Licensed to Cycle


Last week I finally broke down and bought a bicycle.

Hmm, I think I’ll just wait a minute for everyone out there who has seen me ride a bike to stop laughing….

Actually, it is not so much bicycles in particular as anything involving wheels. I still have roller skating scars on my knees. There was one (and only one) childhood incident involving a go-cart and an overly steep driveway. My Great Rollerblading Adventure involved me careening down a hill yelling “I don’t have any braaaaaaaaaaaaaakes…..” and crashing, finally, into a tent-pitching demonstration (imagine their terror as I approached), never to blade again.

And don’t even get me started on driving (though I will insist forever that Suburbans are dangerously top-heavy. You tap them in just the slightest way with a small subcompact sedan and wham! suddenly you’re staring at the undercarriage and all four wheels, waiting for the cops to come fill out the accident report and wishing your drivers’ license was actually on you, not in the purse you’re driving downtown to pick up because you forgot it the day before).

Bicycles are no exception to this sordid history. I just don’t steer well. Coming up on a turn, I usually take the path of a tractor-trailer. Ninety degrees, hugging the curb? Forget it.

Aside from the steering issue, I’m a nervous biker. Cycling anywhere but a designated bike path in a park with absolutely no one else on it, I tend to try to brake for anything. Sometimes I find myself hitting the brakes even while trying to pedal (it is, of course, much harder this way, but safety first, you know). Trying to get going from a dead stop usually takes four or five toe taps on the pavement, varying sides, while I work up some momentum to keep my balance.

When I first moved to Washington DC in 1999, I was talked into the idea that I might cycle around town a bit, terrifying traffic patterns aside, so I brought my bike and chained it to the back deck of my house. When I was moving out of the house in 2002, we had to cut the lock off because I couldn’t remember the combination: it had, after all, been three years. The by-then-rusty bicycle was eventually donated to whatever neighborhood thief was kindhearted enough to relieve me of it when I left it standing appealingly on the curb, lockless and hopeful. Given this state of affairs, it should surprise no one that I’ve lived in China for two months without attempting to acquire my own set of wheels.

So what made me break down, finally? It was the archives. The Number Two Historical Archive is just too far away. I can take the bus, but it’s always so packed with people when I’m going and coming home (at rush hours) that I’m always hesitant to try to squeeze myself in (do not think bus packing in any local American city; think, instead, packed in a Tokyo subway at rush hour, or a college fraternity get-on-the-news-and-in-the-Guiness-Book-of-Records-Volkswagen-cramming stunt, with bodies twisted about in all directions. Clown car-packed. Beatles concert in 1964 packed. Then you’ll know what I mean).

For a while, I just took a cab there. A cab to the archives from the major thoroughfare closest to my house runs around $1.50. It didn’t feel like a major extravagance. My problem, though, is that it would take me forever to hail a cab. When I undeniably need to take a cab – let’s say, when I have luggage and am going to a nearby airport or train station, it’s late at night and unsafe, I have no clue where I am or where I’m going – I can throw out my arm as well as the next person. When I feel that there are other options, however (like a bus I could be taking), my cab-hailing wave is remarkably unconvincing.

In Taiwan I never had a problem getting cabs – in Taipei, at least, there are more cabs than people willing to pay for them, and being a foreigner to boot, if I happened to reach up and scratch my nose while walking down the street, three taxis would come to a screeching halt in front of me. Although I am still undeniably a foreigner, in China cabs are so cheap and the people going places so plentiful you can sometimes wait quite a while for an empty car to appear. Add to this a half-hearted wave, slightly guilty in expression, and I can wait a long time for the right taxi to come along and catch my eye. Sometimes I’d walk either to or from the archives, but it’s far – the walk takes about an hour and a half. As much as I appreciate the exercise (the idea of fresh air is immaterial – not only do I get an ample supply of air on my two and a half hour lunch break, but the air in Nanjing is so polluted you’d have to climb a mountain or wear an oxygen mask to get to fresh stuff), it’s a long time to hike through this urban jungle and I have plenty of ways I could use that time.

Hence the bicycle. Having decided to buy it, however, my first problem was where.

There are something like 300 million bicycles in China – and that figure is a few years old. Parked bicycles line the sidewalks. People on bicycles clog up the traffic and turn lanes. There are covered bicycle parking zones in front of stores, offices, and apartment buildings. There are literally bicycles everywhere you look. But they’re not for sale. Where, I wondered, do all these bicycles come from? I started going into every store I came upon – no luck. I found scooters and motorbikes, but not regular bikes. Actually, I think I found just about one of everything known to man (and a few things previously unknown to me), but no bikes. I began to wonder if the moment I decided to buy one, all the bicycle sellers packed up and left Nanjing (not unlike Chinese restaurants in Trondheim, Norway, which are everywhere when you are wandering around visiting museums in the afternoon, but suddenly disappear when it’s 7 pm and you’re looking for something stir-fried).

Frustrated, I started asking everyone I met. I got a lot of suggestions (mostly for a mysterious place on Shanxi Road that seems only to exist when people other than me are looking for it), but was finally, fortunately, directed to CE Mart. This place is a lot like Wal-mart, but a Chinese version. (Why didn’t I just go to Wal-mart, anyway? They only had fancy bikes. I wanted your basic, utilitarian, classic Chinese bike. Plus, their bikes didn’t have baskets. I felt I must have a basket.) CE Mart has everything, from inflatable life-size Santas (Christmas has arrived in China, and in a big, inflatable way) to imported canned peas.

I walked in on a Sunday afternoon, and immediately walked out again. There were just so many people inside (see notes on “packed,” above), and, of course, being a bit of an exotica myself, every time I go into a store like this one, a few people start to follow me around to see what I buy. Basically, I was intimidated out of it. I left, walked around the block (all the while scolding myself for my shopping cowardice), and returned to the heart of the action. Steeling my nerves and readying for battle, I marched into the bicycle department and picked out the cheapest model. (I’m only here for another six months, really, so no point in buying something that cries out to be stolen) (I also can’t work the gears on multiple-speed bikes. My old ten-speed had nine wasted gear options.) Once I actually started talking to the friendly bicycle sellers, the rest was a breeze. They tightened all the bolts to get it ready to ride, attached my extra-large basket, and helped me pick out a lock (here you only put a lock around the back wheel to keep it from moving. There are so many bicycles, there is no point in chaining it to anything). After I had made my purchase ($29, inclusive) they sent me down to the service desk to register my vehicle and get a number plate for it (a theft deterrent. Lots of foreigners don’t bother registering. They also buy new bikes frequently). I handed over my residence permit, and a few minutes later the attendant handed it back with something else: it was a little, green plastic folder with gold characters embossed on the front. It read, “Bicycle drivers’ license.” I opened the folder and found a license with my name and address, the model of my bike and plate number inside. I’m officially Licensed to Cycle by the City of Nanjing. All I could think was: “good thing there wasn’t a road test.” This woman has no idea what she has now unleashed on the unsuspecting population.

I’m doing okay, so far. It’s actually much safer to bike here than in any American city, because there are designated bike lanes that are separated from the car lanes by metal barriers. Every time you make a left turn, there are 20 other bicycles with you, so there are no worries about being the lone cyclist cutting through traffic.

The trickiest intersection is actually this tiny little three-way near my apartment. One day I ventured out and came upon total gridlock. Taking in the scene, I noticed about 10 cars, two buses, 25 bicycles and motorbikes, two large wheelbarrows, and a backhoe. Everything single one of these, uh, “vehicles” was facing a different direction, impossible as that may seem. I sat for about twenty minutes, spellbound, watching this mess sort itself out before I bravely peddled forward.

Even so, I brake a lot. I have an embarrassing time getting going sometimes, doing my little toe-tapping dance to get up and get myself balanced. And my legs are sore from the unexpected development of now riding for a minimum of an hour and a half a day (45 minutes each way, to the archives and back, though I have started to ride out for lunch now too). But deep in my heart I think this is the practice I need to become a confident cyclist, so that one day in the future, I can bike in the US without fear (cue uplifting music). I’m not ready to take on some of the more interesting bicycling challenges I’ve witnessed on the Nanjing streets, however, like carting around a bundle of 8-foot plastic tubing or pulling a large plastic Christmas tree (decorated, oddly, with a great many small, green foil Christmas trees) on a cart.

Today as I pulled into my apartment complex, a man with a wide, leather easy chair strapped to the flat cover above his back wheel pulled in behind me. I’m in the presence of cycling greatness here, and I am awed.

News roundup:

In the “I can’t believe that’s legit” category: I saw a couple of kids playing Chinese jump-rope today (the stretchy kind, that goes around two people’s ankles while the third person jumps in and out). I had no idea that it was actually Chinese. I always thought of it in the same terms as “Chinese fire drills” and such.

In the “At least I have options” category: a construction worker told me I’m pretty and asked me to marry him while I was heading to the grocery store (on foot). That brings my lifetime total number of marriage proposals up to two: him and the steamed bread salesman outside the Technology Building subway stop in Taiwan. A difficult choice, but the steamed bread man has a slight edge: he was willing to emigrate to the US.

In the “Torture through pop music” category: a no-name band from Denmark has discovered the ultimate way to have a hit song in China. They wrote English lyrics to a very famous, hugely popular Chinese song (“Wenbie,” most recently recorded by Jacky Cheung, for anyone into Mandopop). I sat in a coffee shop last week and listened to the song play over and over for an hour and a half. I finally asked the waitress why we were listening to the same song time and again. “Oh,” she gushed, “It’s on ‘repeat.’” Can’t argue with that. But walk ten feet in any direction in China and you’ll hear it (if anyone is curious, I can email the MP3s of the original and the new version. But it is torturous, so don’t say you weren’t warned).

And in the “I can barely wait” category: I’ll be home Monday for Christmas.

Copyright 2004 by Meredith Oyen

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