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Expat's Eye
Print Edition> Expat's Eye
UPDATED: November 15, 2010 NO. 46 NOVEMBER 18, 2010
On a Bicycle in Beijing



Other expats here in Beijing have all bought bicycles. One friend who was excited about his new bicycle told me he spent about 2,100 yuan ($300). Another mentioned he had spent what would be equivalent to $500.

After hearing of their experiences and what it took to buy a bicycle I thought long and hard about it. I needed to get up the courage to walk into a shop and talk about it. And I needed the courage to hand over a few hundred dollars in cash and then ride it home.

So, I put it off.

It was a lovely day and I decided to walk down the long street toward the big shopping area. As I walked, I noticed a thrift shop. I had never seen one in China. I did not think they existed. I assumed that everyone here just used stuff until it died. Then they put it into landfills and built on top of it. A thrift shop was not in my vocabulary for China.

I stopped and walked in.

It was a magical junk shop with the emphasis on the word "junk."

Yet in the front of the shop there were bicycles. About 20 of them in all shapes and sizes. I looked at them and saw that they ranged in price from 200 yuan ($30) to about 1,300 yuan ($194).

I checked them out and saw one I liked. It looked decent and had a few speeds on it. Plus it was cheap.

But it was getting late and I did not feel like riding one home. So I walked to the subway stop nearby and went home.

All week I thought of the bicycle. It haunted me. I kept thinking I could buy it and then be able to ride around the city. No more taxis and no more subways except for rainy days or when I had to go far.

The shop was too far to get to during the week, so I had to wait.

Finally, Saturday came around. I got to the shop and the saleswoman remembered me and even showed me the bicycle I had looked at the week before.

I looked it over and wanted to take it for a test drive but did not know how to say that short of sign language. The woman handed me a piece of paper on which was written in perfect English: "If you want to try the bicycle, please leave a deposit first. No bargain."

That made it simple. Leave the money and try it out. And forget about trying to negotiate a price. What you see is what the price is.

So, I left my deposit, took the bicycle out of the shop and headed down the road.

It felt great. Wonderful to ride a bicycle again and just feel alive.

But the bicycle did not seem perfect. The front fork was bent and steered the bicycle at a slight angle, not easy or safe when riding in Beijing traffic.

I took it back to the shop and said no. She then showed me another bicycle.

This one was blue and basic. Only three speeds and a bit older. It had the basket and the bell and shiny chrome fenders and no rust.

So, I took it out of the shop and tried it out. This time I felt Chinese. I was riding high, sitting straight up as all citizens seem to do. It rode smoothly along the road. The bell rang every time I hit a bump or a hole.

It just felt good.

So, I rode it back to the shop and paid for the bicycle. Total cost: 300 yuan, about $43.

It was a great day, like I said. With a good sense of direction, I started home.

It was a long ride lasting about 45 minutes. True, I was going slow learning the characteristics of the new bicycle. True, I did not want to get hit by a car just after buying a bicycle. So I took it slowly.

Here in Beijing they do have bicycle lanes on the roads and most people obey them. All you do is follow the path. And so I did, working my way home surrounded by hundreds of Chinese.

Crossing the intersections was the biggest challenge. It is like crossing a major highway back home—like the Long Island Expressway or, if you are in the UK, the M5. These roads here are big. Ten lanes across is not uncommon. So crossing those takes time, skill and luck.

Eventually I made it home. The feeling of freedom was unbelievable. The air hitting your face and going through your hair was wonderful. You are sitting on top of the world as you cruise by places and people.

The author is an American living in Beijing


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