Early in the morning, on the road climbing out of the town of Jixian, the woman in high heels overtook me on her bike. Given that my bicycle and I had about 20 years apiece on her and hers, it should have been no contest. But as I panted and puffed and pedalled that bit harder, she swanned ahead, seemingly unaffected by her inappropriate footwear, the creaking rust bucket she was riding or the bags of shopping weighing down her handlebars.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Chinese really know how to ride a bike: China has the highest number of bikes of any country in the world, with about a quarter of the population owning one. So if there was ever a way to see a country as the locals do, it was to saddle up and join those 300 million-plus souls on the Chinese roads.
Small wonder then, that adventure company Exodus has devised a twice-yearly cycling trip that snakes around the countryside north-east of Beijing, taking in the Great Wall along the way. It is a relatively easy trip designed for anyone with a basic level of fitness who knows how to ride a bike. The average ride is about 45km a day through mountain valleys and small towns and villages - during which you find yourself drinking in the rocky mountain landscape as well as the lively roadside life: groups of men playing Chinese chess; a barber cutting hair in the street; old men gathering sticks, while the next generation in their ubiquitous school tracksuits play and kick about in the dust.
Cylists in front of Tian an men Squre
The trip carries off-the-beaten-track appeal - though thankfully for all us amateur cyclists, none of the tracks we went on were so "unbeaten" as to be difficult to ride. Give or take the odd pothole, 95% of the paths we used were in good condition - one of communism's legacies being that even the remotest village is well-serviced by roads.
Given that so many people come to China only to be whisked from temple to temple in Beijing and Shanghai, it seems all the more gratifying to spend so much time slowly making your way from village to village, enjoying the orchards coming into blossom and seeing the farmers working the land. So much so that when we met a group of tourists at the Pule Si temple in Chenge De and one of them bemoaned "we've been stuck on a bus for four hours and haven't seen anything yet", it was all I could do to contain my smugness.