Well, since I managed to last four months in China without resorting to using “The Middle Kingdom” – so favoured by typical all expenses paid “travel reviews” you read – I thought I would use it just this once. I have left China, but I thought I should just put a few closing remarks, on how to fit in when riding a bicycle in China.
First the bike. Ideally you would buy a cheap steel bike, then leave it outside in the rain for 10 years, preferably somewhere where cars can run over the back wheel a few times. If the back wheel doesn’t wobble, it’s not a proper bike. I’ve seen almost brand-new bikes with wobbly wheels. If you don’t have 10 years to wait, then go down to the local supermarket, and buy a shiny, folding, full suspension bike in pink, complete with rear rack, mudguards, stand, shopping basket, bell, glittery lights, and “sit up and beg”-style handlebars. All for about $30.
Fitting your bike: There are many ancient rules, based on the Confucian ideals, that should be followed when correctly setting up your bike. Basically they can be boiled down to removing the seat-post bolt, and putting the seat as low as it can go. When pedalling, ensure that you carefully position your heel over the centre of the pedal. This should result in having your knees in the optimum position, widely splayed out.
Now, which side of the road to ride on? Well, you could do what the traffic is doing, and mostly ride on the right – but as we all know, traffic rules only apply to vehicles with 4 or more wheels. Horsepower rating is irrelevant. So you just ride on whichever side of the road suits you best – maybe it’s easiest to ride to and from your destination on the same side both ways, saves crossing the road. But if you’re on the left, what about all the oncoming traffic? Just give them a bemused look, as if you can’t work out why they are all going the wrong way, as you plow straight through them.
Alerting other traffic to your presence. Of course your bike has a bell, which should be rung constantly. It doesn’t matter if there is no-one in front of you, ring it anyway. It’s part of the rhythm – pump the pedals, ring the bell. Perhaps you are lucky enough to be able to afford an electric bicycle. In this case, silently zoom up behind the laowai with the loaded bicycle, wait until you are just behind his ear, then blast that horn for all it’s worth. If you only have an ordinary bell, remember to tinkle it as you cut off that 18-wheel truck.
Traffic lights. Huh? What do they matter? You only have two wheels remember, they don’t apply to you. Go through the intersection whenever you feel like it. Especially if there is a large amount of traffic going across you. Glare at the cars – why are they in your way, when you’re trying to cross the road?
Clothing. No need for specialised clothing. High heels and miniskirt shouldn’t slow you down in the least. Unless it’s raining, and you should wear a rain cape, preferably with clear plastic window at the front for letting your light shine through. Not that it matters, as even if you do have lights, you never use them anyway.
Load carrying. The official load limit is 900kg for bicycles and 2,500kg for tricycles. Preferred loads are very long, and mounted sideways across the bicycle. Long hoes or scythes are good for this. That is of course unless you are carrying one of your friends on the back. Chinese cyclists like company, so easiest to carry a friend with you. On a similar note, if your friends should happen to also be on bicycles, remember that the maximum allowed number of cyclists riding abreast is six, and should not be exceeded.
Hills. At the first sign of any slope, get off and push. Chinese bikes don’t have gears, remember.
Finally stopping – brakes are never much good, so all stops should be done at a run, similar to starting really. If you are female, when you come to a stop, do not stand astride the bike. Instead jump off to one side of the bicycle. This is regardless of if you are wearing a skirt, or if your bicycle has a high top tube. The real reason is to scare the cyclist coming up behind you, into making an emergency stop. This will also help you to identify any impostors, who haven’t yet learned the rules to cycling in China.
No doubt there are more rules, but this will be enough to get you underway. I’m in Vietnam right now, around 150km south of Hanoi. The first 40km out of Hanoi were OK, as a new motorway takes much of the bus and truck traffic away, but it has been pretty unpleasant after that, and I’m not enjoying it at all. Too many speeding buses and trucks, all leaning on their horns, which I believe are louder than the Chinese horns. I think the deafness in my left ear will be nearly profound by the time I get out of here. Should just be one more long day of it though, then I’ll turn off Highway 1, and head west into Laos, and a bit of the unknown – the map doesn’t show too many places to stay for the first couple of days.