A Canadian In Beijing: Two-Wheeled Matrimony

I’ve been here for three weeks and I’m pretty sure that yesterday was my first “bad day.” Okay, perhaps “bad” is the wrong word for it. I’d have to say that what started as a good day became a low day, a sad day, a frustrating and annoying day. . . a day when I wished I were home and not here. . . for just an hour, perhaps. I could have even found solace in twenty minutes. (They need to invent that transporter device from Star Trek already!)

The air was thick with a mixture of pollution and desert dust and there was a cool wind. Beijing was crying for rain but the tears wouldn’t come from the sky. Wind cut through my clothes as I went to fetch my new bike (second-hand – thanks Sarah! – but new to me) so that I could take it out on our honeymoon ride.
I am very happy to have a bike. It gives me a chance to explore the far reaches of my neighbourhood and have more freedom time-wise than walking gives. Yesterday, I decided to seek out the “Lotus in Moonlight Vegetarian Restaurant” that I was told about by one of my Chinese friends. He even drew me a map and it seemed easy enough to understand. I got on my bike and pedalled in the direction of food. My bike and I were getting along beautifully.

I got to the area where the restaurant was supposed to be and this is when my day started to twist and turn. Sometimes I think that people here get a kick out of misdirecting the foreigner. I’ve been cynical enough to wonder this because it’s not the first time that I’ve been pointed the wrong way by a local and have had to re-trace my steps. My language skills can’t be that bad!

This happened three times. It took me a half an hour of navigating several office building parking lots and busy side streets before I was confident that I had the right building. Why was I confident? Because I had asked three different people. I was tired of trusting solitary answers. I started to approach asking directions with skepticism rather than trust. That was probably the place where my day descended: my attitude.

I locked up my bike and I headed inside. (I have since learned that all the bikes are locked here, but often only with this back lock, which is so subtle that I hadn’t noticed it before. I also use a second front lock, as per Sarah’s suggestion.)

This was both a shopping mall and an office building and it was hard to identify where the shopping began and where the offices ended. Escalators brought me up to the third floor where I was greeted by gaudy wrapped pillars and sparsely designed shopping counters selling a variety of specialty items.

The restaurant was one of the corner suites on this floor. It was beautiful and spacious with wide-open windows that overlooked more courtyards to yet more buildings. The chairs were plush and throne-like and the menu was a hardcover book that looked more like a coffee table book of photography than it did a restaurant menu.

The prices reflected the décor.

Unfortunately, the service did not.

It seems to me that I was disturbing the waitress by being there, even though I was one of only two customers. She spoke so quickly that I couldn’t understand her. When I asked her kindly if she would please repeat what she had said more slowly, she actually sped up her speech instead.

Despite this mean-spirited move, I was still able to gather that no food was available as it was between lunch and dinner (about 3:00pm). I then tried to order just a cup of tea, but then certain beverages were also not available and I couldn’t ascertain why they weren’t and why they were. All in all, everything the waitress said seemed to be unclear and slurred. She rolled her eyes with annoyance when I said I didn’t understand. Even her body language conveyed annoyance. After “dealing” with me, she went across the room and complained to her friends and fellow workers who then all turned and stared at me at the same moment.

What was bothering her so much? Was it my presence during an ‘off’ time’? My lack of proficient Chinese language skills? My affluence in being able to walk into that restaurant at all? (And c’mon, I’m a musician and I had already gathered that I’d only be able to afford some tea and some soup there). Or was it my ragged appearance?

Or maybe she was having a terrible day too and she decided that this “laowai” was an easy target for her bad mood. Really, there’s no telling what the reasons were, there’s just the response to manage; and mine was one of dejection and frustration.

I ordered an overpriced juice – 20 kuai – and I drank it, looked out the window for about five minutes, and then I left. I felt mistreated and ripped off at the same time, not to mention still hungry and therefore more irritable.

I was undoing the locks on my bike outside when a man approached me and asked me for money. He gestured to the row of bikes and I quickly remembered that sometimes you have to pay to park your bike in this city. Seeing as this was more of a business district, it made sense that someone was responsible for the bikes outside. It’s safer that way, especially considering the fact that bike theft is rampant in Beijing.

I asked him how much and he said “wu” or “five” and I was aghast. “Five kuai!” I said in Chinese, “that’s way too expensive!” This was the wrong time to overcharge me for something, considering the trouble I’d just had with bad directions coupled with that terrible restaurant experience! My tone was defensive and sharp and I narrowed my eyes at him expecting a fight in my third language.

He looked at me blankly, paused, and then slowly held up a five mao note.

My stony defenses crumbled like a sand castle. I felt so sheepish. Five mao and Five kuai are very different – it’s the difference between $0.07 and $0.73 Canadian. I apologized immediately and handed him my five mao. He thanked me and I said “bu keqi” which is the respectful way of saying you’re welcome and it means, literally, “don’t be so polite” or “no politeness [needed].” I mean, after all, I wasn’t polite to him and so why should he be polite to me? I hoped he heard both the literal and the conventional meanings.

So, I had yet another big lesson about carrying forward negative energy. I took on the waitress’s negative energy and then passed it on to the parking attendant. I can only hope that it stopped there.

Just before hopping on my bike and heading home to some groceries in my fridge, I heard some music that was being pumped out of a nearby outdoor stage. It was Air Supply: All out of Love. I have a big love-on for Air Supply. They’re cheesy and wonderful – lush harmonies and reverb on the drums that goes for days. I know all the words. Total 80’s nostalgia.

I got on my bike and rode the whole way back to my dorm room (about fifteen minutes) singing this song at full volume, not caring who heard and who didn’t.

And I felt better.

“I’m all out of love / What am I without you? / I can’t be too late to say that I was so wrong.”

I sang it to my bike.

We’re gonna stay married.

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.