When riding a bicycle in China, there are a thousand little dangers, as well as delights.
The bicycle lanes are your friend, stay in them. That is the first thing you should know, although the lanes sometimes have a way of disappearing, leaving you in the middle of the street, or mysteriously morphing into a passing lane, breakdown lane, parking lane, taxi lane, runway, etc. The streets in China’s cities are more friendly to cyclists, having large bike lanes which are about the width of a car and a half. Picture a breakdown lane, there you a go, a bike lane.
Most readers would agree that it is only natural to stay out of traffic, or to look both ways before crossing the street. I myself have done some stupid stunts on my bicycle here, which would have made my mother very upset. So yes, after the bike lane, the second rule is common sense. But still, please stay in the damn bike lane!
Sometimes the bike lanes will be enclosed and protected from traffic. Most of the time there is just a thin white line separating you from traffic. Within this lane you will share your daily commute with as diverse a group of people as any country could boast.
Many are kind and considerate, others rude and aggressive. Some pay no attention to their surroundings, appearing to be mesmerized by something up ahead. Still more just push ahead lazily, apparently in no hurry whatsoever. Their speed is neither fast nor slow; I suspect most of these commuters travel this speed to safely avoid collisions. Or should the collision occur, to minimize damage.
Earlier I mentioned a thousand little delights, as well as dangers. Most people like to hear the bad news first. So as for dangers, there are many, ranging from something as trivial as a flat tire, to something as catastrophic as being hit by a bus or truck. This is of course a worst case scenario and it seldom happens, but it still happens. The former happens with much greater frequency.
Now with the bad news past, I can share with you the good news; Riding across China’s cities gives you an unmatched sense of mobility and freedom of movement, one that you couldn’t achieve with a bus or even a car.
While you ride, feel free to explore the back alleys or “hutongs”. Here you will experience the “real China”. The adventurous rider can have a real cultural treat, watching locals going about their daily business. Mothers or even grandmothers carrying little infants on their backs, children all dressed in school uniforms, complete with pioneer red neckerchiefs, skipping happily without a care in the world.
Your bicycle jumps and bucks underneath you, similar in fashion to a rodeo bronco. The ground gets steadily worse, going from concrete to loose gravel. You pedal across an ancient bridge. You can’t help but wonder if some long gone emperor had walked across this very bridge. You enjoy the inertia while descending the bridge as curious migrant workers pause in their destruction of an old apartment building. One of them shouts “Hollo!” The only English word he knows. Deftly skirting around some bricks and crumbled mortar from the site, you continue on.
Now the road begins to improve. The bicycle lane reappears and becomes separate from the traffic lane. A nice low-cut hedge separates you from the cars; on the right side is the sidewalk as well as numerous shops and stores.
You pass pedi-cabs, which slowly plod along with some talkative students in the back seat. The driver is standing while he pedals, trying to get up some speed. You are happy that you don’t have this job as your bike is much quicker and more agile. No sooner have you finished this thought than an E-bike zooms past, driven by a well-to-do Chinese woman dressed in business clothes. She swears harshly in Chinese as a taxi comes into the lane and almost hits both of you. Applying the brakes, you slow down, as the taxi continues on its mad dash up the bicycle lane, almost hitting several other riders.
As you pass a traditional market you are forced to slow down due to all the pedestrian traffic. Ducks hang on meat hooks; rows of all kinds of vegetables line the stalls. Fish, turtles, frogs, and eels are sold in another corner. The smell is at once sweet, terrible, stale, and sometimes unnamable. Whatever it is you only get a brief whiff of it. The next smell to assail your nostrils is the reek of diesel oil, and engine exhaust.
The bus in front of you rumbles to a slow stop. A faintly lit #42 appears on the digital display on the rear window. Dust has coated the windows and turned the white paint grey. You dare not pass it on the right side, as passengers are getting on and off. The left side is preferable even though you are vulnerable to traffic. Passing the bus you coast into your apartment complex.
Whatever your reason for being in China, once you mount a bicycle and join the Chinese commuters in the city streets, you undergo a change. It’s rather difficult to describe. You cease to be a green tourist and become more street savvy, perhaps understanding the Chinese character a little bit better. You also learn to appreciate your long forgotten friend from childhood: the bicycle.
Abridged excerpt from The Thin White Line by Ryan Daniels. Illustration by Mike Overbeck.