he ain’t heavy, he’s my xiongdi

3.22.05 (dubyruby)

I went with ZLB to the University of Traditional Chinese Medicine (let’s call it TCMU) again tonight. It’s a really pleasant, structured part of my otherwise ad hoc time here. We meet outside the library at the Chinese Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine (CATCM) in the afternoon, then we bike straight north for fifteen or twenty minutes until we get to TCMU, which has a gate that opens out onto the same road as the one the CATCM’s on. We’re just inside the Second Ring Road, and TCMU is just outside of the Third Ring Road. The space between the Ring Roads is pleasant; there’s a wide bike lane most of the way that is separated from the cars by a median. The ride still requires alertness because all the bikes are moving at different speeds and pedestrians are randomly crossing or walking in the bike lane, and frequently people are riding against traffic. But you do get to reserve a little bit of your attention for the people and places around you.

One of my favorite things about Beijing is observing all the different modes of bicycle/moped transportation. By far the most common mode is one person, one rickety second-hand bike. When the light turns green at the corner, a fine medley of squeaks and rattles and groans starts up and the bicyclists go their merry way. I have seen only one pair of brand-new bikes so far, situated under the bottoms of two young adolescent boys in matching tracksuits. And those were mountain bikes, not upright street bikes—the equivalent of driving a Hummer around the streets of Philadelphia. For the most part, though, people ride very practical old bikes like mine, with baskets for carrying shopping bags and at least one part dragging, rubbing, squeaking, or about to fall off. As a matter of fact, I did have a pedal fall off as I was riding my bike, not long after I’d bought it. Fortunately I was in front of a bike repair stand at the time (they are abundant, for obvious reasons).

Frequently you will see two people to a bike. Most of the bikes here have a sturdy horizontal frame behind the seat for carrying vegetables, newspapers, or girlfriends. Most often it is couples in their 20s who are riding two to a bike, almost always with the man pedaling and the woman seated sidesaddle on the back. My guess is that this is the phase of their couplehood in which they live in different neighborhoods—so that one will take the subway or bus to see the other, but while they’re in the neighborhood they only have the use of one bike. Or possibly they are already married but they can only afford one bike. Less frequently you will see parents pedaling a child to or from school this way, or one young woman giving another young woman a ride—even more rare is a man giving another man a ride or (as I saw a few days ago) a grownup giving TWO children a ride, one seated on the back facing forward, and the other seated sidesaddle on the crossbar.

There are classier ways to tote your loved ones around. Perhaps my favorite vehicle on Beijing’s streets is what I think of as the “Granny tug,” a tricycle that’s something like a rickshaw but without the awning. You see these occupied by gray-haired couples, Grandpa up front pedaling (or driving, if the thing has a motor) and Granny perched on a little padded bench in the back enjoying the ride. They meander slowly through traffic and their destination often seems to be a conclave of other old folks on a sunny, quiet sidewalk, where the grandpas play cards and the grandmas talk about their aches and pains. If they don’t have the luxury of a Granny tug, some people at least have a flatbed trailer that they can hook up to their bicycles and transport propane tanks, sacks of rice, or ailing relatives. Today I saw a young woman biking her apparently invalid father/uncle/grandfather towards the Dongzhimen Hospital this way. He was all swaddled in blankets, lying in a trailer looking back at the people riding behind.

There are lots of people biking the streets of Beijing hawking newspapers, and some with official duties like picking up trash. Some accept used up electronic parts and batteries and so forth for recycling. Others who tote their livelihoods around have much heavier burdens. It’s not unusual to see a tiny woman pedaling a huge mound of cabbages or a skinny, leathery guy hauling a dozen tanks of water. Sometimes the burden is unidentifiable but its size alone impresses, bundles the size of a small house being slowly, slowly pulled along by Beijing’s equivalent of the truck driver.

Bicyclists tend to ride fairly slowly—if they didn’t, they’d be almost certain to get in some kind of accident. But they ride every which way and are only loosely guided by traffic regulations, creeping through lights whenever they can, riding against traffic and on the sidewalks, drifting out into the car lanes when they feel like it. The basic rule of thumb in Beijing is that oncoming traffic will accommodate you only if it has to—that is, if you are already in front of it. There are traffic managers with whistles and red flags posted at each corner of every major intersection, and incredibly, they are actually pretty effective most of the time. But at the smaller intersections you just have to creep, creep, creep out until eventually the oncoming traffic doesn’t have enough room to swerve around you to the left, and so has to swerve around you to the right. Then you have successfully crossed half of the street. On the other half of the street you just creep, creep, creep out until cars and bikes have to swerve left around you instead of right. And hooray! You’re on the other side.