Beijing Traffic – Bikes, YIKES

Traffic Beijing – YIKES

My Beijing Bike
My Beijing Bike


               What was I thinking when I decided to borrow a bicycle for a ride on Saturday afternoon.  YIKES.  If women readers need confirmation that men don’t always think things through, this story is a  confirmation that they are correct.

               The traffic in Beijing is terrifying.  Not the volume, which really isn’t much different than any major city.  It is the lack of any discernable rules, or maybe the rules are not followed.  Since a battle between a human being and anything motorized favors the motorized vehicle, pedestrians beware.  In Beijing you check all four directions, left, right, ahead and definitely behind before crossing.

               It seems that everything is well organized.  There are pedestrian sidewalks, lanes for bicycles and scooters and lanes for cars.  On many roads there are high barriers between bike lanes and auto lanes.  There are red and green lights at the intersection and at major intersections timer’s countdown seconds to light change.  One hint is that there are also red and green lights for scooters.  The cars are identical to auto brands those found in any city.  They have motorized three wheel vehicles, called Modi, used for many things, flatbed in the rear for delivery, enclosed plastic cabin, good for one person, in the rear as a mini taxi.  Scooters and bicycles, some motorized, complete the picture.

Modi in Action
Modi in Action


               The only rule I have observed is that cars do not drive on the sidewalk.  That is unless they are parking on the sidewalk, which happens with regularity.  Otherwise, the rules are flexible.  It is a wild west, open territory.  Maybe, I am expressing a cultural bias that western rules have intrinsic value and purpose. 

               I will start with the rules from most followed to least, or maybe not at all.  Cars fall into this category.  They mostly follow some rules.  They have licenses, registration and maybe some sense of responsibility.  The most, not always followed, is driving on the right.  No, not all cars on the road are going in the same direction.  Not often, but once a day I see a car on the right hand side driving opposed to traffic.  The driver has not made a mistake.  He probably wants to go back home and going around the block takes too much gas.  Also, the most, but not always followed, is stopping and waiting at a red light.  More frequently, actually always, cars are going forward or making left hand turns when there are no oncoming cars.  Do not expect those drivers to stop for pedestrians, maybe they slow down, they definitely honk horns.  You can be a hood ornament on a Chinese car.  That ends the most followed, but not always followed rules.  In truth, these are the only three rules I have seen followed with any consistency.

                      All other vehicles, which by the way, significantly outnumber cars, follow their own rules.  Not their own, as in Official Rules for Scooters, but as in, I feel like doing this, rules.   You avoid scooters, bicycles, etc. on the street, sidewalk, and street corners.  They come from all directions all over.  They are kindly ladies with grocery bags, women with children on the back, delivery men rushing to get the hot meal out and return.  The amazing and most frightening is the three wheel delivery cart which somehow they manage to pack to three times the width of the vehicle and twice the height of the driver.  These things are perilously balanced, viciously wide and quite abundant on the streets.  Then the people on bicycles.

               The courtesy is that everyone honks a horn when they are about to pass.  This makes for a very noisy road, since everyone is passing the bicycle and honking, scooters with men are passing scooters with ladies, scooters with one person are passing scooters with two people, cars are passing scooters, Modis, bicycles and each other.  Honk, HONK, HOOOONK. 

               Nearly two weeks into my stay, my legs are tired from walking I asked my landlord if I could borrow a bicycle.  He gave me a choice and I took the black one without the child seat.  Neither was high enough for an adult but choices were slim.  I’ll make do.  A sunny Saturday afternoon, Panjiayuan, the wonderful flea market was only one mile and a quarter away.  What a short ride on a nice day to test myself.

               YIKES.  What was I thinking?  Actually, I was clearly not thinking.  If standing on a corner as a pedestrian was risky, what was I doing in the melee?

               In the world economy, China is inching up on America as the world’s largest.   We should not mistake this for the reality of life for the individual.  China’s population is four times the US population and the income per person in China is therefore one quarter of that in the US.  This is a calculation easily made in the abstract, but becomes real on the ground in Beijing.  The bicycle he offered, which he considered, “good” would be in the junk heap in America.  But off I went.

                Pedaling into the street, I stopped to make check for oncoming cars.  To my surprise, SURPRISE!!!!, the brakes did not work very well.  Left into the street, no cars, over to the bike lane on the right.  One block to warm up.  Whoops, a car parked in the bike lane, have to move left to the traffic lane.  Whew.  No problem.  Coming onto the corner.  All of a sudden a motorized cab pulls in front of me and stops.  Quick stop, no brakes, put feet on ground.  New lesson, really go slowly.  

               Left turn onto major street.  Even though I am on the right side of the right lane, bikes, and scooters are coming towards me.  Who has the right of way?  I focused my eyes on the oncoming rider waiting for their commitment to a direction.  Maybe it was also the focus and expression that said, “You had better move because I am not.”  

               The next two blocks were the major challenge because they were very large thoroughfares.  The bike/scooter lane was separated by a barricade from the car lane, but cars were coming at me and then other bicycles, and then scooters and then some more cars.  Sometimes I swerved and sometimes the screech of the brakes gave me goose bumps.  Then on to Ring Road 3.  This is one of the extremely busy roads.  The bike/scooter lane was barricaded from the auto traffic, but still bikes, scooters, cabs, etc. were coming toward me in this narrow lane. 

               Arrived at Panjiayuan.  A 10 minute bike ride replaced a 25 minute walk.  A bit sweaty, but triumphant.  This is not Wal-Mart or the local fairgrounds.  There is limited parking.  Scooters have a parking area overseen by a woman who is quite competent at collecting her fee.  I found a railing and began to lock my bike and she came along to charge me 2 YUAN.  A public street, a public railing and still being charged.  After my death defying ride, 2 YUAN, about 30 cents was not worth the debate.  Later, my landlord told me that the usual charge was 1 YUAN.  Ripped off before I even got inside.

               What a wonderful feeling.  I had arrived at Panjiayuan, slightly damp from the exercise, 2 YUAN poorer, but refreshed.

               The ride home, like the ride out, was highly eventful and challenging.  Even more cars decided the bike/scooter lane had less traffic than the car lanes and the lane was crowded with parked cars.  Cars with tinted windows are difficult to stare down, and they are also bigger, so I spent much time screeching to a halt and ducking between parked cars.  Getting more confident I followed the rules for bicycles, the I think I want to go there rule.  Light was red, couldn’t cross the street so I went up the wrong way on the pedestrian crossing.       

               One more block to go and still survived.  Arrived at the gate.  Decided to get off the bike, walk it to the building and lock it up.  Walked upstairs to the apartment. Took off my coat.  Got into bed and curled up in a fetal position.     :     Expand your mind.  Sgtretch your body. 

China Dichotomy – The Subway


The China Dichotomy – The Metro

Platform at Rush Hour
Platform at Rush Hour

My Chinese friends have always argued that my perception of Chinese courtesy was wrong.  “They are nice to you because you are American.”  It is hard to believe and reconcile my personal experience of continued kindness and courtesy by strangers with the native belief that Chinese are not nice.

Maybe as a tourist, I never looked closely, or had the opportunity to view China closely.

I decided to spend one month in Beijing for intensive language study.  With more than one billion people speaking Chinese, it is probably a useful second language.

I am settling into the routine of travelling to my 9:30 AM lesson.  It is a 20 to 25 minute subway ride from my residence, on the South side of Beijing, to my class in the Chaoyang District, near the Central Business District of Beijing.     Seven stops from Shilihu to Tuanjiehu on Line10.  Line 10 is the outer ring of two lines that circle the center of Beijing.  The rings lines are intersected at Transfer Stations with other lines connecting the entire grid.  On Line 10 during rush hour, between 7 and 9 AM, the next trains arrives within a minute or less after the other leaves.  They are moving people of the platforms, but not as fast as they are accumulating.

The trains leaving are more than crowded.  The train has taken its maximum from the platform, leaving others waiting for the next train.  Within that one minute between trains the line extends, people waiting to get to work.  The platform is isolated from the tracks by a glass partition.  The train stops and the train door lines up with the door on the platform.  Lining up for entry is well marked.  One orderly line on each side of the door.  Human nature, being what it is, there are always people trying to move to the head of the line, and they are met with polite comments, which they quietly accept and usually move to the back.

The train arrives, the doors open and orderliness disappears.  This may be the similar to the Black Friday phenomenon when people are trampled by others so focused on their quest they lose their sense of humanity.    In Beijing, this is a daily event repeated every minute or so for two hours, not limited to a few people and a few stores.  It is actually numbing.  For some there is resignation to the situation, for some it is discomfort, but for some there is fear.  The force of the crowd is far greater than they can manage and they are physically controlled by the crowd.  For many, their effort will be futile and the ability to determine their own direction is lost.

The train arrives and people push off and are met by people immediately pressing to get on.  It is nonviolent physical confrontation.  In this mix of oncoming and off going people it is a challenge of will and physical effort to win achieve your goal.   It takes me two trains to move from the end of the line to get on the train.  My judgement when the car is full, people barely fitting in, is to stand back and wait for the next train.  But, that is an obscure courtesy.  There is always some person, even sometimes a petite female, pushing into the crowded train, squeezing one more body into the filled space and then pushing on any available wall or ceiling so that they do not get expelled, until the doors close.  People are more pliable than oranges in a crate and can be squeezed and not crushed. For me, at nearly six feet tall, I have space above my shoulders to breathe and see, but pity the smaller people, heads buried in another’s furry collar.

The crush invades your body.  In the first stages of the crush you are surrounded and may wiggle or twist a bit.  Not wiggle or twist too much so as not to create some impression on your neighbor, who is now is a physically intimate as sexual partners, yet clothed.  But when that last person pushes himself onto the train, you are then locked into the position you last held.  There is no room for movement.  Your clothes are pressed tightly against you because the adjacent person is also squeezed against you.  The agony on faces of smaller people, without air to breathe is disturbing.  The situation exacerbates when someone tries to get up from their seat.   People are locked into position, beyond movement and now one more person is added to this crowd.  Before someone can be removed from the crowd to take the seat, an elegant dance occurs.  This takes at least six steps.  They must wiggle and squeeze until the seated person can clear the seat so that someone can then sit.  Shoulders twist to present a side view as the person knifes into the space the other person created by turning sideways.  They find the next seam and turn sideways in a different direction and the next person obliges so they can slide across each other.  The pressure from each step, adding a person and removing more space from the crowd is felt three or four people away from the action.

During Rush Hour on Line 10
During Rush Hour on Line 10

This travel extracts a toll on people.  Resignation at the daily ordeal is written on everyone’s face.  In one case, the woman was a bit late, or maybe polite in standing behind someone, when the doors opened.  In the five seconds it took her to try to get to the opened door, the oncoming wave of people literally swept her further back into the subway car.  Her helplessness in the situation was disturbing.  One day I was standing near the car door.  It opened and a woman was being swept out of the train by the crowd.  I was able to grab her hand and pull her back.  A drowning person swept away, being saved by a helping hand.  She was appreciative of my help.  Surprisingly, she did not appear to be very shaken by the experience.  To her, it may have been routine.

Existing on the Beijing subway takes advanced planning and thought.  One day I was engaged in conversation with someone and the doors opened at the stop before mine and the crowd came rushing in.  Too late.  I was now at the door waiting for the stop and six people deep.  The door opened and four of the six in front got off.  The other two were not moving and the crowd began to rush inward.  This is not pleasant, and for those squeamish, please go immediately to the next paragraph, but the big guy in front who was not moving and not planning to get off at Shilihu stop but who would not budge to let me by, did find himself on the platform at Shilihu trying to get back on.   He looked left trying to see what was moving him, I moved right, blending into the crowd.  Sorry Mother, I know you taught me better.

I expend effort on the subway to smile at everyone, say “Hello” and try to remind everyone that there is comradery in even this numbing situation.  That you can create human connections in this inhospitable experience and that the misery can be shared.

As I leave the subway, a bit sweaty from the bodies I enter the building which houses the language school.  The selfsame people from the subway are courteously lined up waiting for the next elevator.  No pushing ahead, so cramming into the elevator.  A very civilized situation.

I leave it to the professionals to draw lessons and parallels from this experience.     :     Expand your mind.  Stretch  your body.