Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bicycling in Beijing: Initial Observations

Upon arriving in Beijing, it wasn't long before I saw the emerging insanity that is Chinese driving patterns.

In his new book, "A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory," Peter Hessler writes "It’s hard to imagine another place where people take such joy in driving so badly...They don’t mind if you tailgate, or pass on the right or drive on the sidewalk. You can back down a highway entrance ramp without anybody batting an eyelash. . . . People pass on hills; they pass on turns; they pass in tunnels..."

Indeed, as I took a taxi from the Beijing airport to my hostel on the eastern edge of the Forbidden City, I tried to make small talk with my driver as we sped down the interstate. "Brrrrr," I said, rubbing my hands on the tops of my arms to indicate that it was cold outside. He glared at me. "Cold," I said, repeating the gesture. "Colt," he said--moving to turn up the heater in the already overly hot taxi. Not exactly what I'd intended to achieve...I learned quickly that attempting to make small talk in a language that wasn't my own was pretty much useless.

Left with little to do but stare out the window, we passed a car backing-up on the interstate. As in moving backwards and against traffic. On the interstate. Yeesh.

As we neared the city center, passing each of the ring roads forming the outer perimeter of Beijing, I looked desperately for bikes. I was increasingly dissappointed. The Asian city crawling with bikes, the place that so many people instantly understood to be integral to my project, was consumed by cars. The bikes were outnumbered by cars in the Beijing streets leading from the airport to the city center by 10 to 1.

I'd learned from a friend in Melbourne, a friend who'd lived in Shanghai for years, that traffic patterns in China were fundamentally different than those in most western countries. "In China, the bigger you are the more right of way you have," he explained. "So the bikes must always yield to the cars, and the pedestrians must yield to the bikes. Stick with the motorized scooters," he said. "Because you'll be riding faster than the average Chinese, and because you want to be in a group as often as possible, stick with the motor scooters. The bigger the group, the more right of way you have."

Taking all this in from the relative traffic comfort of Melbourne was pretty easy. Sure, I get that. Just give way to the cars.

But after five days spent riding a bike in the streets of Beijing, the dog-eat-dog insanity of it all has been a bit harder for my western mind to comprehend. Cars turn right at all times and without regard for who or what may be in their way. Cars turning left across crosswalks and forward moving traffic are equally as dangerous. So, after you make it past the right turning traffic, you have to guard your life from left turning traffic. And that's to say nothing of the electric powered three wheel carts that fill the bike lanes. Or the motor scooters going backwards in the bike lane, looking up, down, left, right...every way but straight ahead....In spite of the fact that they are in fact heading the wrong way.

In Amsterdam, the madness that is traffic had a name amongst local bicycle riders: the dance. Everyone moved quickly--but carefully--around everyone else: bikes, peds, cars, scooters, skateboarders. In Beijing it is exactly the opposite. Each person moves as recklessly as possible in the general direction of each other person. And the person who stops is the person with the least nerve. Or the person with the least amount of metal around their precious human exterior.

This morning, to pass a bus that had pulled into the bike lane to deposit passengers, I followed about 6 other riders out into traffic on the left side of the bus.

Now, bus drivers are professional drivers--lest we forget.

As I neared the middle of the bus, the driver began to slowly merge back into traffic--pushing me farther out into the roadway gnarled with cars. Looking the driver directly in the eye using her rear-view mirror, I made sure she could see me. She could. I quickly passed the front of the bus with less than an inch to spare between her bumper and my rear wheel. A bully tactic. I'm bigger, you're smaller...Take that!

Stay tuned for more observations and community based bike tomfoolery...

For now, check the Flickr page for photos. As it is, I can't yet add photos to the posts. Blogspot is blocked in China, so my mate Josh has agreed to post some text until we can sort out a better solution.

Keep them wheels turnin'!

[Just so you know, Anthony is having some trouble with the Great Firewall and asked me to post for him - I'll be relaying these blog updates as they come - JMG]

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