Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

Biking in China
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Over the past few days, I've made an astonishing, life-changing (well, China-life) discovery: I like to ride my bike in China. Who would have ever imagined?

I never thought I'd see this day. When we first came in 2008, the traffic was so terrifying, I was afraid to cross the street. It's hard to convey the sense of it; I've tried pictures and video clips many times, in many situations, but I just can't give you the idea of the chaos that is the traffic patterns here. My friend Lara texted me the other day that she saw a car driving on the sidewalk. (I wondered which rock she'd been living under, since this is a fairly common occurrence.) The next day, I saw TWO cars driving on the sidewalk - coming at each other head-on.

Riding in a taxi here reminded me of the video game my son had when he was in middle school. Called Crazy Taxi, the point of the game was to make as many deliveries as possible in the shortest amount of time, traffic laws be damned. I think they could use it as a training video here in Harbin . . . I spent most of that summer trying not to look out the window, and assuring myself that the taxi driver didn't want to die, either, so whatever he was doing must be moderately safe.

The traffic didn't start to make sense to me until I rode around with my friend Tang Sai, who's a very good, confident driver. Then I could see that it functions as a kind of Brownian motion; you ease into traffic the way we might ease onto the freeway from the on-ramp. Only Harbiners do that in all circumstances; if you want to make a right turn from a side street onto a busy street, you don't wait for a break in traffic. You just stick your nose out and go. Other people just go around you. The rule of the road is that the person in the front has the right-of-way, so if you're coming up from behind someone and you think they may not see you, you honk. As a driver, you can do practically ANYTHING as long as you do it deliberately; what you can't do is hesitate or change your mind. (Left turn out of the right-hand lane? No problem. Backing up because you missed your turn? Go right ahead.)

So I was admittedly leery of taking my bike out in that mess. But a few days ago, Tang Sai, who doesn't bike much at all, borrowed my bike for a short commute near the campus. Off she went, without a helmet, even. I was worried for a while, but when she came back in one piece, I thought, "Gee. Maybe I should give that a whirl." So on Saturday I went out on my own.

Oh, my, god, it was AMAZING. Even with the traffic "chaos," I feel safer biking here than I do in the U.S. There's one profound difference between bikes here and bikes there: Here, the presence of bicycles on the roads pre-dates cars by about 100 years. It's the bicyclists who've had to accommodate the presence of cars, not the other way around. This means that NOBODY acts or thinks or drives like bicyclists shouldn't be on the road, either consciously or unconsciously. Road rage just doesn't happen, even if a bicyclist does something stupid, or pulls out and slows down the car traffic.

Add to this the fact that bikes are everywhere. Everyone is used to seeing bikes, so they know to look for them, even in places where they might not be expected. In the U.S., the cardinal rule of biking is to act like a car; because motorists don't think about bikes, if you're on a bike you're in danger if you're not where motorists look for other cars. You have to be constantly vigilant about car doors being opened into you, or people turning left onto you, and so forth. Here, you have to be vigilant but the danger is far less. And people expect you to behave like a motorist when it's advantageous, and like a bicyclist when that makes more sense. For example, when I rode home last night, part of my trip took me down the wrong way on a one-way street. I was not the only bicyclist attempting this maneuver, by a long shot. (And most of the others were at least my age if not older, many of them hauling flatbeds piled high with goods of some sort.)

And the other thing is that the presence of bicycles means there are accommodations for bicycles. For instance, every pedestrian overpass has a ramp, like this one:


It's just wide enough so you can push your bike up the stairs. (This isn't a pedestrian bridge; it's the bridge over the Songhua River - the major artery to the north side of the river, and OF COURSE there's a way for bicyclists to get across.)

Anyway, this has been an amazing discovery. I only have a week until my compatriots get here, and I'm cursing myself because I didn't try riding sooner. For the past few days I've been out for four and three hours, respectively, and the sense of freedom is incomparable. There are whole swaths of this city where the buses don't go, just waiting for me to find them . . .

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