While living as a student in Beijing a few years ago, I decided to try my hand at bicycling. Sure, I learned how to ride a bike just like every other American kid. But my dad’s lessons definitely did not prepare me for the task of the biking in Beijing. After mastering it, there are few things that give me the same rush. When I’m back in LA, I go spinning, shut my eyes, and imagine I’m back biking on the streets. I hope after reading my journal entry from when I last lived in Beijing posted below, you feel like you’re riding along with me.
If someone asked me to name an object that I felt is symbolic of Chinese culture, I think for me it would have to be the bicycle. Outside the big districts of Beijing like Chaoyang, and especially in areas like Haidian where I live, many Chinese still use the bicycle as their primary form of transportation. But such transportation is not a solitary affair – it is not rare to see whole families piled on to one bicycle. Children ride on laps or little seats, and girlfriends ride side saddle on the back. I've seen up to six people holding on to one bicycle rider at a time. The bicycles are also used for commerce, carrying loads three or four times the bicycler. Entrepreneurs attach kitchens or bookshelves to their ride for a mobile street shop. Of course, taxi service via bicycle is also available.
This is my first time owning a bike in Beijing, and it’s made the entire experience remarkably different. As I ride home from the law school, I usually ride next to friends and chat along the way. Riding on the back of a bike also creates a new closeness between rider and ridee, an experience in itself through the different vantage on the city.
It’s not all romantic, however. Riding my bike in Beijing has made me acutely aware of the pollution problems in a way I didn’t realize through walking or taking cabs. There have been times, particularly during rush hour, when I can feel the soot collecting in my throat and I have to engage in the time-honored Chinese tradition of spitting in public. The dangers of Beijing’s anarchic traffic is raised to a whole new level when you are trying to move about on wheels instead of feet – I have had 3 bicycle accidents, had a woman jump out from a tree in front of my bike, and face the risk of being hit by a bus almost daily.
But, the danger and the challenge of riding a bike through the craziness of the Chinese city is part and parcel of why I love it so much, and why it is emblematic of China. Life in China is also a little dangerous, at least compared with American life. You may be risking your life with the street food, but it’s just so good. The hairdryer you use might explode, or it might be significantly better than the one purchased in America. You might graze a car on your way to Peking duck, or you might just have the ride of your life.
Have you biked in Beijing or China? Tell me about your experience biking in Beijing in the Comments or tweet me @cgouldmiller.
Do you want to try biking in China? Check out this tour and let me know about your first try.