As the song goes, there are nine million bikes in Beijing ( not sure when song lyrics became statistically accurate ). In any case, I have added my bike, so now it’s 9,000,001.
If you have an image of what cycling in Beijing might be like, then it’s probably something exactly like that. It makes Manchester’s Curry Mile look like Legoland bumper cars. I don’t know if right-of-way exists. If it does, I’m not sure who’s got it. On campus, both sides of the roads are fair game and out in the city it’s acceptable to cycle both ways in the cycle lane. There is no rush hour, just rush. You’re supposed to walk on the green man ( I think ) but even if you do you’ll have to stare down a cab driver and hope that he doesn’t run you down before you get across. Junctions in general are a melee of bikes, pedestrians, taxis, buses, and e-bikes towing flat-bed fruit carts or pancake stalls, like that tetris carpark game but for real. And with 50 people trying to solve the same puzzle. I pray every time I get on my bike. And every time I get off. And when I cross the road. And when I leave my dorm, just all the time now really ( “Please God can Beijing not kill me today” ).
Riding a bike in the city is equal parts exhilarating and terrifying, mainly because I’m not sure what the rules are ( if they exist ) or if there’s a Chinese equivalent of the highway code ( if anyone sticks to it ). There seem to be two “rules”:
1) If you’re behind, you have to adjust to the person in front because they won’t check their mirrors; 2) don’t make any sudden moves. This is the guiding principal of the Beijing roads. Everyone comes together and you think it’s going to be like the opening of 300 as exposed bike meets bleating cab, and then all nine million bikes blend glide into the junction and you come out the other side wondering how you survived. The road belongs to those who dare, so I’ve developed an aggressive biking style which might be difficult to shake when I’m back in the UK. Getting honked at is no big deal and you have to pull a pretty stupid move for someone to shout “操你妈!” ( wait til your granny’s out of the room before you Google translate that one ).
On campus the story is very different. Tsinghua has a shady, green campus and motor traffic is minimal. If anything, though, the bike congestion is worse, especially just before a lesson. Chances of being killed are considerably lower. And you need a bike on campus. Classes would be a good half hour walk without it ( and I live on the campus ).
My bike has definitely been my best buy so far ( IKEA purchases come close second, have yet to buy a guitar or skates ) and weighing in at only 300RMB second-hand ( roughly £30 ) he’s a bargain beauty. I got him after being in China for four hours and haven’t looked back since. So far I’d say Beijing essentials are: WeChat; bike; generally more carefree attitude to one’s welfare regarding roads and smog ( more on smog later )
Learning to ride a bike in Beijing is much like a lot of other things I’ve had to do. Which is find out there’s something similar thing in China as in the UK (bikes, for example) and then un-learn the British way of doing it (any sense of order). I can’t come here and simply apply the rules I am used to, because they mean nothing. I feel quite Chinese when I go out on my bike now, I’d even say it’s one of the easier aspects to adapt to.
My plan was always to become Chinese, not by undergoing surgery so I look East Asian, but by getting to grips with Beijing life and becoming an insider of the everyday customs and patterns of living. And for now that means riding my bike like a mad hatter.
Memes and other silliness: