Wednesday, April 25, 2007
On A Collision Course?

My latest and greatest China experience is far beyond any expectations I could have held. I've heard about it and even talked about it (without having tried it for myself) on many occasions, and despite my fear, I was excited at the prospect of giving it a shot.

The name? Biking. The game? Beijing's rush hour traffic. The player? Yours truly.

About a week and a half ago, I finally broke down and bought a bike. But not just any bike. A FOLDING bike. This extremely portable form of transportation is in high stock here in China, as such a large population bikes just to get around. Knowing that I would now be commuting to work (since I work in Haidian, but chose to live in Dongzhimen, downtown) I figured having a bike would speed up the process. And it did. Little did I know, my commute would be manually powered.

That's right. I bike to and from work every day. I can cross town in forty-five minutes if I'm on my game. I've tried it all: bus, cab, combination of the two. Biking the whole way is still fastest. My mornings and evenings have turned into one giant game of Frogger, as the fastest, smoothest routes with the fewest intersections involve weaving through Beijing's busiest roads, around buses, cars, motorcycles, and most dangerous of them all: other bicyclists.

You would think that I would be most afraid of the biggest beasts on the road, the buses - or at least the agile, darting cars - but it is actually other bicyclists who are the most dangerous. Firstly, due to rush hour traffic, at most points I'm actually biking faster than the cars are moving. Second, the car drivers tend to be hypervigilant of bicyclists since they're everywhere and often pop out as if from nowhere on any given road. And they know that if they hit a bicyclist, they're in for MAJOR trouble. As such, they usually (somewhat unwillingly) yield if you're in their path.

But other bicyclists? They tend to act carelessly. They will cut you off or slip in between you and another bike with barely a centimeter to spare. Different bicyclists go different speeds (unlike cars, which generally keep a fairly uniform pace) and so bicycles attempting to pass often get tangled up and frustrated in packs of slower-moving bicycles. This leads to a sort of "bicycle rage" that can cause terrible bike accidents. Lest we forget that bike lanes are generally connected to the road, bike accidents can also lead to terrible car accidents.

I don't mean to frighten, and I have not even been near any close calls as yet (other than the occasional getting cut off by some know-it-all bicyclist who has decided waiting is below him - and it usually is a him, as Chinese female bicyclists tend to be overly cautious and slow). The main benefit of bicycling is really getting to see the city - biking through the hutongs, the side streets, trying different routes, finding places I want to revisit - all part of the experience. There are health benefits - the benefit of minimum 90 minutes of cycling exercise being one of them. Though the downsides include the sensation of having "The Black Lung" upon arriving at work and making it back home. A thorough shower is usually required to remove the layer of grime from the road. Chinese emissions standards may be "improving," but with so many cars in so little space (and especially now that the weather is warming up), you can't help but feel gross.

Despite the drawbacks and the dangerous nature of bicycle travel in Beijing, I have to come out with an overall positive review. Three-and-a-half out of four stars. I like the view of Beijing from the road.

As Rascal Flatts says, life is a highway. I'm gonna ride it. All night long. Or at least until I get where I'm going.
posted by Rachel @ 12:55 PM  
THE WILD WILD EAST: Everything you never knew you didn't know about life on the other side.
In China, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups. The Chinese, who call this land "home," and the expats who migrate here. My name is Rachel. I am an expat. These are my stories.
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