I’ve started riding a bike a lot in Beijing. The roads and cycle lanes are massive, everything is flat, and yes, I wear a helmet (yellow), shades (to stop the dust) and have flashing lights on at night. All this marks me out as some kind of weirdo “laowai’ (foreigner) bike freak – I have so far only seen one other guy adorned in such garb – and he looked like he was practicing for London 2012, as he zoomed past me through Tiananmen Square, tiny spandex arse high in the air, leaving a cloud of dust and a few overturned cabbage carts in his wake.
Once you’re on a straight line, such as the enormous Changan Avenue, with bicycle lanes that dwarf the M25, you’re fine. But, dare to turn left, or simply cross a busy intersection, and it gets much more thrilling. I strongly recommend a trip to the plastic surgeon to get another four pairs of eyes installed at various points around your head before taking this on. I am currently mid-inquiry into such an operation, as the surgeon weighs up the best positions for my new eye sockets, and we haggle over the cost of multiple colours- I’m holding out for 3 for the price of 2 – and night vision (very pricey).
“Things” come at you from literally every angle. It’s just like playing a sped up version of the old arcade game ‘Asteroids’. It’s very exciting to watch, and even more exciting to be a part of. A common technique to perfect is the last minute front wheel swerve, or wobble: You’re progressing smoothly across a large junction. Then at exactly the same moment, you spot the 3 wheel motorized rickshaw coming directly towards you at speed, in the opposite direction, crazed horn a beeping manically like a strangled sheep in its death throes; and there to the left, standing unsteadily on his bike pedals, his loose wheel squeaking and leaning out to one side, is the man swerving around with a mountain of plastic bottles so high on his trailer that he can neither stop, nor get going, complete with random unidentified stick pointing out 2 metres at a 45 degree angle. You’ve sussed them, planned your course, you’re OK. But wait. To your right, twirling like a dervish, a permed grandma steps off the kerb, clapping her hands and singing an ancient melody, doing her morning Tai Chi, as she strides like the old China hand she is, blindly and confidently into the furious maelstrom. Keep going, staring each of them in the eye for as long as possible (here’s where you need at least two extra pair of eyes), and (important) maintain your direction and speed. Only at the last minute, when you can feel the warmth of each other’s garlic breath, carried on the waft of air from granny’s clapping hands, you and the other two bikes do the Time Honoured Simultaneous Front Wheel Shimmy. Grandma drops her shoulder, takes a nimble and strategic step, and you shut your eyes……
Via the 19th rule of Confucious, somehow, you all re-emerge having past each other unscathed, and proceed onwards in your original direction.
The exhilaration of writing the last paragraph has made me want to go and ride my bike. And I think I will attach a camera on the front and take a movie, to post at a later date.
A few weeks back, one of the larger asteroids in my path was Hilary Clinton’s mega cavalcade, with quite possibly twenty vehicles in it, as she sped to wherever she was speeding to try and persuade the Chinese to let go of their grip on the Yuan. The road was closed to all traffic except bicycles (why? I could have easily smuggled a rocket launcher in my rucksack). I gurned into the blackness of each of the tinted windows as they went past, wondering which car she was in. Did she see the grinning Westerner on his funny little fold up, his big white Nike trainers and his massive yellow helmet? I half expected a window to open, a waving hand to emerge, and the former first lady to lean out, shouting “hey, dude, where can I find the best pizza restaurant?” But then a few mini asteroids came my way (random man standing in the road for no apparent reason, limping dog and low hanging tree branch), and I was jolted back to the reality of trying to stay alive.
The cavalcade suddenly did one huge U turn (presumably having decided on the required pizza restaurant), and disappeared into a black hole, leaving all us mini asteroids trying not to be sucked along in its wake.