Thursday, May 14, 2009
Life in the Bike Lane
I've been copying my big brother since I was able to walk. So I thought I'd give a biking update too!
Beijing and bikes just seem to complement each other. Beijingers young and old, sporty and plump, chic and country, all ride. Bike lanes line most major roads. Promotional fliers and coupons are distributed in mass in bike baskets, rather than snapped under windshield wipers. Bicycle repairmen, found on every other corner, will patch your flat for 2 Yuan (and I probably even got ripped off). While biking then becomes quite the daily routine, it is never in anyway banal.
Traffic in China is generally right hand traffic. Yet, because it is often difficult to cross the street, the bike lanes and gutters on either side function in two way traffic for bikes, load bearing tricycles, and motorcycles. Strangely, on the these edges the traffic pattern switches to left hand traffic. So, if I’m riding on the right side, I should assume that the bikes riding on my side of the street, but in the opposite direction, will hug the curb, forcing me out into traffic. After much deliberation, I've finally concluded that this is because oncoming riders can actually see what is approaching. Accordingly, they take the safest position possible while I remain blissfully unaware of the dump truck behind me piled twice its height with tumbling fill dirt. My only other explanation for this reverse traffic pattern phenomenon is that when bicyclers "double," the person on the back typically sits side saddle, feet to the left. Thus hugging the curb lessens the chances of a car clipping the legs of the freeloader. This also spares oncoming bikers from being skewered by spike high heels on long legged wispy Chinese girls bumming a ride from their boyfriends.
There is the occasional hairy situation. A taxi may pull a U-turn with no warning. Or, a hubristic driver of a black Audi might unapologetically back off the sidewalk into the road, breaking the otherwise laminar flow of cyclists. In these cases, all the rules break down and it’s every peddler for herself. Yet there is one fundamental, irreducible law of bike riding in Beijing that never disintegrates: Play It Cool. It must be written somewhere! When in doubt, continue in the same direction at a constant speed. No quick movements, just expressionless fixed stares and the understanding that no one will pull a fast one.
Bikers in Beijing also contend with slow moving elderly folks, darting little children, loogies hawked from the sidewalk, crowds around street vendors, the occasional unannounced uncovered manhole, haphazardly loaded building materials on overloaded tri-cycles, and the occasional load of....ahem...from the power end of a donkey cart.
Yet beyond these perilous hazards, there lurks one final test of Beijing bicyclers’ maneuverability and nerves: young lovers! While all other traffic seems to flow in a kind of oxymoronic predictable chaos, young couples move like erratic moths! Beware; the innocent couple in matching pink T-shirts walking just ahead of you might actually do you in. The girl with feathered hair, knee socks, and a teddy bear back-pack may at any moment shriek, 'Tao yan!” [I totally disapprove of that disgusting thing you just said/did!] and retreat into an arm crossed pout and directly into your front tire. That slight framed guy, with 8 hair styles in one, carrying his girlfriend’s purse, might bowl you over as he dodges a swing from his pouting girl. It gets even more dangerous when one or both of them are holding “chuanr” sticks [pointy wooden kebab sticks], which simultaneously arm them and expand their striking distance a full foot on either side.
I once took a defensive driving course at the Mid-Ohio raceway where I learned how to handle scenarios like emergency lane changes and hydroplaning at 70 mph in an Ohio summer downpour. And yet, I feel completely defenseless against the emotional outbursts of young Chinese couples on a muggy spring Beijing night.
I have been riding a round with my camera bungee corded to my bicycle basket just to see if I can catch any of this in images. These are some of the results.