Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Beijing by bike: Culture from the slow lane

By Geoff Calkins (Contact), Memphis Commercial Appeal
Wednesday, August 13, 2008

BEIJING -- So I was riding my bike to work ...

What's that, you ask? Don't they have buses over here?

Yes, they have buses. Buses for the media. But do buses have cute little bells?

My bike had a bell.

Ding! Ding!

See? A bell.

Ding! Ding!

Absolutely, I became addicted to the thing. Also, I wanted to live. As I rode my bike to work. In China. When in China, do as the Chinese do.

The Chinese ride bikes. I would ride a bike to Tiananmen Square with a couple reporter friends.

"Thirty dollars," the man said.

"To rent?"

"No, buy."

I had myself a bike. A basic, black, upright Chairman Mao one-speed. But, wait, did it have a bell?

"Here," the man said.

"Let me try," I said.

Ding! Ding!

Mile one

An IT guy named Jim said he had ridden in Beijing before. He would go along.

"The first rule is make eye contact," he said.

"Is there a second rule?"

"Yes, go with the flow."

Make eye contact. Go with the flow. Riding a bike in China sounds a lot like life.

Off we go. The wind blowing through my hair. No, I did not wear a helmet. What do you take me for?

The Chinese do not wear helmets. Ever. I have seen more Chinese carrying dangerous chemicals on a bike (1) than I have seen Chinese wearing bike helmets (0).

You wonder what they think they're doing at the Chinese bike helmet-making factories. You wonder how the conversations go.

Says Hu: "Another day of work finished."

Says He: "Yes, another day of making those strange American flower pots."

Mile two

We cross a street. We wait for the light. What's that, is it, could it be ...

Yes! It is a little bicycle. Lit up in red or green. Chinese have separate crossing signals for bikes.

This is so cool. This is a society that loves bikes. There are big, broad bike lanes. There are ramps up and down. And there are separate crossing signals for bikes.

Stop bikes, go bikes, caution bikes.

So very cool.

Mile three

The Chinese do not wear Lycra. This makes me feel good. Lycra is intimidating.

In fact, Lycra is the number one reason that more Americans do not ride bikes. We think about going for a bike ride. Then we see seven guys speed past, in green and gold Lycra, and sunglasses, and bike shoes, and we decide to take a nap.

In China, everybody rides bikes. There is no dress code. If you wore Lycra, they would laugh at you.

We stop for directions. A man speaks broken English.

"Go that way," he says.

Jim the IT guy checks the GPS he has strapped to his wrist. For the record, I disapprove.

We start down an alley.

"No!" yells the Chinese man. "THAT WAY."

Mile four

A man is getting his hair cut. This is not so strange, really. Except the man is getting his hair cut as he sits in a chair on the sidewalk. There is a small shop, too. With all sorts of parts to Chinese bicycles.

We stop. Of course we stop. When's the last time you saw a combined bike repair and barber shop?

The woman cuts hair. The man fixes bikes.

I approach the woman.

"Can you take a little off the top?"

She has no idea what I am talking about. She cuts my hair as the man raises my bike seat.

I pay them 10 yuan, or a little less than two bucks.

Jim checks his GPS again. It says we are in 1958.

Mile six

A partial list of things I saw transported by bike: Empty beer bottles, flowers, brooms, water jugs, cabbages, propane tanks, mops, and chlorine canisters.

Oh, and families. Mother, father and the requisite one child.

The Chinese use bikes for everything. If you can do it with a car, they can do it with a bike. You know that Chinese woman who performs at the halftime of NBA games, riding a unicycle and tossing dishes on her head with her feet?

Believe me when I tell you: All 1.3 billion Chinese can do that.

Mile eight

The sad truth is, the Chinese don't ride bikes like they used to. Now they drive cars.

In 1978, there were 77,000 cars in Beijing. Now there are 3 million. With all those cars, it's a lot harder to ride a bike. So more people want cars. And it's even harder to ride a bike. So even more people want cars. And, really, we could go on like this forever or until we pass out from the fumes.

We ride by an official-looking building. Look, it has a sign.

"Institute of Atmospheric Physics," it says.

Mile nine

The traffic is thickening as we get deeper in the city. We weave and bob and nearly get crushed by a bus.

The big, broad bike lanes are fabulous. Except buses pull into them when they make their stops.

There are no motorcycles in Beijing. But there are scooters, zillions of scooters, crowding the big, broad bike lanes.

A scooter is caught behind us.

"Beep, beep, beep!"

It sounds oddly familiar.

"Bike rage," I say.

Mile 10

"Organic Vegetable Cuisine," a sign says.

We have arrived in the snazzy part of town. Grand hotels. Plush shops. Organic vegetable cuisine.

"HEL," a sign says. "Healthy Enjoy Living."

The place sells nutritional supplements. It is China's GNC. Of even greater significance: I have now ridden to HEL, if not back.

Mile 12

We have made it! The famous boulevard! The famous square!

With Chairman Mao, presiding. I think he would like my bike.

It has done me well. It has delivered me to work. I send up the universal sign of happiness.

Ding! Ding!

To reach columnist Geoff Calkins, e-mail calkins@

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