa and on into Western China.

We rode out of Odense through parks blanketed with spring flowers, under bare-branched trees into the farmland beyond. It was Friday April 13th.

Most of Denmark is flat and intensely farmed, tilled right up to the roadside ditch and there are few trees.

Not Fyn; it has more picturesque rolling countryside. The bike route picks its way in and out of clean, neat villages of thatched cottages, past old windmills, between hedgerows behind which new grain and canola crops green the fields.

In each village a whitewashed church flying the Danish red and white flag stands on a high spot, eye-catching against the blue sky.

In the southwest of the island the Fyn Alps, rising to all of 130 metres, bar the way to the coast.

Not yet fit we huff and puff our way over them and are glad to coast down to a campground by the ferry that will take us to the Danish mainland.

On the mainland, it’s not far to the German border, marked by a few flags. Nobody stops, there’s nothing to stop for.

We reach the coastal town of Flensburg, busy with traffic and Saturday afternoon shoppers. Finding the tourist office is easy but it closed, just an hour earlier, for the weekend.

Our best accommodation option seems to be to follow signs for the youth hostel.

They lead us to the top of the only big hill in the area.

We are too tired to protest the 50 euros cost (about $80) of a plain room and a simple breakfast. Next day we eat our way to value for money at the breakfast buffet.

On a cool but sunny Sunday morning, we bump out of town down narrow cobbled streets while church bells toll around us.

We are heading for the Elbe River.

To get there, we follow a bike path that recreates a traditional cross country route, the oxcart trail.

Germany has lots of signed bike paths and many roads have bike paths running alongside.

Between highway signage, bike path directions and a good map it’s easy to get lost.

When we get to the Elbe river, wide and muddy this close to the sea, we turn on to the Elbe radweg, a cycle path that follows the river 860 kilometres southeast to the

Czech Republic.

This is great bicycle touring; the warm weather stays, the path is flat and well paved, and there are lots of campgrounds. This early in the year we are usually the only tent, though campgrounds have trailers or cottages occupied year round.

Frequently we change from one river bank to the other via cute little ferries tethered to a cable and powered by the current. Pretty villages sit by the rivers edge and in between, fields glow yellow with blooming canola. It smells good too but mostly loses out to the pig manure that fertilizes it.

The towns live up to our expectations; narrow streets lead us to squares sometimes paved, sometimes parks, with a fountain or statues of local heroes.

Some streets are pedestrian only where shoppers rest and gossip at the outdoor cafes.

Wittenberg has a youth hostel in a castle dating from 1489, which we thought an unusual enough experience to justify the expense. Too late we found this meant hauling our gear up a circular staircase of 69 big stone steps to the third floor.

That evening we dined well on schnitzel with spargel at City Buffeteria, though it wasn‘t a buffet at all.

Spargel is asparagus and this is asparagus country and this is asparagus season.

In the market at least a quarter of the stalls are selling only asparagus.

Despite being bombed flat in the Second World War, Dresden has been well restored.

The large Neumarkt Square is crowded with tour groups. They are led from one impressively stately building housing a museum or art gallery to the next.

We managed to be there on the one day a year the bike path was closed and given over to the Dresden marathon.

It is a popular event, with hundreds of runners cheered on by enthusiastic crowds and, at refreshment stops, cheerleaders and drum bands.

None of the runners seemed to be having fun, something I‘ve noticed before about marathoners.

But then, neither were we as we bounced across fields parallel to the path.

We gave that up to rest and eat snacks on a park bench until the last runner panted past.

Cheering him on brought us no thanks or even an acknowledgment.

He was followed by two officials carrying brooms — the sweepers, the equivalent of the red lantern.

As we leave Dresden behind the views along the river change. The cycle path stays close to the water with hills or cliffs on both banks.

Occasionally we spot a castle or tower above us on the skyline.

Everywhere is green, not seedlings or new leaves, but thick foliage and where there are fields, ripening crops of hay and grain.

This hilly and wooded area is popular with hikers and cyclists.

Bikes are parked everywhere and beer gardens are full of people enjoying a warm and sunny weekend.

Squashed between the river and the hillside, Bad Schandau is a touristy village and the last place to stay before the Czech border.

We want our last night in Germany to be in a  bed so ask directions to the youth hostel.

It is two or three kilometres away, the last 850 metres are up a criminally steep track.

We exhaust ourselves pushing the bikes to the top, then they give us a room two floors up.

A farewell to Germany dinner in a nearby hotel, with a couple of good local beers, restores our energy and good humour.

Writer David Sillery lives in Haines Junction.

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