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Peter Snow Cao

Peter Snow Cao

Tales of Cycling in China

Copyright © Peter Snow Cao, 2002.

Cycling in Chengdu, China

The following is one of several a short articles about my experiences bicycling in China.   Enjoy.

The sounds of bells fill the air, the streets are packed with poetry in motion, bicycles, the most efficient machine ever made. To a cyclist from the car-crazy Western culture, there is no place like China. So many people on bicycles it boggles the mind. It is the primary mover of both people and goods in the cities. Rolling rivers of bikes flank both sides of every street. In the older sections of the city, bikes fill every useable square foot. When I first arrived in Chengdu, I was asked if I was a skillful cyclist. Having spent the past two and a half years traveling by bicycle, I thought the answer was obvious. But being able to ride a bike well in an environment of millions of cyclist crowded on every street is very different from the quiet deserted highways I had been used to. In fact, my wife often scolds me for being careless or trying to go too fast. It has been an exercise in learning patience.

The most striking and difficult adjustment for me is the molasses pace at which people ride here. It is usually only a bit faster than walking except in the morning "crush" hour when people are going to work. Then the pace almost doubles to an almost comfortable 10 miles per hour; still slow by American standards, but a great improvement over midday speeds.

In Chengdu, major roads are wide boulevards with separate bike paths 20-feet wide on each side of the street. About eight cyclists abreast can fit on these paths. Non-motorized traffic is prohibited from using the street. In Kashgar, I didn’t know this and while transgressing, I was swiftly punished with a slap on the shoulder from a dedicated bicycle traffic enforcement officer. Justice delivered, I didn’t do it again.

At major signalized intersections in Chengdu, elderly people are employed to stand at the place where cyclists should stop when the light is red. Equipped with a red (what else?) flag and a red megaphone, they attempt to control the flood of cyclists. My wife told me that here the decision as to whether to stop at a traffic signal is not based on the color of the lights, but rather whether there is an officer looking your way.

It is at unsignalized intersections that being skillful really pays. Sometimes I feel like one has be a mind reader in order to figure out who is going where. Crossing a thick river of cyclists coming the other way appears impossible. While it looks like utter chaos, somehow it seems to work in a reasonably safe fashion. Speeds drop to walking pace of slower and people often dismount if it really get congested. Accidents are frequently seen, but they are rarely more than slight bumps. Although two people who were previously in a great hurry will often spend a long time "discussing" who was at fault in rather loud voices.

Even after living here for some time, I am still amazed at what can be carried on a bicycle or on the tricycle "trucks" that carry most of the goods. Baskets and bells in front and racks on the back are standard equipment on all bikes. For the average person, groceries and small purchases go here. But the farmers who come into the city everyday with their produce have two huge bamboo baskets about the size of 30-gallon trash cans, one on each side in the back. There are also people who raise chickens and ducks who haul them to the market live tied by their feet with about 15 slung over the handlebars and 30 birds across the back rack. As they are cruising down the road their heads are bobbing to the bumps in the road and surprisingly quiet. Perhaps they know what is in store for them. Sometimes people will buy love chickens at the market ant pin them down on the rear rack with the spring-loaded bar. Then there are the meat delivery bikes with the deadly-looking 18" steel pike mounted on the back to carry slabs of beef or pork.

Children are transported a variety of ways. The very young, below three years usually have a small seat mounted on the handlebar or on the rear rack. Sometimes a tiny padded seat is mounted on horizontal bar and a footrest on the diagonal tube so the child rides in front of mom or dad. But as the kids grow up they move to the back where they will stand on the rear rack and hold onto the parent’s shoulders getting a bird’s eye view of the world. There are also countless cycle rickshaws, three-wheeled two-passenger cycle taxis as well as a standard bicycle outfitted with a "sidecar" seat that accommodates one passenger. The tricycle trucks carry all types of goods. I have seen some with 10 double bed mattresses, and another with a towering mountain of foam rubber swaying in the breeze. They are also used for moving vans and collecting food scraps in large drums from the restaurants to feed the pigs.

The standard bicycle is a big heavy black 28" wheel single speed machine with a life expectancy of 15 to 20 years. The $40 cost is about one month’s wages for the average worker. Mountain bikes are available, but due to the higher cost, are most common in the city where wages are higher. There is a surprising variety in the types of bikes. Wheel sizes go from 28" down to 10" with virtually everything in-between. Woman generally ride ladies bikes with a step-through frame permitting easier mounting and dismounting particularly when wearing dresses or skirts. When wearing long dresses, the women will hold the bottom of the dress in their hands on the handlebars as they ride, which makes for an interesting sight, especially from the front. The assumption that one cannot wear formal clothes and ride a bike doesn’t hold here. Almost everyone cycles. Anyone that can afford a bike has one. Young children, their inexperience showing with their erratic movements, young businessmen and women dressed to kill in formal wars, older men and women some in their 70’s and 80’s moving along slowly and cautiously. The bike is the preferred means of transport in the city.

Parking is generally convenient and safe with attendants watching the bikes and keeping them in order. A small fee of three cents is charged. With so many bikes and most looking very similar it is often a challenge finding the one that belongs to you. Cycling here is always fascinating.

Other Articles

Today, I Met a Chinese Bicycle Master April 1999

Bicycling in China  Aug 1999

A Bike Trip to Hailougou National Park, Gonggashan, Sichuan China  September 1999

Bike Trip from Chengdu to Xi'an, China   October 1999

Tonight, I Met Another Chinese Bicycle Master July 20, 2002

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