A Canadian in Beijing: Righteous Bikes

The thing about bicycles in Beijing is that they’re fearless, they’re everywhere, they’re irreverent and they’re their own characters. I know that it’s people who ride these bikes, but there seems to be a network of bikes themselves, like a secret society of Beijing bikes that meet at “koumen” (intersections) at all hours of the day to discuss how to better rule the roads. You can almost see them greeting each other in passing.

They’re as alive as this city.

I could write about cycling in Beijing for days. I’m sure this will be one of many posts on the subject. I’ve been observing the clambering chaos between pedestrians, bicycles and cars and after one week I have come to the following conclusion: bikes are in still in front.

They win the power struggle every time because they have the right to both abide by traffic laws and reject them. They seem to have no regulation whatsoever. All in all, the bikes of Beijing are anarchists.

Righteous.A Beijing bike can be seen in the bike lane (and there are a few, though cars and pedestrians often use these lanes too) or in the thick of the streets with the cars and trucks — even turning left in front of oncoming traffic. They hop up on sidewalks when it suits them and ride backwards against traffic when they don’t feel like crossing at the light. All in all, the bicycles are ever-present pedaling powerhouses.

And some are rickety and some are slick. Some are small and can be folded up (I love those!) and some are huge with giant trailers attached for large loads. In fact, these are the ones that I keep photographing because they’re so different from the bikes I know at home. I love how they can be loaded up with giant piles of unrecognizable stuff and still be upright and rolling confidently. Most of these big ones have three wheels, which helps with said confidence.

Now, the only ones I’ve ever seen that look like these are the ones that are quietly used by seniors at my Grandmother’s retirement village in Florida! Obviously they’re related to these bikes, but they haven’t really experienced the urban thrill of takeover. We need to free those Florida counterparts into the cityscape of the future!!

Yesterday I went downtown to search out some music equipment and to explore yet another downtown Beijing area. I was walking along East Gulouda when a bike passed me that was carrying two (yes two!) large leather easy chairs on its wide back. They were piled high and together like two L-shaped pieces of a Tetris game expertly placed. They were strapped together and to the bike itself. Nothing was teetering.

It was breathtaking.

I would even venture to say that it was beautiful; a beautiful example of invention, maneuvering and physics. Not for the faint at heart and truly for the cycling faithful. I grabbed my camera and tried to snap a shot but it was moving too fast. I missed it, but here is an image of another similarly laden bicycle. Differently stacked but equally awesome.

Bicycles are the main work vehicles here. Street cleaning happens from a bicycle and so, too, does street vending and small-scale commercial shipping.

Street cleaners have tools hanging from their bikes like brooms and shovels (pictured). They collect waste in the bike’s container as they move along. Most vendors selling food or other material do so from the back of a bike, and usually with a Aussie “Ute” style flat bed back to enable optimal viewing of merchandise.

Finally, bikes are also used as shipping vehicles. Here’s an image on one carrying several flats of “pijiu” or bottles of beer. This is one step up from the urban couriers of Toronto who mostly just carry small packages and written material.

I’m impressed.

All of these work bikes are the big ones too. These big-load bikes here seem like the ring leaders of the anarchist bike league. They’re the chiefs, the captains, the head honchos, the bigwigs, er. . . wheels. They lumber into intersections and are all the more fearless as a result of their size. The other bikes part and then fill in the wake of their passing like small fish do for whales.

Besides the hierarchy of might and manner, I have to mention the bikes at rest. They are everywhere, especially outside of the subway stops. Locks are also not very common. Those that are locked are only locked to themselves (and generally not to any permanent fixture) and they are mostly the newer bikes. The older ones are left to fend for themselves.

All in all, it’s a lonely pile of metal half standing, half lying on large sections of sidewalk in such a density that it’s difficult to distinguish one from the other. How do people locate their bikes after work? Your guess is as good as mine. In fact, I have an Australian friend here who said that she thought her bike was stolen until she found it three weeks later outside of the subway stop. I laughed out loud when I heard that because I can so imagine it.

This is an image of the bikes outside of my building. Just seeing this gathering of wheels makes me feel left out. I need a bike! I already looked into the prices and brand new ones are only about $80-$100 Canadian. Of course, there’s no reason for me to get a brand new bike, so I’ll be seeking an old one for a few kuai. Rust and squeaks are fine with me! I won’t be going quickly here – I’ll be too busy taking it all in as I join the pace of these living, breathing streets.

I can’t wait. I’m being beckoned by the bikes of Beijing. It’s a street-style revolution and I’m hopping on for the ride.

If you’re considering bringing your own bike to this city from afar, don’t bother. Bike theft, especially of foreign bikes, is apparently a huge problem here. Check out the link below for more information.