"The best way to see Beijing is on a bike," someone once told me. Whoever it was, I thought he was quite wise, so I took the advice. It seemed like the proper thing to do, Beijing having such wide bike lanes and such slow car traffic, slow enough that both bike and car have similar average speeds.
People in China can and do pile everything they have onto bikes. Piles of wood, of tools, of metal bed-frames, of kids using metal bars as seats or baskets as cradles, of cardboard boxes that tower over bikers’ heads, or piles of bags filled with foods, clothes, antiques to sell at market, of counterfeit CDs and DVDs, of cell phones and mattresses. To me, the most interesting bikers are those whose entire day consists of selling things from their bikes. They sell notebooks, computer programs, and newspapers, but my favorite is the food.
Street food vendors bike to the gate outside of my dorm every day to sell their sushi, fried chicken sandwiches, and sautéed noodles out of metal woks blackened by years of heat and grease. I once saw them biking away from the police, shish kabobs still smoking over the hot coals, and all I could think about was grabbing one of the sticks of smoking, juicy goodness. Apparently it's illegal to sell without a license, but they do it anyway, every single day.
The roads in Beijing are like rivers. Bikes and cars swerve and merge fluidly, as though all can feel the movement around them. The bikes, the small fish, move in a school; it is almost like we have a heightened consciousness, reacting to the big fish in a synchronized retreat, keeping close, not needing to turn our heads.
Cars are slow but take every measure to get ahead, beeping, inching, almost hitting the bikes and mopeds and scooters, but never quite doing so. The bus drivers politely stretch out a single hand of warning, telling bikers to make way or get smooshed. To an outsider, it looks like a constant state of frustration, with all the noise and warning and nudging, but, from the bike, I see it all as a concerned correction to the proper flow, a constant recognition of co-existence, a frequent hello said loudly by horn or squealing brake. Bikers, the small fish, are noticed but mostly ignored. They seem content, swimming on with the current, even knowing that they could be eaten alive.