Three months ago if you had told me that I would ride a bike through the streets of Beijing, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, during lunch hour traffic I would’ve wondered what was in those dumplings you had for breakfast.
That is exactly what I did last Wednesday. I just received approval for my Mo Bike App (all foreigners are required to undergo ID verification which includes submitting a passport). Mo Bike is the world’s largest bike share company, with over 10 million bikes available for rent in China.
The technology is simply: scan the QR code with your phone to unlock the bike, hop on and ride. When you’re finished, locking the bike ends the rental time. It costs roughly 15 cents per hour, about the price of a small pork-stuffed bun.
I had signed up for the bike share app just to have another means of transportation. Traffic is so bad here hopping on a pay-per-use bike is often faster than driving or taking the subway. It’s a favorite solution for many Beijingers, which is one reason they are so fit.
The app shows the location of the closest bike, but there’s never a shortage.
So last Wednesday I wanted to visit my friend Liana who lives just over three miles away as the crow flies. Driving can take 30 minutes, 40 with the subway. Three miles on a bike? Less than 20 minutes.
How hard can that be, you ask? Well, if you live in a country where cars seemingly have the right away over pedestrians and traffic lights are viewed as purely decorative akin to twinkling Christmas lights, then it’s a little intimidating. Factor in honking, public spitting, sharing the road with 1,000 distracted commuters and stealth scooters that zip up from behind and it becomes downright frightening.
But they say that fear releases the same endorphins as exercise and chocolate, two of my favorite things, so I was willing to give it a try. I pushed thoughts of death out of my mind, swallowed the last of my coffee and headed out the door.
Finding a stash of bikes was easy, but I took my time selecting one. After all, this bright orange baby was the only thing separating me from the pavement. I squeezed the brakes, inspected the tires and checked the seat height. That’s one thing that’s easy here, my petite stature is the norm so no problems reaching for the pedals.
Now let me tell you, these are not the Maseratis of the cycling world. They’re more like Ram trucks, tough and built to last. I choose my bike and plop my purse in the basket, looking down at the handlebars and wondering if I could use them like a big horn sheep to fend off my enemies.
I say a quick prayer and pedal off. Between the weight in the front basket (and I’m not about to jettison the Brie or the baguette I’m carrying) and the loose steering, I’m weaving dangerously through traffic like a five-year-old who just got his training wheels off.
Within a few blocks I get the hang of it. I’m giddy with excitement. I can’t believe I’m actually doing this.
Then I hear “click clack, click clack” and I think the chain is about to fall off. The crowd is too thick to pull over, so I tuck in behind a lady on a scooter. I figure my chances of survival are better in the middle of the pack. That’s what animals do right? It’s the weaker ones on the outside that go down.
I make it to the first traffic light and glance up at my protector. That’s when I noticed the lady on the scooter whom I’ve been following has a baby across her lap. The little fuzzy headed guy is fast asleep, clutching the orange and green pillow held in place by his mom’s legs.
At this point I stop feeling guilty about not wearing a helmet. The light changes to green and I start up again, past the baby killer. The bike stops making strange noises, so I start to breath again. People randomly dart across the street, cars park in the bike lane, scooters whiz by, startling me. Crossing through intersections is like playing a game of chicken. I try to avoid eye contact with motorists, thinking if I don’t acknowledge them, they won’t expect me to yield.
I grip the handle bars and stay focused. I pass the American Embassy and nod at the guards. Isn’t there a law that says if I crash and die here they’ll have to scrape me off the pavement and notify my next of kin?
I leave the tree-lined embassy street and turn right. I hit the 2nd Ring Road and traffic gets thicker. Soon I come to a steep overpass that takes me across the motorway. The great thing about these bikes is you can ditch them anywhere.
So I leave the bike and walk over the pedestrian bridge to the other side.
I pick up another bike and set off, failing to notice that the left brake lever is broken. Well, I’m only going about 5 miles an hour and I have a bell I can use if anything threatens to cross my path so I continue on.
Since I moved to China I’ve developed a heightened sense of peripheral vision, because even stepping off the curb to cross street requires prolific head-swiveling to avoid being struck by moving objects.
I scan the horizon as I ride, wishing I were a chameleon. Did you know they can move their eyes independently? Apparently they can watch for pray and predators at the same time. Then I could have one eye focused on my route and another watching my surroundings. I could also blend in with the crowd, which I’d love to do at times.
But I’m not a chameleon so I do the best I can to keep an eye out for danger. I’m going west on Jinbao street, heading straight toward the Forbidden City. It gets more crowded as I hit the tourist area, so I fake confidence and edge myself into the pack of cyclists again. Any sign of weakness and I’ll be picked off by a motorist turning across my path. I have a new found respect for herd animals.
I try to relax but then as soon as I let my guard down I hear that noise. That ever present throat clearing sound that is always followed by voluminous spitting. The wind is in my favor and I don’t get hit by the stream of phlegm produced by a restaurant delivery guy sailing past me on a scooter.
Finally I see the sign on the side of my friends apartment building in the distance, beckoning me to safety. Is this how the immigrants felt when they saw the Statue of Liberty welcoming them to New York Harbor?
I arrive safely, feeling triumphant. By conquering my fear I’ve gained a little bit more freedom to travel around. It’s just one more step to fitting in. I want to be part of the action here, not just look at it from my window. I want to collect memories that involve all of my senses, like feeling the wind in my hair as I cycle toward the heart of Beijing.