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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Kiwi on Wheels . . .

 
Evening on Beijing's streets . . .


Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee . . .

The Kiwi has wheels again. Not, as she prefers, two wheels attached to a sizeable engine and offering a freedom that only ends when the roads (and tracks) do, but wheels nonetheless. And she's wondering why she didn't do this earlier.

A friend left country for family reasons some months back, leaving behind a bunch of stuff including his bike for when he returned. I asked what he was doing with the bike and he said I was welcome to
ride it, and the key was in another friend's apartment, with all his other gear. This week, it was found.

Yesterday evening, I took the bike for a spin, only intending to go to the gym, which I'd been missing for the past week as Beijing's hazardous smog kicked my asthmatic Kiwi butt. The 10-15 minute walk is reduced to a 3-5 minute ride but, unfortunately, the gym was crowded with lots of people waiting for machines and most cutting in line as any came empty. So, rather than standing there getting mad at people, and having some chores to do, I decided to hit the road instead.

Cycling in Beijing, particularly in peak hour traffic in the half-light of early evening may not give quite the same adrenaline buzz as speeding down a highway on a high-powered motorcycle but it
has its own sense of defying death. I'm thankful for the time I've spent riding roads and sidewalks in South Korea, avoiding boulders and bullock-drawn carts in Thailand and simply watching cyclists from the front of a double-decker bus here in Beijing. All have given me an insight on how to behave on Beijing's roads and, one hopes, stay in one piece.

Here in the inner city, many of the main roads have sectioned off side lanes, intended, it seems, for bikes, the ubiquitous three-wheel trailer motorcycles that are the workhorses of China, plus the real
horses drawing carts from which farmers sell their produce direct to customers, and also buses and cars that are either about to turn, stop or just decide to take that lane. It's very common for bikes and motorcycles to take these lanes in the opposite direction and most of the cyclists seem oblivious to anyone behind them. The route I take on the double-decker bus includes a section on one of these lanes and I have often watched as a cyclist nonchalantly pedals along with the bus honking and crawling behind.

By the way - nobody seems to see a need to put lights on bicycles simply because you might ride them at night.

My ride took me along a few main roads and across many intersections, watching for turning cars (I'm not sure of the law but cars turn on red lights here, so it's a good thing to watch for them), heedless pedestrians, soundless electric bikes coming up behind me (mirrors on bikes are also an unknown here, it seems) and other road users appearing out of the gloaming headed toward me, like salmon swimming upstream.

I loved it! Cycling in Beijing makes me feel part of China in a way I hadn't before and I'm eager to explore this city on two wheels, traveling like a local.

Watch this space . . .

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Life goes on . . .



It's been a long time between posts . . .

I've been in semi-hibernation as I learn my place in China and learn more about the place. There's so much to see and write about here but I'm wary of making quick assumptions that rely more on preconceptions and misinterpretations than any real analysis or personal experience. It's such a vast, vast country, with 55 recognized ethnic minority groups in addition to the Han majority so stereotypes are of as little use here as most places.

A friend from the United States keeps reminding me there's no such thing as a typical American - the same can be said of Chinese.

As always, when I travel, I watch what the government does but judge the country on how the people act - to each other, to me, to family, strangers and visitors. On that scale, I find China, or its people anyway, to be warm, welcoming, friendly and basically happy. I recall the dire warnings I was given by many people before coming here and I see the attitudes of folks in my social networks but, listen up guys, people are people, and these people often put a smile on my face.

It's the little things that matter, especially when you don't have the language skills to communicate verbally:

The janitor who at first seemed kinda glum but now has a huge smile and a "Ni hao" for me whenever we see each other . . .

The young woman at the staff canteen who has noticed I never eat there but stop by each day to get the piece of fruit and yogurt that follows each meal, except I take two pieces of fruit instead. She now has two of the best pieces of whatever is on offer that day waiting for me . . .

The people at the local market I go to, a few hundred stallholders who now recognize me and always say hello, even those who have worked out I shop at another vendor for what they also sell . . .

The guards who man the entrances to my workplace, and often open the gate for me to save me the bother of swiping my ID card (don't tell anyone about that one) . . .

The grandparents who look after the children while the children's parents work, and who are always happy to have a stranger admire their little emperors and empresses and laugh when the kids find a round-eyes frightening . . .

The produce boys at the small supermarket near me, who pick out the best of whatever it is I am buying and practice their sparse English on me as I do the same with my meager Chinese . . .

The total strangers on the buses who direct me to an empty seat, because obviously I'm incapable of finding one myself (that's actually pretty sweet, you know) . . .

The feeling that, despite everything against them, I'm in a place where people believe that hard work results in earned rewards . . .

It's far from paradise, of course, but most of this crazy, messed-up, wonderful world is far from paradise. I like that the locals here try to make the best of what they have.

And yes, there are plenty of negatives, such as the pea soup impersonating air outside my window as I type. But, you know, it's life, and I'm content living it here for now . . .