Bike Riding in China through the Eyes of a ‘Freshmen’ Foreigner.
Have you ever heard of bicycle traffic jams?
Not? Well, you’re in for a ride! Welcome to the Bicycle City!
Chengdu is a crowded city in China with a population of about 10 million people. Bicycle lanes can be found along many main routes. Can you imagine millions of people going to work on their bicycles; many millions using the same lanes at the same time? Rivers of bicycles can be found, pumping streams into tributaries of cyclists, all on their way to their destinations in this massive city.
Bicycles can be found in all shapes and sizes! Especially the thousands of three wheelers or Pedicabs, are interesting phenomena for some Westerners. If you choose to take a ride on or in any of these, you are guaranteed to experience a scary, breathtaking ride.
So, don’t under estimate the ‘Grandpa models’ from the 60’s coming your way. As the majority of people prefer these in spite of the fact that their ageing is clearly evident, they are just as useful as their younger, brighter brothers. These old models are quite a sight: rust and dust often covers a dilapidated frame. Onlookers might be intrigued to see that they’re still able to move about! If anyone (usually an uninformed foreigner) dares to buy a spiff and spunky brand new model with gears, his bicycle has a good chance of being stolen. Bicycle theft is one of the more common crimes in the city.
It’s important to mention the circumstances foreigners face, while riding their gear driven, sparkly models. Some “Chinese” trees in the city are about 4 to 5 meters high. They are regularly pruned and trimmed - the Chinese way- just enough for short Chinese people to walk and ride their bikes underneath. Their taller Western friends need to constantly ‘duck and swerve’. This skill is necessary, not only to miss the trees but also to miss oncoming spit from all directions! Yes, SPIT. People have the custom to clear their throats of unwanted fluids when necessary.
There are also other safety hazards for less experienced drivers, so, keeping your eyes fixed on the road is a precaution that might prevent tragedy! This will be a life saving skill for several reasons: potholes, sometimes one meter deep, might pop up on the smooth tarmac. In some cases the surface of the road will ‘suddenly’ give way to a muddy pool. Traffic coming right towards you, in the wrong lane, might be something else you need to be alert of, as that is not impossible in a bicycle lane!
A traffic policy, which might summarize driving in this city, would be something like, “Expect the most unexpected at all times… even at the most impossible places and always handle it with grace and patience.”
TOLERANCE ………… is the keyword here.
Talking about the unexpected! There seems to be no limitations when it comes to initiative and packing abilities of a Chinese cyclist. In some cases their load is so burdensome that they find it almost impossible to peddle. Many attach one-meter square baskets on both sides of their bicycles and often overload those with a variety of stuff. Transporting doors and window frames - real ones for houses- seem to be common practice… Imagine how careful you need to be, when you are riding too close to such bicycles! If not, you might get a slap through the face with a doorframe or bumped by big bottles!
As much as six, twenty five-liter water bottles get attached to back of the bicycle. Other resourceful cyclists have invented a huge, sharp ‘steel-spike’, to carry pig carcasses to the meat market.
With the necessary adjustments a bicycle can be turned into a mini stall. From some of these bicycles you can buy literally anything. Anything from fruits, flowers, pot plants, clothes, cleaning necessities to bathroom utilities! A complete shop on wheels! Another invention observed recently, was two baskets of a meter square, one in front and one on the back of a bicycle, with up to 9 LIVE chickens or ducks transported in each basket. Their feet get tied and they seem to be enjoying the ride, patiently watching everything pass before being slaughtered to end up as a juicy meal on someone’s plate.
Another common sight is a Chinese lady with high heels, sitting sideways on the carrier, feet close together, in the most feminine way possible. Until, she sees a cop! Then she flies off in a flash and elegantly gets on again when the cop is out of sight! See, …… you get a fine for giving someone a lift.
Children are also a common sight on the carriers of these bicycles, sometimes even standing triumphantly, as they throne above Mom or Dad, waving to the other passengers. Babies can be seen in their special, small, square “baby seat”. They often take a nap, bobbing around in the basket while their parents efficiently glide through the traffic.
After these exhilarating rides, cyclists need to squeeze their bikes into a tiny parking spot and be certain to lock their precious means of transport. The next day they will again become part of the city’s torrent of bicycles as they stream to their destination. They might need to get up a little earlier to avoid the peak time traffic jam…
After a six month stay in this city the author sees her bicycle as one of her most precious belongings and has also developed her creativity and flexibility when coming to transport several items from the shops!
Needless to say that bike riders (especially foreigners) need lots of FLYING, guarding angels to protect them, especially as they ‘duck and swerve’, ring their bells and navigate their way through traffic jams in this big, bicycle city.