Decade after divorce, woman finds new life on two wheels

By SHI BAOYIN in Zhengzhou and ZHOU HUIYING | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2023-04-20 07:20
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Li Dongju poses with four cyclists on a cycling trip to Australia in February 2020. CHINA DAILY

Cyclist transformed by experience, seeks to inspire others via livestreams

For many enthusiasts, cycling is a good way to increase physical strength. But for Li Dongju, it is also a way to improve her psychological state.

Since her first long-distance trip to Southeast Asia in November 2014, the 65-year-old retiree from an automaker in Zhengzhou, Henan province, has cycled to different regions in China — including the Xinjiang Uygur, Tibet and Guangxi Zhuang autonomous regions and the provinces of Qinghai, Hainan, Guangdong, Hubei and Jiangsu — as well as 12 countries around the world, including France, Thailand and New Zealand.

Li's passion for cycling was born out of the breakdown of her marriage. "I will never forget how shocked I was when my husband asked for a divorce in 2005," Li said. "Despite how simple and dull our daily lives were, I never thought we would go through that kind of change."

The divorce left Li feeling severely depressed.

"Over the next few years, I tried a number of things to feel better, like playing computer games and doing volunteer work, but things didn't really improve," she said. "Sometimes, I spent over 20 hours a day playing games, which made my mental state even worse because I wasn't sleeping enough. I also tried to take care of my grandson but wasn't able to, which made me sad and helpless."

At the end of 2013, Li's son bought her a mountain bike and told his mother it might present her with a new way to occupy her time.

"I could feel my son's concern, and I realized that I shouldn't burden him anymore," she said. "I had to change something, so I decided to give it a go."

She began cycling every day. At first, she only felt confident enough to ride close to home, but after a few days' practice, she started going around the suburbs. "Gradually, the pleasure of cycling relaxed me physically and mentally," she said. "I also made friends with other cycling enthusiasts as a result."

Li bought some professional gear and began to plan a long journey.

"When I read stories and saw beautiful photos of the different places that cycling enthusiasts posted online, I was really inspired," she said.

"Then I began to think about cycling outside Zhengzhou, and even outside China."

While this might have sounded like a crazy idea for a woman who had never left the city on her own before, Li joined a cycling team in August 2014 after learning that they planned to bike to Southeast Asia.

"At first, my son and daughter-in-law really didn't agree with my decision out of concern for my age and safety, but they soon discovered they couldn't change my mind," she said. "I promised to take care of myself and message them to let them know everything was fine."

In November 2014, Li and two fellow cyclists began their trip to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, from Nanning in Guangxi.

They spent around a month biking across Vietnam. During the journey, they endured punctured tires, wind and rain, and had to overcome the language barrier.

"None of us could speak any foreign languages, so we did everything we could to express what we wanted," she said. "When we had dinner at a restaurant, we'd point to the dishes on other peoples' tables to ask for the same food."

"I was lucky, and I met a lot of kind people," she said. "A 17-year-old Chinese boy who lived in Nha Trang offered me a room and rode with me after I separated from the other travelers over a difference of opinion."

After she returned to Nanning in Guangxi that December, Li continued on to Lijiang in Yunnan province, and then finished her trip by cycling around Hainan province in the spring of 2015.

"During the course of the long journey, I was able to enjoy the beautiful scenery of China and Vietnam as well as different cultures and traditions," she said. "I often felt deeply touched by people I met on the way."

During the COVID-19 epidemic, Li was forced to suspend her long-distance cycling and instead started livestreaming to share her travel experiences.

"Cycling has changed me a lot," she said. "I am happy to share my experiences, and I hope I can help others just as the people I met helped me."

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