biking in beijing (april 20, 2011)

Every time we move to a new city we buy bikes.  This has made sense for the boys because they keep growing. It has made less sense for me because I never ride the bikes we get… well, maybe I rode my bike once in each of Toronto, London and Vancouver.

When we got to Beijing one of the first things we did was buy the boys bikes.  Hunter had to have one because he had signed up for a school trip where they will ride across (a small part of) Mongolia.  He trains once a week for this ride, and they were not allowed to apply for the trip until they had a bike.  He got a fancy mountain bike, with all the extras… gears, suspension, lock, pouch, helmet, rear and forward lights… To keep things fair, Jack got a bike too, almost the same as Hunter, just black instead of white and a size smaller.

I decided, after standing around the bike shop for over an hour, that I wanted a bike too. John’s eyes began to roll… To keep peace in our marriage, I bought the cheapest bike they had.  This is China, cheap is cheap! My bike cost less than Jack’s helmet. No gears, no suspension, no light.  They threw in a basket for free and I paid extra for a bell.

Well, surprise, surprise.  I use my bike all the time. I ride around our neighborhood, from compound to compound, getting pitying glances from the locals as they zoom by me on their electric bikes, scooters, carts or just better bikes.

In many ways Beijing is a great biking city.  It is relatively flat and it never rains.   Historically, it has been a common mode of transportation for most people in China.

It is only in the past few years that people have been able to afford cars.  And they are terrible drivers.  It is like the Wild West out on the roads.  If there are rules, no one seems to follow them. We have been told enforcing traffic regulations would open a source of corruption so is not encouraged.

The road may be painted for three lanes, but there will be five cars across.  For many, they are the first person in their family to ever drive a car. Drivers have no experience of being schlepped by their parents for 16 years before being allowed behind the wheel. Beijingers want to go as fast as possible regardless of the size of the road, the condition of their vehicle or what is around them, including me on my bicycle! You loose face if you let someone pass you. Honking is an obsession.

I share the side of the road with other bikers, mostly locals, pedestrians, stray dogs, piles of garbage and parked cars.  Drivers frequently swerve shockingly close, honking their horn ferociously just in case you don’t notice them zooming by 3 inches from your leg.

There are no stop signs so every intersection feels like a frogger video match.  I slow down and spin my head wildly around (think Linda Blair in the Exorcist). I then decide if I need to stop or start peddling like mad as I make a dash for it. (Remember no gears!) The Chinese, on the other hand, focus their eyes straight ahead and don’t even change their stride (can you call it that on a bike?) and go right through.

Even with all the challenges, I love my bike! I feel just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz and often find myself humming Somewhere Over the Rainbow! Sadly, Chowder is too big to fit in my basket.  I am thinking of getting a sidecar for him!

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